The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
Scientific Foundations of Mormon Theology
David H. Bailey
[p.1]A 1974 article in Science identified Mormon culture as an unusually productive source of American scientists and scholars, an achievement linked to such distinctive tenets of Mormon theology as rationalism, natural law, and its elevated concept of humankind.1 Unfortunately, the church now appears to be backing off from these distinctive theological tenets and taking a more conservative stance towards science, perhaps due in part to the influence of fundamentalist Christian creationist groups. Many Latter-day Saints have become suspicious of science and consider a number of currently accepted scientific theories irreconcilably at odds with the teachings of the faith.
Compounding this difficulty is the fact that the scientific aspects of Mormon theology have not been thoroughly studied, especially in the last few decades during which a virtual explosion of scientific knowledge has occurred. Nearly thirty years ago Mormon philosopher Sterling McMurrin lamented that no one had yet seriously attempted to place Mormon theology on a scientifically rigorous and philosophically acceptable foundation.2 Perhaps it is time to systematically examine the scientific foundations of Mormon theology.
Many recent developments of modern science have significant implications for LDS theology. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is certainly one such development. Like all significant scientific discoveries, Einstein’s theory was based on groundwork laid by [p.2]others. Crucial to this theory was the development during the late nineteenth century of a highly accurate method for measuring the speed of light. Numerous measurements revealed the startling conclusion that the speed of light coming from distant stars did not appear to vary in the slightest as the earth moved in its orbit around the sun, whereas a difference of about 67,000 miles per hour due to the motion of the earth would be expected. Physicists had previously noted the puzzling fact that the speed of light was directly calculable from Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations without considering relative motion.
For years physicists unsuccessfully tried to accommodate these facts within traditional Newtonian physics. Einstein took a different approach. Rather than trying to explain away the constancy of the speed of light, he proposed this fact as an axiom of a new system of physics. In ordinary situations his theory did not contradict the well-established laws of Newtonian mechanics. However, his theory predicted that in exotic situations certain bizarre phenomena would occur. His assertions include the following:
There is no such thing as an absolute reference frame. All motion is only relative.
Rapidly moving objects increase in mass, contract in length, and experience a slower passage of time.
Two events that appear to be simultaneous to one observer may not appear simultaneous to another observer.
The speed of light is the ultimate speed limit of physical objects in the universe.
Mass can be created and destroyed (converted to energy).
Space and time are distorted near massive bodies.
It took years for these counterintuitive notions to gain acceptance, but since 1905 the theory of relativity has been confirmed in a large number of precise and exacting experiments. For example, the increase in mass and dilation of time are routinely observed in nuclear particle accelerators. Relativity is now considered to be among the most universal and firmly grounded of all scientific theories.
Although not as well known as relativity, quantum theory is at least as fundamental and has far more applications in the “real” world. Quantum theory essentially tells us that our notion of the [p.3]universe as a collection of tiny particles zipping around in well-defined, deterministic paths is fundamentally inaccurate. For instance, an electron can only be regarded as a wave function with a corresponding probability distribution. This means that we can accurately calculate the probability that an electron will be found at a particular location, but that is about all.
One striking consequence of quantum theory is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This principle states that the position of a particle and its momentum (the product of its mass and velocity) cannot simultaneously be determined with absolute precision. Although this principle applies for all objects large and small, its effects are most noticeable at the atomic level. This inability to measure both position and momentum simultaneously has nothing to do with the limits of technology but is a fundamental limit transcending any possible means of measurement.
A related consequence of quantum theory is that there is a small but non-zero probability that a particle entirely confined in a force field will suddenly appear on the outside of this barrier and escape. This is like saying that a marble confined inside a wooden box can suddenly appear on the outside without even penetrating the wood. Indeed the radioactive decay of a nucleus demonstrates this principle: an alpha particle suddenly appears outside the nuclear force field (which normally confines it) and escapes.
