Science, Mormonism, Dialogue

June 27, 2013 | 12 comments
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The good news: There is more room for dialogue between science and Mormonism than between science and other conservative Christian viewpoints. Most Latter-day Saints don’t feel threatened by science. The bad news: Some Latter-day Saints do come to see the relation between science and Mormonism as one of conflict rather than dialogue, and sometimes science wins that debate in their head. Why do some Mormons see science and Mormonism as an either/or choice rather than a helpful partnership?

And yes, there’s a book: The Science and Religion Debate: Why Does It Continue? (Yale Univ. Press, 2009) presents a set of Terry lectures on science and religion by five different authors: a physicist, a biologist, a philosopher, a historian, and a sociologist. The upshot of their collective commentary on the issue is that it is more complex than presented in much media and even scholarly commentary, and that there is more opportunity for productive dialogue and discussion between science and religion than is generally recognized or pursued. I’ll give a paragraph or two to each chapter, each of which seems to be quite helpful for relating science to Mormonism (which the book did not do directly, of course) as well as to religion more generally. The book is less than 200 pages — go find a copy if you like this topic or find the discussion helpful.

Ronald Numbers (the historian) makes the point that the perception of conflict between science and religion is not inherent in the two disciplines but is largely a historical development of the last couple of centuries. It is tied rather closely to the professionalization and changing self-definition of science fields as they struggled to achieve methodological naturalism by eliminating appeals to the supernatural as part of their (and their colleagues’) work. Nineteenth-century harmonizers were eventually displaced by those pushing the conflict model, particularly Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, carried forward in our day by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett and opposed by “peacemakers” like Stephen Jay Gould and Michael Ruse. Numbers’ conclusion:

Despite the many controversies over science and religion, it would be misleading to describe their relationship as a war. The most intense conflicts, we have seen, often pitted Christian against Christian, scientist against scientist, skeptic against skeptic. Over the years most scientists, at least in the United States, have remained theists of one kind or another, and religious organizations have fostered science more frequently than they have inhibited it.

Kenneth Miller (the biologist) testified as an expert witness in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case that rejected the claim that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory and held that teaching ID in public schools violates the Establishment Clause. Miller’s view: “[W]hat is called ID in the United States is nothing more than old-fashioned scientific creationism, dressed up in the new language of biochemistry and molecular biology in an attempt to masquerade as a scientific theory.” But Miller is not anti-religion, and the defeat of ID is not a defeat for religion, it’s an opportunity. Mormons who think ID is a good way to think about the science/religion issue really ought to read this chapter. Miller concludes:

For people of faith, the failure of the intelligent design movement is hardly the disaster that ID proponents might suggest. It is, rather, a genuine opportunity to come to grips with the science of our times. That science, no question about it, presents genuine challenges to religion, but it also provides religion with an extraordinary opportunity to inform and enlighten the scientific vision of our existence.

Alvin Plantinga (the philosopher) discusses methodological naturalism (“MN”) as a type of “objectifying inquiry” that brackets moral judgment, teleology (the sense that there is meaning in the physical universe), and our manifest human tendency to personify aspects of the physical universe — all in order to do better science. This he contrasts with philosophical or ontological naturalism, which holds that such considerations should be not merely bracketed for the purpose of scientific inquiry but simply scrapped as irrelevant, of no particular use for understanding life, humanity, and the universe. Ontological naturalism hold that secular science is enough; it’s all we modern humans really need. This distinction between methodological and ontological naturalism is a basic one that we all ought to be familiar with. My sense is that almost all LDS scientists adopt MN but reject ontological naturalism. Plantinga concludes:

It is crucially important to see that science itself does not support or endorse scientific secularism or the scientific world picture. Science is one thing; the claim that it is enough is a wholly different thing. It is not part of science to make that claim. … There are scientists who make this claim; but there are as many who reject it. One can be wholly enthusiastic about science without thinking objectifying inquiry is enough. Indeed, that is the sensible attitude toward science from a Christian perspective.

