I love the comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’. Sometimes I worry for our future because children are growing up in the world today without the company of Calvin and his stuffed tiger. I love Calvin’s musings on the virtues of math atheism (‘as a math atheist, I should be excused from this [homework]‘), and Hobbes’ bemused look as he patiently listens to Calvin’s diatribes on the human condition. I completely identified with Calvin’s fiery outbursts as he fought to find his way in a world over which he had little control (‘You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help’).
Somewhere along the line, I overcame my math atheism (and Calvin-esque aversions to baths and babysitters), and became interested in a very watered-down, PBS version of a new explanation of our physical world: string theory. Bear with me for a second — itâ€™s not as boring as it sounds. String theory is the latest quest to discover one single theory of how everything in our physical world works together. Currently, there are two competing, conflicting theories that explain the world we live in, and scientists have worked for decades to resolve the inconsistencies between these theories and unlock the mysteries of the universe once and for all (evil cackling of scientists fading into the background).
Unfortunately, there is little, well, no, physical evidence for the upstart string theory. Turns out we can’t smash atoms together at high enough speeds for the string theorists to find what they are looking for (or that’s what I gathered from the PBS version). But that hasn’t stopped some of the brightest minds of our generation from devoting their lives and careers to pursuing this elusive theory of strings. These scientists know string theory exists, they can do the math that shows it should exist, but they can’t ‘prove’ string theory to other scientists using accepted scientific methods.
Here’s how I think string theory could be useful: some of the most brilliant men and women in the world believe in a theory that is, so far, unprovable. They have devoted their careers and staked their reputations on a theory that is controversial in the scientific community. Yet they are respected, and by many, revered (depending on which Nobel-prize winning scientist you talk to).
This makes me think about the criticism that is leveled against those of us who profess to have a testimony, that most un-provable of religious assertions. Although we don’t stake our professional lives on our testimonies, sometimes relationships with people we care about are greatly affected by how strongly we do (or do not) cling to a testimony. Why is it okay for physicists to believe in this unprovable theory, but it isn’t okay for us to have a testimony? To believe there really were gold plates, that Joseph Smith really did see an angel (or two)?
Taking another crack at the analogy, can we learn something from the way these physicists approach string theory that will help us (a) strengthen how we go about getting and keeping testimonies, and (b) articulating to others why we feel so strongly about them? For example, these physicists hang their hats on the math. They can do their calculations, add up their equations, and say, ‘this is the way things should work, and by golly, the math sure is pretty.’ Is there an underlying logic to our faith, to how we approach God, to how the Gospel is structured, that allows us to say ‘this is how the pieces fit together, and boy, is it pretty’?
Or, maybe we are actually in a STRONGER postion than the physicists, because we do have an experiment that can provide proof. (See Alma 32 or Moroni 10:3-5). But the nature of these experiments are that they are totally individual. Is there any logic or explanation that we can give to allow other reasonable, intelligent people to say ‘you have no proof, but your theory is sound, and I respect you’?