Earlier this month I posted some thoughts about the Mormon perspective on the existence of Hell. My thoughts were inspired by a NY Times article that decried the increasing belief in heaven without hell. The author argued that the notion of good without evil and its consequences strips human beings of their agency and robs mankind of any moral victories he may hope to claim. I think the author’s claims were valid. If you believe in one, justice necessitates the other. But what if we deny the existence of both?
Earlier this week Steven Hawking was in the news for some rather controversial statements he had made in an interview published in the UK Guardian denying the existence of Heaven altogether, calling the whole idea a “fairy story.” As someone widely acknowledged as the smartest person in the world, Mr. Hawking’s statements on the universe command consideration. Needless to say, however, not everyone was willing to defer to his authority on this question. A fury of rebuttals from the faithful and approbation from the skeptical ensured, rendering the debate soon intractable. Can the Mormon perspective help to break this stalemate? Earlier this year, co-blogger Tim cited a masterful sermon in the Book of Mormon in which the prophet Alma casts the quest for spiritual knowledge in scientific terms. I think that this, along with several other passages in the book can provide great direction to those earnestly looking for answers to this fundamental human question.
First, the Book of Mormon emphasizes the heavy burden of proof that those who would deny the existence of God must overcome. Since Karl Popper, any student of the scientific method knows that it is much easier to prove empirically that something does exist than to prove that it doesn’t exist. As such, the statement “all swans are white” can be disproven at the first sight of a non-white swan, but the absence of a sighting of any non-white swan—for however long the experiment were to be run—would still not prove that “all swans are white.” Likewise the absence of any physical proof in the eye of the skeptic does not and cannot prove the inexistence of God. (see Alma, Chapter 30)
Second, the book explains the science behind taking the essential “leap of faith.” One supporter of Hawking’s assertions discounted the testimonies of all believers wholesale, declaring their beliefs null and void because they do not “start from a position of honest uncertainty and then seek evidence for and against the proposition of God’s existence.” One of the most sacrosanct principles of scientific inquiry is the requirement that the inquirer start from a stated hypothesis, rather than forming his or her hypothesis to fit the data retrospectively after having examined it in its entirety. God will likely not allow us, like bad researchers to await all the evidence and then make our conclusions later. All he requires, however, is that we exercise a mere “particle” of faith amounting to no more than a “desire to believe.”
Lastly, the book acknowledges the limits to applying methods of scientific inquiry to the quest for spiritual knowledge. This divergence ultimately occurs because the prerequisites to receiving spiritual knowledge result in a sort of selection bias. This is because when one makes this affirmative hypothesis, this leap of faith, one must first acknowledge the limits to their own understanding. Those unwilling to do so would self-select out of the experiment and those who do demonstrate the requisite humility would find the proof they seek. However, since the two groups were not identical in the first place it is impossible to disentangle any effects this experiment had, from any pre-existing differences in other characteristics that could’ve also caused the difference in outcome.
I believe in God because I have chosen to take this leap of faith. I can’t provide any counterfactual for how my life would be without having made this choice, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be better. And there is a certain freedom that comes with knowing you will be receptive to divine inspiration if and when it comes.