Professor Ball has kindly permitted us to use the following text, which is adapted from Terry B. Ball, “Faith and the Scientific Method,” in Approaching a School in Zion: Proceedings of the Third Annual Laying the Foundations Symposium (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1994), 127-133.
The Reverend John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge professor of physics and a truly world-class scientist, once expressed a dilemma experienced by many scientists who are also persons of faith with the following observation:
There is a popular caricature which sees the scientist as ever open to the correcting power of new discovery and, in consequence, achieving the reward of real knowledge, whilst the religious believer condemns himself to intellectual imprisonment within the limits of an opinion held on a priori grounds, to which he will cling whatever facts there might be to the contrary. The one is the man of reason; the other blocks the road of honest inquiry with a barrier labeled “incontestable revelation”…. If that were really so, those of us who are both scientists and religious believers… would be living schizophrenically, believing the impossible on Sundays and only opening our minds again on Monday mornings.1
In recent times, religious scientists have not only had to so defend their faith in God and revelation, but also frequently find their commitment to scientific principles unjustly questioned. A Georgia judge, arguing against the teaching of evolution in school, offered an over-zealous polemic that illustrates the point well. Making absurd accusations about the effect of Darwin’s theories on society, the judge claimed that the “monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornotherapy, pollution, poisoning, and proliferation of crimes of all types.”2 Such pejorative and irrational rhetoric only serves to fan the flames of hostility between science and religion while deepening the dilemma for men and women devoted to both disciplines.
Many members of the Church, past and present, though, illustrate the fact that one can indeed harmonize secular scientific learning and spiritual development. Some, for example, though trained as scientists, have provided great ecclesiastical leadership to the Church, like the apostles John A. Widtsoe, a chemist and agronomist; James E. Talmage, a geologist; Joseph F. Merrill, a chemical engineer; Russell M. Nelson, a physician; and Richard G. Scott, a nuclear engineer.3 Others, while maintaining faith in the restored gospel, have made significant contributions to their scientific fields, like the physicist Philo T. Farnsworth, whose research led to the development of television; the chemist Henry Eyring, who developed the Absolute Rate Theory (or Transition State Theory) of chemical reactions; and the physicist Harvey Fletcher, who pioneered the development of stereophonic sound reproduction.4 As Elder Widtsoe taught, “The Church supports and welcomes the growth of science…. The religion of the Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth nor to scientific search for truth.”5
One area of persistent tension between science and religion is that of the relationship between faith and the scientific method. Among practicing scientists there is a wide variety of opinions on the nature of that relationship. A review of the basic philosophies of the two most opposing schools of thought on the issue is helpful in understanding the controversy. For the sake of convenience I will refer to one extreme as scientific atheism, and to the other as scientific theism.
Although the term scientific atheism is usually associated with the Marxist-Leninist world outlook, the term can appropriately be used to describe the extreme position of those scientists who insist that there is, and can be, no relationship between faith and the scientific method.6 Three basic propositions seem to lead them to this conclusion. First, they tend to believe that the scientific method is a supremely efficient and reliable tool for discovering truth. As one author describes it, they wish to view the scientific method as a “methodological threshing machine in which the flail of experiment separates the grain of truth from the chaff of error.”7
This confidence in the efficiency and reliability of the scientific method naturally leads them to a second proposition, which is that the scientific method in and by itself can answer any kinds of questions. As the nuclear chemist Jan Rydberg professed, “Science has no limits. There are no questions it should not approach.”8
With the assurance that the scientific method can efficiently answer all kinds of questions, scientific atheists arrive at a third proposition, which is that there is no need for faith or religion on the part of one skilled at using the scientific method in the pursuit of truth. This proposition was well illustrated by Pierre-Simon Laplace (d. 1827) when, as tradition has it, in response to Napoleon’s observation that he had failed to mention God in his book on the origin of the universe, he said, “Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis.”9
