“One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may,” (Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 199)
In order to approach the scriptures from a realistic perspective we need to take a side trip into the secular world of science and scholarship. Wise and informed Latter-day Saints recognize that truth is truth regardless the source. The very fact that Joseph Smith admonished his followers to receive truth from all sources acknowledges that not all truth comes through spiritual mediations. In reality, the majority of truth comes through secular sources (perhaps sparked—even if unconsciously—from divine inspiration).
Although religion can open our hearts to receive the most important truths, the percentage of truths we learn from religion is miniscule compared to the truths that are discovered by secular means. Without secular truths we wouldn’t have cars, medications, clothes, computers, or sports. We are privileged to live in a world where science has made tremendous leaps in our understanding of nature, history, medicine, and technology.
In a previous installment I explained that Roman Catholics take a three-legged tripod-like approach to determining truth—Scripture, Tradition, and the Pope. I believe that we Latter-day Saints are asked to take a four-legged approach to truth, like the four legs of a stool. These would include: Scripture, Prophets, Personal Revelation, and Reason. By utilizing the methodologies for all four of these tools, we have a better chance of accurately determining what is true.
“Each of us,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer, “must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits it, but requires it.”[i] The Lord has instructed us to “seek learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), and we are counseled to not only learn gospel principles, but secular theories in astronomy, history, geology, archaeology, and politics (v. 79).
Science, however, does not know everything and sometimes gets things wrong. In a way, I hate to make such claims and I’ll explain why below. It is a fact, however, that despite great advances in scientific acumen, we are a long way from knowing everything about the human body, the heavens, the earth, or our earthly co-inhabitants. I have the utmost respect for science and scholarship and have faith (no pun intended) that science will eventually arrive at all possible temporal truths. For the foreseeable future, however, there are many areas of science that reside in a state of flux, are hindered by un-resolvable variant interpretations, are un-knowable with current scientific tools.
Unfortunately, too many Latter-day Saints (as well as members of other religions) retreat into anti-science and anti-intellectual positions when they think that their doctrines (which are typically assumptions rather than doctrines) are challenged by science or secular scholarship. The claim that “science doesn’t know everything,” is the frequent leitmotif of those who are anti-science.
A related problem is the “God-of-the-Gaps” fallacy. Some claim that if science cannot explain a thing then the gap is filled by the workings of God (or is even proof of God). Isaac Newton, for example, recognized that there had to be some degree of gravitational interaction between Earth and Mars as they passed each other in their individual orbits. Newton believed that this interaction could be devastating to the solar system if not for God’s intervention. He was also unable to see any reason why most of the planets circled the Sun on a similar plane and in the same direction other than by divine decree. Since there appeared to be no scientific explanation for what he observed (a “gap” in the available knowledge) Newton attributed the actions to God.
The problem with such an approach is that these gaps are often closed with increased scientific knowledge. There is a difference between recognizing that science doesn’t have all the answers and claiming that where science is silent, we see proof of God.
There’s an interesting parallel to the God-of-the-Gaps problem in science, however. Since the general scientific paradigm is one that deals exclusively with what can be known empirically (there by excluding by default anything supernatural—and therefore God), all gaps in scientific knowledge are confidently seen as questions that can one day be answered by science (and not by religion).
While science is not infallible we need to be careful not to simply brush all conflicting information under the rug of “science-could-be-wrong.” Generally speaking the more established the scientific theories the more likely they are to be confirmed by various disciples of science—in a convergence of evidence—that not only depend on, but support the original theory.
The wonderful thing about science is that it is self-correcting. Some erroneous ideas or false assumptions take longer to fall than others, but with continued rigor the scientific community in general has demonstrated that mistakes, over-sights, and all other errors will eventually be replaced with superior, more adequate, and more accurate information.
It’s also important, however, to realize that “science” is not a single discipline that can be measured equally and with the same methods to check for accuracy and verisimilitude. There are “hard” sciences and “soft” sciences. Hard sciences are thenatural sciences and typically include fields like math, chemistry, and physics, whereas soft sciences are the social sciences such as psychology, history, archaeology, and anthropology.
As explained on Wikipedia: “The hard sciences are characterized as relying on quantifiable empirical data, relying on the scientific method, and focusing on accuracy and objectivity.” The soft sciences are more prone to conclusions based on interpretation.
A related aspect of the hard versus soft distinction has to do with the ease of drawing strong conclusions. In soft sciences, there are often numerous variables that might have an influence on some variable of interest, and many of those variables either may be non-quantifiable or may be quantifiable but difficult to obtain data on; but further, even with plentiful data, it may be difficult to disentangle the effects of such a large number of variables. In contrast, typically in the hard sciences there are only a few, readily identified, causative variables, making it easier to infer specific causative effects.[ii]
With the exception of “miracles” and currently un-measureable issues such as the existence of God, nearly all Mormon-related issues with which skeptics have problems, have to do with the subjectively-interpretive soft sciences rather than hard sciences.
If truth is really truth, in the end all truths in our world must harmonize. LDS scientist Henry Eyring once wrote: “Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.”[iii] When it comes to a conflict between what we have learned from religion and science we must step back and take a look at what the conflict is actually about. If the conflict is over core doctrines, science and scholarship can offer opinions, suggestions, and even evidence, but it cannot unseat true doctrines.
More often, however, science conflicts with our weak and often naive assumptions of history, scripture, or things which are peripheral to actual doctrines. When this happens, it is wise for us to reexamine our assumptions in light of scientific knowledge. If we do, we will generally find that we can embrace the secular scientific and scholarly teachings without abandoning the saving doctrines that have been confirmed by the Spirit.
[iii] Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 2.