What do the big bang and hermeneutics have in common?

The answer is: not much, except they were the subjects of two different talks by apostles at General Conference during the morning session April 1.

To sum up, Elder Nelson called into question completely materialistic, non-theistic explanations for the existence of the world, and said that relying only on the Big Bang theory (the actual theory, not the TV show) is a bit short-sighted. In a later talk, Elder Christofferson reminded people that the Church is a church of revelation and that spending your time on hermeneutics and exegesis was to spend some time speaking and reading about God but to ignore the power thereof.

The reaction of some of my more intellectual friends to these talks was interesting. One friend who has a PhD in biology said Elder Nelson’s comments were “anti-science.” There was widespread concern that the apostles are encouraging anti-intellectualism.

I found these talks completely uncontroversial and in line with many, many other things said by apostles over the years. But let’s take a look.

First, what exactly did Elder Nelson say? To quote the Church News:

Elder Nelson said a loving God has provided His children with physical and spiritual gifts. Each organ of the body is a wondrous gift from God — from the eyes to the heart and to the body’s remarkable ability to heal and renew itself.

“Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’ The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions.”

And what exactly did Elder Christofferson say? You can watch it here.

In some faith traditions, theologians claim equal teaching authority with the ecclasiastical hierarchy, and doctrinal matters may become a contest of opinions between them…others place primary emphasis on the reasoning of post-apostologic theologians or on biblical hermeneutics and exegesis…we value scholarship that enhances understanding, but in the church today just as anciently, establishing the doctrine of Christ…is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority.”

To sum up Elder Nelson: we did not come here by accident. We were created by a marvelous Creator.

To sum up Elder Christofferson: This is a church of revelation from God, not a church whose doctrines are created by men.

As I say, these are statements that have been made hundreds of times by apostles in the past in many different ways.

I think the “anti-science” claim must be addressed. I will admit this is a bit of a sore spot for me and pushes some buttons.

Here is why: “anti-science” is a code phrase used by the politically correct intellectual elite to put down anybody who does not accept the current consensus on controversial scientific matters. If you don’t accept everything the atheist Richard Dawkins says about evolution, you are “anti-science.” If you do not accept everything the clown Al Gore says about global warming, I mean climate change, you are “anti-science.”

By this logic, Elder Nelson, who by the way is a medical doctor and spent many years doing plenty of science, is therefore “anti-science” because of a few comments at General Conference. (Elder Nelson helped develop the first heart-lung machine and was the first doctor in Utah to perform open-heart surgery, but of course that must because he is “anti-science.”).

We must be as clear as possible: if we read Elder Nelson in context, he was not attacking people who believe in evolution. There are plenty of very smart people, including many of my best personal friends, who believe in evolution and also believe in God. He was simply saying that if you believe that we came here by chance (ie, with no role for a Creator), you are taking a stand that creates logical difficulties.

It also must be disappointing for many intellectual Mormons out there that when they hear the word “hermeneutics” used by an Apostle it is to warn people not to rely too much on hermeneutics. From a purely emotional standpoint, it must hurt a bit to hear your field downplayed in this way. But again, once you read and/or hear the comment in context, what Elder Christofferson said becomes completely uncontroversial. What he is saying is: we are a religion of revelation and divine authority, and it is revelation that drives doctrine, not endless study and endless arguing. If you listen to the entire talk, his point is that our doctrine is actually quite simple and can even be understood by children.

The concern among some of my intellectual friends seems to be that they will have quotes thrown at them saying, “see, the apostles have said the big bang never happened,” and “why do we have to study all these old texts — we only need to rely on revelation!” And it is likely these things will be said. My advice is: print out a copy of the entire talk and show the skeptic what the apostles actually said in context. The truth will set them free.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

89 thoughts on “What do the big bang and hermeneutics have in common?

  1. Let me say as someone who will be receiving a PhD in physics specifically studying the big bang: even the most die-hard cosmologists admit there has to be more then just a big bang. The big bang alone *does* seem too fine tuned for life to be all there is end of story.

    This doesn’t mean that all physicists therefore accept God. Many if not most don’t. Instead they cook up things with extra dimensions, exotic particles and multiverse scenarios where such a fine tuned universe becomes natural.

    So my point is to say that *nobody* should think the idea that there is more to the story then just a big bang is anti-science. Even the most respected physicists agree with that and for reasons like this theories like string theory leading to a multiverse abound.

    And even if these exotic theories turn out to be true, these theories will never be able to explain to many basic questions such as: why of all laws of nature does string theory or something like it describe our universe as opposed to something else? Why should a meaningless and purposeless universe obey any physical laws, much less laws that are so elegant and mathematically logical? Who or what if anything decided what the laws should be? Is there a purpose to it all and can we know? Etc…

    My atheist science friends will quickly say such “why” questions and questions of purpose and meaning are pointless to ask. But that is just a point of view they have chosen to put *faith* in and has no more experimental evidence then the informed religious explanations they mock.

  2. I thought both talks were very inspiring, especially Elder Nelson’s remarks about the physical body. Having just had a baby, I am in awe of what our bodies can do and what they are. Truly amazing.

    I just cringed during Elder Christofferson’s talk when he used “hermeneutics” and “exegesis”. Having worked as a translator for the Church, and knowing how hard it is, and how even harder it is when people use truly strange words and phrases, I felt for all of the translators today. I’m sure there was some scrambling in the basement. I didn’t even know what those words were in English,or even how to spell them — thanks for putting up those links.

  3. There’s more to Elder Nelson’s comments than meets the eye. He’s made similar remarks before, at General Conference and at other venues, that employ lines of argumentation that are comment to creationists (or, as they prefer to be called now “proponents of Intelligent Design”).

    He made similar comments about “the body’s remarkable ability to heal and renew itself” in his October 1998 conference talk. While this is certainly true, it ignores a significant number of ways in which the body does not do this, and in fact can terminate itself through no fault of the individual. (Tell someone with appendicitis that it’s okay, her body will heal itself.)

    His claim that some argue “these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere” and his rhetorical analogy “could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?” are both straw-man arguments. Believers in non-theistic evolution are not making such simplistic claims; the only people who are are creationists who think these are nails in evolution’s coffin. (Google “explosion in print shop doesn’t create dictionary” and you’ll get over 9 million hits, many of them creationist web sites that use the same argument. Elder Nelson himself used it previously in a March 1987 BYU address.)

    On the contrary, evolutionary theory posits that differences in animal and plant species are driven by random mutation (something that DNA science has proven) and natural selection. Those organisms that develop features that make them more likely to survive are more likely to produce and pass on their genetic superiority. This very different from and much more complex than “an explosion in a print shop.”

    The problem with Elder Nelson’s remarks is that he is feeding the anti-science, anti-biology, anti-evolution dispositions of many Latter-day Saints who have grown up in a culture that treats academic sciences as a threat to faith and belief. The old, outdated beliefs (e.g. Man: His Origin and Destiny) are still floating around, and parents are still teaching their children this stuff. Those children then go on to college, where they take required biology courses, are introduced to the very solid evidences for evolution, and then subsequently have a crisis of faith. Many of them leave the Church because they believe that science and religion are incompatible (and people like Richard Dawkins are more than happy to assist them).

