Sunday, April 13, 2008

Science and faith.

I used to spend a lot of time on Yahoo! Answers, and because religion is a topic of interest to me, I sometimes looked at the questions that were being asked in the Religion and Spirituality category. Common statements there go something like this: "How can people believe in religion since science doesn't have evidence of God?" "You can't prove that there is a God." "Are people who believe in religion just idiots that don't believe in science?" "You must be crazy to think there is a God."

Personally, I find the opposition between science and religion to be a false conflict. I believe it is completely possible to be both a scientist and a person of faith. In fact, I consider myself to be both. So this blog post is my attempt to set the record straight and explain why faith and science are not contradictory, and why it's completely ok to be a scientist and a person of faith.

1. Faith and science have a lot in common.
I would argue that one goal that both religion and science have in common is to help people find truth: truth about the way the universe works and our place in it. It is simply that the methods used by religion and science to find truth are different (but not really, as you will see in my next point).

Science proceeds according to the scientific method, a process by which we form hypotheses and then do experiments to support or disprove those hypotheses. This is actually a slow way to make progress in our discovery of truth, since it is not possible to prove a hypothesis by the scientific method, only support it or refute it. The only possible way to prove a hypothesis would be to satisfactorily disprove all others. But in the practical world this is impossible: there is always the possibility that a new hypothesis will come along that explains things better than the ideas we have now. As scientific investigation continues, we come closer and closer to understanding truth basically by process of elimination of hypotheses that don't explain things and by refining and testing hypotheses in the hopes that they will explain things. It would be a poor scientist indeed who continued to hold to a hypothesis after it had been shown not to be predictive or helpful. There is almost always something to criticize about the methodology of an experiment or the theory on which it is based; correctly operationalizing constructs that we are trying to measure is a difficult intellectual and practical challenge. And so science lumbers on, ever coming closer to understanding truth, but unable to aim at it directly.

In matters of faith, too, finding truth is the goal. It's simply that the methods are different. Through faith we can learn truth directly from the Holy Ghost, a process that is difficult to describe but no less real because it is difficult to describe. In this way, faith is a much more direct and immediate way to learn truth than scientific investigation, but they still share the common goal. The Bible teaches, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8)

It seems to me that a real seeker of truth and knowledge should be open to truth whatever the source. Indeed, it is a teaching in my religion that our faith includes knowledge of academic subjects. For example, the following is a revelation given by the Lord to Joseph Smith: "And set in order the churches, and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people." (D&C 90:15)

Researchers will admit that there are other kinds of research through which study can be done in addition to experimental(scientific) research. For example, there are methodologies such as quasi-experimental methods, action research, ethnography, and so forth. Why not add faith to this list?

2. The kind of evidence we have for scientific and religious truth is similar.

I believe that one of the main problems that people have with matters of faith is that they are so personal. We live in a society that has been educated to look for "cold hard fact", and people are uncomfortable with matters of faith because, to accept truths we learn through faith, we often have to start with a foundation of the testimony of others, and then experience it for ourselves. We are skeptical of the testimony of others and would like to be able to see some sort of hard evidence that religion is true. But I would argue that science is based on a foundation of testimony as well.

Take, for example, the situation of getting some sort of scan, such as an x-ray, an MRI, or an ultrasound. Surely, there is sophisticated technology involved in these scans. But the culmination of the scan is when a radiologist or other trained person reads the scan and interprets it and explains what it means. For example, a pregnant friend of mine recently had an ultrasound through which she learned that the baby is going to be a boy. She later showed me the picture after which the health care worker declared that he was a boy. To me, it looked like a bunch of black and white blobs, and I couldn't discern the part of the picture that would indicate that it was a boy. But I am not trained to read ultrasounds, and I have no doubt that the person who is trained to read them is able to interpret them correctly. In this way, our belief in the "fact" of her baby's sex is actually based on the testimony of another person.

