According to the on-line Oxford Dictionary, science is defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”[i] In short, science works by interpreting data, and data is typically collected through observations (using eyes, computers, microscopes, etc.).
Thousands of years ago, in the early days of human history, our ancestors could see that the sun, moon, planets, and stars moved across the sky. Direct observation demonstrated that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. In winter months, the days became shorter, and in the summer, longer. The Milky Way also rises from the horizon. North Americans watch the ribbon of stars arch into the sky, nearly paralleling the horizon in the winter months, and arching straight overhead during the summer months.
Very early humans recorded the movement of these celestial objects. NASA, for example, points to the discovery of an ancient lunar calendar that dates to about 32,000 B.C.[ii] The ancient Egyptians likewise had an annual calendar that was based on the “rhythms of the farming year.”[iii] The “morning rising of Sirius or the morning setting of Pleiades, were taken as announcing the Nile flood or as a reminder to plough.”[iv]
All evidence, and the direct eye-witness observations of millions of people all over the world, testified that celestial objects moved above the Earth. Any argument for an alternative interpretation of the observable data would have been preposterous. In fact, when the Greek mathematician and astronomer Aristarchus (about 300 B.C.) suggested that the Earth revolved around the sun (rather than the sun around the Earth), his arguments were rejected because they didn’t fit the prevailing understanding of the cosmos.
It was nearly 2000 years later before Copernicus revived the theory in the mid-1500s (and his writings, like Aristarchus before him, were initially rejected by many people). The Copernicus model was imperfect, however, and it wasn’t until Kepler suggested elliptical orbits (instead of circular orbits) that some of the problems began to fade. In 1632 Galileo could support the Copernicus/Kepler model with observations made through the newly invented telescope.
For thousands of years before Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, humans were technically “wrong” regarding what they saw with their very eyes. They weren’t wrong that the sky seemed to move, and they weren’t wrong knowing when to plant and harvest, but they didn’t have a complete understanding as to how the sky appeared to move. Sixteenth-century astronomers added information to the undeniable fact that the sky appears to move, by showing that the universe was not geocentric (Earth-centered), but rather that the universe was heliocentric (sun-centered). While the demarcation between accurate and inaccurate might be debated, I see the Copernicus/Kepler resolution as building on previously accurate beliefs, and correcting erroneous beliefs. There really is an Earth, a sun, a moon, planets, and stars, and they somehow move in predictable patterns with very real relationships to each other.
In our modern world, more modifications were made thanks to better astronomical tools. We now know that a heliocentric universe is also incorrect. Our planets orbit around the sun, but the universe doesn’t. Our solar system orbits around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, and our galaxy is just one of perhaps a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe.[v] Each new refinement comes, in part, by building on the discoveries and calculations of previous scientists, as well as continually improved technology (or tools) which offer greater access to understanding the space in which we live.
Even though scientific understanding has evolved tremendously in the course of human history, each generation is typically pretty confident that they have the answers (or are, at least, headed in the right direction). While the humble and inquisitive can acknowledge that we still have a lot to learn, it’s human nature to believe that we are probably right. It’s hard to imagine that some of our cherished truths might be overturned or drastically altered with additional discoveries—but some of them will.
While we know more today (scientifically) and have achieved more in modern times (technologically) than we might have even imaged tens of thousands of years ago, I find it fascinating that the more we learn and achieve, the more we discover, ironically, that there is an even greater collective of things which are unknown.
It’s as if we achieve knowledge and technology by discovering a new doorway, but each door we open leads to the discovery of enormous storerooms filled with new data and information that needs exploration and answers. We might reach inside some of the rooms to examine and learn about those things contained therein, but we are never quite able to learn the full details of everything inside every room.
Sometimes, there are doorways within those rooms that lead to new related, yet undiscovered, information. And as we examine the few bits of things we can analyze and measure, new doors are opened just down the hall and we again peek into storerooms full of new mysteries. The opening of doors to the unknown seems to outpace those things which we can fully comprehend. The pursuit of such mysteries is exciting—especially as puzzles are solved and pieces come together—but is also never-ending.
One of the theoretical pursuits of science is to find the “theory for everything”—a unifying principal or paradigm that explains everything. We want to understand the overall structure of the building which houses all the doors, the rooms to which they lead, and the furnishings within. We hope—or at least suspect—that there may be a unifying set of laws that govern everything. But in the meantime, we find that some of the different rooms seem to have laws which don’t cooperate with the laws in other rooms.
