Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Drugs

The United States is nearly unique among developed nations because it allows direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising. The pharmaceutical industry is enormous and these companies ensure their ads are slick and alluring. To site just one example, I have often found myself nearly salivating for Claritin when I see ads for it on television. One particularly effective series of ads shows the world passing by as if obscured by a haze--it looks distorted and blurry, kind of like it might without glasses. Suddenly (upon taking Claritin, we are told), the haze disappears and the world shines with crystalline clarity. Anyone who suffers from hay-fever knows the truth of the first image and that same set of people, including me, can tell you how tempting Claritin becomes as a consequence.

In an attempt to counterbalance this barrage of advertising, I want to pass on a message from someone who is learning a little bit about drugs, disease, and health: don't ask your doctor for drugs you have seen advertised, and especially don't attempt to convince him the drug is a good idea if it is against his professional opinion.

In America, we pride ourselves on our independence. What's more, we don't tend to like experts because they carry with them a certain aura of arisotocracy--besides, who needs experts when we are certain we can get along pretty well by ourselves. This is one instance, however, where independence can be dangerous. Allow me to explain why.

Before a pharmaceutical company can sell a drug to consumers, it must subject the drug to a wide and demanding battery of tests. These tests include animal experiments, experiments on healthy humans, experiments on those who are sick with the disease the drug is meant to treat, and then large randomized trials where the drug is introduced into a subset of the population. During all this time, researchers keep detailed records of the effects--both good and bad--the drug has. If, at the end, the drug is deemed sufficiently therapeutic, the FDA gives the pharmaceutical company permission to sell the drug to the public.

At that point, the drug company launches an advertising campaign to introduce the drug to the public and boost sales. We, the consumers, see only the advertising--and, of course, advertising is meant to convince us to buy the drug. Yes, both print ads and commercials contain "small print" which informs us of potential side-effects. Let's be honest, though, what is the effect of a bit of small print when compared to the powerful images created by expert advertising executives? It is not that the companies are being dishonest, they're just being smart--they want money, and money only comes if they sell lots of the drugs. Consequently, the images promoting the drug are carefully crafted to make us salivate and the words disparaging the drug are carefully arranged so we can dismiss them as an afterthought.

Regardless of the honesty of the pharmaceutical industry, however, another problem is inherent in the FDA approval process: time. A normal drug will be in the testing pipeline for about ten years. Not all of those years, of course, even involve human subjects. Consequently, when a drug becomes available for purchase, we have only a very limited understanding, if any at all, of its long-term consequences on the functioning of mind and body.

Let's look at a theoretical example. A pharmaceutical company develops a new pain-reliver which is shown to be wonderfully effective. Even better, the drug does not cause stomach ulcers or other gastro-intestinal problems. After testing and research, the FDA approves the drug and it becomes wildly popular. During fifteen or so years, millions of Americans per annum buy the drug. Some twenty-years after the introduction of the drug, it is shown that long-term exposure to the medicine leads to cerebral accumulation and, sadly, to a significant increase in the rate of Alzheimer's disease. Such information simply could not have been obtained in initial studies--with this new information in mind, however, many of those who took the drug for relatively benign reasons would certainly have made a different choice.

I do not mean to create paranoia. I do hope, however, that we can be more discriminating in the drugs we take and for which we ask. FDA approval, unfortunately, does not guarantee a drug's safety or efficacy. Consequently, it is generally better to stick with drugs that have been out for a long time (which are hopefully the ones your physician prescribes)--the more exposure we have had to the drug, the more we know about it's long-term consequences. Certainly, there is a place for new drugs. Someone who is suffering from unbearable and/or terminal illness, for instance, may have little to lose by trying a new drug. We ought, however, to view drugs of convenience much more skeptically. We may do well to remember that, if we take drugs right as they come onto the market, we are essentially entering an experiment. Hopefully, the outcome will be wonderful; often, however, there may be hidden consequences of which we are simply not yet aware.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Favor

If you read this blog, or if you read my recent posts on Blogger of Jared (all of which are also here), will you please make some quick comment on this post. I want to guage how many people visit my site. I am working on hit-counting software; but until that is up and running, I would greatly appreciate the feedback. Even if you do not belong to blogger, you can simply click on the comments link, switch the dot to "other," enter any name you choose, verify the word, and enter a quick comment like, "I read this when I am really, really bored." I appreciate your help!