Lawrence M. Krauss (the physicist) heads the chapter with a provocative quote from Albert Einstein: “Blind respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” He registers his objections to Intelligent Design, laments the sad state of general scientific education in US schools, then closes with this thought:

Science is not the enemy. But faith also is not the enemy. The enemy is ignorance. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear is the source of much conflict, including the skirmishes between science and religin that I have described in this essay.

Robert Wuthnow (the sociologist) points out the preference of most Americans for a “both/and” approach to science and religion rather than an “either/or” approach. But those at the extremes, who push an either/or view but differ on which to choose, get more attention in media and academics. While some claim science and religion operate in separate spheres and should therefore not properly be in conflict, Wuthnow describes science and religion as occupying “overlapping and ambiguous domains.” In other words, there is an objective basis for disagreement on these issues, even between reasonable people. This is the ground on which informed discussion should occur, rather than evading that important discussion by invoking independent domains or assigning religious beliefs to the personal realm rather than the objective public realm. Wuthnow argues:

The value of such dialogue [between scientists and theologians] does not lie in eradicating the historic grounds on which the battles between religion and science have been fought. It lies instead in delineating more thoughtfully what each as to offer and how each may influence the other. Interaction of this kind requires scientists and religious leaders to speak beyond their own disciplines and in ways that engage the wider public.

Five authors, five different approaches — one or another of these has to work for almost every reader.

12 Responses to Science, Mormonism, Dialogue

  1. Cameron N on June 27, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I think one of the reasons many Mormons still see it as a dichotomy is because an increasing segment of the contemporary scientific community, or those who are allowed to enter that community, see it as a dichotomy. They paint all religion with a broad, shallow brush, based on historical or anecdotal experience, and extrapolate that to all religion, including Mormonism. Of course, they ignore the historical pursuit of science by religious people as well.

  2. Cameron N on June 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

    We should carefully think about Boyd K. Packer’s statements about “so-called intellectuals.” Lots of people ignore the “so-called” portion. He is not condemning true and honest intellectualism, guided by the Light of Christ, but rather political, narrow-minded, manipulative intellectualism.

  3. John Taber on June 27, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Kenneth Miller wrote a very good book called Finding Darwin’s God where he shows how he has harmonized religion (he’s Catholic) and science. As LDS we might not agree with his particular religious perspective but to me, he hits the nail on the head.

    President Packer has said “evolution is just a theory” a few times. But one conference talk (I think around 1999) he clarified that to say that evolution might be the best answer we have, but he doesn’t consider it the final answer. (Unfortunately the Conference Report watered down what he actually said.) I don’t consider it the final answer either.

    But yet, it seems that not only CES religion manuals, but also the Church magazines don’t mention “evolution” or even geologic time at all except to be hostile to them. The New Era about a decade ago (just before Kitzmiller v. Dover) made the argument that because so many who don’t believe in God support evolution, that if you believe in God, you can’t. (I’ll find the references if someone asks for them).

    I saw so many classmates in Biology 100 at BYU downright shocked to spend a whole month on the topic; it seemed to go directly against what they’d been taught growing up. (Looking back, I did see the hand of God in the process.) I got kicked out of Sunday School once (in 2006) for maintaining that Noah could not have fit two (or seven) of every species on the Ark.

  4. Joseph Smidt on June 27, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Great points David. And as a scientist I agree with your statement about methodological versus ontological naturalism: though it is true we can do science bracketing morals or God, it is s mistake to render them meaningless. I’m not going to go through the arguments here, but the fact that we can successfully do science makes no sense if the world is meaningless and purposeless.

    As Einstein said, who understood these philosophical issues: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehendible” and he was completely serious. (Though he never believed in a personal God) He understood, if the world was purposeless, meaningless, and could care less about human minds that it is an absolute unexplained coincidence that from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy, the universe makes perfect rational sense uniquely to human minds.

