Science and Mormonism

My background within the Mormon “intellectual” community is primarily within the science community. Even now, most of my friends have ties to the science community and despite the “personae” I might convey as a philosopher-geek, I’m really much more of a physics-geek in my own mind. One thing that I’ve long wondered about was the relationship between science and Mormonism. I don’t just mean among active, or even inactive Mormons, but rather the effect Mormon culture has on engendering a scientific mindset.

This may seem an odd thing to bring up, since I know among many the stereotype is that Mormonism has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Yet I noticed while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory just how overrepresented Mormons were. At that time, in the early 90’s, two of the three main figures at the lab were Mormon. I don’t recall the exact figure, but something like 1/4 of all group leaders were Mormon as well. Just for people in the lab area, two very small towns, there were two very large wards. I’ve been told that at other labs, like Lawrence Livermore, there were quite a few Mormons as well.

Now such anecdotal evidence doesn’t establish much. Further, the studies on the production of scientists within Mormonism are somewhat problematic as well. (I blogged on the oft mentioned study by Wootton here way back in the beginning days of my blog)

So here’s my question: does Mormonism engender a respect or interest for science? All you folks who took physics or biology or so forth chime in with your experiences. Why did you go into the sciences and did Mormonism have anything to do with it?

My own experience is that Mormonism was directly tied to my interest in science, although the fact my Dad was a professor at Dalhousie University undoubtedly helped as well. I grew up having a view that religion was fully explainable and that the notions within religion were ultimately scientific and not “metaphysical” or “supernatural.” Further had a strong belief, from my Mormon heritage, that we were to seek knowledge and that knowledge was part of the glory of God. Indeed seeking it was part of being a good Mormon and a duty as much as charity or righteousness was.

61 comments for “Science and Mormonism

  1. I’m in show business, so my anecdotes don’t count. :)

    But my family’s main interest and background is science. My grandfather was Harvey Fletcher, quite a well-known physicist who founded the American Acoustical Society and developed hearing aids and stereophonic sound during his career at Bell Laboratories.

    My own Dad, Robert Fletcher, got his Ph.D. from M.I.T. in physics, and worked his entire life for Bell, briefly sojourning at Sandia Corporation in Albuquerque (I went to 1st through 3rd Grade there).

    My uncle, James Fletcher, was also a physicist, one time president of the University of Utah, and later appointed president at NASA (he died about 13 years ago).

    My sister, Tina, has her Masters in History of Science, and my brother Russell, is also a physicist from M.I.T.

    If you combine all these with my Bennett/Grant relatives, into business, religion and politics, you begin to wonder… what happened to me?

    But seriously, my Dad has a very healthy view of the Church, and he is a big believer. He has an excellent essay about faith and religion, published in a book (which title escapes me), something like “Why I Believe.”

  2. From a simple sociological point of view, I think the personalities of scientists (a generalization) mesh very well with Mormon models. Science as a field of study and career seems modest, disciplined, and stable, and this would excellently describe of model of Mormon lifestyle.

  3. When I was grad school shopping (Carbohydrate Chemistry), just about every Department head I spoke with said things like “We’ll take as many of you guys as we can get�. I think it might have been to the diminished tendency for inebriation more than anything else.

    Seriously though, I think that there is an educational ethic in Mormonism that has catapulted Mormons to a greater percentage of Graduate and Professional degrees than would be explained by demographics. In this way I think there may be an interesting correlation to the Jewish community.

    Every college town I have ever visited had thriving wards substantially made up of professors and grad students.

    As a side note, I would like some validation on an observation that I have had: It seems as if the harder (not as in difficult, but as in “hard sciences�) the science, the more conservative the indaviduals?

  4. A Jewish acquaintance of mine noted once that one of the similarities between the Mormons and the Jews was the desire to excel intellectually. He must have known very few Mormons. The joke is “What do you call a Jewish man who isn’t a doctor or a lawyer? A failure.�

    With the propensity to larger family size and the emphasis on self-reliance, there is fostered a drive to perform professionally and financially. But all too often this digresses into the Puritan heresy that wealth is an indication of personal favor with God.

    We don’t ususally allow our intellectual learning to drive a wedge between God and us. Unlike most churches, activity in the LDS church increases with education rather than decreasing.

  5. One thing I noticed was how many of my friends from BYU got into very prestigious programs, whether it be Yale, MIT, UT Austin, Berkeley or others. Given the place of BYU I found that very surprising. After all while I loved the physics department it was much easier than equivalent programs at say Yale or MIT. (From friends who did undergraduate years at both)

    The big thing about the physics department at BYU was just how close the students and professors were. There was a strong social cohesion in the department. They put aside rooms for study and homework and everyone became very close, with students there at all times. Further the professors’ doors were open for discussions of everything from religion to science to politics to everything else. There were parties and all sorts of other things. I think the physics department was somewhat unique in this, as I never found similar things in the other departments I was majoring in at the time (math and philosophy). Well, the Maeser building was prime location as well and those pursuing honors degrees often had an interesting society.

    I don’t know if it is still like that, mind you. After the rennovation of the Eyring building I heard some things changed. Further Dr. Evenson, who was Dean while I was at BYU, left BYU for UVSC purportedly after certain conflicts with the administration. However that’s actually not a bad thing since I’d love to see UVSC reach the quality of BYU.