Not only do scientific atheists claim no need for faith, they also declare that any conclusions based on faith are categorically unscientific. As Leonid Brezhnev (d. 1982) proclaimed to the Soviet Central Committee, “True science takes nothing on faith.”10 This philosophy leads it adherents to reject any superhuman source of enlightenment and to disallow any data that cannot be perceived and described by the temporal senses. The final conclusion drawn by those who accept these propositions was well illustrated by the German physicist Wilhelm Westphal when he lamented:
If there is a God, then I am very sorry to say that he has never revealed himself to me. He could have done this, in fact he should have. But he didn’t. Therefore I became an atheist.11
Jan Rydberg confessed that he had arrived at the same conclusion when he declared “I do not need a God,” and “I have no use for religion.”12
In contrast to the faithless philosophies of the scientific atheists, those who support the tenets of the school of thought I call scientific theism feel that a practitioner of the scientific method need not abandon faith. Although they are willing to agree that the scientific method is an efficient and reliable research tool, they do not believe that it is supremely or unquestionably so. In recognizing that the scientific method does not always yield unchallengeable truth, the chemist John Friedrich offers this disclaimer:
Scientists are quite often misquoted in the area of certainty. I don’t believe anything is absolutely certain. Things are more or less certain depending upon the data which we have to support a given conclusion. If there is a sufficient amount of data supporting some conclusion, and no contradictory data, then we say with a certain degree of certainty that it is a true reliable conclusion.13
Dr. Bernard Waldman carried the thought further when he suggested that there are some scientists who, not realizing the limits of the scientific method, are “brash and very sure of what they are doing and how they have solved all the problems.” But, he continued, in his discipline of physics, “the people who make the major contributions and the major breakthroughs are remarkably humble.”14 In recognizing the limits of the scientific method, scientific theists are also willing to admit that there are some questions that it simply cannot address. While serving as the dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Willis Worcester asserted that these questions often deal with issues of faith, saying that
There are people who feel that everything can be explained on a purely scientific basis, but all of them eventually run into unanswerable questions, questions of their own origin, of the earth’s origin, of their ultimate fate, which simply cannot be answered on the basis of any currently known scientific method.15
Some proponents of scientific theism are willing to suggest not only that one can utilize the scientific method without abandoning faith, but that, in reality, a kind of faith can play an important role in the scientific method itself. A former dean of the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robert Alberty, expressed the principle this way:
Faith is not too different from a part of the regular life of the scientist. If he didn’t have faith that experiments can be reproduced and that the human mind is competent to learn more and that somehow things can be rationalized, he wouldn’t go into the lab. All these acts of faith are necessary to the scientist. Maybe he doesn’t look at it as faith, but it really is. This doesn’t necessarily make him accept things easily, but it’s wrong to think that he operates by some kind of cold calculating logic. Good scientists are highly intuitive and don’t follow rigid logic. They have a great feel for things, as opposed to a detailed mastery. We present it to our students as if it were all coldly factual, but that’s not the way the frontier of science is.16
What Alberty would call intuition, others have called inspiration. The Norwegian physicist Ole Gjotterud said, “I feel that science is the process of asking questions and trying to answer them critically, but also with inspiration.”17 This inspiration is a source of enlightenment that would be discounted by many scientific atheists because it can neither be quantified nor described in terms of the physical senses.
The willingness of scientific theists to recognize that faith and inspiration can play a role in the pursuit of truth facilitates their belief in the divine. Many confess that the further they progress in their scientific investigations, the greater their faith in, and conviction of, a supreme being. Alberty said that it is this very phenomenon that “keeps God alive for scientists.”18 Atomic physicist Dr. Jules Duchesne agrees, as he concludes that “The scientist’s universe has become so large, so wonderful, so unexpected, he almost needs a God.”19 Perhaps the best response to the arguments of the scientific atheist was offered by the Nobel Prize winning German physicist Max Born (d. 1970) when he simply declared, “Those who say that the study of science makes a man an atheist must be rather silly people.”20
In my own experience as both a teacher of religion and a researcher in a scientific field, three principles have been especially beneficial in helping me recognize a harmonious relationship between faith and the scientific method:
Principle One: Faith enhances the truths learned through the scientific method.