    So I agree. Though morals and God can be bracketed with significant progress being made in the sciences, to render them meaningless is to embrace many absurdities that have plagued many philosophers, like Plantenga you mentioned, as well as many scientists like Einstein.

  5. dangermom on June 27, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Recently I’ve enjoyed reading a couple of books by Catholic authors who make the point that science and religion do not disagree. They made their cases beautifully. They don’t write in an LDS style, which may perhaps be a little daunting to Mormons not used to it, but if we’re going to absorb attitudes from other religions, I’d like to see us paying more attention to Catholics and less to YEC Evangelicals.

    We seem to get some of this stuff not through study and reason and the Spirit, but through cultural osmosis–and we don’t notice. I don’t believe that LDS theology and science are contradictory; we may not understand exactly how every little detail works right this minute but that is never going to happen in this dark-glass life. I worry about kids who are taught YEC beliefs as part of their theology. Too many are implicitly told that if YEC doesn’t hold up, then neither does Christ. Which I’m pretty sure is a deception that does not have a heavenly origin.

  6. Science Teacher Mommy on June 27, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    My husband and I both have science-related degrees and I’m an educator. We are also happily active in the Church. We talk openly to our children (particularly our very inquisitive 11 year-old) about science and religion and discuss their intersection and places where there are still questions. We treat these questions as exciting and interesting rather than terrifying and faith destroying. We teach them that to ask questions is a fundamental part of why they were sent to earth, and the foundation of the creativity and discovery that is a divine inheritance from loving Heavenly Parents.

    I am extremely frustrated when I hear some of his teachers at church telling him not to get too caught up with “modern” education (which apparently means anything beyond the 1-room school house) or presenting Biblical allegory as scientific fact. In my working with the youth I want to pull my hair out when they quote their parents discouraging them from paying too much attention in science. This willful (and highly un-doctrinal) anti-science component in LDS culture is leading to other problems later, including anti-intellectualism, a ridiculous ignorance regarding environmental problems, and young men who want to be doctors for the money and not what they might contribute to the field.

    Henry Eyring also has some great essays on science and religion that are just brilliant and great reading for anyone interested in these topics. Mormon Scholars Testify is also a great site to check in with periodically.

  7. jimbob on June 27, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    I’d also recommend “Galileo Goes to Jail,” a collection of essays which Ron Numbers has compiled from a number of different authors. It’s a pretty good introduction to the idea that there is a historical lack of evidence of any war between science and religion, and was understandable even to me, as a non-hard-science major.

  8. Hunter on June 27, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    jimbob: Thanks for the interesting suggestion. Just reserved it at the local library.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 27, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I recall that an Institute manual discussing the Old Testament has a discussion about the creation that accepts the age of the universe and the earth as taught by modern science. The fact is that because Joseph Smith taught that God is emphatically an eternal being who has created and populated other worlds, there is no logical reason for the LDS to buy into the perspective of constricted time and space that Young Earth Creationism entails. Indeed, YEC itself is a very young phenomenon, a notion that only gained popularity in the past century or two among certain less intellectual strains of Christianity. I am not aware of Orthodox Jews, who take the scriptures seriously, insisting that Genesis can only be read as saying the whole of creation took place in one week about 6,000 years ago. And it has never been attractive to the Catholic Church.

    There is plenty of LDS support for an account of creation that is compatible with known science, coming from writigns of James E. Talmage and John Widtsoe, two scientist apostles. Some of the writing s by Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie that are most often cited in support of YEC were themselves part of books that the Brethren criticized for various faults and did not endorse.

    On the other hand, the confidence that militant Darwinists have that purely random processes could be the creative driver in the development of life is not based so much on actual evidence of the creative power of randomness, but an appeal to starting from an atheist premise, and then asking “What alternative is there?”

