Faith and Science: Friends not without Benefits

Lord Kelvin, a long time ago: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Lord Kelvin, 113 years ago: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

We’re pleased to present the first in a series of guest posts by Ben F, who is working toward a PhD in condensed matter physics at a fancy school in the northeast. 

Growing up, I took it for granted that faith and science were friends. My parents’ bookshelves were stuffed with an absurd number of works on church history and theology that was matched only by the equally absurd number of volumes on physics, chemistry, biology, and everything in between. I don’t think I ever so much as cracked open one of those books—the Orson Scott Card shelf just seemed so much more interesting to me at the time—but their happy coexistence on those shelves still left a deep impression on me. They were a visual testament that science and religion are close companions, tied together by a common quest for truth and understanding.

Naturally, I thought that was how everyone viewed the issue—until I moved to Provo to attend BYU. Between a discussion in elders quorum about the post-Fall intergalactic migration of the Earth from Kolob to our present solar system and an Old Testament classmate’s vehement insistence that Pangaea existed up until Noah’s flood, I realized that perhaps mine was not the only view people had on science and religion. My first instinct was to burst out laughing whenever I heard something like this, but the part of me trying to be a good person pointed out that everyone comes from a different background and I shouldn’t ridicule people for beliefs that are clearly important to them. But honestly, we Mormons should do much better than that, and here’s why.

As Mormons, we preach the profoundly uplifting doctrine that all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole. In fact, we are instructed to actively learn and teach each other about all kinds of truth, of “the doctrine of the kingdom” and “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass,” and so on. We should rejoice in the discovery of the truths of nature just as we rejoice in the discovery of the truths of the Gospel. And why even bother to distinguish between Gospel truths and natural truths? In my opinion, the doctrine of God’s kingdom includes the mysteries of the Higgs Boson just as much as the mysteries of Christ’s infinite Atonement. Granted, this latter doctrine is much more pertinent to our happiness and well-being on Earth, and I would suggest spending more time studying it than studying mass generation via interaction with the Higgs field, but still, it’s all part of the same great whole. Science and religion aren’t just friends—they’re siblings.

As with all good siblings, however, science and religion aren’t without their fights. To a certain extent, substantive quarreling between science and religion is a good thing. It shows people are actually thinking about these two topics together, which is where they belong. Unfortunately, the thinking often seems to stop right after it begins, giving way to the usual habit of reciprocal ridicule. This is a pity, since it would take nothing more than a little humility and patience from both parties to get around this—we must simply acknowledge that we are nowhere near having a complete understanding of God or the universe, and until we do, things may not appear to fit together so nicely.

We would do well to learn some lessons from our own history. In 1820, itinerant preachers were teaching that God had no need to speak to mankind anymore. Enter Joseph Smith and the First Vision. In 1900, Lord Kelvin, one of the foremost physicists of the 19th Century, proclaimed, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Enter Max Planck and the quantization of energy, the spark that ignited the quantum revolution. Hubris of this nature is foolish and dangerous on both sides. The truth is, we have a lot to learn about both God and this universe we find ourselves in; meanwhile, we get to look at our half-finished jigsaw puzzle and excitedly anticipate the breathtaking perfection with which it will all come together. In that moment, we will realize that neither faith nor science could ever be complete without the other.

In a brief series of which this is the first post, I will introduce and attempt to discuss possible means of reconciling some of the major points of contention between modern-day physics and commonly held LDS beliefs. On the menu are the apparent paradox between instantaneous communication with God and the theory of special relativity, the physical substance of spirit, quantum mechanics and free will, and much more.

Feel free to suggest other topics in the comments.

DISCLAIMER: I am merely a physicist in training, and my research will not always qualify me to authoritatively discuss some of the topics that may be introduced in these posts. In other words, don’t take my speculation too seriously!

Comments

  1. Thanks heavens, I thought I was losing my mind. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say in your coming posts.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ben. I also can’t wait for the future installments. Blow our tiny minds.

  3. This is such a wonderful post. Thank you for bringing this essential perspective.

    As Mormons, we preach the profoundly uplifting doctrine that all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole. In fact, we are instructed to actively learn and teach each other about all kinds of truth, of “the doctrine of the kingdom” and “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass,” and so on.

    I have sadly watched as the notion of circumscribing all truth, from whatever source, into one great (though therefore necessarily inharmonious) whole flagrantly ignored by a growing number of Mormons (from my perspective — hopefully my anecdotal evidence is not determinative) in favor of what they deem to be politically pure ideology that isn’t even Mormon in nature but rather borrowed from fundamentalist creedal Christian political bedfellows who, for their part, would rather that our Church did not exist at all.

  4. Woohoo! Good thoughts. I’m really looking forward to this series.

  5. I think we prefer to circumcise the truth, so that what we accept is limited to the comfortable boundaries of what we have seen before.

