Starting With Faith…

Over at Faith Promoting Rumor G Wesley has up a post critiquing BYU’s scholarship. The main bone of contention was a talk by Elder Bednar regarding scholarship at LDS schools. Wesley responds that BYU should “first and foremost places set apart for critical thinking and the scientific method.”

That does not mean universities must eschew faith, revelation, and the like, but they must begin with scholarship, reason, and so on. If they don’t, then they are not universities. Period.

Elsewhere, beginning with faith, revelation, and the like is by no means necessarily a bad thing to do – it’s just not the thing that universities do, or at least not what they should do.

If the Church does not want its universities to begin with critical thinking and the scientific method, the Church needs to get out of the university business. It’s as simple as that.

My problem is making heads or tails of what on earth it means to begin with revelation versus scholarship or reason. It just seems a deeply problematic criteria. That’s not to say one should in the least eschew reason or scholarship (by which I assume he means library searches) let alone empirical research. Those are essential.

The sense I have of his argument is that dogma shouldn’t be the starting point. Yet he doesn’t say dogma but “faith and revelation” which isn’t the same thing. Of course the cynic among us might suggest that ill informed dogma rules many disciplines in secular universities. But let’s leave questions of political dogma in certain disciplines’ “scholarship” alone.[1] My problem is that he raises this criteria scholarship/reason versus faith/revelation. I’m just not sure this works for reasons that go back to the possibly apocryphal “Eureka” of Archimedes.

Consider a mathematician who has equations and solutions to theorems come to them in dreams. Now is that starting with scholarship and reason or is it starting with something more akin to faith and revelation? This isn’t a minor point as quite a few physicists and mathematicians have their Eureka moments in a fashion they see as transcendent. The famous mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan is but one example.[2] This isn’t just in the past. (Although heaven knows there are lots of examples there) One of the top contemporary mathematicans, Michael Atiyah, makes the same claim.

Dreams happen during the daytime, they happen at night. You can call them a vision or intuition. But basically they’re a state of mind — without words, pictures, formulas or statements. It’s “pre” all that. It’s pre-Plato. It’s a very primordial feeling. And again, if you try to grasp it, it always dies. So when you wake up in the morning, some vague residue lingers, the ghost of an idea. You try to remember what it was and you only get half of it right, and maybe that’s the best you can do.

That ought to sound rather familiar for those who feel inspiration while giving a blessing or otherwise have inspiration.

What makes an university scholarly isn’t the starting point but rather the argument. How you start doesn’t matter. It’s how you finish. Can you provide a rational argument for your position with premises that can empirically be agreed upon? It doesn’t mean everyone will agree with your argument. Just that the standards of reason are used. By making the issue how one starts rather than how one finishes I think G Wesley misses the broad range of ways hypotheses get generated by scientists. More significantly though he attempts to exclude things that have always been part of inquiry and more importantly progress in science.

Now of course religious people and more secular skeptics can disagree upon what actually constitutes Eureka moments. A skeptic is apt to think it’s unconscious reasoning by a human brain that may be more effective than conscious deliberative reasoning. A religious person might think that’s a part but that divine inspiration can play a part as well. Ultimately though what counts is the product – how a scholar ends not begins.

1. I might be inclined to agree with G. Wesley if he were to broaden his critique to include non-religious schools and how political dogma shapes what gets published or counts as acceptable in many disciplines. Heaven knows that’s been a topic in higher education a great deal of late. It’s not at all uncommon to find people saying professors should inject their politics into their scholarship. But my real issue is his criteria rather than his broader critique.

2. Ramanujan attributed his deep mathematical insights to revelation from the goddess Namagiri. (Ramanujan was a devout Hindu) His mentor, G. H. Hardy, attributed it “deep intuition” yet Ramanujan, one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century, saw it as revelation.

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