"Not only does the religion of Jesus Christ make the people acquainted with the things of God... but it holds out every encouragement and inducement possible, for them to increase in knowledge and intelligence, in every branch of mechanism, or in the arts and sciences, for all wisdom, and all the arts and sciences in the world are from God, and are designed for the good of his people."
"… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”
-Joseph Smith Jr.
"Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right..."
-D&C 9: 7-8
Just as the Lord directed Oliver Cowderey in Section 9 of D&C, so too, I can imagine Him gently correcting many 21st century Latter-day Saints for taking "no thought" before attempting to reach a variety of conclusions. Oliver was reminded (along with the rest of us) that, in order to know the truth of any matter, "you must study it out in your mind."
In this particular context, "study it out in your mind" is probably referring to a kind of intuitive process which Joseph Smith used to "translate" the Book of Mormon. Generally speaking, however, to "study it out in your mind" could also refer to a number of creative processes, rationalism, or even empiricism. The powerful minds with which God and Nature have blessed humanity are useful in many ways, but this post will mainly explore the principle of empiricism, and the way in which this philosophy is put to use, namely - the scientific method.
That said, the Mormon search for truth is usually dominated by the quest for a spiritual confirmation of key Church teachings. However, I submit that a sincere truth-seeker does not draw conclusions based on spiritual phenomena alone. Brigham Young spoke earnestly of the need for Latter-day Saints to seek both spiritual and secular learning. And Joseph Smith taught that we must feel at liberty to go wherever the preponderance of evidence takes us. The purpose of this post is to build on members understanding of, and confidence in, modern science as a valid way of understanding the world around us, and even as a valid way of understanding certain things about our own religion.
The term empiricism comes from the greek word "empeiria" meaning simply "experience," but it has taken on the more specific meaning of sensory-experience. Traditionally, sensory-experience referred to that which we can observe with one or more of the five senses: touch, see, hear, taste and smell. Over time, it came to mean anything that we can observe in the natural or physical world using our unaided senses (e.g. the naked eye), or using any number of advanced tools of observation (anything from thermometers to x-rays and so on). The scientific method is a process used by scientists during their empirical research to limit the influence of confounding factors, cognitive biases, etc. as they attempt to draw conclusions about the natural world (more about this in a moment).
Setting aside empiricism for a moment, rationalism is based on the belief that "reality itself has an inherently logical structure." So, rationalism seeks to understand reality through reason, directly grasping the truth of the matter by simply thinking about stuff in a logical way. Rationalists go so far as to "claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience." For the purposes of this post, I just want to point out that these are two different, but equally legitimate, ways of trying to understand the world around us. Understood properly, they have a complementary relationship. As we will see with the scientific method, empiricism and rationalism go hand in hand.
The third and final way of "knowing" that I will discuss here is "spiritual experience." D&C 9:8 instructs Oliver that, once he has studied it out in his mind, he is to ask God if his interpretation is right. Then, "if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right." These special feelings are a kind of spiritual experience that Mormons consider to be a witness from the Holy Ghost. This central principle of Mormonism is best summed up by Moroni, who said: "by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."
As I outline the basic principles of the scientific method, I encourage my readers to consider the ways it differs from the Mormon revelatory process. For starters, spiritual evidence is very different in nature than evidence acquired through sensory-experience. So, when we say "I 'know' this Church is true," we are making a very different kind of statement than when we say, for example, "I know that the earth orbits the sun." What we are really saying about the Church (in the words of D&C) is that we "feel that it is right." Perhaps we feel so strongly about it that we can say with all sincerity that we "know" the Church is true. I've experienced the confidence that accompanies these powerful spiritual promptings. I know what that feels like, but it is an entirely different kind of "knowing" - and it ought not be confused with empirical knowledge about a subject.
It's not that the scientific method is inherently better or worse than the revelatory process. It's that these processes are designed to address very different kinds of questions. Deciding which method is superior really depends on which process is better suited to the question you are asking. Conflict between the two processes only becomes a problem when science tries to be the ultimate authority in spiritual matters, or when religion claims to be the ultimate authority regarding the natural world. At best, the one process can only play a supporting role for the other. We will always be disappointed if we try to use one process as a substitute for the other. But if we have a proper respect for each method, they can enjoy a complementary relationship (as I said of rationalism and empiricism).