  6. oh man, what a comment!

  7. This series sounds great Ben F. I am excited to read more. I particularly like your Lord Kelvin reference and just add I also enjoyed how astronomers around 1900 we on record saying to the effect “if there are more galaxies then one we will never know and so it is just philosophy.” With that in mind look at any Hubble Deep Field image.

    > DISCLAIMER: I am merely a physicist in training…

    I know exactly what you mean as I am in the same boat. And to make matters worse, when you get the physics partly wrong your colleagues are just one Google search away to see imperfect physics being discussed religiously and we know how well that can go. :) So good luck my friend!

  8. “Unfortunately, the thinking often seems to stop right after it begins, giving way to the usual habit of reciprocal ridicule. This is a pity, since it would take nothing more than a little humility and patience from both parties to get around this—we must simply acknowledge that we are nowhere near having a complete understanding of God or the universe, and until we do, things may not appear to fit together so nicely.”

    I don’t want to sound too snarky, but this seems a little…. dissatisfying. Yes, the thinking does seem to stop right where it begins, but this is because science and religion can’t even agree on what the rules are of the game that they are playing (are they even playing the same game?). And since there is no foundational, paradign independent set of rules by which we can arbitrate such a disagreement we seem to be left to choose between ridicule or silence. We can preach humility and patience all we want, but these serve only to slow down rather than advance the cause of “reconciliation” (which might be a good thing!).

  9. Mark: I may never think of the original phrase in quite the same way… :) Nice imagery.

    Joseph Smidt: I’ll definitely have to be careful.

    Jeff G: Point well taken. By “rules of the game,” I am guessing you mean the scientific method versus a faith-based approach toward acquiring knowledge or at least strong belief. My intent with this post wasn’t to get into this discussion–although that is certainly a worthy topic for future exploration–but I simply wanted to point out that modern science need not close all doors on the possibility of God, nor should Mormon theology discount the findings of sound science.

  10. That is exactly what I had in mind: the modern vs. pre-modern mindsets.

    I definitely look forward to seeing how (or if) you approach this issue, since I see it as the being the key to the whole issue. (How annoying is it for the philosophy student to come along and suggest that what they studied, and that alone is the key to arbitrating some dispute!?!)

    I guess my issue is that there seems to be the tacit assumption that science actually has the power to “close the door” on every or any belief outside of science: the belief that science not only can, but ought to weigh-in on on how the non-scientist construes the world around her.

    Like you said, these aren’t questions which your post was really meant to address, but you do seem to describe the science/religion relationship in terms which I think prematurely bias what is to come. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. :)

  11. Can’t wait to see what you have to say. LDS theology and science are always an interesting mixture.

  12. And somewhere, a mathematician laughs maniacally. A scientist, such as yourself, may claim that religion and science are siblings, but spiritually minded mathematicians have been claiming religion and mathematics as identical twins, even conjoined identical twins, for millenia and all it’s gotten us is the smuggest seat at the table of empty truths. Feel free to pull up a chair, but keep your expectations low.

    Also, you should definitely pontificate on the Book of Mormon phrase “time only is measured unto men.” And on Heisenberg’s uncertainty (plus maybe Godel) vs. God’s omniscience.

  13. Here’s a wonderful review of previous tries at the same endeavor by Eyring, Fletcher, and Von Braun. The ten minute marks gives the same exact argument heard recently at conference. Looking forward to the series.

  14. Julie Reid says:

    Amen Brother!

  15. It is my belief that scientific and spiritual inquiry are essentially two sides of the same coin–the quest and desire for learning and acquiring a knowledge of truth. Both employ the same method merely using different labels. A belief is the hypothesis, faith–the exercise of which is action based upon belief–is the experiment. The results of the exercise of faith, the action taken, the experiment carried out, can be analyzed and evaluated and then conclusions drawn. Rinse and repeat, line upon line, precept upon precept.

  16. Looking forward to it, Ben F. I’ve approached some of these topics (particularly those in Genesis) from the other direction (my speciality is not science, but the Near Eastern background of the OT), often in my NYC Institute classes.

  17. Jeff G: I’m afraid that I may be too much of a physicist and too little of a philosopher to satisfy you, but I’ll do my best :). You’ve raised a couple of good points that I’d like to continue to think about before responding to.

    Brian: I am intrigued by your comment, but I’m too dense to understand exactly what you mean by the table of empty truths. Could you elucidate?

    C Rom: I’ve seen that figure before. Very interesting. Do you know if the results were normalized for educational level?

