What Can Parents Teach the Youth of the Church About the Relationship Between Science and Scripture
Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Seeing is Believing, a Perspective on Reality; Come Follow Me Lesson January 17-23
Without science, we have no mind, without scripture we have no heart, both unite to create a complete functioning, healthy being. Sharing the knowledge we have gained jointly through science and the scriptures, especially over the past two hundred years, is vital to a future of well-balanced Church members and Church leaders.
Much of this essay will address how we think about issues – in this case, science and the Word of God – the scriptures, in other words, and our paradigms. The word paradigm is the English version of the Latin word paradigma, which means to show side by side, as in to compare. Paradigma is derived from the Greek words para- meaning “beside” and deiknynai, meaning “to show.” Given this definition, we may think of a paradigm as our point of view, our perspective, in comparison to some other perspective – such as a liberal vs conservative paradigm. Historically, however, the problem has always been that there are seldom two views to compare side by side. The world point of view, at any given time in history, is usually unilateral and the concept of a paradigm is literally non-existent. Indeed, the biggest problem with paradigms is that no one realizes that their point of view is a paradigm because they don’t realize there even is another point of view.
In their book, The Grand Design, in a chapter entitled What is Reality?,1 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow tell a very pertinent, enlightening, and, to me, very entertaining story about gold fish bowls:
“A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved goldfish bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality.”1
Reality compared to what? The Monza city council person must assume we who are outside the bowl have a better perspective of “reality.” How many goldfish live in a reality where they can see out of their pond and see anything of the outside world? How could a goldfish have any view of reality when looking out of any container, curved or not?
As someone who has taught Neurobiology and written Anatomy and Physiology textbooks for over thirty years, I perceive that our perspective of reality isn’t very “real.” To begin with, we all have a “blind spot” in each eye where nerves and blood vessels leave and enter the eye. Because there are no rods and cones there (the cells in the back of the eye that allow us to “see”), if an image is projected into only one eye, there is a blank spot in the image. The problem then is that our brain has a mind of its own and doesn’t like blank spots, so it simply collects information from around the blank spot and fills it in. There is usually no problem because we usually employ both eyes and rapidly scan objects in our field of view. But if we see something occurring very quickly, such as an automobile accident, our eyes may not move quickly enough to see everything and our brain simply fills in the blanks without our even knowing it.
Here is a simple experiment that you can perform to demonstrate your blind spot. On a 3x5 lined file card, draw a small cross about one inch from the right side of the card and a small red dot about one inch from the left side. Then cover your right eye with your hand and hold the file card in front of your left eye. Look at the cross and slowly move the card forward and back. There should be a point where the red dot disappears. You should also notice that there is not a white spot where the dot was, but the lines continue straight through uninterrupted. You can simply rotate the card (reversing the locations of cross and dot) and test your right eye.
As light rays enter our eyes, they are bent by the cornea and lens to focus upside down on the retina at the back of the eye. But your brain doesn’t like to see the world upside down so it simply rotates the image so that the world is “right side up” as the brain perceives it should be. In the middle of the twentieth century, a Swiss-Austrian philosopher and psychologist, Theodor Erismann, at the University of Innsbruck, devised an ingenious experiment to test this quirk of the brain. He devised a pair of glasses fitted with mirrors that inverted the image entering his test subject’s eyes – in this case, as often occurs in scientific experiments, his test subject was his student assistant Ivo Kohler. Now the image projecting onto Kohler’s retina was right side up with the world, but the now confused brain inverted the image anyway.
At first, Kohler reached out wildly when trying to grasp an object and would stumble when walking around furniture or down stairs. In fencing with sticks, Kohler would raise his stick to check a low thrust and lower his stick to check a stab from above. Holding a cup out to be filled, he turned it upside down to catch the water he apparently perceived was flowing upward. But over the space of a week, constantly wearing the glasses, Kohler’s brain gradually adjusted. After ten days, Kohler’s brain had adjusted so that he was able to negotiate the world quite well – even riding a bicycle. When Kohler removed the glasses at the end of the experiment, his brain re-adjusted, after a time, to its original function of rotating the upside-down image of the retina.2
In 1950 and 1954, Erismann and Kohler produced documentary movies of their experiment.3
Probably my favorite visual demonstration, however, is a video made by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in 1999.4 So as not to spoil your experience with the investigation, READ NO FARTHER and watch the YouTube video at youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo, or simply type in “count the bouncing ball” in Google search. When you are finished watching the 1:22 minute video, continue reading.