  6. I think the Church and its members does pretty well with science. Sure, there’ll always be the one or two guys in Gospel Doctrine calling evolution Satan’s deception and insisting the earth is 6,000 years old.

    But I think by and large we get along pretty well with science. A problem or two might flare up at the BYU science department every once in a while, but on a day to day basis, students learn about scientific theories without any problem.

    There may be an initial period where younger people have to learn how to reconcile their faith and science. Trent Stephens and Jeff Meldrum write about this in their book on evolution, pointing out that some LDS students feel like they have to choose between their faith or their chosen career path. But I suspect after such a crisis or dilemma, most people work it out without a serious loss of faith.

  7. I’dd add, as a more direct answer to your question than my rambling above, that I think the Church does engender respect and interest in science. Again, there are some hotspots, mostly centered on Biblical accounts vs. scientific accounts of the age of the earth, creation, etc. But, while important, those are a small part of the world of science.

    Medical technology, space travel, biology, etc. seem to be appreciated by and large by the Church and its members.

  8. i think that for the most part we mormons are much more comfortable w/ science and learning than are most of our conservative christian counterparts, especially when compared against groups like evangelical christians. for the most part members are free to delve into any area of the sciences w/o worrying if it will somehow conflict w/ their beliefs or values. one exception might be the study of human evolution, but other than that it seems to be pretty wide open. even on the stem cell debate the church seems to have a much more progressive stance than most organizations, although my evidence for this is mostly anecdotal, and is based on orrin hatch’s push for more less controls on SCR.

    the one complaint that i’ve heard about mormon scientists is that they don’t apply the same amount of critical reasoning to their religous beliefs as they do while acting as scientists. i’m sure everyone has heard this before, but i can understand where they are coming from. there really is no scientific or evidenciary basis to argue for many events that the mormon church teaches as being literal events–the flood, the creation in genesis, adam and eve, tower of babel, changing skin colors due to righteousness, etc. i still have a hard time reconciling these issues, and wonder how mormon intellectuals do it. do all of them simply put those issues aside and say something like “i don’t understand them now, but i’m confident that one day they will all make sense”?

  9. Clark,

    It’s good to see you here having enjoyed your philosophical musings over at ZLMB. As a BYU physics grad and someone who has continued in science, I’ll relate my experience. I received both of my graduate degrees outside of Utah (MS – University of Virginia and PhD – Washington U. in St. Louis) and am now at U. Penn. Parental influence was minimal other than my Dad who said to be anything but a banker. Since leaving Utah I’ve met only three people currently or having pursued science graduate degrees (excluding MD’s).

  10. Well, I”m not a scientist, just a wannabe science writer. But my dad is a professor of engineering, my father-in-law and two brothers in law are professors of physics, and my husband is a Ph.D. student in engineering. I think I’m sufficiently immersed in the culture of Mormon scientists to comment.

    I agree: We do believe that all truth may be brought into a single great whole, and that’s very appealing for scientists who have the patience and strength to live with some dissonance while the great whole remains incomplete. It’s also difficult. The university where I work just hired an LDS evolutionary biologist. I met her at church on Sunday. She blushed slightly and seemed uncomfortable as she told me her field of study. I had to reassure her that we’re a “science family,” not anti-evolution, willing to wait for all the data to come in.

    For my father in law, a convert of dubious strength to begin with who joined the Church mainly for his wife and was ordained an elder by someone with questionable judgement, that tension was too much to bear. He has not been active in the Church in thirty years. Physics is his primary religion, nebulous Catholicism (his childhood faith) his second, Mormonism a distant third.

    As my husband decided what to do with his life, he felt President Hinckley’s words, “Get all the education you can,” had to guide his decisions. That’s a strong directive. For that reason and others, the Church produces many good scientists. But it doesn’t make it easy for them.

  11. I concur with J. Stapley: there’s a very strong pro-education thread within Mormonism, and I think that goes a long way towards explaining our relatively strong showing in the sciences. And it’s certainly true that the structure of LDS doctrine makes me feel a lot more at home here than I would in another faith.

    That said, I’m fascinated by the presence of the standard anti-intellectual ideas within the church community I interact with on Sunday (i.e. the earth is really only 6000 years old, the big bang theory is false, and evolution is completely off the table). THere are an awful lot of mormons out there who value education but distrust science and don’t deal so well with scientific ideas that conflict with a literal reading of the Bible. If I’ve heard once in Sunday School that we have to be cautious about “the ideas of men”, and that scientific truths are usually false and liable to change, I’ve heard it twenty times. We are, I’m afraid, not so different from mainstream Christians in that respect.

    I’m equally fascinated by members who distrust modern medicine. Or maybe I have a biased view, since my wife and my father-in-law are medical professionals (a vet and a dentist), while my mother-in-law swears by chiropracters and homeopathic practitioners. In any case, there are some members of my home ward who won’t vaccinate their kids and swear by home remedies, and who won’t go to a doctor whether he/she’s LDS or not.

    Maybe we’re conflicted…

  12. “that’s very appealing for scientists who have the patience and strength to live with some dissonance while the great whole remains incomplete.”

