Person-truth in an age of science and reason

Posted by
This entry is part 13 of 17 in the series Who Is Truth?

The idea view of truth serves as the foundation for most modern scientific and scholarly discourse. Latter-day Saints are invested in the idea that good science and good religion can complement each other in perfect harmony, and that we can be good disciples and scholars at the same time. This leads to some apparent surface-level contradictions between the central claims of this book and actual practice amongst Latter-day Saints in scientific and academic discourse. Let’s explore this more deeply.

Scientific naturalism suggests that all events in the universe can be accounted for in terms of matter as governed by universal mathematical and scientific laws. Naturalists use reason and observation to discover underlying patterns in the operations of nature. This can be illustrated in the history and development of scientific discourse. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 AD), for example, believed that nature is “inexorable [and acts only] through immutable laws which she never transgresses.”((Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 75.))

Robert Boyle (1627-1691 AD) likewise stated: “I look upon the metaphysical and mathematical principles … to be truths of a transcendent kind that do not properly belong either to philosophy or theology; but are universal foundations and instruments of all the knowledge we mortals can acquire.”((Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 173.)) Boyle even went so far as to speculate that these mathematical principles may be “ultimate truths superior to God himself.”((Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 173; While some Latter-day Saints have embraced Boyle’s assertion here, there are good reasons be cautious about this approach.))

Today, two basic assumptions that guide scientists’ understanding of the laws of nature: position symmetry and time symmetry. This means that “the laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe” and that they “have remained the same through time. They are the same now as they were in the distant past, and they will be the same in the future.”((J. Ward Moody, “Knowledge, Science, and the Universe,” in Physical Science Foundations (Provo: BYU Academic Publishing, 2006), 8.)) In any case, scientific naturalism assumes that what is ultimately true can be captured in abstract ideas that are universal, unchangeable, and without context.

Person-truth and science do not conflict

Does this mean that the person view of truth rejects science? Not in the slightest. Many faithful Latter-day Saints have devoted their lives to precisely this kind of scholarship and inquiry, including prophets and apostles. Elder James E. Talmage and Elder John A. Widstoe, for example, were well known for their love of the natural sciences (and were thoroughly naturalistic in their worldview). Prior to his full-time Church service, Elder Richard G. Scott was a nuclear engineer who helped design the first nuclear submarine for the U.S. Navy.

Other famous Latter-day Saints were renowned scientists as well. Melvin Cook and Henry Erying (the father of Elder Henry B. Erying) were both devoted Latter-day Saints and award-winning chemists. Harvey Fletcher, also a devoted Latter-day Saint, was a physicist known for his work in acoustics and inventor of the first electronic hearing aid. This list could go on indefinitely. Today, there are thousands of Latter-day Saint scholars in the natural sciences who are devoted to their faith while also making rigorous, thoughtful contributions in their disciplines.

Some readers may be suspicious of the distinction between idea-truth and person-truth, because it seems to add fuel to the tiresome conflict between science and religion. We do not think it needs to. We admire those who reconcile a life of scientific inquiry with a life of devoted discipleship. The solution lies in epistemic humility. The word epistemic” refers to knowledge, or how we know things. Epistemic humility simply means that we treat naturalism as a pragmatically useful assumption, rather than as absolute truth.

For example, scientific laws simply describe patterns we observe in the natural world. For example, we observe that things tend to fall in very predictable ways. Falling objects are so predictable, in fact, that we can describe their motion in terms of mathematics, such as the law of gravity. If we know the mass of the planet, and the mass of a second object (whether it be the moon or a shoe), we can predict precisely how the second object is going to fall (or orbit). This is all a perfectly empirical exercise, which means it is based on observed facts of the universe.

But then we often go one step further, and treat the law of gravity as an explanation rather than descriptions. We treat it as if it were a real “thing” out there that can make stuff happen. When we do this, we move beyond what empirical evidence can justify. Even though we observe regularities in nature, nothing requires us to believe those patterns are universal or immutable, or that they cause our experiences. When we make sweeping metaphysical claims about the world, we leave the realm of science and enter the realm of philosophical speculation.

Here’s the point: nothing about science (thought of narrowly as a commitment to empirical evidence) requires us to rigidly adopt an idea view of truth. We can provisionally adopt some assumptions of Greek thought when they are useful, without adopting them as an inflexible philosophical worldview. There are no frictionless surfaces, perfectly elastic collisions, or free-falling bodies, but these assumptions are useful when making predictions about the world.

From a person view of truth, rigorous scholarship can be carried out in conjunction with prayer, covenant-making and keeping, and temple worship—with few (if any) intellectual inconsistencies. From this view, the goal of all of these forms of inquiry are the same: to more fully know God and the workmanship of His hands, and to serve our fellow man. President Brigham Young once taught:

How gladly would we understand every principle pertaining to science and art, and become thoroughly acquainted with every intricate operation of nature, and with all the chemical changes that are constantly going on around us! How delightful this would be, and what a boundless field of truth and power is open for us to explore!((Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, 168.))