    We can affirm that there was a divine creation and a divine Creator without having to make weak arguments and erect straw men to knock down. That’s the difficulty I see with Elder Nelson’s remarks.

    Fortunately, Elder Christofferson came along later in the conference and reminded us that “not every statement made by a Church leader past or present necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well considered, opinion not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.” :-)

  4. Mike, let’s not turn this into an argument about evolution. The point is that there are plenty of members of the church who are both interested and educated in science and mathematics, who have legitimate doubts about the Darwinian mechanism for evolutionary speciation. I know of at least one LDS biology professor who does. They are neither ignorant nor anti-science. Kids go to college and are told that unless you tow the party line on Darwinism you are “anti-science”. I submit that those who have a good understanding of science find little to criticize in Elder Nelson’s words because they understand the limitations of science.

    Likewise there are plenty of members who understand and appreciate hermeneutics and scholarly scriptural exegesis who nevertheless fully embrace Elder Christofferson’s declaration that doctrine comes by revelation and not by theological debate. Their familiarity with these tools and ideas makes them familiar with their limits and ambiguities.

  5. I’m not quite sure why the OP thought it necessary to point out Elder Nelson is (was) a heart surgeon in order to justify/support/rationalize his comments about the Big Bang. I am quite certain that pre-med students require no more than elementary physics (if that) in order to get into med school, and they certainly are not required to keep up to date on research by physicists and cosmologists.

  6. OtActually, J Max, Mike Parker’s comments aren’t about evolution. Rather , they are about bad arguments against evolution.

    Geoff: I am interested to read how you respond to Mike Parker, since his criticism pretty much echoes my own. Elder Nielsen showed that he has a deep understanding of how the human body works, and shared a profound testimony of God. But at the same time he came across as having very little understanding of evolution or cosmology—hence the weakness of his argument.

    I don’t really care to label his comments “anti-science” because the term is too loaded—but certainly something like “non-science.”

  7. J. Max: Whether or not you agree with evolutionary theory, the fact remains that it makes certain claims and doesn’t make others. The “print shop explosion” analogy that Elder Nelson employed is a creationist argument (seriously, Google it) that completely misses the point.

    And while science has its limitations, evolutionary theory is the only testable hypothesis for the development of life that has held up. In fact, the discovery of DNA immensely strengthened its claims. As biologist (and believing Russian Orthodox Christian) Theodosius Dobzhansky famously noted, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

    This is not about the “party line on Darwinism” (there’s a creationist pejorative for you!). It’s about dealing with the reality of how life works.

  8. Geoff,

    A very good post. I am somewhat surprised to find someone out there in the blogosphere who views these sorts of science and LDS matters the way I do. I have been quite vocal in the past in my criticisms of theistic evolution. However, when Elder Nelson said those words, I did not jump for joy and fist pump at imaginary LDS evolutionsist. Why not? Because I did not view Elder Nelson’s words as being anti-science or even anti-evolution. His words were anti-atheistic science.

    Members who claim that his words were anti-science have conflated mechanistic evolution with science. Boy, we have been hearing a lot of that confusion these days, haven’t we? (i.e., “If you don’t accept evolutionary common descent then you can’t really be scientific.”

  9. Mike, I have been following the Evolution vs Intelligent Design debate in depth since 1998. I don’t need to Google anything about the print shop explosion analogy, or god of the gaps. I am very familiar with Dobzhansky’s assertion. I participated in some of the bloggernacle’s earliest epic discussions on evolution way back in 2004. I have no intention of retreading those arguments. .

    This is exactly what I mean. You guys assume that disagreement can only legitimately be out of ignorance or anti-science. When you use the term “creationist” you ate using a pejorative yourself.

    Darwinism is the best purely materialistic theory science has found. Just because it is the best one they have come up with doesn’t mean it isn’t really a piss poor one. To adapt a quote from Churchill, Darwinism is the worst materialist theory of creation except for all the others. When it comes to the materialist crux of the theory, the mechanism, it is really not nearly as testable or proven as you want to believe.

    As I said, I’m not interested in debating it yet again. My previous thoughts are here: http://www.sixteensmallstones.org/doubting-darwinism-150-years-of-the-origin-of-the-species

    But it is wrong for you guys to assume that those who do not agree are ignorant or anti-science.

    I’m off to bed. Good night!

  10. @ #1,

    Thank you for that Joseph. My own studies into that subject would tend to confirm what you are saying. We don’t know enough to draw conclusions, but there is so much unknown and even just unexpected there as to give anyone pause. It is like the Universe was made for us to some degree. And a multiverse can’t explain that away for various mathematical reasons.

    There must be some additional laws that we just don’t know about yet that fit it all together.

  11. I’m still trying to see the connection between the big bang and evolution. Mike, you know I respect your opinions, but you are going way, way, way out on a limb here. You could easily believe in the big bang and not believe in evolution, or you could believe in string theory and believe in evolution, or many other combinations. One does not necessarily follow from the other. One is cosmology, and the other is biology. If Elder Nelson had thrown evolution into this talk, then I think perhaps you have a point. But he didn’t, so you are making a stretch trying to throw the two concepts together.

  12. Geoff: perhaps you are reading Elder Nielsen differently than I (or Mike Parker): “…these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere.” Now, when I heard that, I understood “happened by chance” to be a reference to the theory of evolution, with “big bang” being added on so that he could argue against a broader atheism than just the science that explains the human body. Plus, adding the big bang in there allowed him to use the printing shop analogy. But all along I thought it seemed quite clear that he was referring to evolution (through random mutation and assortment, etc). How did you understand that phrase, and do you think my understanding is a real stretch?

  13. One comment. The printer shop analogy is bad for evolution. But might not be nearly so bad for the big bang (due to our current lack of knowledge there.)

    Geoff, I think the issue here is that the printer shop analogy has long been used with evolution inappropriately and is now intimately tied to it. But Elder Nelson didn’t use it in that way.

    The issues here is that all the old defenses against evolution have all died by now. But they are almost all reusable on the the big bang. And in this case, they make a lot more sense because (as far as we know) there was only one big bang.

    The theory of evolution is an explanation as to why we see things as ‘designed’ in a universe that has the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It explains the process (the computations) that are necessary to create the sort of intelligence that exists in plants and animals.

    But you only have one big bang. What, exactly, is it evolving from? So if it didn’t have generations of mutation and natural selection (what is the universe being selected against) then how do you explain that it too seems designed?

    By the way, that above was practical a paraphrase from Freeman Dyson in an interview. I’m not smart enough to make these things up myself.

    There is really a broader question here. Ignoring the possible Theistic implications, there is a question of what is it about products of evolution and products of design that make them appear to be the same? There is actually an answer here: they contain information, particularly about their environment.

    Both organic natural selection and human conjecture and refutation are actually the same process. And those are the means by which knowledge is gained.

    So how does this fit into the big bang? Why did the big bang get it’s knowledge so to speak? There is no answer yet.

