In some of my latest posts here and at the Nauvoo Times, I tried to explain that what we humans can perceive and understand is incredibly limited. In pointing out the limitations of science, I was not suggesting that this in any way proves the superiority of the Mormon concept of testimony and revelation from God. What I was seeking to do, as most of us apologists generally try to do, was not proving our position is true, but trying to address a common objection against it. We address objections to help people get past them so they can take the Gospel seriously enough to read, think, ponder, and ultimately pray, seeking guidance from God.

Some readers may have been left in the dark by my discussion of strange new and unseen forms of matter and energy that modern scientists now believe must dominate this universe of ours. Some eyes might have glazed over when I raised the issue the tiny range of electromagnetic wavelengths that we can perceive visually when I chided those who only want to believe that their two imperfect eyes tell them (eyes which, on a clear day, see approximately 0% of the earth’s surface and thus can grasp approximately 0% of what’s really going on in this miniscule corner of the universe, even if they could see all wavelengths and all that dark matter and dark energy, too). So, to address this issue of knowledge and the things of the Spirit more generally, let me raise the question, how do we limited humans really know things with a certainty?

Simple Example: The Bible and Basic Book Knowledge

Since we often discuss the Bible and other books on this blog, let’s begin with an important example of common knowledge in this realm. Here is a serious question: How did you come to know that the Gutenberg Bible was the world’s first mass-produced book printed with movable type? OK, I’ve given one reasonable answer away: it’s common knowledge. Movable type, printed books, the Bible and Gutenberg—we all know that. We hear this over and over, and it’s just an Internet rumor. We learn it in school. And there’s another reasonable answer: We know it because the experts tell us so. Not just hobbyists and hacks, but pedigreed, multi-degreed, world-class scholars in the nation’s most trusted institutions. For example, on this topic, one of the nation’s premier centers of knowledge on books and literature, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin, actually has one of those rare Gutenberg Bibles and call tell us with all the confidence of modern scholarship this basic piece of knowledge:

The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center
The Gutenberg Bible, the first substantial book printed with movable type, is one of the greatest treasures in the Ransom Center's collections. It was printed at Johann Gutenberg's shop in Mainz, Germany and completed in 1454 or 1455. The Center's Bible was acquired in 1978 and is one of only five complete examples in the United States.

They must know this, of course. They’ve even got the book, one of only five in the country. Cool! Maybe some of you have even better reasons for knowing this little factoid, but for most of us, common knowledge, the consensus of teachers, plus the authority of  world-class experts like the Gutenberg Bible pros at the University of Texas should be more than enough. This is how human knowledge can become firm, authoritative, and highly trusted.

You should all feel perfectly safe in raising your hand and saying “The Gutenberg Bible!” when asked who produced the world’s first mass-produced printed book, and that’s the answer most educated people give. I know, because I’ve asked that question in public presentations I’ve given, both in the US and in Asia, and nearly everyone who dared to answer knew that answer. Likewise, when asked who the inventor or producer was, they knew it was Gutenberg.

But that’s the wrong answer. Seriously. It’s wrong.
Gutenberg’s accomplishment was monumental, and all lovers of books and bibles should be grateful for it. But he printed his Bible in 1455,  which was just 142 years after the world’s first mass produced book was printed in China by Wang Zhen in 1313. The book was the Nong Shu, the Book of Farming, a complex and “substantial” book (I’m wondering if “substantial” in the Ransom Center’s statement was meant as a weasel word to excise Chinese competition?).  It was printed with over 100,000 characters (the copy I own comes in three hefty volumes—sure feels “substantial,” though standards for substantial might be bigger in Texas). It also has dozens of drawings with DaVinci-like mechanisms including, for example, water wheels that crank a piston pumping a bellows attached to a blast furnace producing molten metal (see figure below), drawn and described over a hundred years before Europeans invented the blast furnace. Go read about it at Wikipedia in the article on the inventor, Wang Zhen, or read about it over at the Nauvoo Times. It was an amazing accomplishment. One controversial writer, Gavin Menzies, even argues that copies of the Nong Shu that made it to Europe may have triggered the Italian Renaissance and been the source for some of DaVinci’s inventions (or rather, his well-drawn adaptations and possible improvements of Chinese inventions). See Gavin Menzies, 1434:The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). Interesting theory, but I’m not so sure about it, though I also can’t rule it out. Not with my limited knowledge.

