The Principle of Non-Overlapping Food Groups

A friend of mine, who is severely allergic to pork products, recently asked whether it would be okay for him to order a Western Omelet (ingredients: eggs, cheese, ham, onions, peppers). Superficially, this might seem like a fairly easy question: the incompatibilities between Western omelets and pork allergies seem pretty obvious. But I was able to use a sophisticated philosophical argument to convince him that everything would be okay.

My inspiration was Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria. This principle establishes the fundamental compatibility of science with religion, arguing that the two simply don’t address similar questions, and therefore cannot come into conflict. Science deals with the workings of the world (“is” questions), while religion deals with ethical behavior (“ought” questions), so there is way they can be incompatible.

In this spirit, I have developed what I like to call the principle of Non-Overlapping Food Groups, or NOFOG for short. The basic argument is as follows: throughout history, humans have divided our culinary products into a set of grand groupings. Among these are the Egg Group and the Pork Group. Clearly these are non-overlapping: eggs come from chickens, while pork comes from pigs. Q.E.D.

Now, I don’t know about you, but a Western Omelet falls squarely within the Egg Group where I am from. Growing up in our small house in the Pennsylvania suburbs, I would look forward to eggs every Sunday morning, most often in the form of a yummy Western Omelet. While the identification is not perfect, we won’t go far wrong by recognizing the Western Omelet as a crucial component of the Egg Group on which we all depend.

Clearly, since the Egg Group is non-overlapping with the Pork Group, and my friend’s allergies are only to pork, the NOFOG principle justified encouraging his interest in ordering the omelet. I’ll be visiting him in the hospital tomorrow, hopefully he’s feeling better.

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55 Responses to The Principle of Non-Overlapping Food Groups

  1. Pete says:

    This brings to mind the joke about the pig and the chicken and the ham&eggs breakfast:

    The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

  2. Tom says:

    I have no idea what you’re talking about, so I’ll go with the ever popular WTH?

  3. Rob Knop says:

    This is a straw man.

    There are realms that science addresses and that religion does not. There are also realms that religion addresses and that science does not. Taken by themselves, those two realms are non-overlapping.

    Of course, there are also lots of cases where people use religion to address a science question (and get it wrong). And, you can find cases where people assert that science addresses a religious question (and get it wrong). And, certainly, there are lots of cases where it’s not obvious whether it’s scientific or a religious question, and, certainly, over time our understanding of science has moved things that were previously thought to be pure religious questions into the domain of science.

    An example of something that many think is a religious question, but is in fact a scientific question : the healing power of anonymous third-party prayer. If lots of people pray for a sick third person to get better, and that sick third person doesn’t know about the people praying for him, does it help? The experiment has been done; I fear I don’t have a reference, but it has been done, and it’s been shown not to work.

    An example of something that many think is a scientific question, but is in fact a religious question: the non-existence of God. There is a whole school of atheists out there who think that the success of science is convincing proof that God does not exist. More honest atheists will assert that there is no scientific proof that God does exist. The ultimate question, though, really, is a religious question, not a scientific question. Whether or not God has certain systematic effects on the natural world can be addressed by science, but “what is God” is not a scientific question.

    Claiming that your Western Omelet example is analogous to saying that there are no NOMA for science and religion is about as reasonable as saying that it’s an analogy to saying there’s no difference in the intellectual questions addressed by the sciences and by the humanities, given that after all science textbooks are *on the printed page*.

  4. Anne says:

    Along superficially similar lines, can a vegan (who can’t eat any animal product) drink a McDonald’s milkshake? Are they entirely a product of oil refining or does any milk product enter into their production at any point?

  5. Sili says:

    Frankly, I think that anyone suffering the misfortune of being allergic to pork, would rightly want to kill themselves by eating bacon. That sorta thing is a fate worse than death.

  6. Neal J. King says:

    Sean,

    Your analogy is pretty poor. I’ll discard it, and just go for the throat:

    A typical area in religious matters is one of moral ethics. So let’s consider an ethical dilemma: A young child and an 80-year-old man are trapped in a fire; you have time to save only one of them. What should you do?

    Now, how is your understanding of this question changed by finding out that Einstein’s theory of gravity is better than Newton’s? Or that superstrings explain everything? Or any other scientific insight?

    Conversely, consider a problem in Lagrangian mechanics. How is your approach to the problem changed if you are forced, at sword point, to convert to Islam?

    Now generalize these examples.

  7. smijer says:

    A friend of mine, who is severely allergic to pork products, recently asked whether it would be okay for him to order a Western Omelet (ingredients: eggs, cheese, ham, onions, peppers).

    continuing….

    I tell him of course he shouldn’t. I say, “you’ll get sick from the pork”. He responds, “but I had bacon for breakfast this morning, and pork chops for dinner last night, and I didn’t get sick!”

    No, no, no. You just don’t understand. You are allergic to pork!