    The idea of a multiverse has been offered up. But this is a sham answer. If we are to think of our universe — with it’s equisitly improbable initial starting conditions with respect to entropy — as just a chance place we found ourselves in out of an infinite number of possibilities, we immediatley bump into a mathematical problem. Namely, it’s far more likely that a random set of atoms collided and a person formed then that our incredibly low entropy universe was formed. So life shouldn’t find itself in a universe like ours — it should find itself drifting in the vacuum of space wondering “what am I doing here?” or something like that. That is what the majority of life would have to be if the multiverse was really the answer. In short, it’s no answer at all. (Though it might form part of a over arching answer we haven’t found yet.)

    With as much unknown here, I sort of think the printing press analogy is not so bad. There are grand mysteries here that science has yet to really delve into.

  14. BrianJ, I must say I saw it as a completely uncontroversial comment. He is saying, as I say in the OP, “we did not come here by chance — there is a Creator.”

    As I say, if he had made some kind of reference to evolution directly, I could perhaps see Mike’s point. But if he was referring to evolution, it was so indirect that it passed me right by after hearing the talk and reading the words several times now.

  15. Upon reflection, it appears that certain intellectual sectors of Mormonism may have a kind of “dog whistle” reaction to anything at all Elder Nelson says on this subject (given some of his past comments). But you may want to consider that 99.999 percent of all Mormons do not hear the whistle.

  16. Mike,

    I essentially agree with you on the fundamental nature of evolution to biology. And the fact that it’s crossed over into other fields (including my favorites – Popperian epistemology and computational theory) bodes quite well for it.

    But I think pro-evolutionists like ourselves often lack the necessary reality check on this. Anyone can get a fairly good explanation of evolution in a very short time. And, if you graduated highschool, you can probably get a questionaire and accurately answer most basic questions about evolution.

    But the amount of education required to really ‘get it’ to the degree you clearly do was — for me anyhow — a LOT of hours. Far more than most people are EVER going to put into it. Add to that the fact that skepticism of evolution is actually pretty understandable. This is a far reaching theory that, minus the afore mentioned details that take hundreds or thousands of hours of research — really does seem like it’s over reaching.

    And let’s admit that Richard Dawkins once said that people seem to be pre-wired to not be able to believe in evolution. And is Roger Penrose anti-science? No, of course not. And he’s an evolutionist. Yet I can give you a fun quote from him where he expresses his dismay over evolution. It just seems to work too well, he said. It just can’t be all that there is. (Penrose is an atheist, so he wasn’t talking about God here.)

    The fact is that one is neither stupid nor anti-science if they end up with false theories like Intelligent Design. They are just out of their field, that’s all. No biggie. And not worthy any sort of fight over.

  17. So why did he say “or”? He mentioned two things: the big bang “or” some chance happening. What theory, besides evolution, could he have been talking about? Or do you think his “or” was meant to indicate he was using different terms for the same theory?

    It’s a bit odd, I must say, if he wasn’t thinking about evolution, given that he spent the majority of his talk detailing the wonders of the human body (the territory of evolutionary science) as opposed to the intricacies of the solar system, origin of elements, etc. (cosmology’s domain).

    In other words, I don’t think it takes a dog whistle to hear it the way I did, but if you have any evidence that I am in the 0.01% I’d be willing to reconsider.

  18. How dare the apostles disagree with our scientific theories!

    Less steadying the ark, and more thoughtful application is in order here.

  19. BrianJ, the idea that we came here by “chance” pre-existed the idea of evolution by thousands of years. The Greeks famously discussed it, as did nearly every ancient culture for which we have records. And one of the responses has always been: “well, look how complicated and marvelous the human body is, how could this happen by chance?” It is worth pointing out that you can still believe in evolution and believe in a Creator — the idea of “chance” is to not believe in a Creator or at least not believe in a purposeful one.

    I am being completely and 100 percent honest that when I heard Elder Nelson’s talk, the phrase “big bang” caught my attention, but it never occurred to me that he was referencing evolution in any way. So, as I say, you and Mike and a few other of my friends are, in my humble and respectful opinion, reading stuff that most people won’t read into his talk.

    I will agree with you, however, that I do think it would be a mistake (personally) for the apostles to think they need to fight against evolution. I have written a post on this subject in which I point out that the issue of evolution has nothing to do with religion, and I believe the Bible teaches me that.

    http://www.millennialstar.org/a-close-reading-of-genesis-could-resolve-many-of-our-biggest-social-issues/

  20. Geoff: The “dog whistle” you mentioned is actually a pretty good analogy, because although Elder Nelson didn’t specifically mention evolution, the line of reasoning he employed is drawn directly from the evolution/creation debates. What he said wasn’t said in a vacuum. Although you may not have made the connection at the time, for those aware of the “print shop explosion” argument, alarm bells start to go off.

    It would be like a general authority with known socialist political leanings giving a conference talk on consecration and using the phrase “from each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” This phrase has a clear history, one that would go right over the heads of the majority of Mormons who haven’t read Marx. But for those who have, and are aware of the debates and arguments that are going on behind the scenes, eyebrows go up.

  21. I’m not anti-evolution myself, but I value the anti-evolution’s crowd uncomplicated devotion to scripture and unwillingness to reinterpret scripture in the light of scientific findings. I can’t share their mindset myself, but I respect it and think its a valuable, maybe even necessary, addition to the church. However, it would be deadly as a creed or a test of orthodoxy. So I think a dog whistle is just the thing.

  22. We are given many opportunities to develop faith, which are also opportunities not to, so that our faith is not coerced but willing, and that we may end up with what we really want. Elder Nelson and Elder Christofferson were giving an opportunity to reject teachings by apostles to those who treasure such opportunities. It was Elder Christofferson’s talk that I thought on more as it relates to those saints who are convinced that it is due to their actions that revelation has been and will be received by the apostles for the Church.

  23. I worried a little that I was overboard with my comment above that some “treasure” opportunities to reject teachings by apostles. Then I looked at another web site featuring commentary on conference talks. Oh, that my words had been unreasonable exaggeration.

  24. “the line of reasoning he employed is drawn directly from the evolution/creation debates. What he said wasn’t said in a vacuum.”

    So what? It’s true that the universe didn’t happen spontaneously or by accident. So where’s the controversy?

    I’m tired of people taking offense to things at conference, nitpicking the phraseology used by the Lord’s spokesmen, and trying to “steady the ark” by pointing out all the minute, perceived problems in their sermons.

    There should be NO controversy in the church over a statement about how the universe isn’t the product of spontaneous or accidental forces. That is given revelation, and foundational to our faith. The fact that there is speak volumes for how deistic and atheistic science is perceived as unimpeachable by this generation.

  25. You’re missing my point entirely, which seems to be de rigueur for these sorts of discussions.

    Please re-read what I wrote above.

  26. Although the church officially has not taken a stand on evolution, Elder Nelson did say this in an interview on church positions at the Pew Forum http://www.pewforum.org/PublicationPage.aspx?id=3838:

    Pew Forum: Does the church have an official position on this topic (evolution)?

    Nelson: We believe that God is our creator and that he has created other forms of life…to think that man evolved from one species to another is, to me, incomprehensible.

    Pew Forum: Why is that?

    Nelson: Man has always been man. Dogs have always been dogs. Monkeys have always been monkeys. It’s just the way genetics works.