President John Taylor also taught:

Science reveals the beauty and harmony of the world material; it unveils to us ten thousand mysteries in the kingdom of nature, and shows that all forms of life through fire and analogous decay are returned again to its bosom. It unfolds to us the mysteries of cloud and rains, dew and frost, growth and decay, and reveals the operation of those silent irresistible forces which give vitality to the world. It reveals to us the more wonderful operations of distant orbs and their relations to the forces of nature.((John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, 224. President Taylor went on to say, “It also reveals another grand principle, that the laws of nature are immutable and unchangeable as are all the works of God.” We would argue that his use of the terms “immutable and unchangeable” should be qualified in the same way as his quotes from the previous chapter—that is; the fact that they are works of God means that they are not “immutable” in the same sort of way that Greek truth is. It simply means that we cannot change them, just as we cannot change (by our own volition) any of the laws of God.))

Given our belief in a Divine Creator who is a God of order, it is not at all surprising to us that we find patterns and consistencies in the natural world, or even in human activity and experience. Such patterns are authored by the Truth made Flesh, and bear the mark of His creative work. Science is a systematic method of revealing these useful patterns. But notice the crucial difference here: At no point have we described these patterns as unchangeable, universal, or absolute.

This approach also treats science as a human enterprise. Its practices and norms are invented by humans, and social forces invariably play into the way researchers do their work.((LDS thinker Duane Boyce notes:

We probably cannot know the extent to which we find certain intellectual viewpoints repugnant primarily because of professional stigma rather than because of our acquaintance with actual disconfirming data. Nor can we probably know the opposite—the degree to which other intellectual viewpoints hold us in their thrall simply because they are accepted by people we admire and not, again, because of our acquaintance with any actual evidence. …

Moreover, is impossible to know the degree to which we are cognitively captive to any number of worldviews and to trace all of the limitations and errors, large or small, that are entailed by this unavoidable, but constricting, reality of intellectual life. … By ignoring them we are apt, in our naïveté, to ascribe more certainty than is warranted at any given moment to a particular discipline’s range of intellectual conclusions … and to risk developing an attitude of dogmatism and defensiveness as a result.

Duane Boyce, “Of Science, Scripture, and Surprise,” FARMS Review 20, no. 2 (2008), 199.)) As the Latter-day Saint psychologist and scholar Duane Boyce states: “Recognizing such factors, … we can be saved from … dogmatism and instead attain something approaching wisdom: a lingering tentativeness and humility about many of the beliefs we hold at any one time.”((Duane Boyce, “Of Science, Scripture, and Surprise,” FARMS Review 20, no. 2 (2008), 199.)) From the person view of truth, we treat scientific conclusions as provisional.

The relationship between reason and truth

In modern thought, for a rational argument to be convincing, it must lay out a series of conclusions that are logically necessitated by demonstrable premises. From this view, reason leads us to what must be the case, given our premises and the evidence at hand. We can see the Greek roots of this perspective: the conclusions of valid reasoning cannot be different, if the premises are true.

However, from a person view of truth, we might see reason as kind of language. As a language, we can use reason to articulate a wide variety of worldviews and perspectives. In this view, reason does not lead to certain conclusions. Two completely rational people can arrive at very different conclusions, depending upon their prior beliefs and predispositions.((Indeed, addressing this very feature of human reason, the famous 18th Century political thinker Edmund Burke once trenchantly noted, “on the whole one may observe, that there is rather less difference upon matters of taste among mankind, than upon most of those which depend upon the naked reason; and that men are far better agreed on the excellence of a description in Virgil, than on the truth or falsehood of a theory in Aristotle.” Edmund Burke, Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 23.)) We do not have to pit faith against reason. Rather, there are simply more and less faithful ways of making sense of our experiences, and more and less rational ways of making sense of faith.

Richard Williams has proposed that we use two dimensions to talk about the relationship between faith and reason:

In place of the common conceptual dimension anchored by faith at one end and reason at the other, I suggest that there are really two dimensions. It might be helpful to picture them as perpendicular to one another. One dimension is anchored on one end by reason and on the other end by its opposite: irrationality, promiscuous subjectivity, or even solipsism. The other dimension is anchored on one end by faith and on the other by the opposite of faith.((Richard Williams, “Faith, Reason, Knowledge, and Truth,” devotional address given at Brigham Young University, February 1, 2000.))

In keeping with earlier chapters, we think it makes sense to say that the opposite of faith is “infidelity” or “unfaithfulness.” In Williams’ framework, reason represents different degrees of coherence or persuasiveness in a person’s worldview, whereas faith represents different degrees of fidelity (or faithfulness) in our relationship with God.

There are four key quadrants that illustrate ways that faith and reason might play out in actual people’s lives (see the figure on the next page). In Quadrant I, there are those who are true to their covenants with God, but who are not good at articulating their worldview in a coherent way to others. In Quadrant IV, there are those who are very coherent, but who are not true to their commitments to God, or ignore His influence in their lives. They may persuasively lead others away from God. In Quadrant III, there are those live “without God in the world,” and who are also incoherent. And finally, in Quadrant II, there are those who are faithful to their commitments with God, and who can coherently talk to others about their beliefs.

From this view, reason might not lead to a single endpoint, but rather to a variety of possibilities on the right side of the chart. Reason can help us better understand God’s instructions and persuasively communicate them with others. But when uninformed by the Holy Spirit (or light of Christ), reason can just as easily lead us away from Him. A darkened mind can be as rational as a mind enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Reason can be used to advance God’s interests or to hedge them up. In short, reason does not assure us access to truth. We must rely on the truth Himself to direct us as we reason together (Isaiah 1:18) in the light of faith. But reason can help us make our views more persuasive and coherent.

Series Navigation<< Rethinking the Atonement of ChristConclusion >>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *