Faith and science are often seen as conflicting approaches in the search for truth—including within the Latter-day Saint community. For example, Joseph Fielding Smith and B. H. Roberts disagreed about whether science or scripture should take priority in the debate over evolution (see the story in Saints 3). In this interview. Dr. Jamie L. Jensen explains that faith and science are symbiotic pathways to truth.
Watch the devotional by Jamie L. Jensen, “Faith and Science: Symbiotic Pathways to Truth.”
Table of contents
- How do faith and science define truth?
- How do we reconcile them?
- How does a scientist seek scientific and spiritual truth?
- Is science naturally atheistic?
- What is a belief in the “God of the Gaps”?
- Why does dogmatism threaten both science and faith?
- What did Elder Nelson say about science at religion?
- How do you live with uncertainty?
- What allows Latter-day Saint scientists to embrace all truth?
- How do faith and science live symbiotically in our lives?
- What does Jamie Jensen wish people knew?
- Who is Jamie Jensen?
- Where can I learn more?
Does science define truth any differently than it is defined in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
I would answer this question with a “No” and a “Yes”. Let’s start with “No”. Science would define truth as the absolute reality of things and I believe the Gospel would define truth the same way. Truth is truth, whether it is discovered in a laboratory or through revelation (I’m paraphrasing President Nelson here).
But here is where they are different: science is limited to truths about the natural or physical world. And even then, a good scientist will never claim to know the absolute truth—only that we have strong evidence to support our idea of absolute truth (or our model, which in scientific terms, we call a theory).
Whereas, with the Gospel, we can know the truth of all things, both spiritual and physical. So the truth of the Gospel is an expansion upon the truth found through science.
How do we reconcile scientific and religious approaches to truth?
Sometimes the “truth” we discover in science seems contradictory to what we might perceive as Gospel truth (e.g., evidence of evolution and the story of the Creation). What we have to remember is that these seeming contradictions stem from “an incomplete knowledge of science, or religion, or both” (see the Dedication of the Life Sciences Building by Elder Russell M. Nelson).
When things appear to contradict, the easiest way to keep on the path is to just be patient and wait for further light and knowledge. And to be open to that light and knowledge coming from both science and the Gospel.
How similar are a scientist’s approaches to finding scientific and spiritual truths?
There are similarities and differences. The approach to science is what we sometimes simplistically call the “Scientific Method”. We make observations about the natural world, we posit hypotheses, we design experiments, we gather data, we analyze data, and we draw conclusions based upon our interpretation of the data.
In finding spiritual truth, we follow a similar path (see Moroni 10:4-5). Here are the main differences:
- Spiritual vs. eternal. Scientific truths are concerned with the physical world, spiritual truths often pertain to the spiritual or eternal world. Thus, our hypotheses (or potential causal explanations) pertain to either the physical or spiritual world.
- Instruments. The tools we use to gather data are different. In science we use rulers, thermometers, callipers, spectrophotometers, etc., things designed to measure physical phenomena. In religion, we use faith, fasting, prayer, meditation, etc., things designed to measure spiritual phenomena. Interestingly, we require training and practice with both types of instruments to be adept at interpreting the data.
- External validity. Scientific evidence is tangible and transferable (i.e., I can post my data on a repository where another scientist can download it and run their own analyses to reproduce the same results and hopefully draw the same conclusions). Whereas, spiritual evidence is generally not tangible (it is based on feelings) and while it is shareable (i.e., we can share our testimony), it is not transferable. Everyone must run the experiment and gather the data themselves. But the Lord has made this available to all of us.
Is science naturally atheistic?
This draws a lot upon the processes I described in the previous question. Because science can gather data only about the natural/physical world, it cannot draw any conclusions regarding the spiritual world.
So, let’s define three terms:
- Theism is the belief that there is a God.
- Atheism is the belief that there is no God (notice that it is still a belief system).
- Agnosticism is the absence of belief (a = without, gnostic = knowledge or belief). Science is agnostic. It is without belief. It simply gathers physical evidence for physical phenomena.
I love to remind readers, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Science cannot tell you whether God is real or not.
What is a belief in a “God of the Gaps”—and why is it dangerous ?”