    That’s an interesting phrase. I think that perhaps physicists may be more open to that since the conflict between Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity, along with those problems in the background of the Standard Model make it easier for us to accept a certain dissonance. Put an other way we can accept that two theories can be amazingly successful yet have areas of incompatibility. We then have that faith that they will be reconciled. And that process of reconciliation may not involve a lot of empiricism. (Witness the work in Grant Unified Theories – not a lot of empiricism to superstring theory or quantum loop theory)

    Perhaps in other disciplines there is less of that.

    A lot of people bring up evolution. While there is a certain anti-evolutionist streak in the church, primarily due to the influence of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, I’ve long thought that Mormonism as a theology is far more open to evolution than most. Over at my own blog I collected a bit on evolution that I think orients the Mormon differently than most conservative Protestants. Likewise I think Nibley’s Before Adam talk is quite interesting and I’ve blogged on that before.

  13. Just to add an other conflict is between the astronomers and cosmologists over the conflict between the Hubble constant and the existence of dark matter. Exactly how to reconcile it is not at all clear, with each side believing they are right. Yet I think most physicists just recognize that dissonances may exist temporarily until some new truth reconciles the incompatibility.

  14. Glen, we are indeed dichotomous. It has almost come to a point of us and them. I’m not quite sure when it happened (maybe at the demise of good ole B. H. Roberts), but a fundamentalist thread started to weave its way into the fabric of Mormon culture (Smith didn’t hurt this tendency). We then started to borrow heavily from our antipathetic Christian friends.

    I have a friend who is a La Leche Leaguer. I once asked here about the granola liberals and the granola conservatives that tend on conflate in such organizations. She responded with rolled eyes.

    There will always be wackos that don’t immunize or go to the doctor, but I think there is a generation that is now passing on that is more fundamentalist in nature (the same that bring Mormon Doctrine to GD Class) than the younger counterpart.

    I don’t think it is so uncommon to have evolutionists that don’t believe in the water covering the whole earth during the flood/tower of Babel rhetoric anymore. Hopefully that trend will continue. And until then…we’ve got dinosaurs in the Manti Temple baby!

  15. I am a biochemist and study the evolution of proteins. I think that there are some commitments in Mormonism that do encourage people to think scientifically.

    The first is a commitment to natural law. “There is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven” and so forth. In some versions of Mormonism, God is even constrained by these natural laws. This sort of thinking encourages people to find the order behind the phenomena, to try and find principles that govern the changing realities that we see.

    The second is the emphasis on experience as a means of knowing truth. Some Catholic thinkers still side with Aquinas in thinking that there are good a priori grounds for proving God’s existence. Many protestants, especially fundamentalists, think that the argument from design is a good argument for God, hence their dislike of evolution. But these are rare in Mormonism, and completely absent in Joseph Smith’s writing. He had no need for a priori arguments for God–he SAW God himself, and likewise we can experience the sacred for ourselves. This is how the missionary program is set up: try the principle and see if it works for you. This “experimental” philosophy in religion meshes well with scientific empiricist principles.

    I do not mean to imply that Mormonism is scientifically empirical or testable, nor do I think that these commitments are without their problems. But they do seem to fit with and encourage scientific thinking.

  16. Our enormous ward in San Diego was populated largely by graduate students in the sciences–mostly in the emerging field of bioengineering (not surprising, since UCSD is a leader in that field).

    As others have pointed out, both pro-education counsel and the empiricist ontology of Mormonism lend themselves to the study of science. The relatively unpoliticized nature of the sciences also might be attractive to Mormon intellectuals: although there are heated exceptions (stem cells, evolution), most corners of science are peacefully removed from the culture wars in which the Church has a stake, and which therefore can produce the kind of ideological minefields that make English departments such treacherous places. The professional practice of science might be another matter: the extremely competitive nature of academic science might make it difficult for LDS scientists, with their heavy family and church obligations, to excel professionally.

    One pet peeve: occasionally scientists link their religion and their discipline a little *too* closely, I think, drawing facile analogies between gospel principles and scientific phenomena: ie, quantum particles are bound together by strong forces, and sealing ordinance binds humans together by strong forces, therefore physics is good and the church is true.

  17. My own path into fluid dynamics came from growing up in a neighborhood of electricians, carpenters, plumbers and such tradesmen. When I thought of my future, I could only conceive of it in terms of the work around me, interaction with the physical world. Studying law or politics or philosophy was beyond my imagination. The Church’s teachings let me know I should do well in my field of endeavour, but I don’t feel they directed me in a particular direction to labor.

    Our concept of faith is one teaching that makes science feel compatible with being a saint. We believe in faith built up through experiment and experience in a way that is much like acquiring scientific knowledge, though with less control.

  18. J. Stapley asked above if the “harder” or more physical and mathematical sciences produced more conservative political and religious views. This matches my experience as well.

    If you will permit me to speculate, I would suggest that some people are more fond of order, regularity, and law. These people tend to ignore the concrete particulars, individuals, and differences and focus on math, a priori thinking, and the never-changing realities that lie under our experience. Think Plato, Descartes, or Linnaeus. Today these kind of people gravitate towards math, physics, and conservative views. On the other hand, those who love the messy details of life, the particulars (think William James), the individuals, the people, tend to be more liberal and less concerned with absolutes. In science you might find them in biology or a social science.