Drawing from the 1313 Nong Shu showing an early blast furnace, and one of several examples of possible inspiration for Da Vinci.

A century from now, the descendants of my Western readers might grow up learning about Wang Zhen and the Nong Shu before they learn about Gutenberg. They might also be speaking Chinese (no need to wait—you and your family can get started now!), hopefully as a second language. But for now, the standards of common knowledge and reliance on leading authorities has left much of the world ignorant about the most basic aspects of the history of the printed word.

If common knowledge and expert authority can miss something so basic, can we consistently trust those sources on more complex issues that touch upon our lives? Man is often wrong, regardless of status, degrees, and the clamor of popular opinion. This is true in both science and religion. Part of the answer is to recognize our inadequacy and recognize that there might be—must be—something more.

Establishment Science and Fatal Maternity Wards

Let’s take some examples more directly from modern science. In a business book my coauthors and I published through John Wiley & Sons, Conquering Innovation Fatigue, we included some case studies about the massive barriers that important inventors faced over the centuries. The dogma of established science has often led the charge in resisting progress.

Consider Ignacz Semmelweis, a Hungarian immigrant who in 1847 discovered that contact with cadavers by medical students at an Austrian maternity clinic made the women in childbirth they treated much more likely to die from infection (see Wikiepedia, “Ignacz Semmelweis,” Decades before germ theory would be developed and accepted, he introduced hand washing practices with hypochlorite solutions to eliminate “cadaverous particles,” and patient mortality dropped from 10% to about 1%. However, this innovation was at odds with the established disease theory of his day. It wasn’t “scientific.” As an immigrant and in his role as merely an assistant to a medical professor, he lacked the clout and connections to change the thinking of the establishment. In spite of his demonstrated success in solving one of the most severe problems in medicine, he was ignored, dismissed from the clinic, and even harassed. Outraged, he returned to Hungary and continued his battles, angrily denouncing the medical establishment and calling them murderers (tip: this tactic rarely wins people over). Those close to him thought he was going crazy (a variety of inappropriate personal behaviors compounded the problem, and possibly syphilis). They had him committed to a mental institution where he died two weeks later in 1865, possibly after being beaten by guards. It would take years and many unnecessary deaths before the growing weight of evidence would convince establishment science that they had been wrong.

Wait, you may say, doesn’t that actually demonstrate the success of science? With data, the truth was eventually found and now we understand germ theory. Yes, indeed, and hurray for progress, hooray for science. It’s wonderful that we can learn and eventually realize that washing prevents disease. Of course, it’s also tragic that science stood in the way so long for the discovery that could have save many more lives. One can also argue, as medical doctor and LDS Apostle Russel M. Nelson once did, that it’s tragic that the disease management and washing principles in Leviticus 15 in the Old Testament were not considered and practiced by the world. Those principles could have prevented centuries of plague and disease.

Science, Ye Scurvy Dog

The story of scurvy is another one that can make one distrustful of establishment science. One of my favorite ancestors and early LDS convert was George Jarvis, a sailor in Her Majesty’s Navy, which makes the story of sailors and scurvy a little more relevant to me. On long voyages, sometimes as many as 30% of the crew on British ships would die from scurvy. It was a serious issue, one of the greatest importance to the success of the Navy and the Empire, and you would think they would turn every stone to find a cure. Sadly, thousands of soldiers in the British Navy died unnecessarily from scurvy after its cure was discovered—and resisted by the Navy. It took roughly 200 years from the discovery of the cause and cure until the establishment science of the British Empire finally accepted reality and added limes to sailors’ diets. The problem was that the proposed cure didn’t fit the scientific models used to understand disease. The “unscientific” work was easy to ignore. Tragedy. See Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, Viking 2003, and Kenneth J. Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44-45.

Credible medical information in the early 1600s pointed to citrus fruits as a helpful aid in preventing and curing the disease. Physicians on land and at sea would later provide strong evidence in the mid-1700s that citrus or other fresh fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of scurvy, but this knowledge was not only resisted by the elite of the Navy, it was resisted by the mainstream European medical community. The scientific establishment of the day was focused on developing a general understanding of the nature of disease and had no interest in “merely empirical” work aimed at specific cures. Thus, in the 1730s when physician John Bachstrom of Holland provided evidence that fresh fruits and vegetables was the decisive cure for scurvy, his work was dismissed by the medical establishment, for he was “a mere empirick” in their eyes.

