Circumscribing Science and Religion (Into One Great Whole)

January 28, 2013    By: Jeff G @ 7:53 pm   Category: Life,Truth

Over at BCC, Ben F posted a nice little intro to a series which he plans to post regarding science and religion. It’s a friendly, uplifting and informative post which nobody but the most stick-in-the-mud-know-it-all would ever ever take issue with. But hey, what are blogs like this for, if not taking issue with innocent things which don’t really have that much bearing on the rest of our lives, right?

As Mormons, we preach the profoundly uplifting doctrine that all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole. In fact, we are instructed to actively learn and teach each other about all kinds of truth, of “the doctrine of the kingdom” and “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass,” and so on… And why even bother to distinguish between Gospel truths and natural truths? In my opinion, the doctrine of God’s kingdom includes the mysteries of the Higgs Boson just as much as the mysteries of Christ’s infinite Atonement… Science and religion aren’t just friends—they’re siblings.

As with all good siblings, however, science and religion aren’t without their fights. To a certain extent, substantive quarreling between science and religion is a good thing. It shows people are actually thinking about these two topics together, which is where they belong…

The truth is, we have a lot to learn about both God and this universe we find ourselves in; meanwhile, we get to look at our half-finished jigsaw puzzle and excitedly anticipate the breathtaking perfection with which it will all come together. In that moment, we will realize that neither faith nor science could ever be complete without the other.

I want to suggest that this mentality is biased and wrong-headed from the very start. It is to construe the relationship which exists between religion and science in scientific terms which are themselves rather foreign to the religious mindset. To whit, only a scientist would ever think that a certain amount of quarreling in the puzzle-solving process which leads to truth is a good thing. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have endorsed such an attitude (said the philosophically minded blogger!).

At this point, let me slow down a bit in order to unpack what I mean. To the pre-modern or religious mind, truth is a soteriological concept which I have compared to a compass which points us toward salvation or the “good life”. The modern or scientific mind, by contrast, sees truth as an epistemological concept which I often compare to a picture of the world, divorced from any notion of direction or value. (For the sake of completeness, the post-modern mind sees truth in terms of solidarity – a kind of tool or glue which binds people together.)

Back to quarreling in the puzzle-solving process, when Christ said that he was the Truth, the Way and the Life or that the Truth would set us free, he wasn’t simply describing the benefits which a comprehensive and fine-grained picture of the world around us could offer. Rather, he was telling us what we should do to be saved, and any quarrels regarding the fine-grained details along the way would only distract us from the journey at hand.

This, then, is my main objection to Ben’s post: that it views religion and science as two different ways of doing epistemology, two different strategies for solving the same puzzle. But religious truth isn’t really about solving any kind of puzzle at all; it’s about getting to heaven and progressing spiritually. Of course, knowing a lot of epistemological truths might(!) be helpful at this point in our soteriological journey… or they might not. Either way, the worst thing that a scientist could do is pretend that they are actually in the same “Truth business” that the prophets have been in this whole time. They’re not. At all. One has been in the epistemology business while the other has been in the soteriology business.

Now that I’ve spent some time pulling science and religion apart, let see if we can’t put them back together into “one great whole”. In another post I portrayed Lehi’s dream as a pre-modern depiction of how science and religion fit together. Briefly, I suggested that studying and following the path are two separate things and that there is nothing wrong with the former so long as it does not interfere with the latter.

A post-modern metaphor would probably place a stronger emphasis on the compatibility of two. In this vein I sometimes compare the relationship between religion and science to the a nail/hammer toolset and a screw/driver toolset. While each has it’s own weaknesses and strengths, there is a significant overlap in the tasks to which these sets can be put. Furthermore, nothing prevents every good carpenter from owning and using both sets. However, only the fool would try to use a driver with a nail or a hammer with a screw.

Finally, a modern and more scientific metaphor would simply embrace the puzzle metaphor, for if truth is indeed a puzzle, then it is more like a two-sided (or more, if you can imagine it) puzzle in which the same world is carved up in different ways and according to different rules. In this case, the fool would be he who constantly confuses the two sides of the single, unified puzzle or even forgets that the puzzle has more than one side.