Henry Eyring introduced this principle well when he wrote:
The scientific method which has served so brilliantly in unravelling the mysteries of this world must be supplemented by something else if we are to enjoy to the fullest the blessings that have come of the knowledge gained. It is the great mission and opportunity of religion to teach men “the way, the truth, the life,” that they might utilize the discoveries of the laboratory to their blessing and not to their destruction.21
Eyring’s teachings suggest that when the discoveries of the scientific method become working partners with faith each enhances the other to the blessing of mankind.
Principle Two: Faith has an application in the scientific method as well as in religion.
While teaching the Zoramites, the Book of Mormon prophet Alma declared that “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” (Alma 32:21). In other words, Alma taught that one can have real faith neither in something that is directly visible nor in something that is not true. This observation leads to the question: How then does one know if something not seen is true? An answer can be found in the definition of faith attributed to Paul in the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Paul’s definition suggests that one can have hope for and faith in a thing not seen, by examining the evidence of its existence. For example, though one has not seen God, the witness of the Holy Ghost can provide sufficient spiritual evidence necessary to develop faith in His existence. Moreover, many have testified that temporal evidence for the existence of God can be found in the complexity and wonders of his creations.
This principle of faith, that through observation of evidences one can have confidence in the existence of something not directly seen, has found similar application in science. For example no scientist has ever seen electrons, yet the evidence of their travel through a bubble chamber testifies of their existence.22 In similar fashion, long before the planet Neptune was ever viewed in a telescope, Adams and Leverrier were able to predict its existence by the evidence of its gravitational influence on the planet Uranus.23 By Paul’s definition both Adams and Leverrier exercised a principle of faith in their scientific investigations. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Principle Three: The scientific method and the paradigm for developing faith are remarkably similar.
The scientific method is often outlined in four steps. First, the scientist forms a hypothesis. Second, he conducts an experiment to test the hypothesis. Third, he evaluates the data from the experiment, and, fourth, he draws a conclusion.
In the paradigm for developing faith as outlined in the thirty-second chapter of Alma in the Book of Mormon, some cognates to this four-step process are evident. Alma introduces the process of developing faith with these words:
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you (Alma 32:27).
Alma seems to be suggesting that the first step is to arouse one’s faculties to a desire to believe. For example, in order to obtain faith in the truthfulness of Alma’s teachings one would begin by observing, “I desire to believe the teachings of Alma.” This can be compared with the scientist’s hypothesis statement (i.e., the scientist would say, “I hypothesize that the teachings of Alma are true”).
After so hypothesizing or arousing ones faculties, Alma indicates that the next step, just as in the scientific method, is to perform an experiment upon his words. He explains how to conduct the experiment and evaluate the data:
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart (Alma 32:28).
Thus, Alma has instructed that the experiment be conducted by metaphorically planting the seed of his teachings in one’s heart. This can be interpreted as meaning that one is to apply the teachings of Alma in one’s personal life.
The third step of the scientific method, the analysis of data, is paralleled in this chapter by Alma’s teachings that:
behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts (Alma 32:28).
Thus, as one evaluates the data, one recognizes that some kind of growth—a good kind of growth—has taken place!
The final step of the scientific method, that of drawing a conclusion, finds a cognate in Alma’s paradigm for developing faith, when Alma teaches that, after analyzing the data of the experiment upon his words, one will come to the realization that:
It must needs be that this is a good seed or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. (Alma 32:28)
This enlarging and enlightening can be considered the “spiritual” data produced by the experiment.