- Ask A Question, or Think of A Problem/Mystery
- Develop a Hypothesis (Your Best Attempt to Answer the Question, or Explain the Mystery)
- Design an Experiment (or Several Experiments) to Test Elements of the Hypothesis
-Falsification - Go out of your way to prove your hypothesis wrong, rather than trying to confirm it every step of the way. This process helps you to avoid letting personal bias lead to poorly-designed experiments or drawing the wrong conclusions about your results.
-Independent Variable - When designing and conducting experiments, scientists need to ensure that only one variable is changing at a time. If more than one variable is changed at a time, then the scientist couldn't establish a good connection between either of the variables and the results of the experiment. For example, if testing the effectiveness of Tylenol, subjects should not also take Advil at the same time. If so, the researcher would have no way of knowing if it was the Tylenol or the Advil that relieved the subjects headache. The variable that changes in a given experiment is called the "independent variable".
-Control Variable (Also simply called "the control") - When conducting experiments, researchers need to be able to establish a baseline, or a point of comparison. For example, if testing the effectiveness of Tylenol, researchers would also have to require some volunteers to go without medication, or have them take a "placebo" (fake medicine). If not, they would have no way of knowing if Tylenol produces results that are any different than going without medicine entirely.
- Record the Results of the Experiment
- Analyze Your Results
-Do your results seem to disprove or confirm your hypothesis (or neither)?
- Draw conclusions about your hypothesis. Note any additional questions generated during your experiments that require further scientific enquiry.
- Publish Your Research, Subject It to External Review (peer review)
-The particulars of your experiment and detailed observations are fully disclosed to independent researchers, who then try to find flaws in the design of your experiment or in the logic used to arrive at your conclusions.
- Replicate the experiment (done by original researchers as well as others)
-If the results of your experiment cannot be replicated, scientists are forced to conclude that it might have been a fluke. Before publishing their research, scientists should repeat the same experiments many times over. Independent researchers may choose to replicate the original experiments exactly, or they may feel there were flaws in the original design and devise new ways of testing the same hypothesis.
"The scientific method is not perfect, but it's the best thing we have... for now."
Science is not without it's problems. However, these problems do not legitimize the efforts of many religious people to reject the results of scientific enquiry out of hand. Scientists don't claim to be infallible. They reveal how they designed their experiments. They present the evidence (the results of their experiements). And they let other scientists poke and prod and interrogate them about their work, to see if it stands the test of reason and replication. If you have a problem with a particular scientific theory, the way to address it is to go through science, not by trying to skirt around it.
The Persistence of Uncertainty:
The scientific method always allows for the possibility that evidence acquired in the future will challenge conclusions which were previously drawn about the natural world, (1) by disproving old theories completely, or (usually) by modifying them in more subtle ways; and (2) by greatly expanding on them as the evidence mounds relating to a theory. This could also be considered one of the great strengths of science. Science is one field where continual progression seems to be the norm (and continual progression is a pretty Mormon concept).
Researchers like doing original research, and publishing new and original findings. Consequently, they are less motivated to replicate and test other people's research. This means that a lot of the findings that are published in scientific journals remain relatively untested by independent researchers. The journals are peer reviewed, meaning, their methods and conclusions are scrutinized by other scientists. but that's often as far as it goes. Furthermore, the efficacy of peer review is limited by the accuracy of the information shared by the original researchers. And, as science is divided into more and more specialized fields, the scientists who review research prior to publication may not be highly trained in that special field. But again, the answer to this problem is more science, not less.
"Will You Bite the Hand That Feeds You?"
The strengths and benefits of science should be quite obvious to modern humans. But how many religious people routinely enjoy the benefits of technology and medicine, only to turn around and spurn scientists whenever the evidence challenges their preconcieved religious views, or introduces a little inconvenient truth into their lives. When a part of you wants to reject or ignore scientific findings, remember, scientific findings can be replicated and tested. If false, they can be falsified. These findings are based on empirical evidence, that is, observable facts that anyone with the right tools could observe for themselves. There is a high level of scrutiny, and therefore, objectivity involved in the process. When there is a high level of consensus among scientists regarding a particular issue, that is because they have independently tested a theory and the evidence keeps coming back in favor of the theory. It would be foolish to reject that theory out of hand. It is especially ironic when you consider all the ways we reap the blessings of science daily.
