Saturday, November 19, 2005

The scaffolding of science

Many thanks to Jared at Mormons and Evolution for posting a really old letter from Joseph F. Smith. (ht Dave@BCC) The letter explained why certain BYU professors in 1911 had been asked to stop teaching certain scientific principles deemed to be out of harmony with revealed doctrine.

Smith explained the situation:
...three of the professors advanced certain theories on evolution as applied to the origin of man, and certain opinions on "higher criticism," as conclusive and demonstrated truths. This was done although it is well known that evolution and the "higher criticism"—though perhaps containing many truths—are in conflict on some matters with the scriptures, including some modern revelation.

As I read through the letter, I wondered what the professors were teaching. I wondered how sure they were of their scientific facts. My wife points out that plate tectonics were unknown in geology at the time, though they are now a foundational principle for geologists. If I remember correctly, the belief at that time was that the continents were moving by simply plowing across the ocean floor for no known reason--a theory called continental drift.

I thought it might be fun to get the biology textbooks that were being used to teach "fact" in 1911 and show how much of that knowledge had since been discredited. In contrast, we still use essentially the same set of scriptures today as we did in 1911. While I disagree with President Smith in some of the particulars of his view on evolution, I think he is making a persuasive case that religious knowledge must supersede scientific knowledge.

He concluded his statement as follows:
What men use today as a scaffolding for scientific purposes from which to reach out into the unknown for truth, may be torn down tomorrow, having served its purpose; but faith is an eternal principle through which the humble believer may secure everlasting solace.

As soon as I read those words, I had to abandon the idea of digging up old biology books and making fun of the science to show how unsteady our scientific knowledge is. Instead, I am forced to acknowledge the utility of the "scaffolding" and I love the fact that Smith acknowledged that men may use the scaffolding to "reach out into the unknown for truth." Truth.

Would we have ever arrived at our knowledge of plate tectonics if we hadn't first entertained the now-disproved notion of continental drift? Elements of truth were found in the theory of continental drift. Many bits of evidence were identified and marshaled for defense of the theory. Those same bits of evidence now work to "prove" the validity of plate tectonics. Each iteration of scientific theory must learn the lessons from the past and find new answers that better harmonize the best available evidence.

Scaffolding. That is the term I will take home from reading the letter. Scientists need not cling to current knowledge with dogmatism. To do so would be folly because scientific knowledge is always being modified. But neither should they (or we) ignore current evidence. Each scientific theory may not be perfect, but it can be a necessary step toward discovering "the truth."

If Smith turns out to be right and evolution played no role in the origin of our physical bodies, it will not invalidate the knowledge that was gained while climbing upon the scaffolding of evolution. Thanks for the reminder, President Smith.


Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

  • Interesting, I think that it is somewhat ironic that many of his religious views are now viewed as religious or theological scaffolding - reaching for truth and now discarded.

    I appreciate Joseph F. Smith on many levels. Let us always remember that it is our faith in the Savior which is immutable, but our theological understandings have changed almost as drastically as our scientific understanding since he was first ordained.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/19/2005 5:56 PM  

  • It is also somewhat ironic that Jonathan Stapley should comment on this post. As I was writing the post, I nearly included language to the effect that our religious belief hasn't changed much in the last hundred years. But then I thought of some of the excellent articles I've read at Splendid Sun about evolving religious practices. I modified my statement to refer instead to the scriptures. Thanks, J., for making an excellent point.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 11/19/2005 10:55 PM  

  • I appreciate your post.

    I wonder about your opinion regarding Utah Senator Buttar's bill requiring evolution to be taught along side ID in Utah school's

    Your post brings out the excellent point that science often has incomplete portions of truth based on all available empirical data. As saints, we need to teach our children that science is just that, available, accepted, empirical data for the time.

    By Blogger pramahaphil, at 12/02/2005 2:19 PM  

  • The ID debate is an interesting one to me. It seems like "teaching" ID could be done in about two sentences. "Of course, we don't have all of the answers about how evolution works. Some people believe that some Intelligent force must have been guiding the process because nature seems too complex to be purely random." What science teacher would have a problem admitting that science doesn't know everything?

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 12/03/2005 11:15 AM  

  • Bradley, I don't think students have the mistaken impression that science knows everything, so there's not much point in correcting this non-problem.

    As far as teaching "Some people believe...", students could spend their whole academic career learning about the various things people believe. Shouldn't we stick to actual science in our science classes?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/05/2005 9:14 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.