Another quantum effect, one which has profound philosophical consequences, is known as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) effect. The most commonly studied instance of this effect is the polarization of two photons (light particles) simultaneously emitted from a nucleus in opposite directions. Experiments indicate that when the polarization angle of one photon is determined at a detector, this orientation is somehow instantly communicated to the other photon. The traditional quantum theory interpretation of this paradoxical result is that the polarization of the photons, like the position of an electron, simply does not exist in any sense until it is measured. This implies that there is no such thing as an objective reality—the act of observation is an essential part of the phenomenon being observed.
A third area relevant to this discussion is cosmology, in particular the theory that the entire observable universe (space, time, [p.4]and matter) was created roughly 15 billion years ago in a single cataclysmic event known as the “big bang.” The big bang theory grew out of a discovery made about sixty years ago by astronomer Edwin Hubble. He observed that the farther away a galaxy was, as measured by its absolute brightness, the faster it appears to be receding from the earth, as measured by the “red shift” of its light spectra. This implies that the universe is expanding and was thus at some previous time much denser than it is today. In 1964 a theoretical physicist showed that if the big bang had really occurred, then a remnant of the initial fireball should still be observable as low-level microwave radiation characteristic of that emitted by a body a few degrees above absolute zero (460 degrees Fahrenheit). At about the same time and completely independently, two scientists at Bell laboratories were attempting to reduce the level of noise in an experimental microwave antenna. After eliminating every conceivable source of noise in their equipment, they concluded that this noise was microwave radiation of extraterrestrial origin. Astrophysicists immediately recognized that it fit the pattern predicted by the big bang theory.
Since then other persuasive pieces of evidence have been uncovered. As a result this theory is now generally accepted as the correct description of the origin of the universe. I must emphasize that the big bang theory is not as fundamental and well established as relativity and quantum theory. However, the weight of evidence supporting the theory has increased to the point that it must be taken seriously by anyone attempting to form a scientifically tenable theology.
Some remarkable aspects of the current big bang theory have theological overtones. Physicists have concluded in recent years that the fundamental constants of physics—the gravitational constant and the masses of protons and electrons—all seem to be exceedingly finely tuned for the universe to exist as we know it today. For example, if gravitation was just very slightly stronger, the universe would have long ago stopped expanding and would instead have fallen back and obliterated itself in the opposite of a big bang. On the other hand, if gravitation were significantly weaker, then after the big bang matter would have dispersed too rapidly for stars and planets to have formed. Some scientists have even claimed that the balance between some of these fundamental constants is so sensitive that a change of [p.5]one part in 1040 would have rendered the universe uninhabitable as we know it.3
Cosmologists usually explain that such extreme coincidences are to be expected in any universe containing beings intelligent enough to pose the question. Many scientists consider the fact that our universe is conducive to the formation of stars, planets, biological evolution, and ultimately humans to be a highly significant piece of data leading to the conclusion that the universe we reside in must have certain characteristics. However, this notion, which is known as the “anthropic principle of cosmology,” cannot be verified experimentally in a strict sense.
A fourth area of modern science with connections to theology is in the fields of geology and paleontology. The currently accepted outline of the history of the earth is as follows: the earth coalesced out of a cloud of stellar material about 4.5 billion years ago. Within approximately one billion years after the earth was formed, primitive single-celled organisms appeared, leaving traces in some of the oldest rock formations. Later oxygen appeared in the atmosphere, originating primarily from the photosynthesis of primitive plants. Beginning about 700 million years ago, there was a dramatic increase in the variety and complexity of life. Some members of the animal kingdom developed skeletons, and many new species of plants and animals eventually appeared, including dinosaurs and primitive mammals. Over the years many species appeared and disappeared, all the time increasing in complexity and approaching the species currently on earth. About four or five million years ago, new primate species arose that bore striking resemblance to modern humans, featuring a moderate-sized brain and bipedal locomotion. By about 40,000 years ago, the descendants of these hominids had changed into beings virtually indistinguishable in form from modern man and woman.