It should be noted that this kind of spiritual evidence is very different from the temporal data acceptable to the scientific method. Unlike temporal data, spiritual information cannot be quantified or easily described in terms of our physical senses, but, rather, its observation requires the development of spiritual faculties. As a result, it may never be observed by one who has not learned how to use spiritual senses, or who limits his tools for the pursuit of truth to the scientific method. Moreover, spiritual information may manifest itself in different ways to different individuals. Thus, for those following Alma’s procedure for developing faith, the spiritual data generated may not be felt or recognized by each “experimenter” in exactly the same way. This admission does not, however, diminish the reality or reliability of the data for those who have observed it. Herein may be the greatest source of frustration for scientific atheists. Because they cannot accept or recognize data in the form of spiritual witnesses and evidences, they are handicapped in their ability to learn religious truth, and often deny its existence. As Paul explained to the Corinthians:
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Biologist Hanjochem Autrum expressed a similar concept when he suggested that “Science cannot find God, but the scientist can.”24
In the remainder of this discussion on faith, Alma takes the scientific method one step further and, in so doing, illustrates what every good scientist should do with a newly discovered truth. He instructs that it should be nourished and cared for so that, “then my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence” (Alma 32:43). In other words, returning to the instructions of Henry Eyring, that “they might utilize the discoveries of the laboratory to their blessing.”25
The scientific method demands that the data gathered and the conclusions drawn from an experiment be reproducible by anyone who follows the procedures of the original experimenter. As Latter-Day Saints we believe that the experiment by which one can gain faith as outlined by Alma does indeed meet this criterion. And this in part helps explain the success of the great missionary program of the church. In a sense, our missionaries challenge investigators to be “scientific” by trying this experiment upon the word, with the promise that if they follow the procedures and carefully analyze the results, they too will come to the conclusion that God lives and that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is true.
With the understanding of the above principles, that faith can enhance and supplement the scientific method, that the principles of faith can have application in the scientific method as well as in religion, and that the process for developing faith can be similar to the scientific method, we can be confident that one need not abandon faith to be a scientist, and conversely, that a testimony of the gospel does not mandate the forsaking of science.
These principles have served me well as both a research scientist and religious educator at Brigham Young University. Over and over, my faith has informed my science, and my science has informed my faith.
1 J. C. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 49.
2 E. Geissler and H. Hörz, “Darwin Today—Introductory Lecture,” in Darwin Today: The Eighth Kuhlungsborn Colloquium on Philosophy and Ethical Problems of Bioscience (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1983), 19.
3 Robert L. Miller, “Science and Scientists,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1272-1274.
5 John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1943), 1:129.
6 Vladimir Zots, “Atheism and the Spiritual Culture of Socialism,” in Religion in the USSR: The Truth and Falsehood (Moscow: Editorial Board, 1986), 31.
7 Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality, 49.
8 Cited in Frederick E. Trinklein, The God of Science (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), 21.
9 Cited in Henry Eyring, The Faith of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967), 57.
10 Cited in Stephen Fortescue, The Communist Party and Soviet Science (London: Macmillan, 1986), 22.
11 Cited in Trinklein, The God of Science, 68.
13 Ibid., 4.
14 Ibid., 15.
15 Ibid., 30.
16 Ibid., 19-20.
17 Ibid., 2.
18 Ibid., 61.
19 Ibid., 64.
21 Eyring, The Faith of a Scientist, 37.
22 Cyril Henderson, Cloud and Bubble Chambers (London: Methuen, 1970), 1-5.
23 Morton Grosser, The Discovery of Neptune (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 99-101.
24 Cited in Trinklein, The God of Science, 67.
25 Eyring, The Faith of a Scientist, 37.
Dr. Terry B. Ball is a Professor of Ancient Scripture and the Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University. Prior to joining the BYU faculty, he worked for twelve years as a seminary and institute teacher.
Professor Ball received his B.S. from BYU in botany and education, interrupting his undergraduate studies to serve a two-year mission in Japan. He later received an M.A. from BYU in ancient Near Eastern studies and a Ph.D. from BYU in archaeobotany, with an emphasis on the ancient Near East. He has taught and traveled extensively in the Holy Land, including teaching at BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Dr. Ball has researched, lectured, and written extensively about the prophet Isaiah, and has also devoted attention to LDS theology and the environment. In addition to teaching and researching in ancient scripture, he is an active researcher in the field of archaeobotany, focusing on phytolith systematics.
He is married to the former DeAnna Hill, and they have six children.
Posted February 2011