P.S. Also, please feel free to include comments, suggestions, compliments, or criticism.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Because She is My Mother

Though this is a couple of days late, I hope you (especially you mothers) will enjoy it. Please forgive the explanatory tone at the beginning of the post. I gave this as a talk in Sacrament Meeting on Sunday and there were a number of invesitgators present, so I fashioned it for their ears.

Some twenty one hundred years ago, a Prophet named Helaman was also an army commander. He led a small force of just two thousand warriors—all of them young, all of them inexperienced, and all of them volunteers. Early in Helaman’s campaign against the Lamanites, he and his two thousand sons, as he called them, were faced with a difficult choice. The Lamanites had been pursuing Helaman and his sons for two and one half days. The pursuit was so vigorous that Helaman and his army had to rise before dawn and march into the night to keep ahead of their pursuers. Strangely, though, on the third day, the Lamanite army stopped dead in their tracks. Due to a breakdown in communication, Helaman and his two thousand warriors did not know why the Lamanites had stopped. Was it because Helaman’s co-commander, Antipus, had engaged them from the rear? If so, Antipus would be in desperate need of help. Or, was it a ruse—were the Lamanites trying to draw Helaman and his two thousand sons into a battle where their a mere two thousand would be no match for the tens of thousands numbered among the Lamanites? Helaman did not know. And so, he asked the young warriors: should we preserve our own safety and stay out of the battle, or should we risk our lives, hoping that by doing so we may save our brothers from a bloody death.

I can only imagine that scene that day on the battlefield. I imagine the two thousand warriors were drenched in sweat and I imagine their calves, backs, and hamstrings already ached from a wearying three day march. I imagine they eyed their weapons with trepidation—none of them, after all, had ever wielded a sword before. And, finally, I imagine they faced death with some amount of fear—on the one hand, they must have trembled at the thought of losing their own lives. Even more to the point, though, I imagine that these boys who had never before shed blood, and many of whose parents had died as pacifist martyrs, quivered at the thought of taking others’ lives. Nevertheless, something happened on the battlefield that day—some faith sprung up within those boys. They knew they were not the agressors, they knew they would gladly have laid down their weapons if the Lamanites would have let them alone, and they knew their brothers were in danger, and so, with a courage that challenges belief, they told their captain: we will go into battle.

I suppose it is likely some of you have already guessed why I am recounting this story; others of you, if you have not heard the story before, must find it exceedingly odd that I would spend a good portion of my mother’s day talk speaking about war, armies, captains, and stratagems. As we read of the Stripling Warriors, though, we are forced to wonder whence their courage sprang. What impulse propelled them to such faith and resolution despite their naivete on the battlefield? What power emboldened them to stare death in the eyes and stand firm and resolute nonetheless? Where did they learn that their brothers’, mothers’, fathers’, and friends’ lives were more important than their own? Like us, Helaman was astonished at such steely resolve in boys so young. Accordingly, he asked them whence sprang their inner-strength and they replied, apparently of one accord that “they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” Indeed, Helaman tells us, “they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers [about God’s support of those who trust in him], saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.”

As it turns out, then, the strength these boys demonstrated that day sprang not from themselves, but from their mothers. The courage those boys wielded on the battlefield was apparently given to them while they still sat on their mothers’ knees. I do not wish today to praise these righteous warriors—though their courage gives me pause. I wish instead to pay tribute to those who stood quietly behind the scenes—nurturing these boys and instilling in them a faith that would withstand the hottest flame—I want to praise their mothers.

Why would the words their mothers spoke have been so deeply imprinted onto these boys’ souls? Why, in the heat of a terrible battle, would these boys remember those things their mothers had taught them? Why is that, when I find life most difficult, I turn my thoughts to my mother? Why is that, no matter how far the distance, no matter how long we have been apart, I can always feel my mother’s love?

It is, I believe, because mothers are endowed by God with a special capacity to love. As a baby develops within the womb, everything he needs comes from his mother: oxygen, nutrients, vitamins, energy, and heat all travel from the mother, through the placenta, and into the developing child. After birth, the connection evolves—becoming everyday less physical but becoming simultaneously more deeply spiritual. At first, the infant still receives nutrition from his mother’s breast. Even when that stops, however, the baby finds comfort, safety, and peace within his mother’s arms.

