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Epistemology

So, since I wrote about Elder Nelson's talk the other day, and publicly admitted that I don't know any more than the crudest amount about the big bang theory, I decided that I should read a bit about it.  While reading NASA's website, my interest was greatly piqued.  For the first time in well over a decade, I felt like I might actually enjoy learning something other than math.  Perhaps one day I will take some classes in physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and maybe even other fields.

The first thing that struck me while reading this article on NASA's site (which is written for the layman) was the sheer lack of understanding Elder Nelson showed when he scoffed the theory in his talk two weeks ago.  This of course does not surprise me in the slightest.  When someone feels that their own beliefs may be threatened by another person's perspective (be it fact or merely opinion), one of the first reactions is simply to deny and reject what the other person has to say.  I do find it surprising (and ironic) for a heart surgeon to so quickly denounce science, but considering that in his mind the concept of an explosion giving rise to (eventually) sentient life flies directly in the face of his belief that a supreme being created the whole universe with a purpose in mind.

The second thing that I thought of while reading this is the stark contrast in the religious approach versus the scientific approach.  Scientists attempt to describe how things work by observing them, making hypotheses, constructing tests to evaluate the hypotheses, and then using the results of the tests to decide whether to accept or reject the hypotheses.  That is, a scientist will look at stars that are traveling ever further away from us and ask "What does this mean?  What can we understand about the universe--its origins, and its fate--based on this information?"  A superstitious person will look at it and say "God did it."  The former method clearly gives rise to a greater understanding of the universe while the latter is merely an attempt to hide one's head in the sand, having one's curiosity satiated by the simplistic (and illogical) conclusion of "god did it".

Going along the same lines as the previous point, one difference between religion and science is the way unknown questions are approached.  When a religious person is faced with an inexplicable phenomenon, he will conclude "I don't know how it happened, but it most definitely has happened.  Clearly, some agent must have caused it to happen.  Not knowing what agent made this happen, I will imagine an agent and call it 'god'.  And from now on, any inexplicable phenomenon I come across, I will attribute to god.  (Or, in the case of polytheistic religions, perhaps I will create a new god to attribute it to.)" When a scientist comes across an inexplicable phenomenon, he says "Well, that's curious.  Let's see if we can decide how this works."  For example, in the NASA article, there is a brief discussion on "Dark Matter".  It is something that scientists do not understand.  But, unlike the religious, NASA is not satisfied by "Well, we don't understand it, so god did it."  They gave it a name, but are still actively pursuing ways to understand what it is.

The rational mind will ask "How old is the Earth?" and then try to find clues upon the Earth in order to answer the question.  Through all of the knowledge that we have, the estimate of somewhere around 4.5 billion years has been reached.  The religious mind will say "The Bible says that it is a few thousand years old, so that is what I will believe."  When presented with a contradicting viewpoint, the rational mind will say "Here is my evidence to prove my point.  Show me your evidence to prove me wrong.  If your evidence is more convincing, then I will yield and admit that you are right."  However, the religious mind will say "I am right because God said so.  Therefore, you must be wrong and your ideas are silly."  This can be evidenced by the way Elder Nelson discussed the big bang theory in his talk.  He didn't even bother to try to understand the theory before he mocked it.  It is possible that he does understand the big bang theory and willfully chooses to misrepresent it by comparing it to an explosion in a printing press creating a dictionary.  It is also possible that he simply has no clue what the big bang is.  In the former case, he is maliciously misrepresenting the truth so as to make himself look good and in the latter he is speaking about something of which he has no real knowledge.  In either case, he is being dishonest--in one case by deliberately lying and in the other by pretending to know what he really does not know.

I ask you, my reader, to consider which of these two methods of epistemology is preferable.  Do you want to learn your knowledge by considering the available evidence and giving credence to the conclusion that is most logical based on the evidence?  Or do you wish to accept dogma that is handed to you by superiors (religious or otherwise) and whenever confronted with contradicting ideas to simply deny or ignore the evidence presented to you?

I would much rather have a good understanding of the world around me than to hide my head in the sand whenever someone presents information that I don't like or agree with.  But, to paraphrase Joshua, choose you this day which method you prefer.

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