    The Cambridge Ward, near Boston, is an interesting example. Most of the people are graduate students and their families. The vast majority attend Harvard Law, Harvard Business School, or are engineering students at MIT. Then there are a handful of PhD students, again mostly in computer science, but a couple of natural scientists, and a couple of humanities PhDs. Rather than science, we should ask why Mormonism drives its best thinkers into law, business, and engineering. Such a waste of talent…

    By far the most conservative group in the Cambridge Ward are the engineering students. They are usually very uncomfortable with the liberal atmosphere and some never adapt. This may be because they use these scientific laws to build ariplanes and bridges. They love and respect them. They cling to their absolutes. The scientists tend to be more liberal–perhaps because they know how those laws were made and are more critical, or at least accept that they are models, not realities.

    Of course, this is an armchair pyschological explanation, completely unsubstantiated….

  19. I’d say it has more to do with the political environment and content of the various academic disciplines, which the graduate students absorb (or, occasionally, strenuously reject) during the course of their training.

  20. I’m a grad student in microbiology. I don’t know that Mormonism directed me into science, but it’s positive attitude toward education certainly laid the foundation for getting me here.

    I think most members are supportive of science, especially where practical benefits are concerned because the implications for theology are mostly benign.

    I would like to see our thinking in terms of science and theology updated. Most of the debates are still rooted in the first half of the 20th century. We know so much more about biology now than we did then, but there has not been much progress on the theology side. I think we need to re-evaluate assumptions–like is occuring for the global colonization model for the Book of Mormon.

    As mentioned in a post above, in science you have to get used to uncertainty and the possibility that previous data will need to be reinterpreted in new light. That kind of attitude is not as prevalent for theology in the church–perhaps because we haven’t had many radical changes lately. But I like to think back to the early days of the Church–the day before D&C 76 was received, you could have preached a sermon saying that you either have eternal life in heaven or damnation in hell–and had many passages in the Bible and Book of Mormon to back you up. Then the revelation is given, and all those passages need to be reinterpreted in new light. I guess the point is that too much dogmatism on either side is not desirable. Both sides should be careful in delineating what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know.

  21. Interesting — that’s not been my experience. I did my graduate work in aerospace engineering, a field that one might expect to be dmoniated by conservatives since most of the funding for the field comes from government sources. But by and large the people I worked with — except for other LDS grad students — were solidly moderate to liberal. Maybe it’s more of a difference between undergrad and graduate students than it is between disciplines.

  22. It’s easy to see why we’re so fascinated by science and science fiction. We’re all trying to Hie to Kolob, after all, so transcendence is, on some level, intertwined with transportation…

  23. It seems to me that there are two different questions here: first, how well does LDS theology and practice “fit” with scientific ideas, and as a consequence how well can LDS scientists reconcile their faith and their theories; and second, how well does LDS theology and practice *encourage* a scientific mindset among it’s practitioners.

    I’d suggest that the answer to the first question is “very well”, and the answer to the second is “not so well”. Maybe it’s asking too much of a religion to help its adherents think critically; it seems to me that perhaps that’s a tendency you have to bring to the religion, the religion won’t bring it to you.

  24. A while back I posted on a study about about religion in America. This post reminded me of a fact that I thought was rather interesting:in that study, namely that

    “College professors are a little bit less religious on average than the population. This is most pronounced in the humanities and social sciences. The bastions of personal antagonism to religion in the academy are the same fields that have pushed the claim that society is secularizing and that there is a tension between science and religion, namely psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Those in the physical sciences, who actually deal with, you know, science, are comparatively much more likely to attend church and/or profess faith.”

    Of course, we already knew that discipline and discipleship were correlated.

  25. I would go so far as to say that we have a love-hate relationship with science. We always hear about philosophies of men, arms of the flesh, etc., while at the same time we love nothing more than to have our position proved right by scientific research. The best example is the narrative concerning the Word of Wisdom, but there are others. It’s similar, I think, to the love-hate relationships we have with Judaism and Catholicism. These religions don’t come off well in the usual discussion of the Crucifixion and the Apostasy, respectively, but at the same time we want to prove the semitic origins of the Book of Mormon, and we recycle the quote about only two churches having a plausible claim to be true. We don’t want just anybody to declare our church to be true, but rather those who are in some sense opposed to us. If a Jewish-Catholic physicist were to be baptized, I think that would settle the matter once and for all for a lot of people.

    As for the number of Mormons in science, I think that it’s not just a matter of interest in a scientific field, but also a number of cultural factors that promote the attainment of advanced degrees. Based on my experience in what was in effect the U of Illinois grad student ward, I suspect that Mormons drop out of their graduate programs at a much lower rate than their peers. Nearly everyone in my ward finished their program, whatever it was (in the sciences or not), while the majority of grad students I knew outside of church seemed to abandon graduate study before completing their degree. Because most have served missions and are married, LDS grad students are, I suspect, older and more mature than their peers who start graduate programs at the same time and are less likely to change their minds about the shole thing after a few years. Most of the students I knew were men who were the sole financial support for a young family, which tends to focus your mind on finishing your degree while discouraging you from trying something too radical, like dropping out to start a rock band or joining an artists’ co-op, I’m guessing. Personal narratives of self-sacrifice and measurable progress come easily, too, which helps.