The ridiculously simple solution to the scurvy problem required more than compelling scientific evidence. It took someone with powerful connections to champion the innovation. This man was the prominent Scottish physician, Sir Gilbert Blane, who was only 4 years old when a detailed study on the cure for scurvy was published by James Lind in 1753– only to be ignored for decades. Blane was the private physician to Lord Rodney and would be able to use Lord Rodney’s influence to spread what Blane had learned from past work and some of his own. In 1795, in time to reduce the risk to one my ancestors in the Navy, Britain began using lime juice in its global naval operations, and scurvy almost became a thing of the past. I say “almost” because the connection between Vitamin C and scurvy would not be discovered until 1932, and with the reasons for lime’s benefits not being understood, that practical, live-saving knowledge would occasionally be forgotten with unfortunate results. Scurvy cropped up in the 19th century in artic expeditions conducted by the British Navy, and again when Robert Scott trekked through Antarctica. Scott’s team believed that scurvy came from tainted canned foods and did not realize that they should have brought limes or some other source of Vitamin C with them. Yes, science will eventually catch up, but it can be a painfully slow process, and the elite halls of science can often be the biggest barrier to progress. Can this happen again? Sure, it’s a consequence of human pride and prejudice, problems common to most of mankind, scientists or not.

Pride and Prejudice: Science and the Messy Areas

A problem with science is that it is no more immune from the whims and pressures of human pride, prejudice, and politics than any other field. Scientists, like journalists and most professions, actually, like to claim that they are objective seekers of truth, unfettered by prejudice and personal agendas, but as Thomas Kuhn documents in his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962), history shows quite the opposite. The basic paradigm of scientific advance is resistance to change and new ideas that don’t fit established models. The resistance can take decades or longer of data and evidence to finally drive a revolution in which the old model falls apart and new paradigms are established. Scientists are every bit as dogmatic and stubborn as anyone else, in spite of the slogans and marketing. It’s something I’ve seen plenty of times in my career.
One commenter in a recent post of mine praised science over religion by pointing out that science had been able to detect an unseen planet orbiting a distant star. I agree that this is a remarkable achievement. Detecting the presence of an unseen planet with astronomical tools (Doppler spectroscopy in this case), or a buried pipe with a metal detector, or a wooden stud hidden behind a wall using a stud detector, all rank among the many successes of modern technology, though my stud detector is right only about half the time. Operator error, perhaps. However, these acts of merely detecting the presence of some fairly big object may ultimately be more straightforward, less complex, and often less influenced by politics and hidden agenda than scientific work on some of the more important issues involving science and humanity. In the messier areas, such as areas involved with public policy, corporate fortunes, or ideologies, we are more likely to see confusion and dissent, even when one camp become powerful enough to proclaim consensus.

It is easy to criticize religion in light of its troubled history. Religion-gone-bad can be blamed for the bloodshed of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and many other dark moments in history. I think it is not theology and belief in God that is the problem, but the ability of religion to organize and influence others that has allowed those thirsting for power to use religion as a tool for their own gain, and tragic loss for many others.

Less commonly do I hear of the grim failures of science and of human reason without the restraints of religion. In the past century or two, we have seen men wrapped in the robes of reason and science who have wrought far greater sorrow than any crazed Crusader. Hitler’s carnage was fueled by science. Germany in his day had became deeply and passionately scientific. Medical science was especially important and influential in guiding the thinking, the horrific, brutal, inhuman but very scientific thinking of German society. By 1939, half of all students in German universities were studying medicine. 50%! Engineers and chemists were also a big part of German society. It was a nation inflamed with scientific passion. Sadly, science-gone-bad soon informed that enlightened society that Germans were racially superior and had a right to rule. Not just to rule, but to plunder, slaughter, and even torture those science deemed less than fully human in the Satanic quest for scientific progress and a better society founded on scientific knowledge. See “How Hitler Perverted the Course of Science” by Richard Evans (The Telegraph, Dec. 1, 2008). So many of the horrors of Nazism can be traced to the “scientific” belief that some humans weren’t fully human and did not deserve basic rights such as the right to life.

In our nation, the findings of medical science were used as crucial evidence in the ruling of Roe vs. Wade to also determine that some humans are not fully human and thus can be terminated at will. The science in 1973 was, like most science over the ages, terribly immature and would soon be reversed. Today we know that the fetus is not just the clump of pink cells in the common myth still told to many prospective customers of abortuaries, but is a human being that can sense and feel at stages far earlier than callous doctors and judges supposed  in 1973. But the new, inconvenient findings of science are brushed aside because science is not the real quest of those who rule. Science, like religion, was just a tool for corrupt men seeking an excuse for their agenda, giving us a ruling that troubles even many leading voices on the left who recognize it was not really based on law, logic, and sound science.

