The Path Out of Shadows

We’ve reached our first major milestone in the General Conference Odyssey: we’re wrapping up our first conference. Today we’re covering the Tuesday afternoon session of the April 1971 General Conference. Next week, we’ll be covering the Friday morning session of the October 1971 General Conference. One down, a whole bunch more to go!

The talk that struck me the most from this session was Elder William H. Bennett’s Help Needed in the Shaded Areas, which echoed one of my favorite themes: intellectual humility:

As individuals, we have some limitations when it comes to our understanding of things as they really are. We can see so far, and then the earth and the sky come together, so to speak, and we cannot see beyond.

And then again later:

It is important that we remember also that no matter how intelligent we may be, no matter how hard we work, no matter how good our teachers are or how favorable the other conditions for learning, in our allotted span of years on earth we can master only a very small fraction of the total field of knowledge; and what we do master usually is in a narrowed-down, specialized area. Consequently, we, in and of ourselves, have limitations.

This reminds me a lot of some of the things that Marcelo Gleiser had to say in his recent book The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. For example: “Because of the very nature of human inquiry every age has its unknowables.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, as an atheist I’m sure Gleiser would not agree to the principles that Bennett is teaching. But that doesn’t mean that the connections are purely spurious, either. Consider another quote from Gleiser:

Both the scientist and the faithful believe in unexplained causation, that is, in things happening for unknown reasons, even if the nature of the cause is completely different for each. In the sciences, this belief is most obvious when there is an attempt to extrapolate a theory or model beyond its tested limits, as in “gravity works the same way across the entire Universe,” or “the theory of evolution by natural selection applies to all forms of life, including extraterrestrial ones.” These extrapolations are crucial to advance knowledge into unexplored territory. The scientist feels justified in doing so, given the accumulated power of her theories to explain so much of the world. We can even say, with slight impropriety, that her faith is empirically validated.

The separation between religion and science is not as stark as many would like us to believe in these days when (again, citing Marcelo), “scientific speculation and arrogance are rampant.” Religion and science are not enemies. They are, fundamentally, siblings. They are two branches of mankind’s pursuit of knowledge that branched off when new tools—from mathematics to telescopes—allowed the study of quantifiable, physical phenomena to become a community project in a way that religion, because of it’s internal, personal nature, can never be.

So there are definitely differences, but there are also commonalities, and it makes sense to talk about “faith” in both religious and scientific contexts. The scientific “faith” that Marcelo talks about is the willingness to extrapolate beyond empirical evidence in the pursuit of intuition. Two of Marcelo’s biggest examples are Newton and Einstein who followed their instincts beyond empirical boundaries:

As Newton had done with his universal theory of gravitation, Einstein extrapolated his new theory of gravity from the solar system—where it was tested—to the Universe, confident that the same physical principles applied everywhere.

As Marcelo pointed out in the previous quote, however, the scientist must then validate her intuitions. Which is essentially the same model that Alma famously presented: even if you can’t muster anything more than a desire to believe: start there. Then experiment. See what happens.

Intellectual humility, the understanding that our knowledge is limited, is the first step to the path towards greater knowledge. Marcelo wrote, “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” But, as Elder Bennett said, “we need not walk alone.”

There was one other comment that I wanted to share as well. It came from the session’s closing remarks by President Joseph Fielding Smith: A Witness and a Blessing.

There are good and devout people among all sects, parties, and denominations, and they will be blessed and rewarded for all the good they do. But the fact remains that we alone have the fullness of those laws and ordinances which prepare men for the fullness of reward in the mansions above. And so we say to the good and noble, the upright and devout people everywhere: Keep all the good you have; cleave unto every true principle which is now yours; but come and partake of the further light and knowledge which that God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever is again pouring out upon his people.

The idea that being a Mormon consists in finding truth wherever it may be is famously associated with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, who often spoke about truth in expansive and inclusive ways. But clearly this vein of our faith didn’t end there. It was still alive and well in the 1970s just as it is today. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have something unique and precious to offer the world, and it’s our duty to share it. But we do not have a monopoly on truth.

Here are the other posts in this week’s installment of the General Conference Odyssey:

6 thoughts on “The Path Out of Shadows”

  1. I’m loving the conference sessions and also the enrichment shared by the bloggers. I started a couple of months behind the group and just noticed that the index shows this week’s blogs as October 1971 when it is the Tuesday afternoon APRIL 1971 group!

Comments are closed.