A review of Steven Peck’s “Evolving Faith”
and a brief digression into the epistemology of faith and belief
Steven L. Peck has just published “Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist.” Peck plows some familiar ground exploring the intersection of science and faith. Peck is a confirmed evolutionist and also apparently a fairly devout Mormon. He believes that a devout scientist can navigate these spheres with equal skill, and he ably and interestingly charts his paths in and around these issues in both of his roles. As a scientist and as a devout Mormon, I share Peck’s perspective. It is indeed possible to be both devout and a solid, rigorous scientist, despite the protestations of the fundamentalists Peck and I have both no doubt frequently encountered.
Circumscribed into one great whole
I take issue with Peck’s views on knowledge and ways of knowing, however. Peck subscribes to the view that there are two mutually exclusive ways of knowing—an objective, scientific way of knowing, and a subjective, religious or spiritual way of knowing. I contend that this bifurcated view runs counter to the way Joseph Smith viewed “truth”:
The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 261–70).
The idea that all truth can be “circumscribed into one great whole” is repeated in conference talks and is found in our Temple ceremony, and is thus part of our theological DNA. Both Joseph and Brigham described the Restoration as embracing all truth, and never distinguished between rational (scientific) and spiritual truth. For Joseph, there was not even a difference between physical matter and spirit. Peck, on the other hand, tells us that subjective truth lies “completely outside the scientific method.”
Knowing is knowing, Joseph and Brigham seem to say. Of course we know on a gut level that there are indeed some things we experience subjectively that we can’t articulate very well in a scientific context. We thus declare that our personal religious beliefs are immune to probing by the tools of science. But are they really? As a scientist, how can I accept that certain parts of my experience lie outside the purview of rigorous, rational analysis?
While I certainly recognize that religious beliefs deserve respect, and that there may be things people of religious inclinations hold sacred and therefore above analysis, I suggest that as a scientist I am obligated to at least be open about my subjective, religious experience. I don’t necessarily have to defend it, but what happens in my mind and in my body I should at least be able to describe objectively.
First, from a strictly evolutionary perspective, we are hard-wired for transcendence and meaning (Bellah, 2011). This is an innate part of who we are—those without this drive apparently did not reproduce quite as successfully. In addition, we have evolved as social animals—relationships are intrinsic to who we are (Wilson, 2012). We have in fact, ironically, in a sense evolved to reject evolution, to reject that we are simply animals with only a drive to survive. To be human is to need meaning and purpose.
Perhaps then it is just a question of how we frame things. I find that religious experience is often defined in observational, science-like terminology, and that scientific findings are often expressed in terms of insight if not inspiration.
For example, the hallowed dictum of Moroni 10: if you ask, with real intent and a sincere heart, then the truth will be manifested to you. This is basically an observational test, one that can be replicated—and of course we believe it has been replicated many thousands of times. Now we could ask what exactly real intent is and what is meant by a sincere heart. Admittedly, this experiment cannot be replicated in a completely controlled environment, and it is hard to measure precisely what the manifestation of the “truth” would be. But we are nonetheless still in the world of experiential phenomena, and I can describe, objectively to a great degree, peaceful feelings or “burnings” in my heart and I can accept these as consistent with a “manifestation of the truth.” Choosing to believe that this is part of a larger story of golden plates and angels does of course require a significant leap of faith, because there can be no independent verification of this story. So as a scientist describing my relationship to this story, I can describe my feelings, and say that I believe the Book of Mormon was written by prophets, etc. A devout member with the same experience would much more likely say I know the Book of Mormon is true. But h/she would not know any more than I do. So there is no getting away from the fact that framing makes all the difference, but framing allows us to discuss our observations in both the worlds of science and of spirituality.
The parable of the seed in Alma 32 is posited in an even stronger experimental mode. These feelings are eminently describable in objective terms: I feel stronger and stronger “swelling motions” in my breast as I plant the seed of gospel truth or the “word,” and as I water and nourish the metaphorical seed and then the plant. I still have to choose what it is that I believe those feelings are related to.
