Monday, September 14, 2009

Science and Reason are the Default and Final Arbiters of Truth

This is a fairly provocative title, I realize, but the more I think about these matters, this is a conclusion I keep coming to, regardless of what topic I explore.

It has become well-established in the modern world that if someone wants to understand how a given phenomenon works, he or she will implement the scientific method: develop an hypothesis, design an experimental protocol and collect data to test that hypothesis, and on that basis accept or reject that hypothesis. The idea of simply praying about it in order to find the truth does not enter into most people’s minds. Prayer is rather seen as a means of getting ‘spiritual’ truths, which are supposed to be ‘beyond’ the reach of Science.

Stephen J. Gould articulated the concept of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA), which gives Science and Religion their respective provinces of inquiry, but along with many others, I reject that as a false and in fact not useful approach. Many or most religions make claims that impinge on the physical world that are eminently testable using the tools of Science. This is one of the primary themes of Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, which I enthusiastically recommend.

What I wish to demonstrate here is that despite the declaration of most religious institutions, that Revelation ‘trumps’ Science, the facts of the matter reveal quite the opposite, even when applied to the teachings they claim to have been received by revelation directly from God.

The scriptures of most religions are excellent examples of information claimed to have come directly from God, are therefore seen as true, reliable and authoritative, and which should form the foundation for one’s life. If we look at a few examples, and simply take them as written, we would believe that:

• The world was created in 7 days
• The first woman, Eve, was created using a rib taken from the first man, Adam
• Slavery is an acceptable form of human conduct
• The Sun stood still for almost a day during one of Joshua’s battles
• One is justified committing Genocide or murder if commanded by ‘God’
• There was a flood which covered the entire earth, with all surviving life, human and otherwise, coming from those on Noah’s ark

If we include scriptures unique to the Mormon Church, we would believe that:

• All of the North and South American Indians (and possibly Polynesian peoples as well) are descended from Book of Mormon peoples, and are therefore of Middle Eastern origin
• Certain papyri acquired by Joseph Smith contained Egyptian hieroglyphics, written in the hand of Abraham, describing events from Abraham's life, and which Joseph translated giving us the scriptural Book of Abraham

Even in today’s world, you can find people who do accept all of these things as being completely true and factual, but I would guess that for the most part, the majority of even the most religiously inclined people see these things as being more allegorical, mythical, or else not completely true in a literal sense. (I provide details on the Book of Mormon claim below, and will address the Book of Abraham in a future blog post.)

My question is - What is the basis for the decision to consider certain scriptural passages as simple literal truth, and others to be figurative and non-literal?

The answer is that the discoveries of science, along with the progression of human civilization guided by reason, serve as the final arbiters of Truth, and not Inspiration, Revelation, or other individual, subjective experiences. The truthfulness of these passages of scripture is rejected either on the basis of indisputable physical evidence, or because social progress has moved well past those examples of ignorance, superstition, barbarity and primitive conduct.

Thus, even scripture is understood not on the basis of what it actually says, but on the basis of the knowledge and progress achieved through non-religious channels.

So, if we can’t implicitly rely on any of the sacred texts themselves for truth, then how are we to determine what is or isn’t true?

Those of a religious mindset, and this definitely includes the leadership of the Mormon Church, claim that the truth can be known through inspiration or revelation. This goes by various names, including the witness of the Spirit, a Testimony, etc. The following examples demonstrate that this approach is also invalid.

One classic case concerns the Catholic Church’s teachings about the Earth being the center of the Universe. They read it in the Bible, they felt the Spirit confirming its truth, and on this basis, they proclaimed it as God’s Truth and persecuted anybody who claimed otherwise. Galileo, through the use of the scientific method, discovered for himself that this was false, and that the Earth rotated around the Sun.

It took several hundred years, but the real truth finally prevailed, and the Catholic Church acknowledged that Galileo was correct. And the key point here is that it was not a ‘Revelation’ to the Pope that drove this change - it was the recognition that Science was unquestionably correct.

Returning to one of the examples used above, for 170+ years, the General Leadership of the Church, sustained by its members as Prophets, Seers and Revelators, have borne their testimonies that the North and South American Indians were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, calling them all Lamanites (after one of the main groups of people in that book).

Archaeological research over the years, and more recently, DNA studies, have proven this to be false, beyond any reasonable doubt. In this context, the Church quietly changed the wording of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon, from saying that the Lamanites were the “principle” ancestors of modern day Indian people, to their being “among” their ancestors. No announcement was made to the Church, no acknowledgment of a fairly major shift in teaching.

Again, the crucial point here is that this change wasn’t driven by a “Revelation” to the Prophet - it was simply a response to what had unquestionably been proven to be true by Science. This is a clear example that despite their claims that Revelation is superior to Science, when push comes to shove, they have had to acknowledge that in fact, Science trumps Revelation.

Now Church apologists might jump in here and state either that previous Church leaders didn’t “exactly” say they were all Lamanites, or find occasional statements from some Leaders that might be more consistent with current scientific thinking, or even that those Prophets were ‘speaking as men’ in those particular matters.

But, whatever value those claims do or don’t have, they do not change the crucial underlying fact that the apologists themselves are still relying on Science and Reason to interpret and make sense of previous Church teachings. If Science and Reason are to be the final arbiters of truth in the end anyway, and be the basis for deciding which previous Church teachings are true or not, then what is the need for those ‘Revelations’ to begin with?

And yet, despite all of this, they still teach the members to listen to and obey their Leaders’ teachings, as if it came directly from God’s own mouth (see D&C 1:38), never acknowledging that so much of the previous teachings of Church Leaders was either incorrect, or has been substantially changed.

Approaching this from a slightly different angle, I am unable to identify a single instance where actual, empirical ‘truth’ or knowledge has been produced by religious or spiritual experience. Yes, there have been religious individuals who have produced great discoveries, or even religious institutions in the past that have fostered inquiry, but I am not aware of any real knowledge produced by spiritual experience in and of itself. And even more than this, whatever truth claims are made by virtue of those experiences still depend on Science and Reason to validate them. So, it is therefore Science and Reason, not revelation or inspiration, that actually do the ‘heavy lifting’ in identifying truth.

I am also intrigued by investigators such as V.S. Ramachandran, Richard Davidson, Andrew Newberg, Norman Doidge and many others, who are on the forefront of utilizing the tools of science, especially fMRI, to begin to unravel the mysteries associated with consciousness and what is going on inside the brain while people are in the midst of what they call spiritual experiences.

As I have suggested elsewhere, I am inclined to think that the patient and persistent use of the Scientific Method will allow humanity to unravel the mysteries behind questions that have previously only been in the realm of religion and philosophy.

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