Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Science vs ‘continuing revelation’

In a recent thread, I was wondering how people can have confidence in a religious leader who gets it obviously wrong. In a comment, brettandkatie asks (ask?) a really good question that I’ve been thinking about:

So, how does this differ from “further light and knowledge”? The apostle know what they are given now, just like I know what I am given now. Further revelation may change this. I don’t think that God and science should be separated, for they work together.
I don’t discredit science, it has given us so so much. However, we are getting the best of what they “know” may change. How can you use the word “know” if it is a hypotheses? I’m just saying that having full confidence in everything current science is saying can be hard because, while much of it is fact, much is also an educated guess that will change in the future. So how is this different from what you claim the LDS church does?

In other words, scientists learn more, and their knowledge changes. Religious leaders learn more, and their knowledge changes. So how is science different from ‘continuing revelation’? Don’t they work the same? Am I being unfair to expect religion to work differently?

It’s a tempting comparison, but not all systems that advance incrementally are the same. Consider the cheating spouse who tells a little of the truth, and then comes out with more and more of it when confronted with more and more of their lies. Or what about L. Ron Hubbard, who made up more and more of his phony-baloney science fiction religion bit by bit? That’s incremental, but most people are able to see how that isn’t quite on a par with science.

Before getting to the meat of it, a couple of caveats. First up, I’m addressing this from a Mormon perspective, since I’m most familiar with it and because it’s in response to a Mormon commenting on a post about a Mormon apostle. I think this relates to other religions too, but if this criticism doesn’t seem apt, be grateful that your church doesn’t do this. (Or it does, and you just don’t realise.) Also, I don’t think I’m comparing ‘ideal science’ to ‘the worst of religion’; I think I’m comparing how they work most of the time. Again, take it for what it’s worth.

With science, you start with the facts and move to conclusions. With religion, you start with the conclusion and see what facts will get you there.

Still love this cartoon:

In science, you start with the null hypothesis (assuming the hypothesis is not true), and you use evidence to build up a picture. An idea must be within a certain degree of confidence before you settle on it. Religious people require that an idea be argued down to null before they’ll abandon or (more often) modify it. As long as there’s a sliver of hope, they’ll cling to it.
The evidence for a scientific idea must be publicly verifiable, and replicable. Scientists submit their evidence and conclusions for peer review. So-called ‘spiritual evidence’ comes from emotions, experiences, and unusual-seeming happenstances, which cannot be examined directly by others, or replicated under controlled conditions.
The evidence for scientific ideas comes from the natural world. The evidence for religious ideas comes from interpretations of holy books and authority figures.
Scientists change their views when the evidence requires. Religions change their views when they become unpalatable.
Scientific hypotheses make testable predictions. If those predictions don’t come true, the hypothesis is rejected. Religious leaders sometimes make a prophecy. If it doesn’t come true when expected, the prophecy is either kicked down the road for “sometime in the future”, or reinterpreted to apply on a “spiritual level”. They are not typically abandoned.
In science, you publish your results when they change. With religion (particularly the Mormon sort), you quietly drop doctrines and hope no one will notice after 40 years. (The most recent exception I can think of happened in 1978.)

The main idea here is not just that science and religion are different in lots of ways, though they are — they actually function as opposite and incompatible methods. Science expands when it can; religion contracts when it must.

And finally, an observation: Science is a system created by humans.
Religions claim to get their answers from an all-knowing, all-powerful being.
Yet science has been much more successful at gaining knowledge, promoting longevity, and finding out about our universe. That ought to give believers some pause.

Let’s just say that brettandkatie is (are?) right, and science and religion are comparable systems. Why would a god even need to spread his knowledge by using the same system that humans invented? Wouldn’t we expect him to do better? An organisation led by a god would surely have more knowledge and would show more moral progress than a purely human one. Yet religions display less knowledge and poorer moral judgment than humans generally. So what are they for?

Some believers acknowledge this, but then say that god is ‘teaching his people line upon line’ or that ‘god chooses to work through fallible people’. Well, God would be awfully hamstrung if he could only teach to the level of his most advanced followers. Why would a god limit himself in this way, and not take the lead? We are meant to believe that this all-powerful being is stymied by human cognitive limitations and human intransigence. This makes no sense.

(p.s. You can tell I’m pretty gung-ho on science, but please don’t have full confidence in everything current science is saying. It’s going to change. That’s why it’s good.)


  1. Good post. IMO, (like you mentioned) the most important distinction between the two methods is how and why new theories change.

    There is no rational basis for the 1978 priesthood change, for example. All any Mormon can say is that it's just the way their god chose for how things should be.