A few years ago, I read a book entitled, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, by Dr. Lisa Randall. Randall is one of America’s leading scientists on theoretical particle physics and cosmology, and her religious beliefs seem to be on the continuum somewhere between agnostic and atheist. Nevertheless, she recognizes that a turf war between science and religion can be avoided if we realize that the two perspectives don’t necessarily pitch their tents in the same campground. “Science is not religion. We’re not going to be able to answer the ‘why’ questions. … Religion asks questions about morals, whereas science just asks questions about the natural world.”[vi]
I’ve often heard those who lean toward the agnostic/atheist point of view as saying something to the effect: “I don’t believe that feelings are accurate barometers of truth”—and by “feelings” they are, of course, referring to spiritual promptings, manifestations, revelations, inspirations, or any other communication which comes via supernatural discourse or impressions.
The problems with such a claim, however, are numerous. First, I personally don’t believe that “feelings” accurately describes how I’ve received spiritual enlightenment (although this is a topic for another time). Secondly, all humans incorporate “feelings” in their decision-making process (yes, even scientists—which is part of the reason that science occasionally reverses the conclusions of previous positions). Thirdly, “truth” doesn’t universally describe all conclusions (which are often temporary points of consensus) in all fields of knowledge (including spiritual knowledge).
As noted above, there is yet to be discovered a “theory for everything,” and we often run into seemingly conflicting laws in the world of physics. Randall explains, for example, that “Newton’s laws are instrumental and correct, but they cease to apply at or near the speed of light where Einstein’s theory applies. Newton’s laws are at the same time both correct and incomplete. They apply over a limited domain.”[vii] This, in some ways, is not unlike what we find with the moving sky, moving Earth, and moving solar system models. All three positions have validity depending on one’s perspective and ability to measure and observe.
“As scales decrease,” notes Randall, “matter seems to be governed by properties so different that they appear to be part of entirely different universes.”[viii] Newton’s laws work well for the types of things he was able to observe (and the same kinds of things we can observe today) but at very small distances the rules change and we have to apply quantum mechanics. Likewise, at extremely high speeds the rules of relativity take over. With the enormous densities of black holes, we must turn to general relativity.[ix]
The rules and principles of quantum mechanics, string theories, and general relativity are theoretical tools to help us better understand our world and the cosmos. Just as the telescope helped humans understand the solar system, the microscope helped us understand the miniature world around us, and as DNA helps us understand our physical relationship to life on this planet, so likewise tools such as the Large Hadron Collider (nearly 600 feet underground, beneath the France-Switzerland border) help us understand the early formation of the universe.
The right tool is needed for each different job. We can’t measure heat with a hammer, or weight with a yardstick. When it comes to understanding spiritual truths, we must use spiritual tools such as humility, scriptures study, and prayer. There are currently no scientific tools available to examine the existence of God or the reality of the Resurrection.
Conversely, it’s important to recognize that the Holy Ghost reveals all of those that are “expedient,” or necessary, to return to God (D&C 75:10), not necessarily those things which explain quarks, black holes, gravity, Earth’s diversity of life, or even Book of Mormon geography. Revelation on scientific principles are typically not “expedient” for our divine family reunion.
The late scientist, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, advocated what he termed “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) for the supposed conflict between science and religion. Gould defined “magisteria”—a term he borrowed from Pope John Paul II—as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful dialogue and resolution.”[x] While not all of his atheist friends agreed with Gould, the scholar argued that the domains of religion and science don’t overlap.
NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.[xi]
Truth is truth, and while the Holy Ghost may certainly prompt or inspire scientists and scholars, we should be open to accepting the scientific discoveries about the natural world because science offers the best tools for discovering those truths. As Joseph Smith said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”[xii]
While Randall sees no reason to believe in a God, and although she agrees that scientific tools cannot measure the existence of a divine being, she nevertheless believes that God, if He exists, should leave some sort of fingerprint on those things which can be measured by science. “…it is inconceivable from a scientific perspective,” she writes, “that God could continue to intervene without introducing some material trace of his actions.”[xiii] If Randall knew me and my religious beliefs, she might be surprised to find that I agree with her.
I personally believe that there is a grand unifying theory for everything; that there are top-tier laws and principles which govern all areas of physics. I also believe, however, that the grand unifying theory for everything governs all facets in our universe, including not only the physical world, but also the unseen world of the spiritual realm, and the moral codes of the divine realm. This grand law, is the law of God. Like the pinnacle of a pyramid, it sits above all other subordinate laws, including those physical laws discovered in science. If we fully understood the grand divine law, we would see that the spiritual world, moral principles, and physics are intertwined and are not—in the big scheme of existence—contrary to the other laws.
