Faith and Science as Ways of Knowing: Dealing With the Ostensible Conflicts
By design, mortality is intended to be an experience in uncertainty. Thus Alma, in teaching the poor among the Zoramites about “knowing,” said of faith:
Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.1
Faith is the basic operative principle of mortality and, as Alma’s definition explicitly points out, “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things” —thus confirming that mortality, by nature, requires that we must experience and learn to accommodate some measure of uncertainty in our lives. However, we mortals are inherently inclined to absolutes – uncertainty makes us terribly uncomfortable. But through faith—always anchored in truth—we can take heart and lay claim to the dual blessings of knowledge and divine wisdom. The Lord gives us knowledge according to our faith and spiritual preparedness. Some things are wisely withheld—simply because we are not prepared; however, in our yearning to know “perfectly” we often second guess the Lord and fabricate our own interpretation of the truth—a potentially dangerous course. Still, we are commanded to seek after knowledge—knowledge about things spiritual and things temporal.2 Indeed, the potentialities of eternal life demand that we faithfully seek after all truth.3 The central key to the meaningful pursuit of knowledge is to be consistently committed to “[following] the counsel of God.” Unfortunately, all too often we become entangled in our foolishness and assume because we “are learned [that we] are [also] wise.” But in our failure to “hearken … unto the counsel of God”4 we sadly disconnect ourselves from the revelations and wisdom of God.4
As a scientist and, more specifically, as a biologist, I have spent more than thirty years carefully considering various ideas and theories within my discipline. In some cases I have conducted experiments, collected and analyzed data, and finally interpreted the data to the best of my ability—all with the intent of better understanding how living things function and interact with one another and the physical environment that defines the boundaries of their existence. I have come to understand and accept the limitations of science as a way of knowing; I fully realize that there are some questions I cannot answer scientifically due to the inherent constraints of the scientific method. I have also come to understand and appreciate the fact that the scientific process never yields absolute answers; every idea and theory, no matter how well supported, is always open to further investigation and interpretation based on new data. Finally, I have come to see that there are times when there are gaps in my knowledge that cannot be effectively answered in the scientific context, ideas that require additional knowledge that is at times beyond both the scope of science and current revelation. At these times, I step back from the edge and realize that, when the knowledge of science is inadequate and eternal laws and truths have not yet been fully revealed, I must apply my faith with confidence (hope) that at some future point that piece of the puzzle will be revealed and all the appropriate connections will come into focus. I may even speculate a bit about possible answers and connections, but I am always careful to never “wax” myself or God into a corner defined by my imperfect interpretations.
In all honesty, I have never encountered any idea or theory in science that threatened or challenged my faith. Why? Because there are a few things that are central to my testimony and I diligently protect and sustain them with my faith. For example, I know that God lives, and I know that His Son, Jesus Christ, is both the Creator and Savior of the world. These are gifts given to me and regularly renewed for me by the Holy Ghost. With this knowledge firmly in place, I find that I am free to explore and examine any combination of spiritual and/or temporal questions. There are times when I think I might have reached a plausible conclusion about an issue or question, but I carefully protect myself from the tendency to deal in absolutes. I am always open to more data and more revelation as I seek to refine and purify my knowledge. I am also perfectly willing to leave the resolution of some issues to a future “celestial classroom” where “perfect knowledge” will surely abound and where “perfect love casteth out all fear.”5
Sadly, there are some science-related issues that have become contentious and have precipitated relentless and largely unproductive debate, and, tragically, some souls have been lost in the heat of the battle. In most cases the arguments from both sides have ignored the simple fact that there are inherent limitations to both science and faith—science can never prove anything absolutely and faith is always constrained by some degree of uncertainty. One such idea is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Below are some of the patterns I have used to minimize conflict while providing a working model for understanding both the science and faith sides of the creation discussion:
The Church’s stand on evolution is relatively simple and incredibly wise in light of the fact that the scriptures contain so little detailed information about the creative process. In a nutshell, the Church’s official stand is: 1) Jesus Christ is the Creator, organizing and setting in motion the Universe in general and our solar system and earth in particular; 2) the Creator and the creative process strictly conform to natural and eternal laws; and 3) humans are the literal spiritual offspring of God the Father. The facts as to the age of the earth and the processes of creation are not described in sufficient detail in the scriptures to prove or discount evolution as a mechanism for the origin and diversification of life on earth. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, science is limited in terms of the kinds of questions it can accurately address. For example, it cannot research the possibility of a creator or in any way seriously seek to generate scientific data that could be used to confirm or discount the existence of a creator. Unfortunately, some on both sides of the issue try to push beyond the limitations of their “discipline” to lay claim to a “broader” and more “complete” interpretation of the question. However, it is incumbent upon all of us to stick to the “rules” and avoid the human inclination for overreach, for both the scientist and the faithful to diligently define and declare their personal interpretations within the real limits of their “discipline.”