Studies of rates of deposition long ago established an age for the earth in the hundreds of millions of years. In the last fifty years, any remaining reasonable doubt has been removed by the development of very reliable dating methods. Many of these are based on radioactive decay. The rate of radioactive decay of a particular nucleus can be measured with high precision and is essentially invariant with time, temperature, pressure, and chemical [p.6]combination. Thus dates obtained by radioactive dating techniques must be taken seriously. Other highly reliable techniques have been discovered as well. One of the most interesting of these new methods is known as “fission track” dating. It is based on the fission (splitting) of a uranium nucleus, again a basic quantum phenomenon. When a fission occurs in a certain crystalline rock, it leaves a distinctive track that is directly visible under a microscope. By counting the number of these tracks in a sample of known uranium content, a reliable date for the specimen can be determined. Geologic dates measured in this manner are entirely consistent with dates obtained by other techniques. Thus any scientifically tenable theology must acknowledge the above outline of the earth’s history.
Surveys still show nearly half of adult Americans do not accept the basic notions of the theory of evolution. This skepticism is even greater in the LDS church. A survey of Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake City area showed that 72 percent thought the theory either surely or probably false.4
Much has happened since Charles Darwin first outlined his theories in The Origin of Species in 1859. Some early conjectures have been proven incorrect, such as Lamarck’s suggestion that acquired behavioral traits might be transmitted by heredity to the next generation. Recently scientists have questioned Darwin’s general assumption that evolution is a uniform, steady process. However, the basic notions that species have changed and are continuing to change and that the entire biological kingdom is related are now rather firmly established.
The fossil record continues to provide strong evidence for evolution. True, there are troublesome gaps in the record, but an increasing number of these gaps are being filled. For example, some highly credible transition species between birds and reptiles have recently been discovered, and the transition between reptiles and mammals is now well understood.5 In addition, when these gaps are viewed in terms of molecular biology, many of them no longer appear discontinuous. The abrupt transitions between some species indicate to many paleontologists that evolution advanced in fits and starts with long periods of relative stasis in between. But none of this changes the basic conclusion that life has evolved on earth over many millions of years.
[p.7]The discovery in the 1950s of the structure of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA marked a turning point in evolutionary biology. Since DNA sequences direct the synthesis of amino acids to form proteins, the mechanism of genetics could now be studied at the molecular level. Among the most significant recent developments is the tabulation of amino acid sequences for certain proteins across a wide variety of species. These tabulations provide a reliable, quantitative measure of the evolutionary distance among organisms. Now biologists no longer have to rely on subjective anatomical criteria to justify the evolutionary organization of the biological kingdom. For instance, the close relationship that had been theorized between humans and higher primates has been fully confirmed: the alpha chain of human hemoglobin, which is 141 amino acids long, is identical in chimpanzees, differs in only one amino acid location in gorillas, and yet differs in twenty-five locations in rabbits and in over 100 locations in fish.6 Since these sequences apparently reflect the degree of genetic relatedness, they also provide a reliable measure of the length of time elapsed since two groups of species diverged.
Several aspects of the theory of evolution, however, can still be considered tentative and conjectural. One of these is the determination of the precise history and genealogy of an individual species. Another unsettled area is the actual causes and mechanisms of genetic change, such as determining the precise roles of environment and mutations. One important aspect of the theory of evolution that is still in the realm of hypothesis and speculation is explaining the development of the original, primitive, one-celled organisms. Scientists concede that they have not established a complete, satisfactory scenario for the origin of life.7
This overview of certain modern scientific developments, sketchy though it necessarily is, provides a suggestive context for examining some of the basic doctrines of Mormon theology.
The Nature of God. For many church members the doctrine that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate personages is the most significant way their theology differs from traditional Christianity. However, other aspects of the Mormon concept of God are even more unusual. For example, the God of traditional Christianity is considered to be the totality of original existence, a being who created [p.8]all natural laws and is beyond time and space. The LDS concept of God instead posits that God is a real, tangible being who co-exists with natural laws in the universe.8 Probably the most extreme Latter-day Saint “heresy” in the minds of other Christian sects is the law of eternal progression (“as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become”). This doctrine, first enunciated by Joseph Smith9 and later elaborated by other church presidents, is now a fundamental tenet of the faith.