    So it’s true that Elder Nelson is anti-Evolution, and feels comfortable enough in his conviction to state it almost as an official church stand.

    Later in the interview, Elder Wickam was more cautious:

    Wickman: The Scripture describing the Lord as the creator of all of these things says very little about how it was done. I don’t know of anybody in the ranks of the First Presidency and the Twelve [Apostles] who has ever spent much time worrying about this matter of evolution.

  27. ldsphilosopher: the Apostles aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. But we can be charitable towards them and their words.

    Part of being charitable is to be honest—honest when they aren’t perfect, such as discussing how something they said could be taken the wrong way and actually lead some people away from the truth.

  28. Nate,

    I’ve personally heard a General Authority (also a medical doctor) say pretty much the exact opposite (that the church doesn’t have an official position, but that there’s nothing wrong with accepting evolution, and that his opinion was that it was good science). My guess is that it has more to do with how much formal biology education (which is different, by the way, from medical education) the individual has than with anything else. I’m having trouble finding what Elder Nelson’s undergraduate degree was in, but it was certainly a B.A., which leads me to suspect that Elder Nelson doesn’t have much of a background in actual Biology. He’s studied the human body, and especially the heart, intensively, but I don’t think he’s spent much time (if any) studying biology’s big ideas.

    I’m also suspicious of claims that any BYU Biology professor has issues with the current understanding of evolution, or “legitimate doubts about the Darwinian mechanism for evolutionary speciation.” Certainly biologists realize that there’s more involved with evolution than Darwin knew, and there’s some disagreement about how much other elements play into evolution, but I imagine every single BYU Biology Professor accepts evolution (and not a single one accepts “Intelligent Design” or other forms of creationism).

    At least in 2006, a BYU Biology professor spoke about the teaching of evolution and “alternate theories” among BYU professors at BYU:

    “Whiting also said he doesn’t know of any BYU biology professors who support teaching alternate theories to evolution, because it is not a theory in the scientific sense of the word.”

    http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/57886

    If there is a Biology professor at BYU who has real issues with evolution, I’d be very interested to know who. I took dozens of Biology courses at BYU, and I never once heard such sentiments. I did, however, hear support for evolution in everything from Molecular Biology to Genetics to Herpetology.

  29. I’m just not sure how explosions in print shops have anything to do with the modern theories of evolution and the big bang. But the real problem isn’t with the sum up by the blogger:”we did not come here by accident. We were created by a marvelous Creator”. It is with using an argument against science by Elder Nelson to show that we are God’s creation. Elder Nelson put that (perfectly wonderful and true) idea in opposition to the scientific theories, without need. I believe in both our creation by a marvelous creator, and in the outlines of the scientific account of creation. And to be totally frank, I respect Elder Nelson’s priesthood, his wonderful sermons, and his leadership. But he is not a scientist, and all the years of medical device research he did, while valuable, don’t add up to being a scientist.

    How do we deal with Elder Nelson’s comment? We cite Elder Christofferson’s talk in the same session.

  30. btw, I think it’s worth pointing out two things:

    1) I didn’t come here to nitpick Elder Nielsen’s talk. You’ll note that I didn’t, for example, put a post on my blog to dissect the talk. If anything, I am nitpicking Geoff’s post. If discussion of the talk—even of the minutiae—wasn’t Geoff’s intention here, then I am truly confused.

    2) ldsphilosopher has twice in this thread accused people of “steadying the ark.” Given the context, that is indeed an unfortunate choice of an example from scripture: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2008/06/uzzah-killed-for-blind-obedience/

  31. As one who deals with exegesis and hermeneutics, let me add my view on this.

    There are those who can see the Big Bang as a method for God to create. In so doing, we can have our religion and science, too. And so it goes with exegesis and hermeneutics. I know several great religious theorists that seek to enhance our understanding of the gospel by helping us see the scriptures in new and wondrous ways. I do not believe either apostle was referencing these types.

    Now, during the Kirtland Sunstone Symposium, one member gave a sermon about finding oneself. It was a very deep discourse, quoting from Buddha, Nietzsche and other sources. Almost no quotes from the scriptures, and no discussion on how the Spirit or Christ’s atonement may help us find ourselves. It was an intellectual discourse, but bereft from anything spiritual. His hermeneutics were not leading people to Christ, but to a humanist solution.

    IOW, I don’t think the Brethren would have a problem with Daniel Peterson, Joseph Spencer, or Jim Faulconer, for example. I do think there are some who seek to exchange the Church’s revelatory priesthood authority and Christ’s atonement for something “other”. It has infected many churches today, and is trying to make inroads into our faith, as well.

  32. A couple of points.

    1. “My guess is that it has more to do with how much formal biology education (which is different, by the way, from medical education) the individual has than with anything else.” If understanding why evolution is true requires a great degree of formal education specifically in biology, then you are essentially saying that most of the world’s population must accept evolution by an appeal to authority. This directly contradicts the claims that evolution is easy to test, demonstrate, and understand by essentially anyone. You can’t have it both ways.

    2. I said that I personally know of an LDS Biology professor who has some doubts about the Darwinian mechanism for evolution. He has been personally involved in studies directly dealing with the study of evolution, genetic drift, and speciation. I never said he was at BYU.

    3. The church has no official position on evolution except for the doctrine that God was involved in the creation. Members are free to believe in evolution as long as it does not exclude God from the process.

    4. I personally accept the observable fact of evolution, i.e. there is fossil, genetic, and other evidence for a succession of species. I also believe in micro-evolution, the idea that random mutation and natural selection allows species to adapt to their environment. When talking about this succession of species and adaptation, I know very few members of the church who don’t accept evolution in that sense. It is the Darwinian mechanism for how that evolution of species came about that has always been at the crux of the controversy. That the accumulation of micro-evolutionary changes is capable over vast amounts of time of producing the observable succession of species is asserted, but there is little scientific evidence that it is actually capable of doing what is claimed. It is a mistake to conflate these observable facts with the theory of how that succession of species came about (confusing the facts with the hypothesis meant to explain them ends up being tautological: there is a succession of species -> How did it happen? -> it may have come about by Darwinian mechanisms -> How do we prove that it came about through Darwinian mechanisms -> we observe a succession of species -> therefore the mechanism must be true).

    4. Even if the Darwinian mechanism could be shown to be able to produce an evolutionary succession of species, it still cannot explain the emergence of the first cellular life, capable of reproduction. That would seem to be more specifically what Elder Nelson was referring to. It is not a rejection of science or even specifically Darwinian evolution to say that life could not have emerged in the first place without the involvement of God.

    5. The point is not that those who believe in evolution are somehow rejecting the prophets. As long as they find room for God’s involvement in the creation, they are fine and welcome among the church’s believers. The point is that those who cry “anti-science” are far less accommodating and far more derisive than the church on the matter: a person like me who completely accepts the fact evolution, but doubts the purely materialist mechanism, is excommunicated as anti-science and ignorant.

  33. [If any of you want to persuade me that the Darwinian mechanism has been proven, I welcome your additional information. But don’t bog down this conversation with it. Email it to me jmaxwilson at sixteen small stones dot org . If I find your information persuasive, I will post my change of mind on my blog.]