    “How do you know? Really, I eat it all the time, and I never get sick from it.”

    Well, sure… on the trivial level that you can eat it, but not get sick from it maybe your system is compatible with it. But, really, I know your system, and it is definitely allergic to pork. Pork is fine for me, because I am a pig farmer. But you are an accountant, and pork is definitely off limits for accountants.

    Honestly, I don’t understand how some people don’t understand that pork is poison to anyone who doesn’t raise swine.

  8. Tevin says:

    To go with the analogy : when I started reading this story, I thought I would be getting a nice, crispy piece of thick-cut peppercorn bacon.

    Instead, I got Canadian bacon.

    Disappointment abounds.

  9. MaxPolun says:

    A typical area in religious matters is one of moral ethics. So let’s consider an ethical dilemma: A young child and an 80-year-old man are trapped in a fire; you have time to save only one of them. What should you do?

    Now, how is your understanding of this question changed by finding out that Einstein’s theory of gravity is better than Newton’s? Or that superstrings explain everything? Or any other scientific insight?

    And how does Jesus’s death and rebirth help here? Or Buddhas teachings on enlightenment? Or even the semi-moral 10 Commandments? I’ve never gotten why religion is thought to have a hold on morality and ethics, there really isn’t much content related to morality. It’s telling that nearly half of the 10 Commandments are not so much moral instructions of even the most primitive type, but rather instructions for worship.

  10. Sam Gralla says:

    I don’t get it. What is supposed to be analogous to “is” and “ought” in the pork/chicken distinction? This seems pretty vacuous.

  11. thales says:

    It’s a good analogy. NOMA works, at least on a theoretical level, because fact and fiction are, in principle, non-overlapping.

    In practice, however, religion almost always makes both implicit and explicit claims to areas of knowledge that are better answered via a scientific approach. If you doubt that religion makes such claims, feel free to ask your local creationist, flood geologist, or psychic medium.

    This matters because religion has an impact on society. Look at the struggle in Texas over textbooks right now.

    The idea that religion deals with ethics and science does not: I’ll grant that the way we typically define science excludes normative judgments. Fine. In practice, however, people actually do apply what they know to the decisions they make. So, scientific knowledge – for example, findings from biology and psychology – inform our decisions about a wide range of ethical issues.

    Religion, in contrast, is often based on tribalistic ethics and outdated, even barbaric, notions of the value of life.

    So in practice – here in the real world – NOMA is a joke. As Sean’s analogy so aptly demonstrates.

  12. smijer says:

    So in practice – here in the real world – NOMA is a joke. As Sean’s analogy so aptly demonstrates.

    1. My definition of religion is the important one.
    1a. I define religion as whatever beliefs any religious person might hold that are contrary to science, plus some other stuff that doesn’t matter.
    2. Science doesn’t make normative judgments, but can inform them. And, some of the normative judgments of religion are historically related to cultures removed in time, space, and experience from the one I live in. So I don’t like the way religion makes normative judgments.

    Therefore it follows that NOMA is a joke and anybody who doesn’t farm pigs for a living really is allergic to pork.

  13. smijer says:

    In case anyone doesn’t notice… my point about Sean’s analogy is that it assumes the conclusion… It assumes there is an “allergy” to science created in people by religion, then proceeds to show that such “allergies” cannot be gotten around by philosophical reasoning.

    Of course, the reasoning is there to deny the existence of a necessary “allergy”. We’d need an analogy that does not assume the allergy in order to use it to conclude that NOMA cannot avoid the allergy.

  14. Skulleigh says:

    I’m really not sure what you’re saying, but I know that I’m hungry now. Crud.
    I blame you!

  15. gopher65 says:

    Neal J. King Says:
    A typical area in religious matters is one of moral ethics. So let’s consider an ethical dilemma: A young child and an 80-year-old man are trapped in a fire; you have time to save only one of them. What should you do?

    Now, how is your understanding of this question changed by finding out that Einstein’s theory of gravity is better than Newton’s? Or that superstrings explain everything? Or any other scientific insight?

    That’s clearly an evolutionary question. You save the young child, because that way the species as a whole won’t suffer as much damage. The old man is of lesser value.

    Now a question to you? How is this a religious or a moral question? The reason why you have a desire to save the young child is strictly down to evolutionary instinct. This particular example has been programmed into you by hundreds of millions of years of parents saving their offspring, or the offspring of genetically similar adults (members of their own species), and thus passing on their own genes (or genes very similar to their own).

    How is that in any way a moral decision? Morals have nothing to do with it: it’s base instinct all the way. In fact, all of the things that you think of as “right” or “wrong” fall into one of 2 categories: “base instinct” and “random cultural phenomenon”. To put it another way, “universal” morals (saving a kid in a fire), and “regional eccentricities” (tossing acid in women’s faces).

  16. smijer says:

    That’s clearly an evolutionary question. You save the young child, because that way the species as a whole won’t suffer as much damage. The old man is of lesser value.