The problem is that we simply don’t know enough about physics, the cosmos, and our own material universe to confidently state with certainty that God’s imprint is absent. Before we understood those light waves which are invisible to human eyes, those waves were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. While we can’t see—with the unaided eye—x-rays or infrared light, we know they exist because we’ve discovered tools which can measure or “see” them.
Thanks to physics, we do understand more about our world and cosmos than at any other time in the past (even if that understanding is incomplete). Scientists are aware, however, that there are many more things we really don’t understand. The stuff in the universe that interacts with light, notes Randall, “constitutes only about four percent of the energy density of the universe. About 23 percent of its energy is carried by something known as dark matter that has yet to be positively ID’d.”[xiv] Dark matter somehow interacts—albeit weakly—with matter we know. Detecting it, however, has thus far remained elusive.
“Even more mysterious than dark matter,” Randall continues, “is the substance that constitutes the remaining 73 percent and that has become known as dark energy.”[xv] Einsteinian equations for the universe are based, in part, on the matter and energy found in the universe. These equations show that some other energy—“not carried by matter… particles or other stuff”—is required to exist. The conclusion is based on the observations and “measurements of the characteristics of the universe.” This dark energy “doesn’t clump like conventional matter. It doesn’t dilute as the universe expands but maintains a constant density. The expansion of the universe is slowly accelerating as a consequence of this mysterious energy, which resides throughout the universe, even if it were empty of matter.”[xvi]
Dark energy and dark matter are possibly the mere tips of enormous icebergs of undiscovered properties and laws in our universe (or perhaps just in our dimension). Most scientists who have spent any time studying what we know about the universe, seem open to the possibility that there may be multiple universes, or even multiple dimensions in our own universe. “…space,” Randall explains, “might contain more than the three dimensions we know about: up-down, forward-backward, and left-right. In particular, it could contain entirely unseen dimensions that hold the key to understanding particle properties and masses.”[xvii]
I’m a big fan of science and I believe that science, as a self-correcting discipline, is moving closer to truths about how the diversity of life developed on Earth, and how our planet and perhaps the universe was formed. As a human institution, scientific explorations have, at times, stumbled, changed positions, or hit dead ends—but then so have more than a few of our religious beliefs for the simple fact that we can’t help but see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12; once again, a topic for another time).
Overall, I believe that scientific truths are part of God’s universal grand truth. Not only don’t we need to fear the discoveries which science brings to light, but we need to embrace those discoveries—even if it means reexamining religious traditions that are based on human assumptions.
With so much left to learn and discover, I think it’s a bit naïve to claim that God’s fingerprint is missing from the physical world. We have not yet discovered all the tools we need to measure the physical world. When, or if, we ever do, I suspect that God’s fingerprint will be as visible as a human fingerprint under ultraviolet light. Until that day comes, however, God has already given us the right tools to know that He is there. It’s found in all religions and in all cultures.
All people of the Earth—at every stage of known history—are given the ability to seek and find God through the spiritual practices of their culture, and according to the spiritual light available. The answer to God’s existence may also come packaged in the cultural raiment of those seeking spiritual enlightenment (another topic for another discussion). God grants all His children a door which can be opened to feel his presence—a door that can be reached by every normal human, regardless of their status or stature. Neither technological abundance, nor scientific deficiency, impacts access to spiritual tools. While I believe that the revelatory tool is as much a part of God’s universal law as is our embryonic understanding of physics, this “expedient” tool is all that is necessary to mark the path which ultimately leads back to the Father.
[i] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/science (accessed 9 February 2017).
[ii] “The Oldest Lunar Calendars,” https://sservi.nasa.gov/articles/oldest-lunar-calendars/ (accessed 9 February 2017).
[iii] John Romer, Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom, V2 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017), 97.
[iv] Bartel L. van der Waerden, Science Awakening II: The Birth of Astronomy (Noordhoff International Publishing, 1974), 13.
[vi] Quoted by Corey S. Powell, “The Discover Interview: Lisa Randall,” Discover (July 2006), at http://discovermagazine.com/2006/jul/interview-randall/ (accessed 9 February 2017).
[vii] Lisa Randall, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (Harper Collins Publishing, 2012; Kindle Edition), 8.
[viii] Ibid., 69.
[ix] Ibid., 71.
[x] Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 199), 3.
[xi] Ibid., 9-10.
[xii] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5:499.
[xiii] Randall, 50-51.
[xiv] Ibid., 119-120.
[xv] Ibid., 122.
[xvi] Ibid., 123.
[xvii] Ibid., 119.
Michael R. Ash is the author of: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting The Prophet Joseph Smith. He is the owner and operator of MormonFortress.com and is on the management team for FairMormon. He has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and is the author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. He and his wife live in Ogden, Utah, and have three daughters.