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.


Anonymous Michael said...


This is wonderful! Thank you for so concisely giving voice to the spiritual process.

Do I have permission to distribute this to my Gospel Doctrine class? I would like to share it with them and provide you full credit (I will need your last name to add to the printout).

10:03 AM  
Blogger tyler said...


Thanks for the kind compliment. I don't mind you distributing it--though my words certainly are not "gospel doctrine." If, however, it will contribute to the Spirit of your class you are welcome to use it as you best see fit.

Thanks again.

11:37 AM  

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