B. H. Roberts, who gave the first clear exposition of this finitistic concept of God in 1903, stated in effect that God’s power and intelligence are not infinite in a literal, absolute sense. God cannot contravene natural law—like us he is apparently subject to natural laws himself. Thus there is no such thing as a miracle; God works through natural laws that he understands but that we do not yet. This doctrine provides a satisfying explanation to a host of philosophical dilemmas, such as why God, with presumably infinite power, is apparently unable to prevent human sin and suffering. Church members do not agree about whether God continues to progress in intelligence. Recently some authorities have insisted that he does not,10 but many members continue to agree with the teachings and official statements of the early leaders this his growth is a natural corollary to the law of eternal progression.11
From a scientific viewpoint, the notion of a finite, naturalistic, material God is an appealing idea, far more easily accommodated within scientific thought than an abstract immaterial being who contravenes natural law. It strongly suggests that studying scientific laws can help us understand God’s handiwork more clearly. And while scientific knowledge alone cannot prove the existence of such a God, neither can it prove that such a being cannot exist.
One example of how a finitistic God makes more sense from a scientific viewpoint is given by analyzing the concept of God’s omniscience. For if we presume that all information requires at least some material for storage, then God’s mind would have to be of infinite physical extent and mass to contain infinite information. An absolutely omniscient being also appears to contradict quantum theory, as I will later discuss.
The Eternal Nature of God and Humankind. There is a story circulating in scientific circles that one day a professor was describing [p.9]the currently accepted theories of the origin and destiny of the sun. When he mentioned that the sun will likely exhaust its nuclear fuel and die within five billion years or so, one of the students asked the professor to repeat the statement. Relieved, the student said, “Whew! I thought you said five million.”
The notion that everything in our universe originated in a big bang approximately 15 billion years ago creates some problems for Mormon theology.12 A God who exists in space and time should reside within the observable universe. In that case God is not eternal in a literal and absolute sense but instead came into being after the big bang. A straightforward solution to this dilemma is to abandon a strict interpretation of the word eternal, as is suggested in Doctrine and Covenants 19:6-12. After all, 15 billion years may not be forever, but it is so far beyond our comprehension as to be eternal for all practical purposes. In that event God is not the being who crafted the universe at the big bang. If there is such a being, it is a deity beyond him. Mormon theology, of course, allows the possibility of a hierarchy of deities (D&C 121:28).
Not all LDS scientists are satisfied with the concept of a material God residing within the observable universe. Russell T. Pack, for example, has argued that God does not reside in the universe created in the big bang and is not limited by the natural laws of our universe.13 This theory allows God to craft the universe in the big bang and also to create numerous other universes about which we have no knowledge. Further it allows us to interpret God’s omnipotence and omniscience in a completely different light than B. H. Roberts suggested.
While such a belief cannot be scientifically falsified, it does presuppose the existence of currently unknown scientific principles to avoid a mere deist concept of God, because current theories of fundamental physics and cosmology forbid any communication with or intervention by inhabitants of universes beyond the one created in the big bang. Clearly there are no easy answers to such questions, but perhaps further developments in physics and cosmology will shed some light.14
The traditional LDS concept of eternal elements (D&C 93:33) runs into a similar difficulty if it is literally interpreted to mean that matter has always existed and cannot be created or destroyed. [p.10]The conversion of mass to energy and the transmutation of matter, even of nuclear particles, are well established physical phenomena. Furthermore all matter originated in the big bang. A more tenable interpretation of this scripture is that it was intended to rebut the notion of the ex nihilo creation of the earth. This doctrine too might be reexamined in light of new scientific knowledge.
Determinism Versus Free Will. Quantum theory affirms the distinctively Mormon doctrine of free will and indeterminism. Though most of the effects of probabilistic quantum principles are restricted to the atomic and subatomic level, they can definitely have macroscopic effects. For example, a Geiger counter clicks when it detects the random decay of a single radioactive nucleus. Perhaps similar random quantum effects occur among neurons in the human brain, possibly inducing us to alter decisions. Thus human behavior as well as all other macroscopic phenomena may be fundamentally indeterminate. If this is true, then God’s foreknowledge of humankind’s actions is not infinite in a literal and absolute sense, and God could be occasionally surprised by the outcome of some human events.