Belief in a God of the Gaps is when one bases their belief in God on the fact that God explains gaps in their current understanding. For example, whales are mammals that live a completely aquatic lifestyle, despite breathing air, giving birth to live young (as opposed to fish who lay eggs), and nursing their young with milk.
For ages, this has puzzled scientists. How did whales end up in the ocean?
Someone with a “God of the Gaps” mentality would say, “Whales are in the ocean because God created them in the beginning that way and placed them in the oceans.”
Starting in the early 1990s, scientists have discovered a whole series of fossils that show the gradual progression of four-legged, land-dwelling mammals into two-legged, sea-dwelling whales! (Google Durodon, Ambulocetus, Rhodocetus, and Basilosaurus to take a look!)
In addition, we have since found strong molecular evidence to link whales to current land-dwelling mammals (hippos being their closest relative), and whales have fully-formed hand bones in their flippers and vestigial pelvic bones embedded in their sides.
If you had based your faith that God exists on the fact that only His existence can explain whales, what happens when scientists can show clear evidence of their evolution from land-dwelling mammals?
(Which, by the way does not mean God didn’t create whales; it just means He created them in a more fascinating and time-consuming way!)
You are in danger of losing your testimony.
This can be applied to those who try to “prove” that evolution is mathematically impossible and therefore God had to do the creation instantaneously.
- Or that organisms are too complex to have evolved and therefore an “intelligence” had to intervene.
- Or that medical miracles are magical and cannot be explained physiologically.
- Or that human morality can’t be explained and thus has to be exclusively endowed by God.
- Or any number of attempts to “prove” God’s existence with some physical phenomenon.
When we do this, we place our testimony unnecessarily at odds with science. If science ever explains whatever phenomena we say is “unexplainable,” our testimony falls apart.
Instead, we should base our testimonies on spiritual evidence—those undeniable feelings of peace and reassurance that God is real and that He has spoken to you.
Everyone is entitled to this evidence and science can’t touch it.
What is dogmatism, and why is it equally threatening to science and faith?
Dogmatism stops progress in its tracks—both scientific and spiritual progress. From a scientific perspective, insisting that you know all there is to know about any given topic means closing the door to progress.
There are so many examples in the past of ideas that were promising but needed refinement (and sometimes a total overhaul!).
The four elements
A fun example that comes to mind is from the 1700s. It was thought that matter consisted of four elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire (I’m sure you’ve seen this on Angels and Demons :)).
Earth is heavier than water, which is heavier than air, which is heavier than fire. And fire actually came from the release of a substance called Phlogiston, the lightest of all, from earth materials.
This is why when you burn wood, it becomes lighter in weight—the phlogiston has been released and has floated above the air as smoke. It made sense and explained so many things. When you drop Earth into Water, it sinks. When you trap Air in Water, it floats. And when you burn things, the Phlogiston rises above the Air.
This was all great until Antoine Lavoisier, a chemist, burned magnesium and found that it got heavier.
Eventually, it was discovered that oxygen is responsible for combustion and that magnesium actually takes on oxygen when it burns. Phlogiston had to be abandoned for a better, more refined theory that explained more phenomena.
Increasing in knowledge
We are constantly learning more about the natural world that refines our explanations and gives us a better understanding of how things work, how the body heals, how we extend life, and the list goes on.
The same is true for spiritual matters. I don’t think anyone would claim that they know all there is to know about the Gospel. Claiming this would mean there is no need for continual scripture study, temple attendance, church attendance, prayer and fasting, etc.
We need to keep our minds open to new knowledge. And we need to teach our children to be comfortable with not knowing everything right now. When they bear their testimonies, instead of reciting blindly, “I’d like to bear my testimony, I know the church is true…”, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say, “I’d like to bear my testimony, I believe the church is true, as far as I’ve been taught” or “I believe my parents and they believe the church is true, and someday I’ll know for myself…”?
We need to teach them that faith is a progression, that it is okay to be uncertain, that questioning things does not mean we are on the “slippery slope to you-know-where,” that we can have a testimony and still be seeking answers.
It’s okay not to “know” now—we are told that we should learn line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little.
What did Elder Russell M. Nelson say about science and religion at the dedication of the BYU Life Sciences Building?