Whatever metaphor you choose, I guess the material point I wish to get across is this: Yes, the truths of religion and science can peacefully coexist as a harmonious whole within one and the same mind, but don’t think for a second that religion is science by another name or that scientists are the prophets of the modern era.


  1. Science has more fiercely defended dogmas than any religion. Meanwhile, the LDS religion has the experiment outlined in Moroni 10:4-5. Which is the science and which is the religion?

    Comment by Bradley — January 29, 2013 @ 12:06 am

  2. I believe there is much truth to this post. Excellent thoughts.

    Comment by log — January 29, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  3. Jeff G,

    Great post. It brought back a memory of me debating with you on this topic months ago. As I read through it now, I found myself in full agreement.

    I think one of the clearest ways to show how science and religion differ in their epistemologies is through language. Religion and science don’t use the same vocabulary, and where they do share words, such as truth, they don’t mean these words in the same way the other field does. If the language isn’t the same, the conclusions can’t be the same. But the conclusions, as you note, can still be equally valid.

    Comment by DavidF — February 3, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

  4. It might be visualized that the Gospel and science, roughly speaking, are orthagonal to each other, with the Gospel taking the vertical axis and science the horizontal. It is where the two intersect, which is at the nature and history of the physical state we find ourselves occupying, that there is conflict. And it’s not conflict between mythological creation accounts and cold, hard, scientific observation, but between truth and the philosophies of men, mingled with scientific data.

    For me, recognizing the philosophies of men such as uniformitarianism that can never be proven in principle and which are irreconcilable with the claims of the Gospel, which claims I have verified to a point for myself, I am content to strive upwards along the axis that produces fruit in my heart and in my mind, and gives me joy beyond anything I ever knew before embracing the gospel of repentance.

    I am content that the Lord crafted this world in such a way to give plausible cause for disbelief, should a man reject the prophets and desire to justify his iniquity and gratify his pride. The book of the rocks does not give a complete nor a wholly plausible picture, and this also is by design. Without adopting philosophies of men, the structure of the rocks, structural similarities between fossils, proportions of isotopes in the soil,th and genetic similarities amongst creatures imply nothing of themselves. That much being said, the La Brea tar pits are still cool to visit.

    Comment by log — February 6, 2013 @ 9:06 am

  5. I really wish I could go back and edit these comments. I was trying to say that the data, seen through the lens of the philosophies of men, give a superficially plausible account which, when probed further, are shown to have no foundation. The data are themselves just facts and do not interpret themselves.

    Comment by Log — February 6, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

  6. As a former practitioner of technical science and engineering, I would have said that there is a significant cognitive dissonance.

    As a disciple of Christ, I have to believe the characterization is apt, “…ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — February 6, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

  7. DavidF,

    Your views seem to be very similar to my own.


    Your views, as always, are very different from my own. ;) We reach rather similar conclusions, but by very different paths. (I see you as still accepting the modern foundations and assumptions which I have been attacking in all these posts. If I’m not off the mark on this, a charitable reading of your comments would be that my somewhat radical attack on the foundations of modernity are interesting, but ultimately unnecessary. Although, truth be told, I’m not sure that you see yourself in this light.)

    Comment by Jeff G — February 6, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

  8. Jeff G,

    I think we lack a common foundation in vocabulary. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “I am not a smart man.”

    I would identify myself as having the religious mindset, as you describe it. I have been deconverted from a scientific mindset.

    Do I believe the truths of science can coexist with religious truths in one mind? Yes, they can. But only the truths – the data itself. The interpretations of the data, driven by the philosophies of men, now, that’s another question altogether.

    Comment by log — February 6, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

  9. You’re probably right about the vocabulary difference. I’m probably gonna write up another post about what I think religious and scientific mindsets are and are not, because I see your train of thought as being very scientific indeed.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 6, 2013 @ 4:18 pm