When the Formulaic Method is Not Enough:
The efficacy of the scientific method is also dependent on other things, like the strength of a person's ability to reason, or an individual's level of creative genius. As Hank noted in the video above, sometimes the progress of science is entirely dependent on dumb luck. Similarly, if you are a religious person, you might even find that meditation and prayer and other intuitive processes are helpful in the course of scientific enquiry. Ultimately, however, you will have to use scientific processes to test and prove the validity of these "flashes of inspiration."
The Scientific method is not very applicable to most spiritual questions which are by nature, not provable/falsifiable. Is there a God? What is he/she/it like? Is there life after death? Why do good people suffer? Why do we exist? What is the purpose of life? What is the right religion, if any? These are what Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) called "unanswerable questions." From a scientific standpoint, at least, he was quite right. On the other hand, religions sometimes make claims about the natural world that can be tested empirically, using the scientific method, and Mormonism is no exception. Will will discuss the results of scientific enquiry regarding specific Mormon claims in a separate post (or several other posts). After all, this post is just meant to teach people how to think a little more like a scientist.
I hope my readers don't feel that I am jumping to unfavorable and unfair conclusions about Mormons' degree of openness to science. I haven't done any statistical research that would allow me to make any generalizations about Mormons attitude toward science. But I don't think that science and Mormonism are at odds with eachother. I think true Mormonism incorporates all truth and all legitimate ways of seeking truth, including and especially scientific ones. I grew up in this Church with a very pro-science outlook, and many of the Church leaders I looked up to were themselves accomplished scientists. When I noticed my mainstream Christian peers taking an anti-science position, I felt proud that my religion had taught me better. As Brigham Young said, “In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.”
That said, I do worry that too many Mormons have jumped on the fundamentalist bandwagon where several scientific issues are concerned. In addition, some have taken an overly defensive position because of the scientific issues that have been raised relating to specific Mormon claims. I hope my readers don't think I intend to use those issues to make them abandon their traditional beliefs. It does no harm to anyone if you maintain your traditional testimony despite those issues. Many thoughtful, intelligent people have already managed to do so.
That said, what is more important to me than maintaining traditional testimonies and defending the traditional claims of the Church, is that we truly cultivate an environment where Latter-day Saints feel completely free, as Joseph Smith said, "to embrace all, and every item of truth," without limitation, "when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same." There is a tendency on the part of some in the Church to characterize members as "less faithful" if they are not able to maintain their traditional testimonies in light of these significant pieces of evidence. This stigma and other pressures in Mormon culture - to bring your thoughts and beliefs to conform with those of the maintstream - pose a real threat to the goal of cultivating sincere openness to scientific truth. I will end this post by leaving you with the thoughts of a few Mormon leaders who I really appreciate for modeling a thoughtful approach to science and faith.
“If, on the Sabbath day, when we are assembled here to worship the Lord, one of the Elders should be prompted to give us a lecture on any branch of education with which he is acquainted, is it outside the pale of our religion?
“Or if an Elder shall give us a lecture upon astronomy, chemistry, or geology, our religion embraces it all. It matters not what the subject be, if it tends to improve the mind, exalt the feelings, and enlarge the capacity. The truth that is in all the arts and sciences forms a part of our religion. Faith is no more a part of it than any other true principle of philosophy.”
- Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 1, pp. 334-335.
“Our religion embraces chemistry; it embraces all the knowledge of the geologist, and then it goes a little further than their systems of argument, for the Lord Almighty, its author, is the greatest chemist there is.”
- Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 15, p. 127
“The study of science is the study of something eternal. If we study chemistry, we study the works of God. If we study chemistry, geology, optics, or any other branch of science, every new truth we come to the understanding of is eternal; it is a part of the great system of universal truth. It is truth that exists throughout universal nature; and God is the dispenser of all truth – scientific, religious, and political. Therefore let all classes of citizens and people endeavor to improve their time more than heretofore – to train their minds to that which is best calculated for their good and the good of the society which surrounds them.”
- Apostle Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, v. 7, p. 157
“Since the Gospel embraces all truth, there can never be any genuine contradictions between true science and true religion…. I am obliged, as a Latter-day Saint, to believe whatever is true, regardless of the source.”
- Henry Eyring, Faith of a Scientist, p. 12, 31