Faith in Science and Religion

Detail from stained glass work “Education”(Chittenden Memorial Window at Yale). Public domain. (Image links to original.)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

As usual, some of the best talks from this General Conference come from the Sunday session. In particular, I’m really developing an appreciation for President Hunter. He was only prophet for a very brief period when I was a young man (June 1994 – March 1994) and I’m sorry to say that my main takeaway at the time was a kind of disappointment. My father had often told me of how you developed a special connection to the prophet who was alive when you were developing your own testimony—often in your teens—and so I thought that President Hunter would be that man. When he died so quickly—before he could leave much of a mark of his own—I felt a tiny sense of betrayal.

I confess I haven’t thought a lot about him in the years sense, but that started to change when I taught Elder’s Quorum a couple of weeks ago using Chapter 21 of the manual based on his writings. I was shocked at how sophisticated the lesson was, and at how much time President Hunter spent dealing explicitly with one of my pet issues: the relationship between faith in science and in religion. For example:

Whether seeking for knowledge of scientific truths or to discover God, one must have faith. This becomes the starting point.

The idea that faith plays a role in both faith and in science is one that bowled me over when I first read David Hume in light of Alma 32 as an undergrad. Since then plenty of people have made similar arguments—so I’m making no claims to originality—but I was still surprised to see the topic handled so directly by a prophet.

As it turns out, that manual was drawing from his talk in this session: To Know God. In the talk, he makes the case even more clearly than the manual, writing that “scientific research is an endeavor to ascertain truth, and the same principles which are applied to that pursuit are used in the quest to establish the truth of religion as well.”

Also, continuing that first quote from him, her references Hebrews and the idea that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,”1 and relates that directly to science as well:

The scientist does not see molecules, atoms, or electrons, yet he knows they exist. He does not see electricity, radiation, or magnetism, but he knows these are unseen realities. In like manner, those who earnestly seek for God do not see him, but they know of his reality by faith. It is more than hope. Faith makes it a conviction—an evidence of things not seen.

I’m a little embarrassed to ride my hobby horse this far off down a tangent, but—since I know that equating faith in religion and science is bound to tick off plenty of people and confuse even more—I’ll provide a succinct overview that, I hope, falls in line with what President Hunter is saying.

The first point comes from David Hume, and it’s a simple one: we don’t observe causation directly. We infer causation. The implications might not be immediately obvious so—just to give a sense of what a huge problem this was—consider that one of the most famous philosophers of all time (Emannuel Kant) “changed[ed] his entire career after he [read] Hume.”2. Why? Because if causality must be assumed, then no amount of observation or experimentation can jump the chasm from a collection of facts about what has happened to have taken place in the past to certain knowledge about how the universe works.

Now, why does this matter? Because, of the “inextricably realist character that is woven into the rhetoric of science.”3 In other words: science—the way it is discussed in the media and among scientists themselves—is the business of uncovering facts (certain knowledge) that are about the world. Which, if Hume is right, is quite impossible.

And, in fact, if you press philosophically sophisticated scientists on the topic (speaking historically), they’ll concede the point for the simple reason that nobody has found an adequate rebuttal to Hume. And so there’s a “parade of absolutely first-rate scientific thinkers who have insisted that science is not about an independently existing reality,”4 but the reality is that nobody really has that in mind. When the Higgs Boson was discovered, everyone—from the physicists to the journalists to the general public—took the realist view for granted. There’s this idea of a particle-thingy and scientists have discovered it and so now we know that the particle-thingy is really out there, a part of an independent reality that exists beyond human mental constructs.

Professor Goldman goes so far as to call the scientific establishment “schizophrenic” in this regard. They plainly talk and act as though they are learning facts about the real world (that’s the realist view) despite the awareness—now centuries’ old—that this is impossible to do with certainty.

There are basically three solutions to this conundrum.

On the one hand, you can just give up on rationality entirely. I won’t say much for this course because, once you’ve decided to just abandon making sense, there’s nothing left to talk about. But I suppose—for the sake of completeness if nothing else—I ought to mention that you can try that course if you’d like. Hume proved that deriving certain knowledge of the world through experimentation and observation is impossible, but you can just pretend that he didn’t if that suits your fancy.

Now, if you’re not willing to jettison logic and reason, you have two remaining options. On the one hand, you can retreat. You can agree that—because causality is never observable—science is basically just a game where we invent explanations for our experiences, and no explanation is ever really “true.” Scientific theories and laws are more or less coherent with each other and with our experiences and they have varying degrees of simplicity or aesthetic beauty, but in the final analysis they are socially constructed and subjective and that’s that.

On the other hand, you can stand your ground and assert that science is about something objectively real. That there are things out there—matter and energy and laws governing them—that have a kind of independent and objective experience and that—no matter how imperfectly or partially—science is in the business of learning about those things. But if you want to take this view, you have to swallow the reality that science rests on faith. Faith, for example, that although we may not be able to see or observe something (for example: causality), it’s still there, undergirding our experiments and observations and building a faith-based connection between science and reality.

We’ve gone rather far afield at this point, so let me wrap it up. If none of the philosophy appeals to you: that’s fine. Let me just say that it’s exciting—and unexpected—that in reading old talks from the 1970s I’d come to such a greater appreciation for a man who served as President for less than a year while I was a teenager. This General Conference Odyssey has already covered some unexpected new territory in just the first year, and we have more than ten more to go.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!