  34. “Evolution is easy to test, demonstrate, and understand by essentially anyone.” I’ve never heard anyone claim this. And, quite frankly, my college-level high school course on Biology didn’t really teach me that much about evolution–I doubt that most high school and low-level college Biology courses do. Too much to talk about, and teachers are often worried about getting angry calls from parents.

    I apologize for reading “BYU” where you stated “LDS.” I’d still be interested in who this professor is, what (s)he specializes in, and what, exactly, (s)he believes. However, one single LDS Biology Professor out of hundreds (possibly thousands) isn’t all that impressive.

    “That the accumulation of micro-evolutionary changes is capable over vast amounts of time of producing the observable succession of species is asserted, but there is little scientific evidence that it is actually capable of doing what is claimed.”

    Bull. But I’ll stop there in order to do my best to follow your advice and “not turn this into an argument about evolution,” while heartily recommending that you take a course on evolution from the biology department of a nearby university (BYU’s a great choice, if it’s close). Short of an actual deep understanding of basic biology and evolution itself–something that’s harder to learn and understand than some here seem to believe–I don’t think anyone who has their mind already made up on the subject will come to accept evolution.

    I’m not aware of any LDS scientist who believes that those who don’t accept evolution are religious heretics. I am aware of plenty of LDS members who believe that those who accept evolution are religious heretics. In part due to statements that are easily seen as anti-science, such as was made by Elder Nelson.

  35. Tim, I didn’t say that LDS scientists think that those who don’t accept evolution are religious heretics. I said that they excommunicate them from the realms of intelligence and science.

    Tim, since you think my assertions are “Bull”, please email me some information that you believe provides scientific evidence for the Darwinian mechanism for evolution. Seriously. I’m all ears.

  36. As somebody who has always been on the other side in the Darwin debates against JMW, I can say that he is exactly right. If you accept the rules of Liberal Science as articulated during the Enlightenment and currently taught in universities everywhere, then Darwinism really is the best and only defensible conclusion one can reach. But who, other than the Liberal Scientist, says that we have to play by those rules? Who says that playing by any other rules is less rational, commendable, intelligent or whatever else you might want to call it?

  37. J Max, 32: I appreciate your careful and thoughtful response. I want to point out one place where I struggle to agree with you—or, in other words, where your words/standards would condemn me:

    “The point is not that those who believe in evolution are somehow rejecting the prophets. As long as they find room for God’s involvement in the creation, they are fine and welcome among the church’s believers.”

    The problem I have is that I don’t see anywhere where God was involved in the creation. Now, read that carefully: I am not saying that God wasn’t involved, just that I can’t see where it was. I believe in God, and I believe that he has claimed credit for the creation, and I trust him to tell the truth. But no, I cannot find room for God’s involvement. The only evidence I can see that he was involved is that he says he was involved.

    It’s like if you find a cake on your doorstep and a friend claims credit for the gift. But, what exactly did your friend do: bake the cake, decorate it, deliver it, all three, or just come up with the idea and pay someone else to do it? In the grand scheme it doesn’t matter—you’re grateful to your friend (in general) because you believe him that he had something to do with the present—but you might be reluctant to go about proclaiming your friend to be an excellent cake decorator since you don’t know if that’s in fact what your friend did.

  38. Sheesh. A few points are in order.

    1)Elder Nelson didn’t mention evolution in the conference talk on April 1. At best, he made an oblique mention to it that will only catch the attention of those who can hear the “dog whistle” of very abtruse evolutionary arguments.

    2)He does appear to question at least some elements of evolution in other discussions and talks. So what, he is entitled to his opinion.

    3)I just got my new temple recommend, and nobody asked me about evolution, and when I just got interviewed for my new calling nobody asked me about it, and I certainly don’t remember if from my baptismal interview. Belief on evolutionary is therefore not really relevant to my salvation in any way. As I say in the attached to comment #19, evolution is about the material body and religion is about the soul, so I say: leave the biologists alone, their belief or lack thereof of evolution has nothing to do with religion.

    4)I get the fact that for intellectual Mormons arguing about evolution with creationists is very frustrating. My advice: ignore them and don’t have arguments with them. Go give you spouse/significant other and/or kids a hug instead. Much more productive.

    5)I really wish that people would concentrate on what apostles and prophets actually say at conference instead of attempting to read their minds.

  39. I grow weary of thinking that equates acceptance of common descent as a necessary condition for being a true scientist. It is truly unfortunate that this sort of thinking has come to the forefront in the debate on evolution. It has essentially shut off all healthy skepticism and critical thinking about evolution. Such thinking has been banished from the marketplace of scientific debate and relegated to hidden discussion rooms. People who enter those rooms are marked as scientific heretics.

    So here we are with evolution standing atop the dirt pile of science, ever willing to kick heretics in the teeth should they make their way up the hill to challenge the king. This caricature of today’s relationship between evolution and science is not what Kuhn meant when he posited normal science. The dominant paradigm (i.e., evolution) is supposed to rule by empirical evidence and sound reason, not by dogma and hegemony. Like a playground bully who is terrified of losing his place of dominance, evolution is terrified of losing its place of dominance, and so it ensures its survival by bullying others, even those who pose no real risk.

  40. Geoff: re point 1, I still do not concede this point to you. I see no evidence that you are right.

    re point 3-4, you wrote the original post which addressed a very narrow element of Elder Nielsen’s talk. What did you expect from your readers?

    re point 5, I think that’s pretty much what everyone is trying to do here. I can’t do anything to change the fact that what I understand Elder Nielsen to be saying is different than how you understand it, and certainly both of us are influenced by our own ideas. I wish you wouldn’t dismiss interpretation and discussion and “mind reading.”

  41. Jeff G.

    Thanks! I remember some of those long discussions of Evolution from bloggernacle days of yore with fondness. Your comments mean a lot.

  42. BrianJ,

    Thank you, too, for your very thoughtful response.

    The problem I have is that I don’t see anywhere where God was involved in the creation. Now, read that carefully: I am not saying that God wasn’t involved, just that I can’t see where it was. I believe in God, and I believe that he has claimed credit for the creation, and I trust him to tell the truth. But no, I cannot find room for God’s involvement. The only evidence I can see that he was involved is that he says he was involved.

    As far as I am concerned, this is perfectly acceptable. Based on your feedback, I would probably revise my earlier statement to be that as long as they believe that God was involved in the creation, even if they have no idea how or to what extent, they are fine and should be welcome among the church’s believers.

    What I would like to see in response Elder Nelson’s talk would be more along those lines. More affirmations from LDS scientists and intellectuals that “I agree with Elder Nelson that God was involved in the creation, even though I do not know how.” and less lamentation that “Elder Nelson is anti-science” would be great!

  43. It seems to me that Elder Nelson wasn’t criticizing scientific theories about the origins of man or the universe per se, but rather the adherence to those theories to the exclusion of divine power and design. I believe in the Big Bang and Evolution, yet I agree with this viewpoint. I don’t know why anyone who actually believes in a creator God would have a problem with it.

  44. J. Max #44: I agree with Elder Nelson that God was involved in the creation, even though I do not know how. I disagree with him that “some people” believe that life originated by random chance; no one who is knowledgeable about evolutionary theory and accepts it believes that. His caricature of those with whom he disagrees is unfortunate.