I know, at least, that it is to my mother I run when I am most in need of comfort. When I was little, the boy up the street was a bully and, when he would beat me up on my way home from school, I would run to my mother. As the years passed, I outgrew bullies and grade school and entered the world of girls—sometimes, incidentally, I don’t which is worse. The first time a girl broke my heart—her name, by the way was Erin Enslin and she was blond, flighty, and, to a seventh grade bundle of hormones, enchanting—but when Erin broke my heart I cried on my mother’s shoulder. Later, when the time came to go to college, I cried again with my mother because we had never been apart for very long. And, once again, when the time came for my mission, my mother hugged me last at the airport as I boarded the plane for Mexico. She gave me a note the day before I left which I kept with me every day in my mission and, on particularly difficult nights, I would open the note and read the words and strain to hear my mother’s voice. Even when I could not be with her physically, something about the memory of her love brought me comfort when I was stranded and alone.

I have wondered why my mother’s love is so strong. I have wondered why her care for me stretches across thousands of miles and through twenty-five years. I do not believe I fully understand the depth or the meaning of my mother’s love, but I do believe I gained a small insight into its origin a couple of weeks ago when I was home in Utah for my friend’s graduation. The last several months have been very difficult for my mother. Her father passed away suddenly in September and her mother is slowly disappearing into the frightening reaches of Alzheimer’s disease. Amidst all of this, I have moved to faraway Philadelphia, my brother has moved from the house and gotten married, and one of my sisters has moved away to college. As if all of that were not enough, my father serves as Bishop which means my mom serves in the weighty, neglected, seldom-recognized, and never-officially-confirmed calling of Bishop’s wife.

And so it was that, one day two weeks ago, I stood in the kitchen talking idly with my mother. As we spoke, she sliced tomatoes on the granite-colored cutting board—her hands moving with rhythm and ease through a motion she memorized long ago. Then, as I told her a story, I realized she was not really listening any more; instead, I saw her looking out the back window at a sparrow that hopped down from the gazebo which stands in back of our house. I stopped talking and watched as her lip quivered and as a tear slipped quietly from her left eye and trickled down her cheek.

Seeing her sadness, I stepped over to where she stood and took her in my arms. For a moment, there in the kitchen, I held her as she cried. As I held my mother there, I thought, for a moment, that, in my mind’s eye, I could see her twenty-seven years ago—just two years before I (her oldest) was born. I saw her at her wedding, her body trim and her smile sparkling. I saw her kiss my dad and I watched as sparks flew and chemistry flowed between them. I saw her at school, earning nearly straight As, a bachelor’s of science, and most of a master’s degree. I could see is her eyes, twenty-seven years before, the hopes and dreams that are a part of newly-wed life. And then, the intervening years flashed quickly before me. I saw my mom give up text books and theses for diapers and cleansers. I saw her trade Emerson for Dr. Seuss and Oprah for Sesame Street. I saw her give up parties and water-skiing to attend an endless series of soccer games, dance recitals, and play rehearsals. And then, with a start, my mind swerved back to the present, and I looked at the woman before me. Her hair, now, drooped a bit and did not quite hold its former luster. Her body was not as trim as it once was and the faintest hint of lines born of deep, drawn-out concern sometimes creased her face. Behind her face, of course, a brilliant light still shines. But even that is different now, it is gentler, deeper, and more luminous than the light I imagine from twenty-seven years ago. And as I looked at my mom and pondered on the woman she has become, as I held her in my arms and counted the terrible cost she has paid to stay home with me, stay up with me, and stay the course with me—I realized my mom loves me so deeply for the same reason the Savior loves me so deeply—because deep, willing, and sincere sacrifice begets even deeper, more lasting, and natural love; indeed, greater love hath no woman than this, that she lay down her life for her son.

