Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hugh Nibley’s Perspective on Historical Sciences and Mormonism

Editor's note: This is number 35 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne, sharing quotes from his book, Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth. You can read the introductory post here. The first part of each post is a new introduction, placing the quotes in context with contemporary issues. The quotes that then follow are from the Determining Doctrine book, which contains many quotes that are not readily available elsewhere or are exclusive to the book.

            Former (deceased) BYU Professor Hugh W. Nibley was asked to contribute to a 1965 Instructor magazine series of articles called “I Believe” on science and religion. To make a long story short, his contribution was not published (but was decades later included in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.) After the piece was rejected, he sent a follow-up letter to the editor, complaining about the rejection and further justifying his reasoning and arguments—all to no avail. Nibley was not used to having his articles rejected by any publication and for a Mormon periodical to do so was extra annoying to him.

            Be that as it may, his thoughts on the subject, while being a little dated as far as current scientific thought is concerned, still offer some salient points to ponder about the uses and abuses some people make of science—especially anti-Mormons and atheists. Nibley’s basic arguments are as cogent and relevant today as they were when he first wrote them in 1965. We should always remember that the historical sciences are not exact sciences and that insofar as they are used or manipulated to weaken faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, they or their purveyors are suspect. All the answers simply aren’t in and pointing fingers of scorn and mockery at people of faith doesn’t alter that reality.

            From Determining Doctrine:

            Nothing illustrates better than archaeology the inadequacy of human knowledge at any given time.  It is not that archaeology is less reliable than other disciplines, but simply that its unreliability is more demonstrable.  Meteorology (to show what we mean) is quite as “scientific” as geology and far more so than archaeology—actually it makes more use of scientific instruments, computers, and higher mathematics than those disciplines need to.  Yet we laugh at the weather man every other day; we are not overawed by his impressive paraphernalia, because we can check up on him any time we feel like it: he makes his learned pronouncements—and then it rains or it doesn’t rain.  If we could check up on the geologist or archaeologist as easily when he tells us with perfect confidence what has happened and what will happen in the remotest ages, what would the result be?  Actually, in the one field in which the wisdom of geology can be controlled, the finding of oil, it is calculated that the experts are proven right only about 10% of the time.  Now if a man is wrong ninety percent of the time when he is glorying in the complete mastery of his specialty, how far should we trust the same man when he takes to pontification on the Mysteries?  No scientific conclusion is to be trusted without testing—to the extent to which exact sciences are exact they are also experimental sciences; it is in the laboratory that the oracle must be consulted.  But the archaeologist is denied access to the oracle, for him there is no neat and definitive demonstration, he is doomed to plod along, everlastingly protesting and fumbling, through a laborious, often rancorous, running debate that never ends.

Hugh Nibley:

            What could be of greater importance in discussing Archaeology and Our Religion than the indisputable fact that archaeology has been used and is being used as a tool against Our Religion?  Or the equally indisputable fact that archaeology is by no means the precision tool that some people think it is?...

            It is certainly not irrelevant in articles on science and religion to point out that Lamarck and Darwin diligently searched out what they felt were weaknesses in the Bible and attacked them unsparingly.  And why shouldn’t they?  And why shouldn’t we at the present time note that their attacks were largely unjustified on purely factual grounds?

            …Actually there is an enormous accumulation of factual information refuting the claims of the evolutionists, or at least casting serious doubts upon them.  Maybe the stuff is no good, but we will never find out by forbidding all mention of it.  We may put the age-old controversy…in the form of a dialogue:

A.    Why do you undermine the faith of these young people?

B.     To make them think!  To get them out of the grooves!

A.    But there are millions of things to think about.  Why do you always emphasize the same half-dozen shop-worn commonplaces?

B.     Because they are true!  Truth at any price!  All things must yield to the facts.

A.    Bully for you!  I could not agree more.  And here are some facts to which I would like to call to your attention.  Let us tell them to the students, and then they will think harder than ever.

B.     No, No!  You can’t do that!  That will merely make trouble.

A.    But you said truth at any price—that includes the price of much trouble.

B.     I see no point to undermining scientific reputations; these things are agreed on by many important scientists—it would be foolish to question them.