    Greg D: There is certainly a case to be made for processes of faith mirroring the empiricism of the scientific method, particularly in the Alma 32 understanding of faith. However, there is at least one major difference in my mind: repeatability. How often can you duplicate spiritual experiences on demand, let alone expect others to be able to reproduce your results? And yet this is perhaps the most important part of the scientific method. The biggest difficulty is recreating identical conditions under which the experiment of faith is performed–everyone has a different set of inner initial conditions based on experiences, upbringing, genetics, etc. That’s why faith is such an intensely personal thing, as it should be.

  18. Ben, it was a whimsical reference to the myriad attempts by mathematicians to equate God with mathematics in one way or another (e.g., the Pythagoreans [God = rationality, but irrationality exists, eek!], Kepler [God = geometry, but the universe doesn't fit the model, ugh!], Erdős [math is in the mind of God, but constructivism or any other form of non-Platonism, $%*+!], etc.), and their ultimate failure to find peace with the attempt. Many get into mathematics because they desperately want certainty and the field seems to offer that promise. However, it’s deeply unsatisfying from an epistemological level to dig deeply for truth and be constrained by the Münchhausen trilemma to rely on an axiomatic system which Gödel showed to be necessarily either incomplete or inconsistent. And there’s something that feels incongruous between Cantor’s work and the omni-traits we’re taught about God from our days in Primary. And there are countless other deep and troubling monsters that resist all attempts to be bedded by faith. It’s better, methinks, to just accept faith and math/science/whatever and not desperately strive for a way to reconcile the sides.

    Some phrase this need to reconcile science and religion as a modern problem, but mathematicians have been dealing with this kind of heartache for thousands of years and we’re here to tell you – we’re farther from a resolution now than we were when we started. I’ll read your attempts to provide possible scientific explanations (in the manner of Star Trek writers fixing an incongruity in a previous episode, I’d expect), but perhaps there’s something scientists could learn from the failed efforts of their mathematical colleagues.

  19. I see. I need to read up on these mathematical attempts at reconciliation–I have never delved into any of them, but they sound fascinating, if also frustrating and possibly disheartening. Do you believe that reconciliation has been achieved in whatever as yet unfathomed existence God leads?

  20. The difficulty with repeatability in faith is that there are too many uncontrollable variables involved, not the least of which is the will of God.

    I think the introduction of quantum physics has actually brought faith and science closer in this aspect. Quantum works a lot with probabilites, rather than hard “can do it every time” facts. If the tests aren’t matching your quantum estimations, you just adjust the math. Even the work in finding the Higgs Bosun they couldn’t get it to appear every time – they ust kept trying and hoped it would turn up sooner rather than later.

    To me, Heisenberg uncertainly is a cop-out much like the “mysteries of God’. We -can’t- know, so trying is just a waste of time. Best we can do is estimate and hope.

  21. Brian,

    “Ben, it was a whimsical reference to the myriad attempts by mathematicians to equate God with mathematics in one way or another (e.g., the Pythagoreans [God = rationality, but irrationality exists, eek!], Kepler [God = geometry, but the universe doesn't fit the model, ugh!], Erdős [math is in the mind of God, but constructivism or any other form of non-Platonism, $%*+!], etc.), and their ultimate failure to find peace with the attempt. Many get into mathematics because they desperately want certainty and the field seems to offer that promise. However, it’s deeply unsatisfying from an epistemological level to dig deeply for truth and be constrained by the Münchhausen trilemma to rely on an axiomatic system which Gödel showed to be necessarily either incomplete or inconsistent.”

    I am sincere in wanting to know your thoughts, but to someone like me with a mere B.S. degree, and outside the humanities/mathematics at that, your comment just appears to be pedantic gobbeldygook. Any chance you can tone it down for me and any other simpletons out there?

  22. Ben, I hope so, in that unfounded way only hope can exist.
    Sonny, others have likely already done better on the web, but I can give a brief overview. The Pythagoreans were essentially a cult who, in a very real way, equated the universe with numbers. Well, not all numbers, just counting numbers and their ratios (which they thought were all the numbers). Each number had a specific ontological meaning and the universe was composed of simply the sums, differences, products, and quotients of these numbers. But then came an airtight proof that a number existed that could not be expressed in this manner (specifically, sqrt(2)). This shook them to the point where many of them denied it and silenced (in all sorts of ways) those who brought it up. It was basically like the universe was saying – you believe in a God of sense, let me give you a creation of complete non-sense. It’s difficult for us to really appreciate how challenging this was to their faith, something akin to a modern day scientist proving (without doubt!, which is not possible, but anyway) that free will cannot exist. It undermined their entire view of reality.

