31 August 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part II)

Science and religion, perhaps more than any other disciplines of the human mind, concern themselves with the search for truth. Sometimes they often come to radically different conclusions. Yes, they sometimes ask different questions, but their differing destinations can also be explained in large part by different processes of inquiry.

Science is based on empirical research. The process begins with a question, usually born of some set of observations made about the natural world. Humans are generally curious creatures and have long asked about natural phenomena. In science, these questions, which initially may be narrow or wide in scope, are later framed as testable hypotheses. Hypotheses themselves are usually quite specific. They are educated guesses about the mechanisms that create observable patterns. As an illustration (using my field of ecology), one might ask why a tree species is distributed only at certain elevations in a particular mountain range. Hypotheses are then developed: seasonal snowpack limits its upper distribution or competition with another tree species sets its lower distribution. One or more experiments (a set of observations or manipulative interventions) are designed so as to lend evidence to two or more alternative outcomes to the experiment. Ecologists like me love to do field work, so given the hypotheses mentioned above I might set up a clearing experiment to test for evidence of competition or add or remove snow to test for its effects on seedling success (a challenging experiment indeed given the size of the organisms of interest!).

Importantly, good experiments are not structured to automatically favor one alternative hypothesis over another. They are also most helpful when their results can be cleanly interpreted. My mountain experiments with the tree species would need to be conducted so that the experimental methods do not bias the outcome or so that my interpretation is inadvertently stymied by some confounding factor. Broadly speaking, science is not supposed to start with an a priori answer to which subsequent inquiry must be subservient.
Science is guided by a few other key principles. First, science proceeds as hypotheses are rejected. Technically, hypotheses are never proven, rather they are rejected. Second, data and conclusions obtained by good science are repeatable. Incorrect hypotheses will be repeatedly rejected by independent experimentation. A series of experiments testing the same phenomenon with the same approach and under the same conditions should yield the same result. If results differ, the original ideas need to be modified. There are limits to our ability to repeat experimentation, such as the impossibility of rewinding the clock to replicate the exact conditions of a previous time period. But if not for every tiny detail, there are abundant opportunities to verify the general phenomena elucidated by scientific inquiry. Third, science is based heavily on probabilities because it frequently relies on statistics to reach conclusions. Since probabilities govern interpretation, again, hypotheses are not technically irrefutably proved.

Finally, science is pretty democratic. By this I mean that the process of scientific inquiry and the discoveries of science are available to everyone. Limitations of access to expensive instrumentation being one exception, anyone can design and conduct an experiment or gather a set of observations to address a question of interest. Likewise, much of science is conducted in an open manner so that the results of experiments, mathematical models, and observational studies are accessible to all. Scientific results are often published following peer-review (an imperfect though workable process) and then are made available to other scientists and the public for scrutiny, further evaluation, rejection, or modification.

Those basics form the backbone of the scientific process. From here, there are minor philosophical variations on how hypotheses are treated and how science proceeds. Previous theory and data informs the scope of experimentation and the methodology used to address specific inquiries in science. However, the best scientists are open to new results that challenge their existing knowledge about the world. Data are always > theory. In this sense, science has less of a tendency to create a hierarchy of truth: a sound experiment that overturns a well entrenched idea would be accepted even if the original idea came from a scientific superstar. There are no prophets in science with an unassailable conduit to truth. Although incorrect paradigms can persist for some time in our understanding of the natural world (the rejection of continental drift in geology until about the 1960s is a good example of stalled progress), science can also be punctuated by paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that rapidly push forward inquiry by providing a new framework of understanding (1). Creativity, hard work, collaboration and intelligence are generally the main ingredients of successful science.

Empirical research, like any human endeavor, has limitations. One fundamental issue concerns limits to observation. Tools such as microscopes, telescopes, satellites, and high speed computational statistics extend our capacity to measure and model phenomena at smaller and larger scales than are possible with human senses, but they only extend perception so far. Another limitation to empirical science is that some concepts are largely untestable. “Hypotheses” such as the existence of supernatural beings or miracles cannot be adequately addressed with typical scientific techniques. Even for many natural phenomena rarities abound. It may be logistically impossible to repeat experimentation or observation of extremely rare events. Yet this does not mean that all religious claims about the supernatural are off the hook intellectually; the lack of ability to test certain religious ideas empirically also means that we can never reject natural explanations in favor of the supernatural.