What is amazing about the demonstration is that most people seeing the video for the first time are so focused on counting the number of times the team in white passes the basketballs, they don’t even see the person in the gorilla suit walk through the video, stop in the middle, beat his chest, and walk on through.
After these three stories about your visual system, are you still holding onto the old paradigm that “seeing is believing?” Hawking and Mlodinow asked
“…how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens?”5
For most of human history, the world around us was only observable with the unaided eye. Then, at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries, Dutch eyeglass makers became so proficient at lens-making that they began to investigate new uses for their lenses. Two lens-makers, Zacharias Jansen and his father, Hans, put lenses into the ends of a tube in 1595 and invented the microscope. Another lens-maker, Hans Lippershey put two lenses into the ends of a tube in 1608 and invented the telescope. The telescope took off immediately and by the summer of 1609, every scientist in Europe was making telescopes. Galileo Galilei turned his telescopes toward the moon, Venus, and Jupiter, changing science and humanity forever. The microscope took a bit longer to come into general use. Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke, among others, refined the microscope and by 1665, Hook was describing the microscopic world, which no one had ever even imagined.6
The first “modern element,” phosphorus, was discovered in 1669 by Hennig Brand, inaugurating the era of modern chemistry. A little over eighty years later, in 1752, Benjamin Franklin demonstrated electrical conductivity, opening the age of electricity. In 1825, William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet, and in 1831, Joseph Henry demonstrated how to use such a magnet to make a telegraph key, inaugurating the communications age. In 1864, James Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel at the speed of light as waves through space. Then on New Year’s Eve, 1879, Thomas Edison’s light bulbs lighted the world beginning at Christie Street in Menlo Park.
In the meantime, God and His Son Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820. Then on 21 September 1823, Moroni paid a visit to Joseph in his bedroom. Four years later, 22 September 1827, Joseph Smith received the Gold Plates from an underground chamber on the Hill Cumorah. The Book of Mormon was published in March 1830, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally organized 6 April 1830.
Is there a connection between the scientific advancements of the 17th through 19th centuries and the restoration of the gospel in the 19th century? Many people think there is. God said,
“How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.”7
I’m not certain that all that knowledge was poured down onto the heads of the Latter-day Saints directly. Many people have been involved as recipients of that knowledge pouring down from heaven, of which we, the Latter-day Saints are the beneficiaries. By combining what we have learned through science and from pondering the scriptures, our lives can be much richer and our knowledge much deeper than they would be otherwise.
In a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith to the Church, at Kirtland, Ohio, March 8, 1831, as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants section 46, we are told,
“Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given; For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.”8
We are then informed of the importance of what the gifts are:
“And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church. For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.”9
Some of us are given one gift and some another; some have the most important gift of all:
“To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.10
Then follows a list of the various gifts of the spirit: the differences of administration, diversities of operations, the word of wisdom, faith to be healed, faith to heal, the working of miracles, prophesy, discerning of spirits, to speak with tongues, the interpretation of tongues.11 In this list, I skipped over verse 18, “To another is given the word of knowledge, that all may be taught to be wise and to have knowledge.”12 That knowledge, as with the other gifts of the spirit, is to be shared with the entire Church, “that all may be benefited.”13 “And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God.”14
Albert Einstein stated, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”15
He also stated,
“Don't think about why you question, simply don't stop questioning. Don't worry about what you can't answer, and don't try to explain what you can't know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren't you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind-to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.”16
In his second epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul stated,
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be …Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”17
This prophetic statement of Paul’s defines modern science. We, as scientists, know that we can never be absolutely certain of what we are discovering, but we can move ever so close to the truth. We are close enough to make automobiles, cell phones, and televisions, and to launch humans to space stations, the moon, and beyond. Owen Gingerich, in a Scientific American paper, “The Galileo Affair,” stated,
“…what passes for truth in science is only the likely or the probable; truth can never be final and never absolute.”