Brothers and Sisters, please understand, I recognize mothers come in many forms. Some mothers have biological children while other mothers adopt. Some mothers have no children at all but simply nurture and love the young all around them. All of these women are mothers and all of them are vitally important in the Kingdom of God. My purpose, today, however, is not to talk about what a mother is but simply to express, with all the sincerity I can muster, how dearly grateful I am for my mom. I love her deeply and I recognize that the good things I am have come about because she loves me. By extension, I say thank you to the mothers here today—for the nights you have gone without sleep, for the moments you have spent worrying, for the clothes you have washed, the monotony you have endured, and the for the years you have gone without thanks or even recognition—I say thank you, from all of us. Thank you and we love you and please know that, as the hymn reminds us, “angels above us are silent notes taking, the good that you do is not there ignored; though on Earth you may toil without fanfare or tribute, your virtue and suffering are known to the Lord.”

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Life is Made of the Things we Love

This morning at about nine o’clock, Garrison Keillor reminded me life is made up of little things we come to love. Whether important or trivial, these are the things that, every day, give our lives sparkle and vim. Inspired by his thoughts, I’m going to list some of the little things I’ve come to love about what Mexicans call “la vida cotidiana” (roughly translated: everyday life). Please let me know, what are some of the things that make your lives wonderful?

My partial list:

• The “shuffle” setting on my i-pod. I love the fact that, as I walk to school or drive to the suburbs, I can listen to songs selected randomly from my collection of personal favorites. There is something blissful about the transition from MoTab to Ben Folds—it always leaves me smiling.
• My mousey apartment. I live in West Philadelphia and we have had our struggles with heat, mice, and burglars. Still, there is something about this Spartan little existence I can’t help but enjoy.
• The Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s like a MasterCard commercial—student tickets: $6, listening to Beethoven’s 5th in the Verizon Concert Hall: priceless.
• Finishing tests. There is nothing better than walking home after an exam and knowing I don’t have to study really, really hard for at least another couple of weeks.
• Granola. What can I say, I love granola. And, if I buy it at Trader Joe’s, it only costs %2.69 a box (not to mention the fact that they have mango granola).
• The 39ers. I have a group of six friends who mean the world to me. We have been friends since we were about five and we are now attending business school, law school, medical school, no school, and undecided; we live in Salt Lake, Provo, Russia, Philadelphia, and the Bronx. When we get together, it’s as though we had never been apart.
• Emails from Preethi. Preethi writes approximately the best e-mails ever—they always make me smile.
• Talks by Elder Maxwell. My dad and I used to wait for Elder Maxwell to speak. Sometimes, I still go back and read his best lines over and over again.
• The BYU Singers. They make some of the world’s most beautiful music.
• Zion Canyon. This appropriately named swirl or red and black rock in Southern Utah is about as close as Earth gets to Heaven (outside the Temple, anyway).
• My bike. It’s a gaudy red and blue with shocks on both the front and back. I can cruise over rocky terrain and still not have my teeth knock together.
• My family. It would take a whole post to explain the many reasons why. In short, however, they’re some of my closest confidants and best friends.
• Playing basketball and getting dog-tired. I can’t think of anything I love more than running back and forth, back and forth, battling for the post, and scampering after rebounds for so long I can hardly untie my shoe-laces.
• Rock-climbing. There is something about the repeated fluidity of gliding (ok, I don’t really glide, but some really good rock-climbers do) from hold to hold, until the route in burned into my synapses and memory, that makes me happy.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Experiment on the Word

Some months ago, I was involved in an exchange of editorials and letters to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune. At issue was the rationality of believing in Mormonism, or, more generally, accepting any kind of religion. One author wrote that no discriminating person could accept such silly precepts as those espoused by the Mormon Church. Drawing an analogy from C.S. Lewis, I returned that belief is not only rational but necessary and universal. Another letter-writer responded that no, my analysis was not correct, faith and rationality exist only in separate spheres—never the twain shall meet.

This last author apparently believes in a qualitative distinction between those things we can prove and those things we believe. There seems little question, to him, that those who accept any religious tenets do so by suspending rationality because no logical process could bring us to believe in God, Prophets, angels, and the like.

I take issue with his view. In Mormonism, at least, faith is not irrational. In fact, my analysis tells me my beliefs are, in many ways, rationally justified and that adopting other views would be intellectually dishonest.

Perhaps I can begin my explanation by examining my understanding of the way in which our culture believes we gain rational knowledge—the scientific method. Then, I will compare the scientific method with the manner by which, in my experience, believers gain religious knowledge. Finally, perhaps I can draw some meaningful comparisons between and conclusions from these two schools of thought.