Bad science in the hands of well-meaning naves, or even good science in the hands of villains, can bring disaster. A scientific society is not necessarily a free, healthy, or peaceful society. Now add the bogus but still reigning science of Keynesian economics, and it can soon become a very broke society as well as escalating debt becomes a virtue and the only tool an insatiable government knows in treating the economy problems it creates. Larger and larger leaches of debt are placed on the sick patient to revive it, but only the crony capitalists sucking up the blood are the ones who benefit. This kind of science will impoverish us all.

The Variety of Human Experiences: An Indictment of Religion?

Several critics have pointed to the diversity of human religion as evidence that the religious approach to life does not give consistent answers and thus is not reliable. This diversity of human response to religious yearnings is no more an indictment of religion and faith in God than is the diversity of responses humans have to science, including the diversity of theories and schools found within science itself. While science has converged upon some core concepts that are widely accepted, for every tough issue, there are diverse views. Just explore the medical responses to basic issues like what diet and what foods are healthiest for humans. High grains? Low grains? High fat, low fat?  Vegan? Atkins? Or consider the issue of climate change. What does it mean when serious scientists are able to examine the data and conclude that the earth is actually getting cooler instead of heating up? An interesting and troubling read for both the inquisitive and Inquisitors alike is Peter Ferraras 2012 article at Before the reflexive “climate deniers” chant and the piling of wood for a little carbon-neutral auto-da-fé, recognize that their not-quite-silenced voices at least mean that for some scientists, the evidence is not as black and white as you may think. So where is the uniformity and surety of science in the messier areas, in complex albeit seemingly simple questions like, “Has the earth really been warming for this past decade?” Or, “Is carbon dioxide really the main driver for climate change?” No, I don’t know the answers. 

Establishment science will point to the dissenters and explain that they don’t count because they are doing it wrong. They might even be excommunicated from the ranks of faithful, orthodox science. And in many cases, I’m with them. Some of the bizarre things out there dressed as science really disturb me, like quacks pretending to manipulate energy fields to heal patients, or the silly anti-radiation clothing being sold to expectant mothers in parts of Asia, or people who claim to detect allergies by having patients hold glass vials of allergens and then seeing if their muscle response drops. Bogus science, quackery. Yes, they are doing it wrong. But there are real scientists finding new things that don’t fit old models or political agendas, and they are discounted with ease as well. In any case, science has not established sure-fire consensus in many areas and never will because humans vary. Questions that require human interpretation and expertise will rarely become completely uniform, and controversies where science is applied to matters of policy, law, ethics, or even religion are going to be among those especially messy areas with inherent diversity.

Mormonism: Surprisingly Comfortable with Science

Science and religion have their failings. Fortunately, Mormons aren’t in the awkward position of having to choose one or the other. We believe in taking the best of both, in taking knowledge and light from both spheres, from all spheres, and integrating them in the quest for truth. We are told that all truth can be integrated into one grand whole, and we are not just encouraged but actually commanded to seek knowledge beyond just the scope of our religion, but from the sciences and other fields. Mormonism is a wonderful place for healthy science.

Large numbers of Mormons are scientists and engineers. As science grows and expands our knowledge, we find our religion is able to grow and adapt as well. It is not backpedaling and retreat, but embracing of new insight as we move forward in a world with both religious truth and scientific truth seeking to become one. Our ignorance, though, leaves us with many conflicts, and part of being a religious person in the material world is learning to cope with these conflicts and uncertainties, looking forward to further light and knowledge in the future.

Patience, persistence, and a humble recognition that we don’t know it all are among the greatest of virtues in the history of scientific progress, and they are among the virtues we seek as Latter-day Saints. 

For many things, science is the best approach we have to understanding the world around us and finding answers that will make the world better. But it's not the only thing.

In one of my next posts, I'll describe the ongoing process of discovery and experimentation that many Mormons apply in their pursuit of religious knowledge and their own personal "testimony." It's not just a one-time random feeling, but a process involving the mind and the heart as we seek deeper knowledge and experience that can be obtained from traditional book learning or even from Wikipedia. 

Continue reading at the original source →