The key here in both of these examples of religious or spiritual feelings, from a scientific point of view, is to describe as accurately as we can what we feel. There is no need to posit a different way of knowing or feeling. What we make of these feelings, however, is a question of choice. Even more than choice, perhaps, is it is a question of desire or wanting. What do we want this to mean? For the early-Twentieth-Century Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, a deep yearning for or wanting immortality is the root of all religious thought and feeling (Unamuno, 1937). This is nothing to be ashamed of. We do not need to imagine religious or subjective thought as something completely separate from science. It is all part of the same grand human project –a never-ending quest to quench our thirst for knowledge and meaning.
Science in fact often progresses as a result of “inspiration”. One of the more famous accounts is that of August Kekulé’s famous insight wherein the archetypal image of the self-eating snake (the oruburos) sparked a creative intuition into the structure of the benzene ring (Rothenberg, 1995). There was no claim to inspiration “out of the blue”—clearly Kekulé was completely immersed, through his research, in the organic chemistry of carbon. The “unexpected” connection between archetypal images and experimental data could only occur in someone not only immersed in chemistry, but also deeply familiar with the classics, such as most of the intelligentsia were trained in during that time.
What we call spiritual inspiration often occurs in similar circumstances. In fact, inspiration is almost always contextual and rarely if ever just “out of the blue”. D&C Section 84 v 85 tells us to treasure up our minds the words of life, then the words that will be most inspiring will be given to us in the very moment that they are needed.
Its the relationship that counts
The key for a religious or spiritual person is not that there are two separate spheres of knowing, it is rather the relationship we have with that knowledge, however it comes to us, whether objectively or subjectively derived, as we might imagine it. Peck appeals to Kierkegaard to bolster his argument of two kinds of knowledge, but for Kierkegaard “subjectivity is truth” (all citations Kierkegaard 1941).” Objective truth, such as it is, is deemed irrelevant. Kierkegaard’s views on knowledge and faith are indeed instructive to this discussion.
The most important truth for Kierkegaard is what it means to be a Christian. The objective question “consists of an inquiry into the truth of Christianity.” The subjective problem, on the other hand, “concerns the relationship of the individual to Christianity. There is knowing and there is being. This recalls the request by President Kimball to change “teach me all that I must know” in the Primary song I am a Child of God to “all that I must do.” Kierkegaard would no doubt take it one step further to “all that I must be.” It is one thing to know about Christ, it is another to know Christ, and quite another to be like Christ.
The problem with characterizing subjective and objective truths as being of two completely different spheres is that we are tempted to want certainty on the subjective side on a par with the objective side. We believe subjective truth to be of a completely different order, completely “outside the scientific method”, as Peck would have it. Because subjective truth is completely unrelated to objective truth, and not subject to the same methods, we can claim equal certainty: it is just in another sphere, subject to its own criteria for truth. And therefore with an equal claim to certainty, even though it is not amenable to objective inquiry.
If so-called subjective truth were subject to objective inquiry, then by definition subjective truth becomes uncertain. I can objectively speak of what I feel—the swellings of my breast, for example. But I can say nothing, objectively, of what might lie behind those feelings. For Kierkegaard, it is precisely the uncertainty of subjective truth that provides an opening for passion and inwardness, the key spiritual characteristics that a seeker of truth needs.
When faith loses passion, Kierkegaard tells us that proof becomes necessary (p.31). Certainty and passion do not go together. Kierkegaard encapsulates this contradiction in his “parable” of two seekers (p170-180)—one who pursues the “true” God objectively, pursuing “the approximate truth of the God-idea,” and the other who is “driven by the infinite passion of his need for God,” and who “feels an infinite concern for his own relationship to God in truth.” Kierkegaard puts a further twist on this parable by placing the first seeker as one living in Christendom and who goes up to the house of the “true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays, but prays with a false spirit” (i.e., without enthusiasm or passion). The second seeker he puts into “an idolatrous community [that] prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol.” Where is the most truth, asks Kierkegaard?
The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships, in fact, an idol.