The scientific method, so far as I can tell, is a method of arriving at our best guess. Most introductory science text books will tell you that almost nothing in science is certain, though some theories have been confirmed so many times by experience as to be nearly beyond question. Science, then, does not seek truth or certainty; instead, it strives to secure an understanding of the way the world works, an understanding that will closely enough approximate reality enough of the time so as to allow us to predict the outcome of certain events and act wisely in accordance with that knowledge. In medicine, for instance, research allows us to learn about the mechanisms of disease; that knowledge, in turn, allows us to minimize sickness, improve life, and delay death.

The scientific method demands that scientists meet strict requirements before they may proclaim their theories as correct. As most fourth-graders learn, science begins with observation. A scientist sees some distinct pattern of sparrow migration, or perhaps the unusual growth of bacteria in a culture tube, or the way in which those with asthma respond to a certain kind of air pollutant. Based on his observations, the scientist develops a hypothesis. The hypothesis forms the crux of scientific inquiry. In some cases, a scientist already has such good information his hypothesis may be, for all intents, already a fact which merely needs formal investigation. In other instances, the hypothesis is little more than a hunch. There is, after all, something of faith in the scientific method, as well. Something beyond purely rational and empirical knowledge drives a scientist who pursues a theory in which no one else believes. In fact, those scientists who heed this call are those we most celebrate: once experiments confirm their hunches, we revere them as visionaries and heroes.

Still, if their knowledge is never vindicated, we are as likely to see them as delusional as to believe them visionary. In fact, there is little difference between a mad scientist and a Nobel Prize winner except that the former never found experiments that would back up his claims. In any case, once a scientist forms a hypothesis he begins to test its validity with a battery of experiments. Here, the key becomes the elimination of variables. To prove the theory he wishes to advance, a scientist must assure the only variable in his experiments is the one he studies. By doing so, he can reasonably assume the changes in outcome he observes arise because of the change in the variable he studies. Such knowledge is the beginning of the understanding of a cause-and-effect relationship—the raison d’etre of science.

Even if he succeeds in eliminating variables, however, the scientist’s work is not finished. Next, he must share his work with his colleagues. It is assumed that he will have taken painstaking notes so that others in his scientific community may reproduce the experiment down to its finest details. Any results the scientist may have observed are suspect—until confirmed by others scientists. In fact, the certainty which is accorded a theory is directly proportional to the number of times the theory has been proved by someone other than the original discoverer. The originator of any idea, after all, may have secondary motives. For his own name’s sake, he may propagate his theory though the evidence is not quite convincing. In extreme cases, he may even doctor the evidence hoping all the while his name will show up in the special topics section of some yet-unpublished science textbook—the more elementary and general the better (even fourth-graders learn about Pasteur, but you have to wait till college organic chemistry to find out about Mr. Markovnikov).

Repetition, then, lends to a theory a special kind of integrity. When many people, most of them with no ulterior motives, concur that the evidence indicates some outcome X, we are all more confident in believing that X is, after all, the case. Consequently, the scientific method is one long process where each concurring experiment further proves all that preceded it. As time draws on, those theories suggested centuries ago, and which have never been disproved, take on the aura of fact. Meanwhile, those suggested contemporarily are suspect and will not be accepted until many experiments and years of experience likewise prove them the case.

The process is rigorous. In fact, that rigor constitutes much of the reason we trust the scientific method. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain mocks the denizens of the Middle Ages precisely because they exhibit an appalling lack of scrutiny. Twain makes it plain that they do not submit their notions to anything even approaching the scientific method. In fact, the idea of questioning never enters their minds. Instead, they accept at face value whatever purported facts anyone presents them. This entangles the characters in a number of embarrassingly irrational situations, such as when many of them—especially the leading Damsel, Sandy—become absolutely convinced that a herd of swine is actually a royal family. Consequently, we get to laugh as the humans pamper and flatter the snorting and smelly pigs. In Twain’s mind it is obvious what happens when we do not submit our ideas to harsh scrutiny.
Twain’s analogy provides an intriguing setting for the question we faced at the beginning: are religious folks merely pampering swine? If religious questions, by their very nature, lie beyond the pale of rational examination, then is it possible that believing people are as deluded as the citizens of King Arthur’s realm? Indeed, some would argue that not only is that a possibility but that the weight of evidence suggests that it is the harsh reality.