Religion seeks knowledge by a wide diversity of means. In many religions, ancient scriptural texts derived through others’ interactions with the divine form the basis of acquiring truth about life, history, human purpose and moral responsibilities. Many religions place importance on a living authority – a prophet or teacher – whose role is to transmit divine information. Yet other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, focus on individual experience with truth. Meditative practices enable direct communion between the religious student and the divine (truth). Mormonism has pieces of all of these basic means of discerning truth.

While religion can have deep inspirational value for human beings, its several pathways to knowledge each suffer from significant weaknesses. First, ancient religious texts have cultural biases and tend to have limited scientific rigor because they were composed in less scientific times. Add to these translation issues, indeterminable textual origins, uncertain dating, and incongruence between textual claims and empirical findings and their reliability as a source of infallible truth becomes very suspect. Moreover, we generally know nothing about the authors of ancient religious texts outside of the information presented in the works themselves; are these people reliable sources of information? Have their words and experiences been changed by others unintentionally or intentionally? At best, concepts in religious texts should be treated as hypotheses, subject to debate or scrutiny like any other claim.

Individual experience and spiritual teachers are also common means of acquiring religious truth, but they suffer heavily from the vagaries of subjectivity. The experiences, thoughts and inspiration each religious seeker obtains are invariably influenced by culture, individual circumstance, and personality. Religious seekers and proponents can hold more ennobling traits like compassion, selflessness and mental discipline, but they can also be subject to greed, deception, the quest for power and jealously like the rest of us. In my view, I assume that spiritual experiences are principally cerebral experiences, so how can the inner thoughts of another person ever be verified? There is no ability to challenge spiritual interpretation that comes through authority the way that an open scientific process allows. For these reasons, accepting others experiences as divine truth of direct relevance and applicability to me, something I am hesitant to do.

Theoretically, any of the fundamental features of the scientific process – observation, hypothesis generation, experimentation, and replication – can be applied to some religious questions. In fact, in the Book of Mormon a notable series of passages encourages non-believers to “give place that a seed may be planted in your heart …”, a sort of experimentation with faith in religious concepts (see Alma 32:27-42). The reasoning is sound: if the religious claims are true, then they experimentation should yield consistent and positive fruits. But caution is still warranted: if in taking a placebo, I feel better, without careful scrutiny I would not know that there was some mechanism other than the substance of the pill itself that had its effect on me.

More to the heart of a skeptic’s point of view, there are instances where scientific approaches can be applied to religious claims. I find these exciting, because they are one way to evaluate the reliability of religious sources. The most prominent of these questions in Mormonism are specific historical events. Claims in the Book of Mormon such as Israelite journeys to the Americas and cataclysmic destruction of ancient cities are subject to verification by archaeology and studies of human phylogeny. A subject better left for its own post, scientific evidence seems relatively scant for many traditional Book of Mormon claims. DNA evidence, for instance, is highly unfavorable towards the popular LDS view that many of the Native Americans descended from Middle Eastern populations several thousand years ago (2).

Religion need not have antipathy towards science. Skepticism about supernatural claims is healthy. Unfortunately, some elements in religion are hostile to scientific inquiry. Some biblical literalists, for instance, hold that scripture comes directly from God, and is therefore intellectually unassailable. Scriptural teachings are like a perfect scaffolding around which other elements of truth must eventually fit. Such scaffoldings can often demand a lot of mental gymnastics. If they are not based on truth, they will eventually fall. In my view, science and religion best co-exist when religion humbly accepts that many questions about life and human experience are better addressed by empirical inquiry. Religion can be a powerful force in teaching ennobling ethics and encouraging the human spirit to flourish. It oversteps its bounds however, when it deals with evolution and not ethics, linguistics and not love.

1. See Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
2. Simon Southerton presents a very interesting discussion of DNA and the origins of Native Americans in this Mormon Stories podcast. Similar information can be found on his blog. The DNA issue, in my view, is extremely troubling for many of the traditional claims of Mormonism.

26 August 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part I)

Diving into any religion reveals some eye-opening beliefs and history. Angels, demons, virgin births, visions, healings and the like accompany other components of faith traditions like love, commitment, honesty and ritual.

The supernatural is as much a part of Mormonism as it is of most other religions conceived before science had a broader influence in society. In principle, one can have a practical Mormonism without the supernatural – a religion of family, Christian values, and patriotism – but the Church wouldn’t even exist today without the supernatural. The fluid communion between Joseph Smith’s mind and a foreign universe of gods and angels is the genesis of everything else that has emerged in Mormonism during the last two centuries.