“…the poet Robinson Jeffers…wrote: ‘The mathematicians and the physics men have their mythology; they work alongside the truth, never touching it; their equations are false but the things work.’ [Italics in original] The mathematicians and the physicists cannot really claim truth, but they have certainly sorted out a lot of things that do not work, and they are building a wondrously coherent picture of the universe. The Copernican system is surely a part of that coherency. A universe billions of years old and evolving is also part of that coherency.”
“…Galileo had attempted to show that reasoning from the Book of Nature can, at the very least, establish that one world view is far likelier than another. This has been the method of science ever since. Indeed, one might argue (as Alfred North Whitehead did) that since an omnipotent Creator could have made the world in any way he liked, it is all the more incumbent on scientists to discover which way God chose to make it.”18
In spite of its shortcomings, science also has its strengths. With all their strengths, the scriptures are neither science nor pure history. The best path to knowledge is through a combination of science and the scriptures.
Science and scripture are often viewed as residing at two opposite ends of the spectrum. To paraphrase Galileo, the scriptures teach us how to go to heaven whereas science teaches us how the heavens go. Stephen Jay Gould called this distinction between science and religion “nonoverlapping magisteria” (NOMA).19 Gould stated,
“Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits— indeed enjoins— the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom.”19
But Gould also observed,
“This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer— and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.”19
Historically, those areas of interdigitation have been the scenes of greatest conflict, but as Gould has suggested, “Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer…” We should not be inclined to repeat the erroneous conflicts of the past – or, worse yet, continue to extend them generation after generation, but, rather, we should learn from the past and create a better future where science and revealed religion interdigitate in a loving embrace, as two equal partners holding hands in marriage.
The young people in our Church should be encouraged to seek truth wherever it arises. As President Brigham Young stated, “‘Mormonism,’ so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to ‘Mormonism.’”20
In an 1874 discourse Brigham Young stated, referring to the youth of the Church:
“When they are old enough, place within their reach the advantages and benefits of a scientific education. Let them study the formation of the earth, the organization of the human system, and other sciences…form a class in geology, in chemistry or mineralogy; and do not confine their studies to theory only, but let them put in practice what they learn from books, by defining the nature of the soil, the composition or decomposition of a rock, how the earth was formed, its probable age, and so forth… It is the duty of the Latter-day Saints, according to the revelations, to give their children the best education that can be procured, both from the books of the world and the revelations of the Lord.”21
I am very religious and am a very active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I love the Come Follow Me program and love the discussions that take place in Sunday School classes. I have read the scriptures cover to cover many times over. I have been a bishop twice, Sunday School President and/or teacher many times, and my wife, Kathleen, and I are currently workers in the Pocatello, Idaho temple. I am also an active scientist with BS degrees in Microbiology and Zoology from BYU, an MS in Zoology from BYU, and a PhD in Anatomy from the University of Pennsylvania. My research concerns both normal and abnormal biological form.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design, Bantam, 2010
3. The reversing glasses and the upright vision. Vienna 1950: production company Dr. Pacher & Peithner. Inverted worlds. Vienna 1954: Production company Dr. Pacher & Peithner.
5. Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design, Bantam, 2010
7. Doctrine and Covenants 121:33
8. Doctrine and Covenants 46:8-9
9. Doctrine and Covenants 46:10-11
10. Doctrine and Covenants 46:12-14
11. Doctrine and Covenants 46:15-17; 19-25
12. Doctrine and Covenants 46:18
13. Doctrine and Covenants 46:9
14. Doctrine and Covenants 46:26
15. Einstein, Albert, Science, Philosophy and Religion, for a speech given at the meeting of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York City, 9-11 Sep 1940
16. Einstein, Albert, azquotes.com
17. 2 Timothy 3:1, 2, 7
18. Gingerich, Owen, The Galileo Affair, Scientific American, 247:132-143, August 1982
19. Gould, Stephen Jay, Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History, March 1997
20. Discourses of Brigham Young, 3
21. Young, Brigham, Journal of Discourses, 17:45, 1874