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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1

Nord's Net:  "Ways of Knowing" for the Science Classroom

Paul Geisert

It is apparent that Professor Warren A. Nord has found Eddington’s parable of a fisherman’s net advantageous in supporting his side of an ongoing discussion about religion and science in school curricula. He has employed the story on a number of occasions in various articles. Readers should not carelessly absorb "Nord’s Net," however. Whenever any given allegory finds widespread and frequent employment in intellectual discussion, it deserves some scrutiny—which is the purpose of this essay.

You may not be familiar with the net parable, so let’s have Nord himself acquaint you with the tale. The following is a quote that succinctly summarizes both the parable and Nord’s direct application of it. It comes from Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, by Nord and Haynes1 (I am assigning this particular text to Nord since the net metaphor appears under his name alone in a number of different places.)2

The astronomer Arthur Eddington once told a parable about a fisherman who used a net with a three-inch mesh. After a lifetime of fishing he concluded there were no fish shorter than three inches. Eddington’s moral is that just as one’s fishing net determines what one catches, so it is with conceptual nets: what we find in the ocean of reality depends on the conceptual net we bring to our investigation.

For example, the modern scientific conceptual net—or scientific method—allows scientists to catch only replicable events; the results of any experiment that cannot be replicated are not allowed to stand. This means that miracles, which are by definition singular events, can’t be caught; scientists cannot ask God to replicate the miracle for the sake of a controlled experiment. Or, to take another example, scientific method requires that evidence for knowledge claims be grounded in sense experience—the kinds of experience that instruments can measure. But this rules out religious experience as a source of knowledge about the world.

First I will place Nord’s premises in the context of how two approaches to human understanding—science’s "replicable events" approach to knowledge, and religion’s "miracles and religious experience" approach—have interacted over the centuries. Then I will take up the educational ramifications of implementing his premises in public education.

[Spring 2002 Issue Contents]