The objective faith, the faith that supposes that the infinite can be ascertained with certainty (precisely that which kills faith according to Kierkegaard) leads to a faith which is nothing more “than a sum of doctrinal propositions” (p193), and Christianity becomes a “matter of knowledge”. In some ways perhaps our own faith, no longer quite the faith of our fathers, has arrived at this state. On one level, we are no longer the passionate seekers of truth that Joseph and Brigham were. Joseph had a passion for all truth. Were he alive today, no doubt he would be taken with eastern philosophies such as Buddhism or Hinduism, extracting from them the prisms further illuminating the truth of the Restoration, and no doubt from any number of other strands of human thought. Curiosity is a characteristic of the passionate seeker of truth. Conformity is a characteristic of the seeker of orthodoxy, of the “sum of doctrinal propositions.”
The glory of God is intelligence (D&C 93:36). This intelligence is driven by wanting to know all truth, with a deep and abiding passion. It is not a mundane quest for the facts; it is hungering and thirsting for the truth that matters, for all that we need to know.
But what of science and passion? Is science a sphere wholly separate from what we call “eternal” truths? Or is science part of the truth that we can embrace “without limitation”? The gospel of the Restoration strongly suggests that it should all be embraced with passion. The very best scientists, in fact, are those who have a passionate relationship to their field of study. These are the scientists to whom profound insights, aka inspiration, come.
As a scientist, I very frequently find myself caught up in the passion of the wetlands that I study. I apply the same observational rigor that I might also employ when examining my “spiritual” feelings. How in fact can it be any different? These wetlands are wonderful places, an incredible complexity related to their transitional nature between terrestrial and aquatic environments. And we are losing them where I live to unmitigated sprawl. Yes, I study them carefully, but I approach them as unique and special lands, nay, holy ground.
Science pursued with passion always recognizes that the truth we have is only an approximation. The passionate scientist is thus always at least a little humble, or at least should be as s/he contemplates how infinitesimally small any body of knowledge actually is. Wilford R. Gardner (1991), one of the premier students of soils in the Twentieth Century (and a product of a Mormon pioneer heritage that gave rise to the study of soil physics and irrigation) once said that not only are soils more complex than we imagine them to be, they are more complex than we can imagine them to be.” This is humility that springs from an inward, passionate view of science. The heavens are more complex than we can imagine them to be. God is more complex that we can imagine her (or him) to be.
All truth is an approximation. We can only see through a glass darkly. This is true whether we are talking about phenomena that occur in controlled environments where we can experiment and observe, or whether we are talking about “swellings” in our breasts and tears in our eyes. The question is how badly we want to know –to know it all, of things both in heaven and of things in the earth. A passion for knowledge, for the knowledge that transforms, does not recognize separate realms of truth. It is all one.
For Kierkegaard (p353) a knowledge or testimony of eternal happiness is only valid if “one’s existence [is transformed] into a testimony concerning it.” It is not whether that eternal happiness actually has a basis in truth or not—obviously the passionate seeker very much wants it to be so. But it is a wanting of passionate inwardness: to be that “truth”.
Peck tells us if his faith were not grounded in what he believes to be “some eternal truths, such as that a being exists that loves and is concerned about me,” that he would rather scrap the whole thing, and become a materialist and subscribe to whatever ethical system might actually be grounded in some kind of truth. If only the truth could be known in this way.
I do not know precisely what lies on the other side of that dark glass. But I know what I want to be there. A being of love—on that we no doubt agree. And whether it be the Bhudda, or the Christ, or the Shiva, and they are beings of love, then I will try to follow. I am betting of course on our Anointed One, the Christ. But if there be exclusion, if there be dogma, if there be severity and wrath, then I do not want that and I will try not to follow. I am staking my life on my bet, grounded or not in some universal, genuine truth. But I believe the bet is grounded in the truth that matters.
Bellah, R.N. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution. From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 784 pp
Gardner, W. R. 1991. Soil science as a basic science. Soil Science 151: 2–6.
Kierkegaard, S. 1941. Concluding Unscientific Postcript. Princeton University Press. Originally published 1846.
Rothenberg, A. Creative Cognitive Processes in Kekulé’s Discovery of the Structure of the Benzene Molecule. The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 419-438.
Unamuno, Miguel de. 1954. Tragic Sense of Life. Dover Publications. Originally published 1921.
Wilson, E.O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 330 pp.