The biblical tradition is rich in miracles and the supernatural. On top of these, Mormonism has added other miraculous events. Miracles from the Book of Mormon and early Church history include ocean crossings by ancient prophets traveling to the Americas, epic battles, angelic visitations, and golden plates translated by divine inspiration. In fact the Book of Mormon, not to be outdone by the long established preeminence of the Bible in the improbable, has perhaps even more miraculous events than its companion scripture. For instance, whereas Christ’s birth in the Old World was met by a new star appearing the sky, in the Americas it was also announced by a night of continuous illumination even though the sun set that evening before his birth (3 Nephi 1:15-21).

I grew up loosely as a Catholic with little pressure from my family or community to dive deeply into Biblical literalism. I knew about miracles but felt little compulsion to give them too much deference. When I thought about it, of all the Biblical miracles I was probably most accepting of those tied to Jesus because I was always impressed by his character and divinity. As a kid I was inclined towards science, biology and paleontology especially. That interest later matured into degrees in science. A short time before college, however, I learned about Mormonism and joined the Church. It was my first encounter with an intense theology that doubled as a way of life. I liked the focus on truth and certainty in the LDS Church and the impressive fruits I observed in my friends. It was not too long, however, before I encountered the miracles and literalism of Mormonism. Right from the start, in fact, investigators learn about Joseph Smith’s miraculous vision of God and Jesus as a 14 year old boy because this event is central to Mormon belief in the need for a restoration of Christian authority. Being impressed with the Mormon promise of access to truth and a community of well-intentioned and accomplished individuals, I was inclined to give the Church the benefit of the doubt regarding miracles and literalism as I became a new convert.

If I could have sculpted Mormonism at this time, I think that I would have probably regarded at least some of the miraculous in Mormonism figuratively – almost surely so with creationism and the Garden of Eden. But it was not my church. With more experience, I learned that the Mormon supernatural was literal, not just symbolic. Adam and Eve were real individuals who lived on a paradisiacal earth 6000 years ago; God really did send a flood that covered the whole earth in the days of Noah; and Joseph Smith actually did see a resurrected Jesus Christ with a tangible body in a forest in New York State in 1820. Joseph and his successors wrote of these Biblical, Book of Mormon, and more modern miracles with the same certainty as they would tell you of the sun rising each morning from the east. To be sure, these supernatural events often also held deeper symbolic importance in Mormon theology, but fundamentally they were and are also regarded as literally true historical events.

As a maturing Church member, to deal with this uncomfortable literalism, I needed a strategy. I would have a hard time being a devout Mormon if I dismissed each of these miracles as figurative events, so my mind seemed to have developed two mechanisms. The first was to spend less time thinking about scriptural events that seemed unlikely to me. Instead, in my religious commitment, I wanted to focus on the comfortable doctrines: love, self-improvement, and the intellectual components of LDS theology. As I read scripture, I found that I wanted to interpret passages in such a way as to make them more consistent with more rational beliefs. I often read them more with the mindset of an academic.

The second strategy involved some intellectual acquiescence on my part. To illustrate, I would meet a miracle with the following kinds of thoughts: ‘That seems improbable, but it certainly could have occurred. With God anything is possible.’ Considering each miracle in isolation, this strategy worked reasonably well since I thought it would be virtually impossible to disprove specific events that transpired such a long time ago. They may not have seemed rational and they may not occur today, but I could make some mental space for their possibility. I could also maintain more belief if I did not look too much to outside sources for alternate interpretations of miraculous phenomena. Though it could work for one passage of scripture at a time, taken in sum however, this strategy of miracle excuses eventually became unsustainable. A few too many improbabilities accumulated can look much more like outright impossibility. The intellectual compromises I entertained to accept literalism promoted a fractured view of reality and caused me to spend too much time straining at details while the broader landscape was ignored.

My trouble with literalism came to a head once on my mission, about two years after I joined the Church. Growing up with a strong interest in biology and fossils, belief in biological evolution was natural for me. I could not have foreseen how much trouble evolution was going to cause me in my attempts to be a faithful Mormon. I had had faith crises before during my first year in the Church, but such intellectual-spiritual clashes become intense on an LDS mission. Your job as a missionary for most waking hours of each week is to continually proclaim, with no uncertainly, your witness of the Church’s divine origins and to do all you can to convert new members and help current members retain their faith. There is very little room for doubt.