Again, because I am Mormon, the bulk of my experience with those who consider belief irrational pertains specifically to those who question the Mormon worldview. Some of these, of course, question our—and the rest of the Christian world’s—belief in God. These people may, for instance, look at the evil that obtains in the world and then ask, quite sincerely, and, perhaps, with anguish: if an all-powerful and all-loving God existed, how could he allow such suffering as we see in the world? Forget maladies such as cancer, these people insist, look at the true atrocities such as rape, incest, and genocide: how can you stare such cruelty in the face and then believe in God?

Some, however, accept God and only question Mormon theology. These critics may, for instance, accept the God of the Bible but reject Joseph Smith as a Prophet. I remember, for example, an article entitled “It’s Over, It’s Over, It’s Over.” The author was apparently quite enthused because when the Joseph Smith Papyri were discovered in Chicago Egyptologists concluded that Joseph Smith’s translation was rubbish. Just as some conclude a belief in God is irrational, this author decided that acceptance of Joseph Smith as a prophet is so irrational that the debate concerning him must be, well, over.

But is it? If we approach the religious question from a rational standpoint, is their any supporting evidence? Is it possible to believe rationally? Or is the very idea oxymoronic? If the answer to this last question is yes, we are confronted with a troubling dichotomy since each of us will then have to choose to approach the world either with faith or with reason. Luckily, however, I do not believe such an either/or choice is necessary or wise. Indeed, it seems we can only find truth if we employ both faith and reason: as with grace and works, either without the other is dead.

This is at least true according to Mormon theology. Both Doctrine and Covenants and The Book of Mormon, for instance, make it clear that we are to analyze religion analytically. Perhaps the most obvious example of such counsel is found in Doctrine and Covenants 88:118, where the Lord instructs members of the Church to “seek learning by study and by faith.” Similarly, in Doctrine and Covenants 8:2, the Lord confirms that revelation will also come to the “mind.” Indeed, a quick check of the index to the Doctrine and Covenants makes it clear the Lord is intent on members of the Church using their minds to study, ponder, and receive revelation.

To me, however, the most striking example of the need for reason in matters of faith comes in Alma’s speech to the impoverished Zoramites. I am struck that the last half of the chapter is framed within the context of a single analogy: that of an experiment. Alma advocates a spiritual derivative of the scientific method. Furthermore, Alma outlines in very specific terms how anyone can carry out his experiment: just as a careful scientist details his apparatuses, procedures, reactants, and conclusions so that other scientists can reproduce his work and confirm his results, Alma invites each reader to reproduce the faith experiment—Alma wants each person to experience the results for himself.

Accordingly, Alma instructs us to “give place, that [the word] may be planted in [our] heart[s].” After planting the word, we are to nurture it. Having done so, we are to observe its growth. If the seed grows, argues Alma, we will know it is good—a bad seed would have no life. At this point, Alma acknowledges that our knowledge is still imperfect; nevertheless, just as a scientist must continue to labor even though he cannot know with certainty to validity of his claim, we are to continue to nurture the seed, our faith bolstered by the knowledge that the word has begun to swell and sprout.

Tellingly, Alma recognizes that inasmuch as we gain knowledge concerning the word, faith is no longer necessary with respect to that subject. To quote Alma, our faith becomes “dormant.” As our knowledge base grows, we require less and less faith until “the perfect day.”
It strikes me quite strongly that Alma uses an example that so carefully parallels the scientific method. His analogy seems carefully calculated to convince a skeptical generation, a people who demand evidence, explanation, and personal conviction to believe—Alma provides an avenue for obtaining each of these. Unlike the magicians in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Alma invites scrutiny. What’s more, “Moroni’s promise” is likewise an invitation to come and know for ourselves the truth of the claims that Joseph and his followers make.

Some will argue this is all a game of semantics. Yes, they say, Alma and Moroni talk about evidence and experiments, but everyone knows that religious questions, by their very nature, cannot be settled on rational grounds. On the one hand, this is true. But, to the extent that it is correct, we must remember that scientific questions cannot be settled on purely rational grounds either. After all, as already mentioned, it is the scientist who pursues a theory in the face of contrary evidence—because he has faith in his explanation—who we eventually tend to venerate.