Quantum theory certainly does not imply that prediction of the future is impossible, either by God or humanity. For example, a knowledge of Newtonian mechanics (perhaps with some minute relativistic corrections) together with accurate astronomical observations allows engineers to predict with high precision the moment when an interplanetary spacecraft will reach its destination. Similarly parents do not exercise supernatural prescience when they predict that their teenage son will have an auto accident if he continues to drive in a dare-devil manner. Quantum theory does, however, limit the accuracy with which such predictions can be made. Thus God may be able to communicate to prophets glimpses of the future, but there must be a limit to the detail of such prophecy.
There is one difficulty in concluding that quantum physics is a basis for human free will. Even if certain quantum phenomena can change the course of human actions, how can a person be held responsible for truly random events? For example, if a neuron fires because of a quantum physics effect and induces a person to commit a crime, is that person really responsible for the crime? Perhaps the answer lies in the explanation that since quantum effects are [p.11]generally of rather small scale, the person must have been already very close to a decision to commit this crime. We could then argue that the person was irresponsible in allowing him- or herself to approach the point of committing a crime so closely as to be affected by a quantum event. In any case some care must be taken before we conclude that quantum theory is the solution to the determinism/free-will controversy.
The Creation. One positive aspect of Mormon theology from a scientific viewpoint is its unequivocal rejection of the doctrine of the creation of the earth ex nihilo. Primitive Christians also rejected such a notion.15 The creation ex nihilo doctrine was apparently adopted several centuries after Jesus. The question of whether or not the entire universe was created “out of nothing,” however, is a different matter. Currently some physicists theorize that indeed the entire universe could have been a single quantum accident,16 although such ideas are at present highly speculative.
Even without the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, any scientifically tenable system of theology must abandon the notion that the earth, complete with its rich layer of fossils and its intricate biological system, was organized a few thousand years ago. Similarly the notion that species are fixed and have not evolved with time must be abandoned. Such notions have not been tenable for at least fifty years. Interpreting the creation periods as literal days should have died with the Book of Abraham’s substitution of the word time for day to describe each of the creation periods. Nonetheless the belief that the creation took place in either seven days or 7,000 years appears to be fairly widespread in the church and is occasionally suggested even by modern church leaders.17
Early church leaders apparently had much more progressive views of the age of the earth. W. W. Phelps wrote to Joseph Smith’s brother on 1 January 1845: “Well, now, Brother William, when the house of Israel begin to come into the glorious mysteries of the kingdom, and find that Jesus Christ, whose goings forth, as the prophets said, have been from old, from eternity: and that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system (not this world) almost two thousand, five hundred and fifty-five millions of years: and to know at the same time, that deists, geologists and others are trying to prove that [p.12]matter must have existed hundreds of thousands of years; it almost tempts the flesh to fly to God, or muster faith like Enoch to be translated.”18
The puzzling phrase “not this world” clouds this interesting statement. Duane Jeffrey has pointed out that the word “world” may have meant society or civilization, since Joseph Smith defined it that way.19 In any event the context clearly indicates a belief in a physical system much older than a few thousand years. The figure 2.555 billion years implied in this quotation is particularly curious because it was not known until this century that the earth and the solar system are several billion years old. This figure by the way may be obtained by interpreting the seven periods of creation as 7,000 years, each day of each year equivalent to 1,000 years, which is a day in God’s time according to the Book of Abraham.20
Many ideas have been proposed to reconcile LDS scripture with science. Some have hypothesized that the basic materials of the earth are perhaps ancient but that God assembled them together a few thousand years ago. Others speculate that the rocks and fossils are the remnants of a previous existence, and plants and animals currently on the earth were transported here recently. Such notions are in hopeless contradiction with scientific observations. There is no hint of a recent assemblage of the earth, and each of these theories fails to account for the progression of ancient species up to and including those currently on earth today. Others have suggested that God chose to create the earth (and the universe) with a great apparent age and with the appearance of an evolutionary development of living things in order to test the faith of mortals. Such a notion cannot be scientifically falsified, but it openly contradicts the belief that God works according to natural principles and implies that God has performed an incredible and intricate deception.