    You walked right in to that one… Next stop eugenics?

    If the question had been phrased, “to advance the genes of the population from which these two individuals are drawn, assuming the child can survive without the assistance of the old man, and assuming that the contribution of the child’s reproductive potential outweighs the potential contribution of the old man’s – i.e. the old man isn’t the population’s only doctor, which individual would be saved?” – then your answer would have been scientifically correct, but not necessarily morally correct.

    How is it a religious question? Well… shit… maybe 9 out of 10 religions will give an answer I would disapprove of, but at least religion has rules for answering questions of that nature. I prefer answers from secular ethics myself… but when I make my case for my answers, I’ll be appealing to something very much other than science.

  17. OOTB says:

    NOFOG doesn’t work in this case because the omelet must be some larger unifying principle that encompasses both egg and ham….

    Still – Your religion tells you that the Earth was created over a 6 day period some 6,000 years ago. Science tells you otherwise. You want to accept and accommodate both. What do you teach your children?

    That seems so obvious – I don’t remember how Gould argued around it.

  18. Brandon says:

    Even on its own merits the analogy leads to the opposite conclusion Sean suggests; if Egg group and Pork group are rationally to be treated as distinct and non-overlapping, Western omelettes are an incoherent attempt to mingle them as if they could overlap and therefore doomed to fail: the non-overlapping food groups stay non-overlapping. The conclusion that the friend should eat it is based not on the analogy but on ignoring the fact that on the basis of the non-overlapping thesis itself, ham can’t be anything other than part of the Pork group, even if you try to mix it with another group. The argument results in the absurd conclusion not due to the non-overlapping thesis itself but by involving an inference that’s inconsistent with that thesis.

  19. Neal J. King says:

    9, MaxPolun:

    What is relevant to the moral question is the moral training that is part of religious education (and by education I mean a thinking through of concepts, not necessarily a set curriculum). Conversely, no amount of education in the physical sciences alone is sufficient to give any preparation for moral questions.

    11, thales:

    The examples that you bring up are problems precisely because it was the religionists, in those cases, that did not respect the NOMA. And that was essentially Galileo’s argument with the Catholic church: His position was that the question of planetary motions was not properly a matter of religious study anyway, and so the Church should take no interest in the matter. I believe Galileo was right.

    15, gopher65:

    To attempt to explain moral principles on the basis of evolutionary principles is a category error: Moral issues have been discussed, justified and resolved without reference to ideas in evolution for thousands of years. In cases that do not relate specifically to the use of new technologies, they have not been affected by the rise of science, evolutionary or not, because they have a logic of their own. It is not necessary or particularly helpful to discuss the immorality of tossing acid into someone’s face in terms of evolutionary theory. Spiritual teachings on “golden rule” and karma are more to the point, even if not to your taste.

    Dawkins’ idea of trying to explain morality in terms of benefit to the gene I also don’t find persuasive, because it ignores the logic of morality in itself. It’s like trying to explain esthetics in terms of evolutionary forces: You get the “explanation” but miss out on what is being “explained”: It’s like passing up the cake and gobbling down the recipe.

    (Plus what do you do if the 80-year-old were a Richard Feynman and the child were autistic?)

    17, OOTB:

    Very simple: The age of the Earth is not a matter of real interest to spiritual issues. What does the age of the Earth have to do with the meaning of life, how you arrange your relationships, whom you marry, etc. ? Nothing.

    So Gould would exclude it from the magisterium of religion: It belongs to the magisterium of science. It was 4.5 Billion years if it was a day!

  20. Rob Knop says:

    If you doubt that religion makes such claims, feel free to ask your local creationist, flood geologist, or psychic medium.

    See, this is the kind of BS that folks trying to make your argument always pull. Take the most objectionable and extreme forms of the religious, and equate them with all of religion.

    That makes no more sense than equating enviroterrorists who spike trees and bomb cars with the entire movement to address global warming.

  21. Brian says:

    Anne@#4:

    Actually, I believe they do contain milk. I vaguely remember from my childhood that the government ruled it was false advertising to sell a milkshake if it was made without milk. I think some fast food chains chose to relabel their offering as a “shake”, but most took the other route and started using milk again.

  22. bob says:

    @Rob:

    You don’t need to equate all of religion with certain extreme forms to show that NOMA is not valid in general. These are simply counter examples. It may be possible in principle to construct a religion that doesn’t overlap with science in any way, but very few people believe that kind of religion.

  23. Lord says:

    Silly to confuse ‘need not’, ‘should not’, with ‘cannot’.

  24. smijer says:

    You don’t need to equate all of religion with certain extreme forms to show that NOMA is not valid in general.

    But that seems to be the MO. I’m still waiting for someone to show that NOMA is generally invalid, by any means, since I think everyone knows that it doesn’t apply to these extreme forms.

  25. bigjohn756 says:

    Religion is silly, just like this article.