  26. My father was a professor of education, but all my uncles on my mother’s side were physicists (two retired from Los Alamos, one still at Argonne). When I was a boy I was a science geek, and particularly into astronomy. Somehow I ended up studying law (professionally) and ancient languages (avocationally). I think part of it had to do with a bad couple of years in math in high school (my own fault), which set me way back, and the realization that without strong math skills you’re not going to go very far in science.

  27. Rosalynde, I didn’t know you were from San Diego. I was born in La Jolla (more a student town then) when my Dad was going to UCSD for a post-doc in low temperature thermodynamics. He said the ward they were in was mainly grad students and marines.

    Glen, I’m not sure I’d say that the church does a no so good job encouraging science. I think that some segments of the church are deeply suspicious of science. To be honest, I rarely met these groups until recently. My wife’s family is from Burley, ID, and tend to have that kind of intellectual mindset. They don’t see why you’d learn things that aren’t “useful.” Indeed at one family reunion I had a copy of Heidegger I was reading and I gather it got a lot of comments behind my back. Most it was negative and focused on just that kind of question of utility. I do notice utility questions, even at BYU, wherein education was good, but only if it gave your a job or a useful skill. However I think that trend is at odds with our theology. Further I think that is tied as well to a kind of inner cultural divide between those more used to the “agricultural/business” model of the gospel and those a little more cosmopolitan. As I said, the first time I personally encountered a significant number of people like that was recently, although as my brother can testify the farming communities in Southern Alberta also harbor a similar ideology.

    One thing I have to constantly watch in myself though, is looking down at these groups. I’ve noticed that tendency in others with either a scientific bent or at least a strong sympathy towards science. I also have to catch myself from overgeneralizing, such as “all people from rural areas are anti-educational.” It simply isn’t true. Indeed my father’s family is from just such a small town yet most of my uncles went into the sciences, despite my Grandfather being a trapper and a restaurant owner. I’ve also known many people in the sciences from these small towns.

    Regarding a connection between science and the “messier” aspects of life, someone mentioned William James. One should note that he was a scientist. Admittedly not very good at math or lab work. However many of his ideas were influenced by C. S. Peirce, who originated pragmatism. Peirce was a noted physicists, logician and mathematician. Likewise the other philosopher noted for dealing with such messy issues as well as religion was Whitehead, who was also known for the Principia Mathematica he co-wrote with Russell. So I don’t think the sciences/humanites divide works. Indeed I’ll probably write on that a tad tomorrow in a separate entry.

  28. Jonathan, I think your point is very important, and it’s one that I’ve been trying to make here several times, under different cover. Our Church seems to want it both ways: it wants empirical evidence and personal, spiritual confirmation of divinity. One must pray about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, but one must also believe in temporal evidence of its historical, factual truthfulness. Of course, if it is proved factually false, this is irrelevant to its spiritual truthfulness. One of the attractive qualities of Joseph’s original promise was of the physical reality of these things, of the physical bodies of God and Jesus, and the angel Moroni, the gold plates and the Urim and Thummim, and on and on. These things were real, were presented as real, and that must have been gratifying to the early Saints. But then, of course, there is no empirical evidence of the reality of these things at all — now we must rely on faith. I think it’s a conundrum that’s quite particular to our Church.

  29. I’m actually a lapsed neuophysiologist. I love the sciences and especially where they intersect with philosophy (e.g., the mind-body problem in my case — I am especially proud of the development of the philosophy of neuroscience in the past decade and a half). However, I am now an attorney. My own story is simple. I was sitting in Trig class in 11th grade pondering my future: “what could I do that doesn’t require trigonometry?” I said to myself. Then I answered myself, “I could become an attorney and use my gifts of gab and analysis (unfortunately my only gifts).” The minute I said this to myself it was like an epiphany and I knew that God had made me an attorney. I could see God snickering to himself as I had this thought. He thought he was pretty funny too. But what could I do? God wanted me to be an attorney — I knew it; and I knew that God knew it. And though I would be reviled and held in contempt by those in the sciences for doing so, I knew that I had had a real epiphany. I often felt like Paul before Agrippa ….

  30. Blake,

    If you became an attorney because of that epiphany, then you ought to get a grippa of yourself. :)

  31. “Our Church seems to want it both ways: it wants empirical evidence and personal, spiritual confirmation of divinity.”

    Why must we consider this as having it both ways? Isn’t the way Mormons conceive of spiritual confirmation a kind of empiricism?

  32. I think that Jonathan Green’s comment is right on. If some researcher finds some toxins in coffee that may cause cancer this study will be paraded around as proof of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, since there’s no way he could know anything about that. But researchers that have studied Native American DNA, or the Egyptologists who translated the papyri are derided as “so-called intellectuals.” I really hate the term “so-called,” and the way it’s thrown around in general conference talks and FARMS publications.

  33. Clark, my point about having it both ways is mostly revealing when it can’t be proved both ways (as Mike has illustrated). I would be more comfortable with the Church’s stand on personal spiritual confirmation if the Church disbanded FARMS and said, no evidence will ever be found, because God wants to work only by personal revelation. But the Church continues to want scientific evidence as well, and promotes empirical research. Most scientific evidence of the origins of the Church… doesn’t exist, IMO.