On the other hand, though, many religious people have subjected their beliefs to some significant amount of rational scrutiny. The fact that many of these people cling to their beliefs, despite what others consider convincing contrary evidence, indicates we ought to learn what motivates rational believers.

When someone poses an important question, one that affects society in some significant way, we must arrive at some conclusion concerning the query. Often, especially if we subscribe to the scientific method, we will settle such a question by having many people carry out the same experiment. Then, we decide an answer based on the findings of all of the parties involved. We are prone to believe that such answers come easily and unanimously to the scientific community, as if every experiment carried out by every scientist yields the same conclusions.
Such, however, is rarely if ever the case. Instead, researchers often break into warring factions who argue for one theory or another, with little or no consensus. Even when one theory accumulates so much supporting evidence as to seem unquestionable, there are still theoretical gadflies who insist that the world’s understanding is misguided. Even in scientific matters, then, “accepted” theories are more often a matter of majority—or of who controls the press—than they are questions of truth and fact.

In religious matters, however, there is even more disagreement. Where most scientists agree on at least some set of fundamentals, religionists cannot come to agreement on even the most basic theological principles. Some believe, for instance, that God is a Single Being, some that He is a Holy Trinity, some that He permeates space, or some that He does not exist at all. Even when we agree on one set of tenets concerning the nature of God, we still must grapple with the question of his personality and character—not to mention His dealing with Prophets and man. All of this can leave our heads spinning—it is easy in the face of such swirling ideas to wonder if we can really “know” anything concerning religion. If any religious tenet were knowable, wouldn’t the religious community have agreed upon it long ago, rather like physicists agree the Earth rotates around the sun? The discord over even the most basic religious ideas is, in fact, probably what leads many skeptics to conclude that no religious question can be answered rationally.

Despite the discord, however, rational methods do come to bear on religious questions. As already mentioned, Alma makes rationality’s role clear when he discusses the experiment we ought to conduct to determine religion’s validity. Alma thereby indicates an important rational facet of religion: it is incumbent on us, unless life presents us with overwhelming evidence to the contrary—or, perhaps, even when it does do so—to believe our own experience. If I pray and receive an answer, that answer forms part of the evidence I must weigh when I consider religious questions. Although others may present evidence that contradicts the conclusions I draw based on my experience, yet I cannot abandon my experience. Indeed, through a lifetime of belief, as my experience builds and I encounter more and more personal evidence of the validity of my convictions, I ought to require more and more contradictory evidence before I begin to question the truth of what I believe. This is not to say that believers should not reconsider their beliefs, of that religious experience constitutes an impenetrable wall through which neither evidence nor logic can pass. I also do not mean to suggest we should not alter our beliefs as we learn and grow. Rather, religious experience should be considered alongside other cognitive factors when we determine what we are to believe.

Contrary to this, some seem to think religious experience is, by its very nature, ephemeral, transient, and flawed. This line of arguing proposes that any tactile evidence automatically trumps spiritual evidence. Such reasoning, however, is actually quite illogical. Just as I would tend to believe the results of an experiment I conduct more than the results of an experiment conducted at some far away university by researchers whom I have never met and reported by a journal about which I know little, I can rationally believe those things in which I have faith despite contradictory archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, or historical evidence. Quite contrary to prevailing thought, it is personal religious experience that trumps other forms, not the other way around.

Religious questions, then, lie only partly outside the pale of rational inquiry. And, to perhaps a lesser extent, scientific questions do, too. In the end, we cannot gain any knowledge by purely rational means. In fact, most knowledge we accept because we have faith in other people. When we buy medicine at the store, for instance, it is not because we have personally carried out experiments that prove the medicine works. Instead, it is because we have a type of faith in the researchers and the pharmaceutical system that brought the drug to the counter. As Joseph Smith pointed out, almost all action requires faith is some principle that has not, strictly speaking, been personally proven to the person acting. Faith, then, is a vital component of nearly all useful knowledge. Further, religious understanding is not based on faith alone, but also on personal experience. Only the two together—faith and reason, belief and study—can bring us closer to the truth.