Personally, as a devout member of the Church and a dedicated scientist, I do not see any serious conflicts between the process of evolutionary change and the scripture-based interpretation of the creative process. It is true that there are areas of uncertainty, things we simply don’t understand. However, at this point I am willing to use my faith to cover the uncertainty while patiently waiting for a day and time when the full connections and relationship are revealed. At that point, regardless of my own interpretations, I will without hesitation celebrate the truth!
Furthermore, I personally believe that information about the creative process is limited for a very good reason: humans are all-too-often easily distracted from the core purposes of mortality; we already spend far too little time on faith, charity, hope, forgiveness, and the atonement, while wasting untold hours on things that are of far less consequence. Frankly, at this point I have decided that I don’t need the details of creation. There are weightier matters that I need to focus on. That said, while keeping my priorities properly aligned, I am grateful for the opportunity to explore and contemplate the gifts of science, including the possibilities of organic evolution as a mechanism for the development and diversification of life on earth. Finally, one of the most important decisions I have made over the course of my life is to remember and follow the kindly admonition of President Eyring— “Great faith has a short shelf life”6 —and to make sure that, in all my getting of knowledge, I daily take care of my relationship with the Father and the Son.
1 Alma 32:21 (emphasis mine).
2 See Doctrine and Covenants 88:76-80.
3 See Doctrine and Covenants 93:24-28.
4 See 2 Nephi 9:29.
5 See Ether 3:19-20 and Moroni 8:16.
6 “Spiritual Preparedness: Start Early and Be Steady” Liahona, Nov. 2005, 37-40.
Larry St. Clair is a professor of integrative biology, the curator of non-vascular cryptogams, and director of the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University.
He was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in June of 1950, and his family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in November of 1952. He lived in Roanoke until he was five years old, but spent the next thirteen years of his life moving around to various military bases, beginning with Fort Belvoir, in northern Virginia, and including a three-year tour of duty in Naples, Italy.
Professor St. Clair has always loved plants, a gift that he says was given to him by his mother. He graduated from BYU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany, and subsequently received a Ph.D. from the Department of Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. He has conducted studies in the general area of cryptogamic botany, with an emphasis on algae, cyanobacteria, and lichens. (The Herbarium of Non-Vascular Cryptogams in the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum includes over 100,000 specimens.) His research efforts involve the use of lichens as bioindicators of air quality, and the ecology and restoration of soil crust communities. He has published more than seventy-five research papers in scientific journals, as well as A Color Guidebook to Common Rocky Mountain Lichens, which includes color images and descriptive information for almost two hundred lichen species. He previously chaired BYU’s Department of Biology for five years.
Dr. St. Clair served as a full-time missionary in the Japan Okinawa Mission. He and his wife, the former Rieta Cheney, of Gooding, Idaho, were married in December 1971, in the Idaho Falls Temple, and they now have six children and twelve grandchildren. He has served as a bishop twice, and currently serves as first counselor in the BYU 58th Ward. He loves to read, and dearly loves the outdoors; he spends most of each summer hiking and working in the national parks and wilderness areas of western North America.
Posted January 2010