    Dave C. #40: You have no idea what you’re talking about. What you have written is the standard invective widely employed by creationists and IDers, but it has no connection to the reality of how the scientific community operates.

  45. Mike: “I disagree with him that “some people” believe that life originated by random chance; no one who is knowledgeable about evolutionary theory and accepts it believes that.” I am not sure what you mean by this. I must be missing something. Isn’t the whole point of (non-theistic) evolution based on the idea that we evolved by chance? If it is not by chance, doesn’t this mean some kind of Creator was involved? I have heard more recent (non-theistic) theories that posit that aliens planted life here and let it evolve, is that what you mean?

  46. As a believer in evolution (well, believer is the wrong term, it isn’t a creed with me), I didn’t feel rebuked by Elder Nelson. You can take his remarks as simply saying that life and the universe aren’t meaningless accidents. To use his analogy, I would say that creation isn’t a manuscript that God wrote directly, but just because a complicated tool like a printing press (or evolution or the big bang) was used doesn’t mean the whole thing happened accidentally. There is a Printer.

    So if you insist on arguing that Brother Nelson is condemning you and your beliefs, your insistence is a choice.

  47. Geoff: Go back and read my comments at the top. As I explained, evolutionary theory is not about random chance — it’s about random genetic mutation and natural selection operating over extremely long periods of time. Mammals and other advanced forms of life did not appear randomly or from chaos. It’s an important distinction.

  48. Mikey,

    Re: “You have no idea what you’re talking about. What you have written is the standard invective widely employed by creationists and IDers, but it has no connection to the reality of how the scientific community operates.”

    I know exactly what I am talking about and have a PhD in theoretical psychology along with several published articles in peer reviewed journals to back up my ideas. You need to watch how you carelessly dismiss educated people like myself. Of course, your dismissal of my views is a classic example of what I referred to in my previous post. I will go toe-to-toe with people like you in an intellectual, philosophy of science, and science-based debate anyday.

  49. Adam G, Geoff, others: I cringed when I heard Elder Nelson’s talk. But not for the reasons you may think, based on your comments. It wasn’t what he said, but rather how I anticipate his words will be used. I cringed because his choice of counter-argument sounds like exactly the sort of thing many members of the Church like to quote in order to prove to me that evolution runs contrary to the Gospel, or has been dismissed by the prophets, etc., all in an effort to tell me (and others like me) that we must repent of our “atheistic views.” I cringed because I thought, “oh great, another sound bite for the anti-intellectuals.”

    From Elder Nelson’s statements in other talks or interviews, I would be surprised if he doesn’t outright believe that evolution is false. But that’s not the issue here for me. Elder Nielsen is, as Geoff says, entitled to his opinion. The issue here for me is whether Elder Nelson’s talk will result (directly and indirectly) in some members feeling less a part of the Church. (See for example, J Max’s comment #32, but also his welcome clarification in #44.)

    I feel that his choice of phrases was unfortunate because it was completely unnecessary. Take out those four sentences and his talk is still coherent. Take out those four sentences and his talk bears the same testimony. Or better, replace those sentences with something along the lines of what J Max wrote: “We do not know precisely how God was involved in the creation, but he testifies that he was. We are not here purely by chance.”

  50. Brian J.,

    it sounds like your experience has been one where the church on the ground level is dominated by folks who have a burr in their bonnet about evolution and who persecute people like you. Which could be true . . . for your experience. My experience hasn’t been like that at all. I casually mention from time to time that I accept evolution but believe God was behind it and have caught no flack at all. And I don’t move among the most intellectual or cosmopolitan circles either. So I have no reason to believe that your experience is normative, and you shouldn’t accept that it is either.

    The anti-evolutionists that I know, oddly enough, share your sense of being under assault. Except in their case they feel like their faith is being assaulted by proud intellectuals who look down on them (which they’re mostly right about) and who matter in worldly terms a lot more than they do (which they are also somewhat right about). To them, something like what Bro. Nelson says can be incredibly affirming. What I would invite you to consider is that for some of them that affirmation may be comforting or even necessary in their walk of discipleship.

    I’m willing to give Elder Nelson, or God, the benefit of the doubt.

  51. Pingback: Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Bang? | The Fulness Thereof

  52. J. Max,

    I’ve argued about evolution many times before, and it’s been spectacularly unproductive for everyone involved. I do highly recommend taking a course or at least reading a textbook on the subject (although both may require some form of prerequisites to really understand the issues). Books aimed at laymen and internet sources very often don’t do the subject justice (and, especially on this subject, are quite often not written by experts).

    I really like what Adam G. says in 52. My brother and his wife were watching conference with me, and I know they understood Elder Nelson’s comments to be anti-evolution as well as anti-Big-Bang. And they laughed along with the live audience. But I see why it would be affirming to a lot of members of the church, especially those who feel threatened by science.

    And, for the record, my law degree gives me as good of an understanding of Biology as a graduate degree in Theoretical Psychology. Neither is evidence of any understanding of the hard sciences, and it’s rather silly to pull either out as an evidence of expertise. An actual undergraduate degree in Biology would be a million times more meaningful for those purposes.

  53. I do highly recommend taking a course or at least reading a textbook on the subject (although both may require some form of prerequisites to really understand the issues).

    I’ll try to do that, Tim. Any textbook recommendations? (I was only a couple of classes short of a minor in physics. Hopefully that will be enough to help me understand…)

  54. For an approach for general audiences (rather than a textbook), I highly enjoyed Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Paperback $14; ISBN 9780307277459.

    Shubin discovered Tiktaalik, one of the most important transitional fossils we have.

  55. Adam G: “persecute” is waaaaay too strong a word for it. But thanks for your understanding.

    I do not believe that I ever presented my perspective as “normative”; only that my experience is not so isolated or unique as to not merit discussion by a larger audience. And please realize that I am an active member, etc., so none of this has driven me away. Not by any degree. But certainly I have friends who felt unwelcome at Church in part because of the—well, you heard it at Conference—the laughter or derision or disapproval that greeted their “science-friendly” testimonies. Thus, I cannot drop my concerns simply because in your experience, anti-evolution sentiments don’t amount to a big deal.

    I appreciate your invitation to consider the needs of others besides myself. I hope that you do not feel that this is the first time I have done so. As I suggest in #51, I think there are other ways Elder Nelson could have made his point and successfully strengthened one audience without alienating another; you can read that as me saying that I do not think his talk was perfect. Like you, I readily give him the “benefit of the doubt,” which in this case means that I don’t think that he deliberately chose words that would offend faithful members.

  56. J. Max,

    As far as textbooks go, I think the evolution sections of a textbook like Campbell’s Biology would be the best way to go. It’s not nearly as comprehensive (or as overwhelmingly convincing) as a textbook on evolution, but it’s much easier to understand.

    I was going to recommend the textbook Evolutionary Analysis, but I just took a quick look at my copy and I can’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t taken a course on Genetics (and preferably a course on Molecular Biology too). It’s complex stuff with complex vocabulary. If you’ve taken Genetics and Molecular Biology, by all means, go for it.