Two theories of the Creation permit the possibility of a divine hand altering the natural course of events. One is that evolution on earth was guided by a supreme being whose ultimate goal was to produce a species resembling himself. Nothing in current scientific knowledge would rule out this notion. Some would even argue that such divine intervention is a logical explanation of the sudden spurts and branches that are observed in the fossil record. The recently popular theory that asteroids or interstellar comets colliding with the [p.13]ancient earth precipitated sharp evolutionary changes is a no less dramatic explanation of the sudden disappearances of previously successful species.
One stumbling block in reconciling LDS creation scriptures with scientific knowledge is Moses 3:7: “And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also.” Some have interpreted this passage as a definitive statement that there was no life of any sort on earth before Adam. However, others have pointed out that Adam is not explicitly named in the passage, and thus it might simply mean that humankind originated from the materials of this earth, which is certainly consistent with scientific knowledge. Still others have pointed out the phrase “living soul” and concluded that Adam was the first of the living organisms on earth to be joined with a previously created spirit. Some suggest that the statement applies only locally to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the scriptural account of the creation of Adam and Eve is figurative, as was once suggested in the LDS temple endowment ceremony.
Recently some prominent church writers have begun to display a more open-minded approach than has prevailed during the last few decades. Hugh Nibley’s “Before Adam”21 argues that pre-Adamites are entirely acceptable. Nibley and others have also investigated the writings of early Christians, who believed in the creation of numerous other worlds with sentient beings and who emphatically rejected creation ex nihilo.22 Perhaps the coming years will see a reopening of dialogue between LDS scientists and theologians on this topic.
Spirits, Bodies, and the Resurrection. Modern discoveries of DNA and molecular biology provide a highly tenable explanation of how the resurrection might occur. Scientists have known for years that each individual human cell contains encoded in its DNA sufficient information to, in theory, perfectly reconstruct the individual. However, they often overlook the fact that even DNA material is not required—only a record of this information which could be entered into a computer file.
A related issue—that we were created spiritually before coming to the earth and that our spirit personage exactly resembles [p.14]our physical—poses a difficult problem for those seeking to reconcile theology and science. This notion appears to be at odds with known facts of biological heredity. The only way to explain this resemblance is to assume that God’s foreknowledge is so great as to foresee every conjugal act and to foresee which of the millions of male sperm would unite with a particular ovum. Such a level of foreknowledge (and determinism) not only runs afoul of quantum physics but exceeds even that permitted by church authorities, who frequently counsel youth that there is no such thing as a unique predetermined marriage partner.
Perhaps the silence of LDS writers on this subject is due to the realization that it is difficult to reconcile this popularly held belief with known facts of genetics. Perhaps scholars and theologians need to re-examine this doctrine. Is it really necessary and scripturally well founded? Can it be moderated? Is the visual appearance of a spirit being merely a fluid quality that can assume the form of an assigned physical body?
Latter-day Saint theology, with its rich tradition of naturalism and open-minded attitudes toward science, is to many intellectually-minded members a major factor in their continued faith.23 There is no question that its foundation of natural law and rationality permits a significantly cleaner accommodation of the principles of science than most other theological systems.
However, this tradition may be in danger as the LDS church continues to experience exponential growth, bringing in converts whose beliefs are deeply rooted in the theologies of traditional Christianity. Current church literature frequently includes statements about God’s absolute omnipotence and ability to alter the laws of nature, even though these sectarian doctrines sharply conflict with traditional Mormon theology.24 Similarly the conservatism that currently pervades creation beliefs in the modern church seems to have more in common with certain Christian fundamentalist sects than with the open-minded philosophies of the early Mormon church leaders.
Perhaps it is time for Latter-day Saints with scientific backgrounds to renew their efforts to establish dialogue with those of other disciplines in order to re-examine the philosophical roots of Mormon theology. This essay has been written in that spirit.
11. Gary James Bergera, “The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980): 7-49; James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, Volume 2 (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965), 222-23; O. Kendall White, Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).