How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1994).
I recently came across this quote taken from a book by Carl Sagan, the late eminent astronomer and astrophysicist. It made me start thinking about the "stress[ing of] the magnificence of the universe" within my own faith, and, by association, my faith's relationship with science and how my immersion in the world of science meshes with my personal faith. Pretty sad that I start a blog called "Physics and Faith," and it takes me two years to start approaching that very topic, but it's a meaty issue and I haven't been sure I could do it justice, so I've kept putting it off. I'm now quite sure that I can't (do it justice), but giving it a shot is arguably better than languishing in procrastination. I wish that I could fit everything in that I've wanted to write about, but I think it's better that I address a key concept here: truth.
I am interspersing this essay with scripture references. Some are embedded as part of the narrative, and some are here because they seemed to fit. The stereotypical Mormon talk in church begins with a definition of the term being discussed, usually taken from Merriam-Webster. I turn instead to the Doctrine and Covenants.
And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;
And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.
Mention of truth is prevalent in our faith. We speak of knowledge and testimony, and one of my favorite hymns that we sing is titled "Oh Say, What is Truth?"
. . .
Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
'Tis an aim for the noblest desire.
. . .
Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o'er.
Though the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.
(I have to admit that this hymn is a favorite because the tune sounds like a sea shanty, it refers to truth as a treasure, and it is particularly suited to being sung in a gruff voice. I refer to it fondly as the pirate hymn.)
The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.
The concept of truth is inherent in our faith. The genesis of the LDS Church is rooted in the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to know which church was true. If I haven't gotten the point across yet, I really want to stress that, from my view, the importance of truth is reiterated throughout our faith. I don't know if this is particular to our faith. I wish I knew more about how other faiths approach truth.
Knowledge of truth is not just important, it is essential. My colleagues in science and my friends at church would agree with this. We need it, now how do we get it?
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
Here is where I turn to science. I'm having a hard time defining it as I try to write this, so I'll try to approach it by first defining a subset of science with which I am more familiar: physics. In physics we try to determine the laws that govern the interaction of matter and energy. We do this by using the laws we know (mathematics included), along with accepted methods of analysis, to probe existing theories and hypotheses and develop new ones. By extension, the goal of science, in one sense of the word, is to determine the laws that govern nature. In another sense of the word, science is any knowledge gained from the scientific method. Though it doesn't always follow the nicely rote pattern with distinct steps I learned in seventh-grade science class, the scientific method consists of starting with a hypothesis, designing a proper experiment to test it, performing the experiment, and analyzing the results. For a result to be accepted, the experiment must be repeatable: performing the same experiment must produce the same results. A good scientific paper about an experiment describes the experiment and the results so that a reader, were he so inclined and capable, could reproduce the experiment and reproduce the results. Scientists have lost their jobs and their reputations for being too hasty to publish results that were not reproducible or did not follow from good scientific methodology. Conversely, theoretical suggestions that were disregarded by the general community have been validated and accepted due to experimental verification following the scientific method. The scientific method is how we show that truth is indeed truth.
It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.
Science and religion are often erroneously presented as opposites. The question is sometimes asked, "How can one be a scientist and be religious?" I think there are two types of answers that someone could give, depending on how they approach their faith. One would be that they believe that their religion, despite contradictions with science, serves a good purpose—it teaches men to be good and to love their brother, etc. The second response would be that they believe their faith to be true. I fall into the second camp. It would be intellectually dishonest for me to continue to be part of a faith that makes such claims of the importance of truth without me believing that it was true. In fact, I go farther than stating belief. I claim that I know that the teachings of my faith are true.
How did I gain this knowledge? In years past I may have given different summaries of how I came to this knowledge, touching on a few key experiences. I would probably mention one or both of two scriptural passages, both from the Book of Mormon. I recently realized that these passages both invite the reader to engage in the scientific method. In effect, they are short scientific papers in which the author presents some bit of truth and the method by which they came to know it, then invites the reader to follow the procedure to receive the same results.
One passage is in the Book of Alma, Chapter 32, and even uses the word "experiment". This passage is part of an account of Alma, a prophet who is preaching to a group of people called the Zoramites.
Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
Alma goes on to how to explain how the listeners (and readers) can discover for themselves if what he is preaching is true. After one's desire to believe gives place for his words, and if the words are true, they will begin to "enlighten [one's] understanding," and the desire to believe can progress to faith and then to knowledge. He uses a metaphor of planting a seed, saying that if it is a good seed (or the word is true), it will grow into a tree (knowledge). I'll invite you to go read the rest of the chapter at the link above rather than post it here.
How is this an invitation to apply the scientific method? Alma is presenting us with something that he claims to know to be true, and telling us how to prove it for ourselves. He has published an experimental paper with some extraordinary claims. Unless you have evidence that his experiment is faulty, you must perform the experiment if you want to truly know for yourself if his words are true.
Now I realize that this account is a bit abstract, and it's connection to the scientific method might seem a bit tenuous. The second passage is much more straight-forward, and it is short enough to post here. The passage is from the Book of Moroni, Chapter 10, which is the last chapter and effectively the epilogue of the Book of Mormon. Moroni, the last contributor to the Book of Mormon, is sharing his last words to the reader before sealing up the book.
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Moroni presents the claim that the Book of Mormon is true and also the experimental method for testing his claim: to ask God with real intent if the Book of Mormon is not true. You might notice that he says specifically to ask if it is not true. Why is it worded this way? I may be off on this, but I think it's because that there is already a basis for believing that the Book of Mormon is true. The Book of Mormon is prefaced by a signed 1830 statement by the Three Witnesses saying that God's voice had declared the truth of it unto them and a statement by the Eight Witnesses that they had seen and handled the golden plates from which it was translated. There are internal textual evidences of the book's veracity, and there are the fruits of the book to serve as further evidence. To those for whom these evidences have aroused a desire to believe, as Alma called it, Moroni presents the method for determining the truth for their own selves. Someone who wants to know whether the book is true must read it, ponder it, and ask God sincerely and with real intent, being committed to accept the answer they will receive, to manifest the truth to them. Moroni promises that if you follow this method, you will receive his results.
This is how I know that God lives and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is truly His church. The wonders of nature are evidences to me that there is a beneficent Creator, but they are not why I know that He lives. The good effects that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has on my life and the good fruits brought forth from the teachings the Book of Mormon strengthen my faith and have an important role in my life, but that is not why I know that they are true. The wise men who serve today as prophets give wise and reassuring counsel, but that is not why I know that God speaks to them. I know these things because I have tested Moroni's claim and experiment, and I have planted the word in my heart, as Alma instructed. I have undertaken their experiments and I have received knowledge for myself, via the Holy Ghost, that God lives, that He is our Father, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and that the Book of Mormon is true.