    They got off lucky, however. Kepler’s story is a mess too, but we’ll fast-forward to the real meat, Kurt Gödel. You see, when a statement is made, logic demands a justification. But then this justification also requires justification, and so on. There are only three possibilities: 1) provide an infinite string of justifications (untenable for a variety of reasons), 2) justify two things with each other (circular reasoning), 3) or assume the truth of somethings without justification (the axiomatic system). Mathematicians work from #3, but Gödel showed something very disturbing about the nature of axiomatic systems – every axiomatic system that does exist or could exist that is at least sophisticated enough to handle arithmetic will contain claims that can neither be proven nor disproven without making the claims of the system contradict each other. That is, either you give up having the whole truth or else circumscribing it together. You can pick one, but it is logically impossible for a system to exist that does both. This means that if God operates with logic (an unvalidated presumption, I acknowledge), then he either does not know some things or some things he “knows” contradict each other.

    And that’s just the 2 minute overview!!!

  23. Did my previous comment go in the queue?

  24. J. Stapley says:

    Sorry about that Ben S., for some reason it got snagged in the spam filter.

  25. God sounds more and more embodied all the time…

  26. Feel free to suggest other topics in the comments

    A discussion of the Parsec as a measure of distance, time, and Priesthood worthiness would be helpful. It would unify physics and faith, and solve any outstanding Star Wars conundrums.

  27. Talon, FTW!

  28. Ben, I have an unrelated question if you don’t mind. I’ve been thinking very strongly about physics grad school and am wondering what life is like for an active LDS person. Are fellow students and professors respectful of your beliefs, or is there animosity? Being in the BYU bubble I don’t really know what to expect when I leave here.

  29. Steven, I have not had any negative experiences. Most of my colleagues and professors know I am Mormon and it doesn’t seem to bother them.

  30. Stephen, I am not in a physics program, but my experience in higher education has been that people generally are fine with my religion as long as I’m not a pushy jerk about it.

  31. I would love to hear more about light–how does relativity and the bending of space-time relate to what we read about light and time in the Doctrine and Covenants?
    Also, I’m kind of an NDE junkie (hey, we all have our vices), and reading so much about the spirit world makes me wonder if spiritual things are subject to physical laws at all, and if the spiritual plane can affect the physical one at all, and if so, how?

  32. I’ve always thought of kinda like faith begins where science ends. That’s not exact, but seems to work sometimes.

    I’m one of those who believes God uses scientific principles as a tool to do what he does. Even if God wrote some of those rules. I look forward to reading more.

  33. Brian and Ben –

    Goedel’s theory is extremely interesting, and ought to receive more interest among LDS scholars and theologians. Although we don’t really talk about, LDS theology (especially Joseph’s) solves problems by fundamentally choosing completion over consistency. It’s never either or; it’s always either and. It’s body and soul; individual and extended family/community; justice and mercy; autonomy and law; fall and redemption; personal revelation and hierarchical administrative order. We don’t worry about how far down the turtles have to go; the solution is found in the cosmic expansion of spheres of turtles that extend upwards.

  34. JohnVI: Interesting thought. I would also like to see more about Goedel’s theorem from qualified scholars. I expect its implications aren’t as devastating as one might suppose.

    KK (and Talon): Thanks for the suggestions!

    Ben S: Sounds interesting! I’d like to hear more.

  35. Ben F – I don’t want to be just a wet blanket, but don’t get your hopes up concerning Gödel Incompleteness Theorem. As far as logic goes, it is entirely devastating. Interestingly, Gödel himself had a staunch belief in God, though he never reconciled (or maybe never attempted to reconcile) the typical Judeo-Christian view of God with his work in logic. In fact, his writings towards the end of his life (which included attempts at logically rigorous proofs of the existence of God) suggest that he believed God was simply the greatest being in existence, and not necessarily limitless, all-knowing, etc. It’s also possible, however inconceivable, that God doesn’t operate with formal logic. I am actually surprised that Mormons haven’t made more inroads into the mathematical citadel than we have. There are dozens of famous Jewish mathematicians, but no famous Mormon mathematicians. I haven’t quite figured out why; we’re literal, peculiar people with a bent toward the abstract metaphysical. It’s hard to imagine a more fertile ground for budding mathematical scholars. Of course, we do have some real hang-ups when it comes to needing instant pragmatic applications…

  36. Maybe so, Brian. I don’t know enough about it to draw an informed conclusion for myself, but after a bit of reading on the internet and a couple of conversations with mathematician friends, my fears were slightly allayed. Slightly. Or maybe I’m just not enough of a philosopher to let this really trouble me.

  37. demon butterfly says:

    Gödel also starved himself to death because he was convinced people were poisoning his food. I’d take his religious beliefs with a handful of salt, and perhaps an entree.

  38. You should also include a discussion of how immortality can exist alongside entropy. And maybe the many-worlds interpretation of electron behavior.

  39. stargazer says:

    Actually I have always thought that immortality exists outside of entropy. My husband is a physics-type and objects to the idea that free will and quantum mechanics have conflict. Interested in your post on the topic. In addition there were 3 physics grad students in his year that were LDS and more have followed when the univ. hired an LDS professor in physics.

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