    Scientific theories change only for rational reasons. New evidence -> new theory. It's a rather inconvenient and humble approach to truth. Whereas the revelation method is entirely convenient and self-serving.

  2. Seems to me that another big difference is that science admits and embraces change, while the LDS Church changes and tries to drop old doctrines down the memory hole. "D&C 132 is about monogamous temple marriage. D&C 132 has always been about monogamous temple marriage." "The Church believes in racial equality. The Church has always believed in racial equality." "Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia."

  3. The cartoon is pretty funny but not quite accurate. Science starts with the facts then draws conclusions form them, but why then do you say, "don't have full confidence in everything current science is saying. It's going to change." The great thing about science is that we get what will help us now and that it is always evolving and changing in light of new evidences. However, how can we have absolute conclusions in everything if it changes?
    True, science publishes results when they change, just like the church publishes when doctrine changes, like in 1978.
    Many people say that all the prophecies of Joseph Smith are inaccurate. How then, in 1832, 30 years before the civil war, did he accurately predict it? Not just say, "there will be a war somewhere," but say what state it will start with, who they will be divided against and who they would call on.
    In science, just like religion, not every scientist agrees with the other so how do we know who to fully trust? Especially if the "known" changes. We can keep looking forward to new scientific discoveries that will benefit us, but why is it so hard to believe religion works in a very similar way?
    I'm sure you may know that science changes in light of new evidences; we use to think one thing but now we think this. Same in religion, doctrine may change according to new revelation, I know that dang revelation word, that will move us along the road. "If all you know is what you see with your natural eyes and hear with your natural ears, then you won't know very much."-Boyd K. Packer. This is not to say science is flawed, of course not, but there is a lot science cannot explain. Thanks for the discussion.

    • I don't think you ought to argue that the church publishes doctrinal changes based on what happened in 1978. I think you need to have a harder look at the doctrine that has fallen down the "memory hole" that Kuri mentioned. The memory hole obviously wasn't big enough to swallow the 1978 stuff but what about all the other nonsense that has quietly fallen by the wayside over the church's history? Brigham Young "revealed" some doozies. And please… let's not have a discussion about him "speaking as a man."

    • Oh, undoubtably. The Mormon memory hole is huge.

      Of course, the strategy is now changing. LDS Church leaders now refrain from making doctrine or explanations directly, relying instead on surrogates (Maxwell Institute, Newsroom) whose words can be disavowed if necessary.

    • Would those surrogates also be attempting to reconcile revelation to science perchance?

    • brettandkatie,

      In Joseph Smith's Civil War prophecy, "the rebellion of South Carolina" was something that was happening at the time. It was called the Nullification Crisis. So that part wasn't even a prediction.

      That a civil war would "eventually" break out can be counted as a "hit," but it certainly wasn't an outlandish idea in light of South Carolina's rebellion and the already existing tensions between North and South. "Calling on" Great Britain was also a hit, but everything after that was a miss. Great Britain didn't become deeply involved in the war, whatever further "calling upon" there may have been didn't lead to anything like a world war, there were no major slave uprisings associated with the Civil War, there was no notable "vexing" by "Lamanites" or whoever the "remnants" were supposed to be, and there was no Armageddon of famine, plague, earthquakes, thunder, lightning, and the "end of all nations." Nor, as D&C 130:12 suggests he meant, has this culminated in the Second Coming.

      So once "the rebellion of South Carolina" is put into context, the prophecy consists of Joseph Smith getting two things right (to his credit, but they're the sort of things any astute observer of politics might have predicted) and a bunch of things wrong. Not all that impressive.

  4. Name some of the doozies and we can discuss them. We will also discuss some scientific doozies.

    • I don't think there's any merit in that. If you really aren't aware of some of the nonsense spruiked by prophets over recent and ancient history, jump on the internet or go to the library and have a look around (or even look through a church history institute manual!). Although, I'm sure you've been warned about reading "anti-mormon literature".

      I think one of the points of Daniel's post is that science doesn't claim to be infallible nor do scientists necessarily claim that the conclusions they draw are bulletproof. However, when you say, "Thus saith the Lord (that omnipotent, omniscient being)…" and later testing of whatever follows proves to be hogwash, then you've got a problem.

    • Right. We should be holding religion to a higher standard because they claim to get their information from an all-knowing god. Scientists don't make that claim.

    • If a religion is right, it should surely never change. If it does change, as science does, then it was wrong – as science was before it changed.

      Why would a god either make a mistake or be intentionally wrong?

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