  34. With respect to many matter though, the search via science goes back to Joseph Smith. Personally I don’t see the problem with this. If we hold to truths, then they will be found in science. If we want to better understand these things, we must turn partially to science. There were many sermons by Brigham Young along those lines. Clearly God gives us some information and lets us figure the rest out. The best way to figure that out is via science.

    Now I agree that some people get a little uppity and excited over evidence. Word of Wisdom examples are great ones. I find fault with the Word of Wisdom examples since it assumes that the Word of Wisdom is only about health. But that’s a whole other line of thought.

    Regarding the church saying that it will only be confirmed by revelation. Of course the church can’t say that since it would be false. Many (including many at FARMS) might believe that God won’t provide empirical public evidence until after it ceases to matter, to force people to come to him. But I don’t think everyone believes that. Further there’s no revelation indicating that to be the case.

  35. “those who love the messy details of life, the particulars (think William James), the individuals, the people, tend to be more liberal and less concerned with absolutes”

    You may well be right. You made me laugh, though, because conservative intellectuals pride themselves on being the one’s who are humble in the face of life’s complexity, don’t try to straightjacket things into one scheme, etc., a la Russel Kirk’s ‘conservatism is the negation of ideology.’

    I wonder if there’s something in the American air that makes every viewpoint try to capture the moral high ground of not being dogmatic?

  36. I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of any readers here who have read Eric Robert Paul’s book on this subject, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology.

  37. D. Fletcher [I’m in show business but . . . my grandfather . . . father . . . uncle . . . brother . . . sister . . . cat . . . turtle . . . are physicists.]

    Jeez, D, it must be hell at Thanksgiving.

  38. It’s quite a good book Jeremy. If you are interested in a fair and solid overview of Mormonism and Science that would probably be it. As with all books of that sort, it doesn’t go into the details on a lot of topics. But it is fantastic as an overview.

  39. Good comments above.

    I wonder if there isn’t a “defensive” aspect to this drive toward science & scholarship. Reading one of the survey articles on scholarship & the BoM in the recent FARMS’s Review of Books, I thot of all the disciplines that had to be marshaled in the defense of the BoM & BoAbr. It’s like our faith REQUIRES that we engage these arcane subjects. If you think about it, ditto for the Bible, OT & NT.

    In wonder if there isn’t a sense in which we pursue these specialized areas of knowledge as a defense — as an inoculation — against the “acids of modernity” (& post-modernity) that surround us.

    Don’t we apply the best war strategy of all: know the nature of the “enemy”?

    Sorry, I didn’t intentionally set out to spoil the triumphalist mood of some.

  40. I think you’re right Rob, that for some of us the whole science bit is somewhat defensive, in the sense of apologetical. However I think that is more focused on Egyptology, Archaeology and Anthropology, all of which are more “borderline” sciences. (i.e. they are probably more in the humanities) The number of studies directly related to science in apologetics are fairly rare. Ones I can think of tend to be the dating of specific artifacts, bones, or fossils. The rest are due to theological critiques such as the possibility of Mormon conceptions of infinity. But overall I don’t think apologetics can explain much about inclinations by many towards the sciences, beyond perhaps a kind of spirit of inquiry.

    I should add that I suspect most encounter apologetics after they’ve already more or less decided upon a science major.

    Regarding science, one thing that is interesting to do is do a search for the word in the Journal of Discourses. The first hit I found had this interesting comment from Brigham Young:

    “The knowledge possessed by this people is of more value than all the knowledge of the world put together, and infinitely greater. In this kingdom you will find the root of all science, and that, too, in men who have not been taught the sciences after the manner of the world. They understand the origin of science, and can trace it through the life of man, much to their satisfaction. Let any man who possesses the Holy Ghost, though never taught the sciences but a very little, hear a learned man exhibit the principles of any science, he understands the origin and proper bearings of the subject treated upon by the speaker, through the increased rays of that light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. This is to us a matter of no little satisfaction.” (JD 6:314)

    I think this lines up with what a few others expressed above. An other favorite:

    “I want to say a few words about our religion, but first I will ask you to remember this prayer which I offered at the commencement of my remarks with regard to the poor. If you will do that, they will be looked after and brought home. Now we will talk a little about our religion. Ask the scientific men of the world how many of the arts can be reduced to a science? When they are so reduced they become permanent; but until then they are uncertain. They go and come, appear and disappear. When they are reduced to science and system their permanency, and stability are assured. It is so with government-until it is reduced to science it is liable to be rent asunder by anarchy and confusion, and caprice and scattered to the four winds. Government, to be stable and permanent and have any show for success must be reduced to a science. It is the same with religion; but our traditions are such that it is one of the most difficult things in the world to make men believe that the revealed religion of heaven is a pure science, and all true science in the possession of men now is a part of the religion of heaven and has been revealed from that source. But it is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law. It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author. Our spirits are His: He begot them. We are His children; He set the machine in motion to produce our tabernacles; and when men discard the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being and treat it with lightness, as Brother Taylor says, they are fools. It is strange that scientific men do not realize that, all they know is derived from Him; to suppose, or to foster the idea for one moment, that they are the originators of the wisdom they possess is folly in the highest! Such men do not know themselves. As for ignoring the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being, I would as soon ignore the idea that this house came into existence without the agency of intelligent beings.” (JD 13:300)

  41. Clark, if we contextualize BY’s comments, I think he thot of science in terms of the 19th century mechanical & industrial explosion & the increases in architecture, building & the other “practical arts,” (e.g., cotton gin, steam engine, telegraph, railroad, civil & mechanical engineering, etc., etc.) Thus, being the practical (near) genius he was, he could say that “science” (so understood) could be comprehended by the common man enlightened by the spirit, of which he was a prime example.

