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Galileo says, “You go scientists!”

To command that the very professors of astronomy themselves see to the refutation of their own observations and proofs as mere fallacies and sophisms is to enjoin something that lies beyond any possibility of accomplishment. For this would amount to commanding that they must not see what they see and must not understand what they know, and that in searching they must find the opposite of what they actually encounter. Before this could be done they would have to be taught how to make one mental faculty command another, and the inferior powers the superior, so that the imagination and the will might be forced to believe the opposite of what the intellect understands. I am referring at all times to merely physical propositions, and not to supernatural things which are matters of faith….

Galileo’s Letter to the Church (1632)

Conflict between science and religion runs deep. Both sides feel threatened and claim access to domains of reality that at times overlap. Paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould, tried to set up some fences, mark out the territory, stretched the wire tight and declared science and faith non-overlapping Magisteria. Religion was given the pasture of God-talk and ethics-grounding. Science was supposed to keep to the side of theory and empirical study of the physical universe. Science and religion like a couple of ornery cattle have blundered through the fence and dragged the wire everywhere. I think Gould’s project failed, not in the least because he was not religious himself and deeply misunderstood the role of faith in people’s lives. He saw religion as a source of morality, but did not understand how faith is actually practiced in people’s lives.

There is a lot misunderstanding. A handful of militant atheists have waxed vocal and articulate about their atheism. In addition, the secularization of scientists has led that of the general population for sometime. These things have encouraged some to feel threatened that all of science is being commandeered by scientists out to take away their faith. This belies the wonderful efforts that many in science, including scores of believing prominent evolutionary biologists, have made a sustained intellectual effort to create a space for science and religion to coexist. In a wonderful post, S.Faux lays out very nicely how science and religion do not oppose one another and how while God can be important in the lives of scientists. He is not something that can be a part of science.

There are entire journals devoted to understanding how science and religion can both be taken seriously as ways of knowing. Theologians are grappling with trying to reconcile our faith traditions with the new understanding of the universe unfolding in our day. This is a wonderful day to be alive. This new understanding is led by scientific advancement that is improving our lives in ways our ancestors could never dream of in terms of health, medicine, engineering and in scores of practical ways. These have of course created many new challenges as well. We have warmed the planet, made it more dangerous with our destructive capabilities, and have created new ethical dilemmas that will require deep stores of wisdom that we are just starting to recon with. But, all in all, I don’t think many of us want to Miniver Cheevy it back to the Middle Ages. However, this new understanding of the universe has come with costs. Especially costs exacted on the easy literalism that comes from a superficial reading of the scriptures. This has made some who insist on reading the scriptures as a scientific textbook uncomfortable.

How are Mormon’s dealing with science? It’s mixed. There seem to be three dominant views of science. First, some hold to a strict scriptural literalism. This easy to defend because it was the default position of many Christians through the early part of the 20th century, including many in our church. This provides and easy source of General Authority quotes from which to draw to support one’s literalistic views. Second, others try to downplay science and point out its faults in order to create a hermeneutic of suspicion about the scientific enterprise itself, especially about evolutionary biology and its associated supporting sciences like physics (radioactive dating methods), geology (the stratographic record), and paleontology (the fossil record). These suspicions are not the kind that science itself holds to, in which all knowledge is theory laden, held as provisional, subject to revision, and subject to empirical confirmation or refutation. These inappropriate suspicions hold that science as a way of knowing will potenitally lead you astray and that its findings, no matter how deep or well confirmed, can be disregarded if they make you uncomfortable. This is especially prevalent against fields that touch on matters traditionally held to be the providence of Faith like the creation of the Earth or matters of archeology that bear on faith practices.

Lastly, a way to look at science, is that way held by many LDS members who have led the scientific enterprise in every discipline, including chemistry, evolution, medicine, biology, paleontology, psychology, physics and in hosts of other scientific disciplines. These faithful LDS scientists are willing to follow the data and the brethren. They often have to admit they do not know how it will fit together in the end, but are willing to suspend judgment and suppose that in the end, both their view of the things they find in the empirical world and those they find in the realm of the spirit will be reconciled. I am one of these. In fact, as Galileo points out–What else can we do?

Obviously I think the last approach is most appropriate and ultimately leads to a more mature faith and more informed understanding of the physical world.

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14 comments to Galileo says, “You go scientists!”

  • Thanks for the plug.

    A good book I recommend is Lindberg & Numbers (1986) God & Nature. In its fourth chapter on “Galileo and the Church” there is a quote from Cardinal Baronius that I like: “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” (p. 126).

    I think it is best if there is a separation between church & science, even though the scientist may endorse both.

    I am all for scientists have a strong religious appreciation, but that appreciation should not color their scientific conclusions.

  • I like that Galileo quote. Along those lines, I am reminded of Huckleberry Finn’s statement, “You can’t pray a lie.”

  • DB

    I appreciate your approach to science and religion and I am grateful that there are many other faithful LDS who can accept science without refuting scripture. There are, indeed, many views of science and scripture within the LDS ranks. No one view is completely right or completely wrong and there is wisdom to be gained by listening to and seeking to understand all of them. You have listed three prominent views of science held by many LDS but I would like to add a fourth. There are those, though perhaps not many, who accept science and yet still hold to a more literal interpretation of the scriptures than do many scientifically minded LDS. Scientific evidence is what it is and should be accepted by any reasonable person. We can not and should not view the creations of God as false doctrines. However, there are several doctrinal truths relating to the creation and fall of Adam which are perceived to be at odds with science and as such are regarded by some as simply symbolic stories. These truths, including the creation of Adam as an immortal being and his and the earth’s fall into mortality, are critical elements of the plan of salvation and cannot simply be regarded as allegorical without damaging the plan of salvation itself. I would challenge those on the scientific side of the debate to reconcile these gospel truths and those on the scriptural side to reconcile all the creations of God (scientific evidence). And that doesn’t mean reconcile by saying that Adam was anything less than what is described in the scriptures or by saying that fossils came from creatures that lived on other worlds. Those are just cop outs.

  • [...] doesn’t keep SteveP from dealing with broader issues of science and theology, as shown by this post on various attitudes of LDS scientists and members toward the relationship between science and [...]

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