    In any case, if you’re not buying the book for an actual course, you might as well get a slightly older edition. Campbell’s Biology seems to come out with a new edition every three years or so, and the older editions are quite cheap…

    I also enjoyed Inner Fish–it’s no doubt more fun to read than a textbook, although it’s not as comprehensive.

  57. My experience is very much like Adam’s in #52. I have *never* caught flack for believing in evolution, actually.

  58. I believe in some kind of common-descent style evolution. On the other hand, there has to be more to it than we presently understand, because in an energy conserving universe operating by the known (deterministic) laws of physics, evolution is statistically impossible for the very reason that it is no more probable than devolution. That is Poincaire’s recurrence theorem, which dictates that all such systems must return infinitely close to their original state.

  59. “As I explained, evolutionary theory is not about random chance — it’s about random genetic mutation and natural selection operating over extremely long periods of time. ”

    Therefore, it was spontaneous and random. Random genetic mutation and natural selection is supposed to account for how life could have erupted, and species differentiated, due to entirely mechanistic and random processes. Just because there’s an “algorithm” involved in the random number generator doesn’t mean the process itself is not inherently random, mechanistic, and purposeless.

    Anyone who says that life evolves through random genetic variation and natural selection does not believe God was involved in the process. I believe that, and I’ll stick to my guns. People in this thread have even admitted that they cannot see God’s hand in that process. They believe it’s there, the theory just doesn’t currently reveal or allow for it. That is an admission that if you believe that the process described is solely responsible for life as we know it, it is an atheistic (or, at its very best, a deistic) approach.

  60. Brian J.,
    unless you think your experience is normative you have no reason to be “concerned”, i.e., to think that the Apostle was wrong to say what he said.
    I read your proposed alternative and it didn’t seem to speak to the people I’m talking about the way the actual Elder Nelson did. Some needles can’t be threaded, although I think in this case Elder Nelson actually threaded pretty well.

  61. “My experience is very much like Adam’s in #52. I have *never* caught flack for believing in evolution, actually.”

    Sadly, my experience was very different from Adam and Bruce’s. When I was in the thick of my testimony struggles I went to my Bishop at the time. He asked if I believed in evolution to which I replied “yes, but that’s not my problem.” He then spent the next hour (despite my repeated protests that i saw no conflict between evolution and religion) unloading every Young-Earth-Creationist tale he could muster. I know he meant well and that Elder Nelson certainly had nothing like that in mind, but I still had no desire to confide in him ever again. The moral of the story, I guess, is that arguing over evolution isn’t helping anybody no matter which side you are on.

  62. I guess I’ve made my point and asked my questions, so now I just have to resist the urge to be snarky. Thanks for a good discussion everyone.

    Jeff G: “arguing over evolution isn’t helping anybody” Well said.

  63. Therefore, it [evolution] was spontaneous and random. Random genetic mutation and natural selection is supposed to account for how life could have erupted, and species differentiated, due to entirely mechanistic and random processes.”

    Random genetic mutation is a fact. It happens in every individual life form, plant and animal — including you, ldsphil. Some mutations are beneficial, some are harmful, and some have no discernable effect, but they DO happen. It is the random part of the development of all life.

    The non-random part is natural selection. Organisms that have beneficial mutations that make them stronger or more attractive are more likely to reproduce and pass on their genetic superiority. (It’s much easier to get offers for dates if you’re an attractive woman, and women pine over Taylor Lautner in a way they don’t over Jonah Hill.) This is not random because not all organisms are reproducng equally; only the genetically superior ones. The interior ones die before reproducing or don’t have as many offspring.

    Over long periods of time this results in, at first, subtle changes within species (human beings are, on average, taller than they were only 2000 years ago), and later, the development of new species.

    This is not some wild idea that a biologist cooked up after an all-night bender down at the lab. It is one of the most tested, most supported scientific theories in existence. It is so well documented and that there are simply no other competing theories — NONE. (And I mean “theory” in the scientific sense, not the “it’s just a theory” sense that creationists use incorrectly and illegitimately.)

    It is not “an explosion in a print shop.” It is much more complex and nuanced than that.

  64. “Random genetic mutation is a fact. It happens in every individual life form, plant and animal — including you, ldsphil. Some mutations are beneficial, some are harmful, and some have no discernable effect, but they DO happen. It is the random part of the development of all life.”

    I’m not denying that it happens. Did I deny it?

    I’m just saying that claim that random genetic mutation and natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the existence of life as we know it. I’m not denying that it happens. ALL I am arguing is that it should hands down non-controversial to Latter-day Saints that it is not itself a sufficient explanation of life. Anyone who argues the sufficiency of random genetic mutation and natural selection in explaining life does, indeed, ignore the hand of God in creation.

  65. Adam: I may have misread you and you may have misread me. I meant what I said when I thanked everyone for a good discussion. I did not want to spoil that by being snarky—something I am too often guilty of.

    I do not see where there is a question I left unanswered or somewhere where another commenter hoped I would clarify my position. I also think I have asked all the questions I needed in order to understand everyone else. So, what else is there for me to do here?

    If I am mistaken and you in fact hoped I would respond to an understated question in your comment #62, then please excuse my ignorance and ask it more clearly. It seemed to me that we had reached a point where we could only understand each other and yet still disagree.

  66. RE: “My advice is: print out a copy of the entire talk and show the skeptic what [Elder Nelson] actually said in context.”

    In context. Really?

    For more than 25 years, Elder Nelson has taught about earth’s paradisiacal creation and the divine origin of man’s physical body. At the same time, he has also warned about theories like evolution and the big bang which deny a paradisiacal creation and man’s divine origin. He has specifically mentioned “natural selection” and “organic evolution.” He has even asked for volunteers to help overcome such “foolishness of men” (click here to read excerpts from several such articles by Elder Nelson).

    I agree that we should view Elder Nelson’s April 2012 general conference remark “in context.” But we cannot pretend it was the only time he has discussed the origin of earth and man, and we cannot reasonably assign meaning to Elder Nelson’s talk that contradicts what he has previously taught about evolution and the big bang.

  67. “I’m just saying that claim that random genetic mutation and natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the existence of life as we know it. I’m not denying that it happens. ALL I am arguing is that it should hands down non-controversial to Latter-day Saints that it is not itself a sufficient explanation of life. Anyone who argues the sufficiency of random genetic mutation and natural selection in explaining life does, indeed, ignore the hand of God in creation.”

    Jeff T,

    I’m open on this issue. However, J Max (remember, he’s an IDer) once wrote a post where he made the point that all that is really required here is a purposeful initial creation that was ‘wound up’ telelogically to produce life.

    So I think one *could* make the case that God created the laws such that all you need is random genetic mutation and natural selection once the process is front loaded correctly.

    I know this wasn’t what you were denying, I just wanted to expand the possible options here.

  68. R. Gary,

    Now I just took issue with Jeff T (sort of) so now I am going to play the other side (sort of.)

    So what if Elder Nelson was indeed speaking against evolution in his heart or had in the past? What, pray tell, is precisely the problem here — even if we’re starting with the assumption that he’s totally and completely wrong?