No matter how much our technologies improve for processes of data collection or how sophisticated our statistical methods for analyzing the data we collect, in the end, every scientific experiment needs to be interpreted by a person. The scientist analyzes the data and makes a conclusion about whether the hypothesis is supported or not supported. Someone has to read the display on the mass spectrometer, or on the super collider, or on the telescope, or on the voltage meter, or whatever instrument we are using. Then this person writes a scientific paper in which he/she interprets the results. In this way, we are very much depending on the testimony of that person that the hypothesis was supported. The only other way to get scientific knowledge is to be the observer directly and do the interpretation ourselves.

In a very similar way, then, science and faith come down to a matter of testimony. Whether I trust in the testimony of others or experience it for myself, the processes of "collecting" truth are similar. And then I write a scientific paper to share what I have learned with others, or I share it in church or by bearing testimony in some other appropriate setting.

Of course, one important criterion for a good scientific experiment is that it be replicable. If an experiment is well-designed, it should be reliable enough that other researchers will be able to get similar results by performing a similar experiment. But even after that process, those researchers will then bear testimony (through scientific publication or dissemination) that the results of their experiments were similar and also supported the hypothesis. The more people have the chance to examine the data, the more people have the chance to interpret it for themselves, but it is always a matter of interpretation. Matters of faith can also be held to this replication standard. Moroni taught: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (Moroni 10:4-5)

And thus I feel that it is false to accuse faithful people of being weak or crazy because we believe personal experiences or the testimony of others. It seems to me that these are really the only possible ways for us to experience things in our lives. Every experience we have is filtered by our perception in some way. I think it occurs to many people that it is completely possible that our perception could be different from that of other people. I have heard things, for example, like "Have you ever wondered if your red is someone else's green?" and wondered them myself. It is not possible to escape our individual perceptions in this life. In this way, then, it seems to me that the testimony of others is very important. It is easier to believe something if you discover that someone else had the same experience. For example, if I see something unusual, I will be more likely to trust what I saw if someone else says he/she saw it too. The more scientists stand behind a hypothesis, the more trustworthy it is. Likewise, the more people who bear testimony about a principle of doctrine and share their faith that they know it is true, the more evidence we have to trust it. Other than personal direct revelation from God, believing the testimony of others is a source of reliable knowledge.

And so, I argue that, while faith has only personal experience and the testimony of others to support its teachings, so does science. What makes a scientific theory "true" is basically whether it is supported by a large number of people in the field. When I teach classes at my university, I am teaching hypotheses and theories that are the current state of understanding of the field at the time. It will not be surprising in 20 or 30 years when the hypotheses we believe and teach are quite different. The truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ do not change. But I learn them in the same way: by experiencing the presence of the Holy Ghost directly, and/or by hearing the teachings and testimony of others. So science cannot criticize faith for depending only on these sources of knowledge; they have the same standard.

I am proud to belong to a church that encourages its members to seek truth wherever we can find it. For example, Brigham Young taught: "Every art and science known and studied by the children of men is comprised within the Gospel." (Teachings of Presidents of the Church, Brigham Young, 194). The only source of conflict between science and faith is a false conflict believed by those who, in my opinion, do not truly understand how science actually works.

And what of those who claim that there is no evidence that there is a God? Even before the coming of Christ Korihor put a similar concern to the prophet Alma:
"And now Korihor said unto Alma: if thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words. But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator." (Alma 30:43-44)

There is nothing wrong with believing in something that can't be seen. Scientists everywhere believe in things like quarks, which are very difficult to measure because they are so small. Social sciences like psychology and linguistics struggle to operationalize things in the mind because it is impossible to observe mind directly; we have to observe it through behavior. But this does not stop scientists from believing in mind. Likewise, even if a person has not seen God, there is no harm in believing in Him. The truth of that belief will lead you in the right direction.

I testify that God exists, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

1 comment:

i i eee said...

This was a fantastic post. Thanks for taking the time to write it.