Faith, fidelity, faithfulness

Sam Brown is an historian, scholar, author and medical doctor. His latest work, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith In Light of the Temple is now available, and is a publication of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Sam will be at a book reading and signing at the King’s English bookstore on Nov. 5 (details here). It’s an excellent book, and while a review is forthcoming, here is an excerpt to tide you over.

Faith, Alma explained, requires an experiment upon the word of the gospel [1]. The image of experimenting is powerful, but it can easily be misunderstood.

We have spent so much time in an era of science and technology that we think of experiments in exclusively scientific terms. I perform experiments in my own work as a medical researcher. Properly designed and executed, scientific experiments allow us to contribute to general understanding. We perform experiments in the hopes that we will discover something that is generally applicable, something that will yield identical results in the hands of other scientists. These experiments work by dividing complex phenomena into simpler parts and then probing those parts to see how they operate under different conditions. This technique, called reductionism, is highly useful for confronting certain kinds of scientific problems. Most of modern medical technology, as well as nuclear physics and atomic warfare, has come to us through reductionism. But the experiment of faith requires something very different from reductionist science. We live our lives and come unto God as whole beings, not as subjects of reductionist cognitive psychology experiments. Our lives are more complex than reductionist techniques can describe.

This is an important distinction to make because I sometimes hear people explain to me that “science” tells them we have no choice in our belief. This assertion reminds me of traditional Calvinist dogma about election—that there is a force outside us that compels our choices and actions against our will. As a scientist, I believe this view is simply wrong. I believe that science is powerful and important and I am delighted at the benefits we derive from it. But the claim that science indicates there is no place for choice in faith and human experience is based on a basic misunderstanding of both science and faith. Science is a set of techniques for slowly whittling away at the unknown, but it does not tell us what to do as we whittle. Nor does it tell us what it means to be human. Bringing meaning to bear on a set of facts is always an act of faith. Because science is incomplete and will never be able to tell us what it means to be human, science cannot in itself elect us to belief or unbelief. The mechanisms we find through science are not the meaning of our lives. This seems worth repeating: mechanism is not meaning. That cognitive neuroscientists have traced blood as it flows preferentially to certain parts of the brain during a religious experience does not tell us what that experience means. We can expect uncertainty on the basis of reason and logic and science, especially about the questions that matter most. Those who are good at and committed to science are perhaps most aware of that fact and are often skilled at living with uncertainty and finding solutions to the problems within their reach. What do we do when we lack perfect evidence, when we do not have complete answers? Committing to each other, to our shared faith, is a glorious exercise of agency in the face of life’s uncertainty. The choice of faith—truly active and truly transformative—makes the difference.

Science itself contains some possibilities for understanding that meaning can be distinct from mechanism. Physical descriptions of how the brain might work can be entirely compatible with faith. Sarah Street, a young LDS professor of neuroscience, has expressed well the ways that the mechanisms of perception and their adaptation over the course of an individual’s life can be a part of the process of committing to God and to the Church. Street sees the ways that the mind alters perception over time, through subtle changes in the electrical circuits of the brain, as suggesting something rather like Aristotle’s views of the virtues or Jonathan Edwards’s understanding of the effect of grace on perception. What we practice seeing is what we become able to see. Based on fairly basic principles of human physiology, we should expect that we will see most clearly the things that we practice seeing. By simple analogy, faith can be the kind of spiritual practice by which we cultivate our ability to see what actually matters in life.

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[1] See the thoughtful essays on Alma 32 in Adam Miller, ed., An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Salem, OR: Salt Press, 2011).

Comments

  1. I’m delighted to see my friend Sarah Street mentioned here. Read her interview for the Mormon Women Project: http://www.mormonwomen.com/2013/12/12/understanding-what-is-real/

  2. Thanks for the link, Jason. I should add that Sam frequently references the Mormon Women Project throughout First Principles and Ordinances.

    Having worked on the book as an editor I’m really happy to finally see it in print. It comes out on the 17th and it’s available for pre-order now on Amazon (http://amzn.to/1uqMZAR), or SLC folks can pick up a copy tomorrow at the book signing tomorrow.

  3. My man John A. Widtsoe would agree with you, Sam. He frequently cautioned people to “distinguish carefully between facts and inferences” — facts being the demonstrated results of scientific experimentation, and inferences being the meanings (right or wrong) that we impose on those facts. Because he was certain of heaven-granted free agency, no set of facts would have justified, to him, an inference that the physical mechanism of the brain could rule out choice and will and faith.

  4. Thanks. MWP was a great source for contemporary stories of LDS. I’m hopeful that this devotional work proves useful to other Mormons.