    I happen to be a full on evolutionists myself. I’m not even an IDer. But I keep trying to come up with a problem with someone believing evolution is wrong and gosh golly I can’t think of anything. Granted, if they are a biologists that may be a problem if they don’t believe in evolution. But frankly if they are biologists they know better anyhow, so there is still no issue.

    The only real issue I can think of is the same problem that happens with all God and the gap theories that get taken as fact. If you grow up thinking “evolution must be wrong!” and then discover it’s right, you can lose faith if it was presented too strongly. But since I don’t know you, I have no idea if you consider that a good thing or a bad thing. Further, this little comment of Elder Nelson’s (or frankly *any* made by GAs in the last decade or two) isn’t going to leave such an impression by itself.

    I agree the GAs used to teach too rigorously against evolution. Or some of them did anyhow. But the statute of limitations has passed on this issue. It’s been so long since it’s been a problem it’s really really hard for me to understand the concern people are expressing here. And I’m saying this as an evolutionist.

    The crazy unadulterated truth is that it’s just not going to matter to most people one way or the other if they believe in evolution or not. It’s a fact that has basically no practical value to most people’s lives.

    Even if a person rejects evolution for all the wrong reasons, it still probably won’t matter one iota. It’s just not that important to anything. It isn’t going to cause you to, say, make less money or be less employable. It’s just sort of a non-issue one way or the other to the vast majority of human beings based on their professions and life choices.

    I’ve even noticed that amongst staunch evolutionists, most of them — when questioned — don’t really seem to understand evolution that well. They sort of don’t believe in it due to having reasoned it out but rather on faith. And I’ve never seen that hurt any one either.

    So in short, so what? I honestly don’t get it.

  69. Bruce,

    As background, Gary runs a website and blog entitled “NDBF” — No Death Before the Fall. It’s his gospel hobby, and he’s better at it than any other LDS young-earth creationist I know.

    http://ndbf.net

  70. Mike Parker: Thanks for your generous endorsement. One thing: My creationism is after the manner of Russell M. Nelson and Boyd K. Packer, et al. But you knew that, didn’t you!

  71. Something underlying discussions like these is a difference in philosophy. Is there prima facie evidence of God’s existence?

    To some people, the face that the sun makes an appearance every 24 hours is proof that God exists. If you went back a thousand years and explained that the Earth rotates around the Sun, and that it’s following laws of gravity, some might have accused you of denying God’s role in the universe and spreading false ideas.

    When a sperm fertilizes an egg, should it be evident that God chose which genetic traits got passed on? If we got a strong enough microscope with magic rays, would be see objective evidence of God’s tampering?

    My belief is that, no matter how many advances we make in science, we’ll never see objective evidence of God. Science, like mathematics, grammar, or checkers, is God neutral. It neither supports nor disproves God’s existence. I don’t think it ever will. Some may choose to believe in God, and thus prefer the idea that God is involved somehow (this is my own perspective). And if you wrap up your religious beliefs into areas that overlap with math (e.g. “2+2=5. That is what God decreed.”) or other non-religious fields, you might see conflict. But these fields are not anti-God per se.

  72. Great points, Trevor.

    It’s also worth noting that accusations that science is “materialistic” completely miss the point. Science attempts to make sense of the natural world by observing how things operate, coming up with hypotheses to account them, and then testing those hypotheses. The expectation is that experiments (as long as they are consistently conducted) will produce the same results repeatedly.

    From this we can define laws that govern how the universe operates. When we let go of a ball, we expect it to fall down due to the operation of gravity. Science allows us to get along in the world by telling us what to expect when we do X.

    Appeals to the supernatural — God — are not scientific because they claim that inconsistent results were not the fault of the person doing the experiment, but rather because of the intervention of a being that cannot be observed.

    God exists. He does miraculous things that sometimes contravene the way the universe normally works (like healing people with terminal illnesses or changing water into wine). But it is not scientific to point to something unexplainable and claim that God did it — that is faith. It may be true, but it’s not scientific.

  73. There was a BYU-I devotional several years back where Richard N. Williams said, “Gravity is not an explanation for why things fall toward the earth. It is simply a description of the fact that they do. Lest you think I’m making all this up, I can assure you that Sir Isaac Newton himself saw this very problem and finally concluded that he did not know what gravity is, but he was confident in his precise description of what it does.”

    When some are troubled by evolution or the big bang, I wonder if there’s a confusion about what it is that this science is seeking to explain.

  74. Trevor: I believe you!

    1. NASA (for grades K thru 6): “Without gravity, Earth would stop orbiting the Sun and travel on its own into the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way itself would come apart, because the stars would not hold the galaxy together. In exactly the same way, the moon would stop orbiting Earth and move away in a straight line. And everything that is not held down to the ground here on Earth would just float off into space.

    “But even though gravity is a common … part of our everyday lives, it is the most mysterious force in the Universe. We still don’t understand it very well.” (spaceplace.nasa.gov)

    2. NASA (for grades K thru 8): “What is gravity? Answer: We don’t really know. We can define what it is as a field of influence, because we know how it operates in the Universe. And some scientists think that it is made up of particles called gravitons which travel at the speed of light. However, if we are to be honest, we do not know what gravity ‘is’ in any fundamental way — we only know how it behaves.” (starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov – gsfc, Goddard Space Flight Center)

    3. Sten Odenwald (NASA Astronomer): “Gravity plays an important role in our universe. Scientists still have a tough time understanding what this force is. This remains one of the greatest challenges of 21st Century science.” (astronomycafe.net)

  75. So… if the field of physics advances further (hard to imagine that it won’t) and we discover the nuts and bolts of the force behind gravity enough to experiment with it in labs and exploit it for our own purposes… If we get there, are you going to pull up Joseph Smith’s statement to refute the science?

  76. Why stop there, Trevor? Why not let science keep going till it proves God himself is a myth! This is the very essence of Elder Nelson’s conference analogy about tropical fish.

    Sorry Geoff, there are no official Church statements specifically about big bang cosmology. But that still leaves this problem: A current high ranking apostle has said such theories are unbelievable and after more than 25 years his statement still has not been disputed by any Church official in any Church media.

    By the way, Lewis is not quoting a current apostle. Since 1830 there have been 16 Church Presidents and 97 Apostles and not one of them wrote a book titled “Reflections of a Scientist.”

  77. “Why not let science keep going till it proves God himself is a myth!”

    Hopefully our faith and testimony is based on more than just “I don’t understand how this could have happened without God, therefore God did it.” Because if it’s not, and, through our personal study of science we begin to realize that a lot of “mysteries” are actually entirely explainable through science, we risk losing our faith.

    Science, by definition, cannot prove or disprove God. Those who think it can–the extremes of both religion and atheism–sure make strange bedfellows.

  78. Personally, I believe God works through science–and therefore, no matter what science proves, Joseph Smith was right. God holds the Earth in orbit through his power, but it’s also entirely explainable (or will be explainable) through good old physics.

  79. R. Gary, why not tell the complete story? Yes, Lewis was not quoting an apostle, he was quoting an apostle’s father. Henry Eyring Jr, member of the first presidency, had a very accomplished scientist father, who wrote a book called Faith of a Scientist. So we know at least one apostel grew up with this kind of mindset regarding evolution. Whether he shares that mindset with his father I have no idea.

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