I am unsure exactly what triggered the evolution crisis, but I vaguely recall it being something I read in a Church periodical. Perhaps it was some flippant dismissal of evolution that appears in Church discourse from time to time (1). At some point I took my evolution trouble to my mission president. The mission president was a retired dentist, a grandfatherly man who had both a compassionate demeanor and a surprising streak of fire and brimstone zeal. I don’t know what I expected to hear from him about the Church’s position on evolution – maybe a confirmation of what I had heard during a talk by a Church authority in the Missionary Training Center at the very start of my mission – that indeed the Church had no official position. After all, my new-found church supposedly embraced all truth regardless of its origins. Why would it oppose a theory for which so much evidence existed?

My hopes were dashed with the mission president. In our conversation I learned that he was a full fledged creationist – of the variety that believes not only in the fallacy of evolution, but in an earth aged in thousands, not billions, of years. He even mentioned the old non-sense that the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred because of Noah’s flood. He directed me to a book in his office downstairs written by a former Church leader, Joseph Fielding Smith. Smith, son of the 6th president of the Church and grand-nephew of Joseph Smith, would later also become president of the Church briefly in the early 1970s. In the 1950s, as a member of the Church’s high-ranking Council of the Twelve, he wrote a scathing denunciation of biological evolution in “Man, His Origin and Destiny”. This book had no sympathies for belief in a 4.6 billion year chronology of earth history or any intimation that modern humans descended from earlier hominids. As his son-in-law Elder Bruce R. McConkie, another prominent Mormon leader, would also believe, before the days of Adam and Eve there was not even death for any living organism (2). I read some of Elder Smith’s book and was deeply disheartened. Was this the official position of the Church? Was this the “appropriate” framework in which I had to interpret biology? (3)

In connection with this spiritual crisis, I had two divergent experiences. The first occurred in a church building adjacent to the Mission Home where I lived at the time. One Monday evening I was caught up in this internal debate about evolution that had been swirling around in my mind. Not having the resources or lengthy Church experience to better research the position of the Church, I seemed to have been stuck reconciling poignant anti-evolutionary views, my natural instinct to believe in evolution, and the overarching Mormon imperative to be obedient to the teachings of Church leaders. In the conflict on this one night in the church building, I made a painful decision that I would accept belief in a young earth even though it seemed repugnant and humiliating. It was a sacrifice I would have to make to be in favor with God. Perhaps in this one moment – one that would not last very long at all – I had fully acquiesced to orthodox Mormonism.

The second experience was in the mission home some time later, on the same floor where Smith’s dreaded book was kept. It was the redemption from my own intellectual fall. Alone in prayer, I felt that God accepted my belief in evolution. There was a warm feeling and a restoration of calm. I cannot recall many more details than that, but the result seemed to be that I felt accepted as an exception to what at least some other Mormons believed. Though anti-evolution remarks made in Church classes or found in more formal Church publications would bother me for years after my mission, from this point, I felt more secure in my own belief on this issue.

Evolution was a warning to me of the strength of Mormon gravity on the intellect. It was a huge issue for me during my early days in the Church, but one I was able to better resolve with time. In spite of this small victory, I perhaps became complacent about the other abundant improbabilities that I would encounter with orthodox Mormonism. In my brief intellectual acquiescence to creationism, I was following a pattern that I would also unfortunately do with my sexuality: I deferred to faith and authority more than conscience or evidence.
Evolutionary tree of life according to the influential and controversial biologist, E. Haeckel. 1866. Generelle morphologie der organismen.


1. See, for example, a BYU address given by Elder Russel M. Nelson in 1987: “…some without scriptural understanding….have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been an organic evolution from one form to another. Many of these have concluded that the universe began as a ‘big bang’ that eventually resulted in the creation of our planet and life upon it. To me, such theories are unbelievable. Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary? It is unthinkable!”. Elder Nelson repeated his analogy as recently as April 2012: “Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’”.

2. Elder McConkie’s popular book, “Mormon Doctrine” can be found in many Mormon households. It contains both anti-evolutionary and anti-gay teachings. I believe that Elder McConkie also played a role in crafting the current version of the Bible Dictionary in the LDS scriptures. That dictionary also makes reference to lack of any death before Adam’s fall.

3. Pronouncements about evolution by Church authorities do vary, though most leaders have viewed evolution unfavorably. Many such statements have been compiled into a book, “Mormonism and Evolution” by W.E. Evenson and D.E. Jeffrey, 2005, Greg Kofford Books. I was unaware of the detailed history of the debate over evolution in the church as a young member and missionary in the 1990s.