Monday, January 25, 2010

non-overlapping my arse

This morning's post-9am traffic jam Radio 4 accompaniment was a bit of Start The Week with Andrew Marr. The usual array of luminaries including Sarah Bakewell, author of a new biography of Michel de Montaigne, an author who I have to admit I'd never heard of, 16th-century French essayists not really being my forte, and also Will Self, who with a trademark display of his inimitable sesquipedalian logorrhoea memorably referred to Montaigne as being "instantiated by his methodology". How true that is.

Also appearing was biologist Steve Jones, who I hereby nominate as Welshman of the day, just because, well, he's Welsh. I'd switched off before they got to the bit that explained what he was doing there, but he and Will Self did get into a conversation about science and religion that caused just a faint plume of steam to start issuing from my ears.

Basically Jones trotted out some analogy about conflict between science and religion being a bit like a fight between a shark and a tiger; each is great and pretty much invincible on its own turf, but useless in the other's. This is basically a slightly cutesy version of Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria argument, and I suspect Jones offered it for the same reason Gould cooked it up in the first place, which is as a defence mechanism to avoid getting sucked into a clabby conversation he didn't want to get involved in.

That is the only acceptable defence for offering it as an argument, though, as it's completely bogus; there are no circumstances where religion is more useful to you than science, and they certainly do obtrude on each other's territory, unless you claim that your putative God intervenes in the world in no detectable way whatsoever, in which case what you've got there is a sort of loose Deism which resembles any of the world's major religions in no way whatsoever. The only way you can justify the notion of religion as useful in any real-world situation is to conflate the concept of religious faith with concepts like ethics and morality, which despite being clearly nonsensical is precisely what proponents of religion do all the time, in a desperate scrabbling attempt to claw back some real-world relevance.

A fight between a shark and a tiger would be pretty awesome, though. Perhaps in a paddling pool or something. Or a bath full of custard. Then again maybe they wouldn't want to fight? Maybe something deeply beautiful would happen.

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