I love this quote by then-Elder Russell M. Nelson:
This university is committed to search for truth and teach the truth. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is all compatible…Conflict only arises from an incomplete knowledge of either science or religion, or both.Elder Russell M. Nelson
How do you live with the conflict stemming from having incomplete knowledge about science and religion?
With patience. The more I learn about science, the more I realize we don’t know. The more I learn about the Gospel, the more I realize I have to learn.
To some this can be unsettling. But, it shouldn’t be. It should be exciting! Think of all the things we still get to learn!
We need more comfort with uncertainty and more patience with ourselves. Remember, the Lord has promised that:
In that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things–Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof–Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.Doctrine & Covenants 101:32–34
I cannot wait for that day!
What allows faithful scientists in the church to equally embrace truth revealed through science and faith?
I admire faithful scientists like Joseph F. Merrill, Henry Eyring, James Talmage, Richard G. Scott, Russell M. Nelson and many others. I have also seen this strength in students.
As I have studied my students, I have found six main reasoning patterns that help people embrace both science and faith symbiotically:
- Understand the nature and limitations of science as a discipline and how it differs from religion.
- Base your faith in God on the correct evidence and not on a “God of the Gaps.”
- Approach science directly in your homes bathed in the light of the Gospel, rather than turning to pseudoscientific explanations.
- Remember that science is agnostic.
- Do not assume a deficit model (i.e., that if someone struggles to accept a scientific principle, it must be because they are deficient in knowledge, wisdom, reasoning ability, etc.).
- Be comfortable and patient with uncertainty.
We’ve talked about most of these in this interview. The full list will hopefully be accessible soon on my website and in some upcoming publications.
What does it mean to have faith and science live symbiotically in our lives?
Symbiosis means to live (bios) together (sym). It is more than just “cohabitation” (which also means to live together). In symbiotic relationships in nature, both parties benefit from and depend upon each other. They work hand-in-hand for survival.
A classic example can be found in flowering plants and honey bees. Both depend on each other for survival and both receive great benefits from this relationship.
You can think of faith and science the same way. These two ways of knowing shouldn’t just occupy separate niches in our same brain where we depend on one when we are sitting in church and the other when we are sitting in school. Rather, they should work together to bring us a fuller picture of truth.
Many of the problems that we face in life require both a scientific answer and spiritual fortification. When my son was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that rendered him completely unable to function, it required both ways of knowing. We saw psychiatrists and counselors who offered well-researched therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. We also worked with the Lord in helping him understand his worth and overcome his scrupulosity (a compulsion that causes you to feel guilty and unworthy of love).
I remember the day we were leaving a counseling session, having just learned a therapeutic technique to take control of compulsive thoughts and my sweet eight-year-old son had an epiphany about the atonement of Jesus Christ—that it is like a river, and sins are like little pebbles. The river is strong enough to wash these pebbles away with a repentant prayer. And bigger stones just need a little help from Priesthood leaders.
This gift of understanding the Lord’s atonement helped him overcome a large part of his condition and move forward with confidence that the Lord’s atonement would wash away his “pebbles” and that he was worthy of love. I believe it saved his life. He continues to apply both medicine and miracles in his life in a symbiotic way. Both ways of knowing are gifts to help us here in mortality.
What do you wish people understood about truth and the relationship between science and religion?
I want people to understand that the wedge that people place between religion and science is artificial. These two ways of knowing can and do go hand-in-hand in our pursuit of truth. Both can bless our lives.
I’ll leave you with one word of advice, and I’ll quote directly from my Devotional:
Be patient, stay faithful, and in time, understanding will come. And please keep in mind that your eternal salvation does not depend on your complete understanding of science. If learning scientific theories puts your faith in jeopardy, choose your faith! Choose your faith until you can better understand the science (or until science can provide better explanations).Dr. Jamie L. Jensen
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About the author
Dr. Jamie L. Jensen is on the Biology faculty at Brigham Young University. She earned her undergraduate degree in Animal Science and Chemistry, as well as her Masters in Molecular Evolution from BYU, and her PhD in Biology from Arizona State University. She received the Outstanding Teacher award from the Life Sciences department at BYU in 2018. Dr. Jensen is also involved with the “Reconciling Evolution” project sponsored by BYU, which is an interfaith effort to build bridges between science and evolution. Dr. Jensen is the mother of four boys and loves reading, sewing and dissecting.