A.    But isn’t that exactly how science has made progress in the past?  Who is in a groove now?

            And so on.  Speaking of grooves, Lowell and Schiaparelli were great and devoted scientists in their day, easily the top experts in the world on the planet Mars.  As a boy I thought they were wonderful.  And yet today their life’s work has been effectively wiped out by a few photographs.  Well, what’s the loss?  Science moves on, and I am not too badly broken up about my heroes.  But what if I had followed them to the point of rejecting the Gospel—the point of no return?  I used to spend long hours listening to old Dr. Larkin talking about the wonders of astronomy and the absurdities of “ancient Jewish mythology.”  Today his astronomy sounds pathetically old-fashioned—he was wrong on almost everything—and ancient Jewish “mythology” has received a new lease on life.  What if I had become his disciple to the point of rejecting religion, as he often urged me to?  THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH TODAY BECAUSE OF SCIENTIFIC TEACHINGS WHICH HAVE NOW BEEN EXPLODED, ARE NOW BEING EXPLODED, AND ARE YET TO BE EXPLODED, while the gospel remains unscathed. …

            The idea that there are men of such vast knowledge that even to have them admit to membership in the Church is a source of consolation and pride to the rest of us is amusingly Victorian but also rather offensive with its assumption of Olympian superiority; the tone of the series is definitely patronizing.  Brigham Young had the proper words for those intellectual Mormons who generously offered to place their great minds at the disposal of the Church and make the Gospel intellectually respectable:  “O puss, what a long tail you have got!”…

            A common pitfall in reconstructions of the past is the illusion that if one had explained by a proper scientific method how a thing COULD have happened, one has explained how it actually DID happen.  The best scientists are guilty of this very unscientific thinking.  We are allowed to say, “This is how it MAY have happened”, but never, “This is how it DID happen.”  There are always unknown factors….  It is easy and pleasant to show off by talking about the subject one is presently working on, but to put it in the category of eternal truth is inexcusable….  The evolutionary hypothesis from the beginning had this merit; its proponents boldly set forth certain propositions, confidently predicting the outcome of certain experiments.  Many of these experiments were carried out, with results diametrically opposed to those predicted.  What did the experts do?  Did they apologize for their presumption?  Did they admit that there might be a flaw in the hypothesis?  Not a bit of it!  With the greatest of ease they contrived new interpretations of the data that proved that the outcome of the experiments, though it was the reverse of what was predicted, proved the validity of the original hypothesis instead of refuting it.  Such men can’t lose.  The same thing happened in archaeology, which failed to consider “the essential discontinuity of historical phenomena” in its zeal for establishing easy evolutionary patterns….

            A common scientific error is to assume that if one’s conclusions are based on facts, then what one concludes must also be a fact.  That it can never be.  The fossil or plant or spectrum photo that I hold in my hand may be called a fact—it is an immediate concrete experience.  But my interpretation of it is NOT a fact and never can be.  A model is 100% the product of imagination, and it is quite incorrect to call such a model as Evolution a fact….

            Every discipline in the university has its own model of things, and every model represents at least a century of hard work and huge accumulations of data.  We are NOT free to brush any model aside simply because it does not conform with certain aspects of our own model.  It is perhaps to be expected that the people least sure of their own models are the most impatient of other people; and that those who have the most rickety models of all (they never can agree on such things as mountain-building and rock production) are the touchiest of all, rejecting out-of-hand all models that do not conform to their own far more closely than their own conform to each other.  In the place of solid evidence these harassed souls introduce a vigorous polemic with a great deal of emphasis on status and prestige—they need a smokescreen.

            I am not a scientist at all, but spend what time I can steal working on models which belong as much to the world-picture and go just as far to filling out that picture as do the models set up by my betters in the sciences.  I begrudge no man his model or the corner of the floor he is playing on.  But when anyone insists that he knows from his model alone exactly how the entire jigsaw cosmos will look when it is completed, it is time to protest.  That can be known only by revelation.  The Lord has given us the Big Picture, but no amount of juggling the pieces in any one or any dozen disciplines can begin to give us the remotest inkling of what the whole picture is like.  The best we can hope for from that direction are man’s own hypothetical tentative constructions, and to present them as part of the Gospel is entirely out of order.  (Hugh Nibley Correspondence, 1965; emphasis in original.)

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