    I work at a copany that deals with nuclear waste. The primary danger is from the random, destructive things that happen to living cells when irradiated. The concern about the risks caused by even a small amount of randomness triggering cancer drives the cleanup levels to the practical limit of physical cleanup. No one in science argues that the randomizing effects of radiation will produce positive mutations. Rather, every working part of your genome represents a working part already, that is at risk of being disabled by even small changes. Contrary to Godzilla movies and the ScyFy Channel, random mutations mostly “create” by destroying an existing good living mechanism, such as those that regulate growth. So how do we flip this perspective, where everyone is deathly afraid of radiation, and tell people that scrambling your genes is a GOOD thing, that it will create new forms of life? The notion that random mutations can create all of life’s mechanisms and diversity is basically a statement of faith, based on rejection of the alternative of beleiving in an intelligent creator who oversees the process and can intervene when necessary. The inadequacy of the randomness creativity hypothesis is most glaring in its inability to explain the origin of the first living cells, whose predecessors were inanimate matter. Randomness does not create working computer programs, which is what DNA is.

  10. clau on June 28, 2013 at 3:36 am

    “so called intellectuals”, bad. “so called religious”, worst.

  11. Tim on July 1, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    Raymond–no biologist believes that the average mutation is a good thing. The vast majority of mutations are either neutral or negative. However, a simplistic example of a fortunate mutation or genetic difference:

    A population of grizzly bears lives in cold weather and an ice age slowly starts. The environment becomes colder and whiter. Here are some helpful mutations–mutations that cause:

    1. White fur (better camouflage, although it would have made the bear a big target in its previous environment);

    2. Larger body size (to better retain body heat, which would have overheated the bear in its previous environment);

    3. Thicker and longer fur.

    You get the picture.

    An actual study of evolution (available at any good university, including church schools) will obviously provide you with more understanding of evolution, including much more complex and significant evolution than outlined above. True, we’ll probably never know how the first cell was created, but to say to much of the rest of biology and evolution “you can’t explain it” without actually first making a serious study of evolution itself in order to understand exactly what evolution can and can’t explain (again, I recommend an actual course on it) is to stick your head in the sand.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Tim, your example of the polar bear is a “just so story” that does not tell us how the random mutations took place, or work out how it became a dominant mutation. After all, it is a little too much to hope for that both a male and female bear were born simultaneously with the same mutation. To propose that they were cubs of the mutated mother begs the question why the lack of pigmentation in the mother would dominate over the presence of pigmentation in the father. In any case, the kinds of modifications you point to are precisely the ones that a human genetic engineer would introduce if he wanted to create a new subspecies of bear better adapted to survival in the arctic. The only way to eliminate the possibility of intelligently directed genetic engineering is to eliminate the possibility of an intelligent genetic engineer. We know it wasn’t a human scientist because we are only now developing the science to be able to do this, but it only requires one extra-solar system predecessor race to supply a genetic engineer. We are actively searching for habitable planets in our part of the galaxy. If we found one with an existing high technology, and they told us that they had intervened in the biological history of our planet, could we disprove their assertion? Do we even have information about the rate.of beneficial mutations to be able to assess how feasible our scenarios are that.assume random mutation was creative enough to produce all the beneficial mutations we see? It is fine to have a theory of evolution through random mutation and differential reproduction, but the claim it is the sole source of all evolutionary variation is very much a matter of faith based on certain assumptions,including the assumption that no other intelligent species (which many scientists hope do or did exist) ever intervened in our story of evolution. It also contains assumptions about the creativity of random mutation and natural selection, which don’t seem to correspond with much of the fossil record, with millions of years of stability and the sudden appearance of new species alongside the old, both surviving. And the science of EvoDevo indicates that many of the modifications we think of as new were actually latent in the genes of a many unrelated species and were created many millions of years earlier. Our genes carry far more information than we thought they did. So how did so much of it get front end loaded, including the sophisticated Transformers-like capabilities we now find? I find it hard to believe that elegance of design was created by random events, because random events in the world of design we can observe simply are not that helpful.