    He demonstrates some of that mechanical understanding of things, so common to the 18th & 19th centuries, in his statement, “He [God] set the machine in motion to produce our tabernacles . . . .”

  42. Rob, I think that in the 19th century physics was just as mechanical. What I find interesting was that part of the quotation that you quoted. By 1870 Evolution was quite the topic in the United States. I half-wonder if that comment relates to evolution. Of course in the 19th century most (although not all by any means) people even interpreted evolution mechanistically. As I recall the main theory of life at that time was the vitalistic theories in which there was a vital fluid or electricity like substance flowing through living creatures. I don’t recall when that theory was disproved, although as I recall it was the late 19th century with the analysis of uric acid and a lot of acid chemistry.

    However while Brigham probably thought about science largely in terms of engineering and technology, I think contextually, including the afore mentioned talk, he sees it as any kind of systematic knowledge in terms of laws. i.e. it becomes a science when we know the laws. Of course it therefore follows that once we know the laws we can turn it into engineering. In the 19th century that was the great feature of physics. In the early 20th century it was chemistry that was the big engineering marvel. In the late 20th century it was the physics of semiconductors that was turned to engineering. In the very late 20th and early 21st century it is becoming biology.

    Put more simply, I don’t think Brigham’s view is that much out of my own. He certainly uses science more for when one has confidence in theory. However he also recognizes the endeavor of seeking after these laws.

    I think that is what makes his comments on religion in 1870 so interesting. Religion is a science (i.e. knowledge of laws and how to utilize them) but we are also in the spirit of inquiry after these laws.

  43. Funny you should remind me, Rob, that I don’t understand a single WORD of my Dad’s current cosmology paper.

    But actually, the rest of my family is pretty dazzled by me, so it can be… very nice.

  44. Clark, here is another nice passage. A key point is an acceptance of scientific discovery over written scripture which being in conflict with science must just be an old tradition of the “so called Christian world” and not rise to the level of revelation.

    Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 16:115-116:
    It was observed here just now that we differ from the Christian world in our religious faith and belief; and so we do very materially. I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science, and which are generally understood. Says the scientific man, “I do not see your religion to be true; I do not understand the law, light, rules, religion, or whatever you call it, which you say God has revealed; it is confusion to me, and if I submit to and embrace your views and theories I must reject the facts which science demonstrates to me.” This is the position, and the line of demarcation has been plainly drawn, by those who profess Christianity, between the sciences and revealed religion. You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has; and they say, “If the Lord, as religionists declare, made the earth out of nothing in six days, six thousand years ago, our studies are all vain; but by what we can learn from nature and the immutable laws of the Creator as revealed therein, we know that your theories are incorrect and consequently we must reject your religions as false and vain; we must be what you call infidels, with the demonstrated truths of science in our possession; or, rejecting those truths, become enthusiasts in, what you call, Christianity.”

    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. You may take geology, for instance, and it is a true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts-they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways, we would say that he took of this matter and organized this earth from it. How long it has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject.

  45. I am an Electrical Engineer and something that influenced me is Alma 32.

    Alma 32 is a wonderful discourse on the scientific method based in an agrarian metaphor.

    You observe something (seed), you create a hypothesis (plant seed), you experiment (nurture seed), then you reach a conclusion (did the seed bear good or bad fruit?)

    Just about every talk on faith quotes significant portions of Alma 32, so we hear the scientific method several times a year. Since it takes about 10 repetitions before something heard is retained long term it would only take a couple of years before people would start remembering the scientific method in the long term.

    With the scientific method such a deep part of our religion, is it any surprise that so many of us end up in the sciences?

  46. As an investigator, I have not had any instances during my discussions and prayerful reflection that even remotely come close to the sense of awestruck wonder I feel when I view the photographs sent back by the Mars landers, Spirit and Opportunity. As I gaze upon those pictures, I contrast the feeling I get from viewing them with the feeling I got last Sunday after hearing about the “3 Glories” and “Outer Darkness” In Gospel Principles class, or after reading about Kolob in the Book of Abraham. I am told that by the Gift of the Holy Ghost I will know the truth of all things, and the truth that I am feeling at the moment is so much more expansive and powerful than truth revealed in Scripture. I suppose if I were to ask a member tomorrow they would say that anything that does not confirm scripture is Satan’s Deception, but for some reason it doesn’t feel that way. It feels the other way ’round.

  47. D. Fletcher’s father, Robert Fletcher, wrote the essay “One Scientist’s Spiritual Autobiography” included in “A Thoughtful Faith,” which is currently out of print, but I hope to have back in print next spring from Mormon Arts and Letters.

    “Why I Believe” is a completely different book, basically a collection of testimonies by famous Latter-day Saints. In contrast, those that wrote in “A Thoughtful Faith” actually explain why they believe, not just that the do.

