What Is the Attitude of the Church Toward Science?

This question, frequently asked, is readily answered.

The Church, the custodian of the gospel on earth, looks with full favor upon the attempts of men to search out the facts and laws of nature. It believes that men of science, seekers after truth, are often assisted by the Spirit of the Lord in such researches. It holds further that every scientific discovery may be incorporated into the gospel, and that, therefore there can be no conflict between true religion and correct science. The Church teaches that the laws of nature are but the immutable laws of the Creator of the universe.

This view has been held consistently by the Latter-day Saints from the organization of the Church. A revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1832, when science was yet in its swaddling clothes, declares:

 

And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.

Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand.

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; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms -- . . .

And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best book words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D. & C. 88:77, 78, 79, 118)

 

President Brigham Young frequently expressed support of the labors of men of science. For example, in one of his sermons he said:

 

I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science, and which are generally understood.... In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. (Discourses of Brigham Young, pp. 397, 398)

 

President Joseph F. Smith made similar statements:

 

We believe in all truth, no matter to what subject it may refer. No sect or religious denomination in the world possesses a single principle of truth that we do not accept or that we will reject. We are willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come; for truth will stand, truth will endure.... True science is that system of reasoning which brings to the fore the simple, plain truth. (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, pp. 1, 6)

 

The gospel and science have the same objective -- the discovery and possession of truth -- all truth -- hence follows the attitude of the Church toward science expressed at the head of this chapter. However, science has been content, until recently, to study the material universe, and to leave its findings without reference to their possible effect upon human conduct. The gospel on the other hand is primarily concerned with the manner in which truth is used in the spiritual field, that is, with human conduct. For example, science has discovered explosives of great power, and has shown how by their use rocks may be shattered or projectiles shot through the air, and has left this knowledge without comment as it its proper use. The gospel teaches that this new power be not used in warfare, for wars are evil, but that it be used in the peaceful arts of man. The gospel deals with right and wrong; science as yet has scarcely touched this field. The gospel accepts God as the author of all knowledge; science gathers facts and tries to interpret them, without reference to a Supreme Being. In short, the gospel is the more inclusive; present-day science, less inclusive. In the end, the two must become as one, for their common objective is truth.

The Church holds that the methods used by science to discover truth are legitimate. Indeed, all instruments and means developed for the exploration of nature are welcomed. The Church claims the right to employ, in addition, such processes as are peculiarly fitted to its search for truth in the spiritual domain, which in turn may become tools in the advancement of a future science freed from its present material bondage.

In this wholehearted acceptance of science, the Church makes, as must every sane thinker, two reservations:

First, the facts which are the building blocks of science must be honestly and accurately observed. In science, as in every human activity, dishonesty, carelessness, or aberrations of senses or mind may be encountered. The Church expects science to present accurately observed and fully corroborated facts. Loose methods of study are not acceptable. Indeed the vast body of scientific facts has been so carefully garnered that it may in the main be accepted without question.

Second, the interpretations of observed facts must be distinctly labeled as inferences, and not confused with facts. The human mind properly attempts to explain or interpret the phenomena of nature, the facts of observation. A pencil looks bent in a glass of water. Why? asks the eager thinking mind. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Why? Does the sun move around the earth, or does the earth revolve upon its axis, to give the effect of day and night? The answers to such questions are explanations or interpretations really inferences, often called hypotheses or theories. These do not have the certain value of facts, for they usually change as new facts are brought forward. For example, with the knowledge at his command, Newton advanced the theory that light consists of particles; later, Young explained the phenomena of light as forms of wave motion; today with increasing knowledge both of these theories are questioned, and another one is in the making. Meanwhile, the phenomena of light remain unchanged; they are the same today as in the time of Newton. Occasionally, but seldom, an inference such as the cause of night and day becomes so well supported by discovered facts that it assumes the dignity of a fact. Most inferences, however, are in a condition of constant change, due to the continuing accumulation of new knowledge.

Dr. Albert Einstein, author of the relativity theory, speaks of scientists as men who seek solutions of the mysteries in the book of nature (Einstein and Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, pp. 1, 5). He insists that nature's mystery story is not only still unsolved but may not have a final solution. All that man can do is to collect facts, arrange them in an orderly fashion, and then to make them understandable by "creative thought" -- that is, by the formulation of inferences, explanations, interpretations, hypotheses or theories, whatever the name may be.

In this particular do Latter-day Saints, in common with all thinkers, sound a warning to science. There must be a distinct segregation of facts and inferences in the utterances of scientific men. Readers of science should always keep this difference in mind. Even well-established inferences should not lose their inferential label. The facts discovered by an eminent investigator may be safely accepted; his explanations may be of doubtful value.

It is within recent time that Millikan and Compton, both Nobel prize winners, held widely differing explanations of the nature of "cosmic rays." And, recently, also, the discovery of the skull of a prehistoric ape with a set of human-like teeth has overthrown the inference that teeth are always true indications of the place of a fossil in the evolutionary scale. With respect to this latter matter, there was pathos in the remark of the famous anthropologist, Sir Arthur Keith, that "This discovery has destroyed the finer points we anthropologists depend on for drawing the line between anthropoid and man.

In summary: The Church supports and welcomes the growth of science. It asks only that the facts of science be as accurately determined as human powers permit, and that confusion between facts of science and inferences of science be earnestly avoided.

The religion of the Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth, nor to scientific search for truth.


(John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 139-142.)

 

 

 
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