  48. I am a theoretical psychologist and have an interest in this issue because of my interest and background in philosophy of science. Historically we went through a time when science had to be careful to ground its theories in ways that did not overtly disagree with the prevailing religious authorities. After science’s liberation led by people like Darwin and Freud, this kowtow to religion was no longer necessary. Now that faith in science has a much greater dominance, many religious people feel as though they must kowtow to science in much the same way that science had to do with religion.

    This is often illustrated with LDS members who feel as though they must keep saying how we are all believers in science and that nothing that Mormons believe will disagree with pure science. I’m not sure I can agree with this view that somehow we must change our ontology or explanations of physical events to fit with the prevailing view of science. Maybe Galileo had something right when he said that the Bible was about how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Intelligence is ultimately light and truth (this has little to do with the “facts” of physics or geology) according to the Doctrine & Covenants. My interest in physics (my original college major) is not because I believe it will get me closer to God, but because I find the subject interesting and helpful in understanding the world. I don’t believe that knowledge of the sciences has anything to do with really knowing “the mind of God.” It does have its own value, but not a religious one.

    Maybe an example will help. When in the storm on the sea with his disciples, Jesus said “Peace, be still.” His disciples were amazed (how scientific of them) to see that the wind and the waves “obeyed” him. They were incredibly surprised that something once thought “inanimate” by them could obey the voice of the Lord. Jesus didn’t do some scientific experiment or some chemical alteration of the air around him. He simply commanded and the elements obeyed. Now that is power! Not power of knowledge, but power of righteousness and the power of God. Ultimately the kingdom of God will need no scientists to carry on the work of our Creator, especially psychologists! Our goals in life are to become more Christlike, not to conform ourselves to the prevailing scientific theories.

    There does not need to be any conflict between science and religion, but I do believe it matters a great deal where our allegiance lies. The Lord commands, we obey. Science is a set of beliefs and assumptions about the world, not some heavenly instrument toward obtaining truth. We can engage in science (and be good, moral scientists) but we need not take it or our own knowledge so seriously. Ultimately we are here to become better, more truthful, more charitable, and more like God.

    The marriage of religion and science is too hasty either direction. True religion is about the state and value of the souls of men while science is a philosophical creation of men. They are not equals to be combined or compared.

  49. “anything that does not confirm scripture is Satan’s Deception”

    This is pretty atypical, by the way. I would be stunned to find a Saint with those views. See here for a reaction like yours to the unfolding vistas of space:

    That said, I note that a mere sense of wonder and amazement is, in the Book of Mormon and the Bible, how people unwisely respond to miracles. Remarkable! Wow! and then they go about their business unchanged.

    Spiritual experience is inadequate unless it transforms one internally and leads to action.

  50. NB:
    My preceding remarks are general observations on a theme. I do not choose to venture an opinion, indeed I do not have one, on the state of John T.’s spiritual experience.

  51. I’m not sure I can buy the views that try to demarcate science from religion by an appeal of the how and the why with neither entering into the other’s domain. Further, while God spoke and things obeyed, that begs the question of how the phenomena happened. Was this metaphoric and Jesus was drawing on the power of God? Of course Lectures on Faith suggests that it is by words that matter obeys – thus leading many Mormons down the road of panpsychism in various forms. (The view that all matter is at least quasi-intelligent)

    I also am not convinced that science can have no say in values, beliefs or the like. As we learn more and more about neuropsychology I think science will begin to say far more about such matters.

  52. Kim, if you assert it obeyed because God spoke and that is the argument then it is question begging in that the hidden premise and answer are more or less the same. i.e. the raised question of how the phenomena happened was answered but in a way that it didn’t appear to simply be an assertion.

  53. I will comment on the nature of my spiritual experience….none, so far….. although I could tell my companion who drove me to see “Testament of one fold and one shepherd” had thought that would do the trick, as well as my viewing of “The Restoration” and “Finding Faith in Christ” by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

    Maybe on Sunday, in Gospel Principles I will have one…

  54. Just curious – do we consider computer science to be a science? I mean, what with machine learning, evolutionary/genetic programming, natural language processing …

  55. I think computer science counts as science, yes. We learn a whole lot about the nature of thought and understanding in artificial intelligence work. Also we learn about the properties of emergent systems from large networks. Cellular automata shed a lot of light on how nature manifests complexity from simple substrates, and so on.

    As an engineer and science geek who is a convert, it was very important to me when I was investigating that the church did not show the sort of anti-intellectualism that seems too prevalent in many other sects. I was extremely impressed by the importance put on education, as well. I love the PEF, and try to contribute as much to it as I possibly can. I hope it eventually expands to serve everyone who needs it.

    And, yes, I believe miracles come about because Christ understands a lot more about the universe He designed than do we, and He’s hooked into it more. Rebuking the storm is really no more miraculous than me telling my brain to tell my arm to move, by which I mean that both are miracles. Science has illuminated the pathway from the motor cortex of the brain to the muscles, but so far has not shed light on who I am and how I’m able to hook into this section of matter that I’ve co-opted to be a brain and body for myself, and cause it to do my bidding. I see the universe as obeying Christ’s will in the same sense that my brain and body obey mine.

    LDS doctrines fit with and make sense of the other things we’ve learned about how the cosmos works. So, even though I’m coming to it from the opposite direction, starting with a scientific worldview and progressing to LDS ideas, it definitely meshed well. I can totally see how the opposite would be true as well, that an LDS worldview would foster an interest in science.

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