The Scientific Method

By Tim L.

During my time as a Mormon missionary, I often had the chance to share my conviction that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of Jesus Christ on the Earth today. In response I was often asked, “How do you know?” How can we know anything of a spiritual nature?

I think a lot of intelligent people are averse to religion because they perceive a lack of proof for the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ. I understand this need for proof. Every day I think about how to use data to find evidence for various economic theories, and I’m always fairly skeptical of those theories until I am presented with some sort of proof of their veracity. I am no different when it comes to religious topics.

Any researcher can tell you how the scientific method works:

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information and resources
  3. Form hypothesis
  4. Perform experiment and collect data
  5. Analyze data
  6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as starting point for new hypothesis
  7. Publish results
  8. Retest

For hundreds of years, this has been the method we have used to develop new knowledge about the world we live in. We use it for scientific questions; could it be used for spiritual questions as well? What do you think?

In a book of scripture called the Book of Mormon, two ancient prophets argue that it can (Alma 32; Moroni 10:3-5). They use slightly different terminology, but the steps are very similar. Alma compares the process of gaining spiritual knowledge to an experiment we all probably did in elementary school: planting a seed and watching it grow. Moroni is more specific in his instructions, as he explains exactly how to gain personal knowledge of the truth of the Book of Mormon, but his instructions are applicable to any other questions as well. He first tells us to read from the book and think about what we’ve read (steps 1-2). Next he asks us to “receive these things,” meaning we need to accept the possibility of their truth (step 3). His next instruction is to “ask God if these things are not true,” implying that we already believe them to be true just as when performing an experiment, we usually believe it will work. Finally, he explains that if we do those things, if our hypothesis is correct, we will know it by the power of the Holy Ghost (steps 5-6). You are then free to “publish your results” by sharing them with friends and family, and just as with a scientific hypothesis, your confidence in your result is increased each time you retest (steps 7-8).

The only difference I can find between the scientific method, and the one described above is the implementation of step 6. In a science experiment you would use statistics to determine if your hypothesis can be rejected, something any statistician will tell you that you can never know for sure, but rather only with a certain level of confidence. Instead, when seeking answers to spiritual hypotheses, you have to receive your answer from the source of spiritual knowledge: God himself. As Moroni taught, this knowledge is received through the Holy Ghost, and from experience I can say this knowledge comes in the form of a certainty you feel or a strong feeling of happiness or peace (Galatians 5:22-23). While it may seem like knowledge received this way is not as solid as scientific knowledge, first remember that due to the nature of statistics, scientific knowledge can never be proven 100% true but can only be proven to a certain level of confidence, and second, a certainty placed in your mind by God himself will always provide you with a stronger personal proof of His existence than a paper that describes the experiences of some other researcher’s experience. I invite you to use this method and share some of your experiences here on this blog.

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19 thoughts on “The Scientific Method

  1. Kristen says:

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  2. Summer says:

    This Mormon Messages personal post reminded me of yours!

    http://www.youtube.com/user/MormonMessages#p/c/4/jbuHakabdMU

  3. Robert says:

    Tim, read this…this guy’s explanation articulates what I was trying to say more eloquent then my previous post: http://www.theamateurthinker.com/2011/02/how-can-we-find-truth-part-4/#comment-456

  4. Natalie says:

    Wow. To all of you.

  5. Melanie says:

    Tim & Teppo –

    I’ve been thinking about the “objectivity” question mentioned earlier and in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that spiritual knowledge can never be objective – it’s very nature is personal and cannot be identically replicated across persons. We’re objective in science so that others may have confidence in our theory or experimental results. However, I am the only one who can stand on my faith in Jesus Christ. My relationship with him and God are extremely personal and built on years of humbling trials, continuous learning and shared accomplishments. That’s why Moroni tells each of us to develop our own testimony of spiritual truth. I’m so grateful for the process Tim outlined above because I don’t have to hang my hat on someone else’s data or experience – I can truly know for myself.

  6. Robert says:

    Tim, I am not a scientist…but for the sake of discussion…lets us assume that the scientific method is as you describe it and if this is the case then here are my thoughts regarding the rational presented:

    1) “I think a lot of intelligent people are averse to religion because they perceive a lack of proof for the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ.” (Could it be that they are averse to religion because others perceive an abundance of proof of many different Gods or conflicting versions of one God called by the same name? Are you equally open to this possibility…scientists are skeptical of religious beliefs but they are also skeptical of unproven scientific claims…they can confidently say “I could be wrong?” Do you share this starting point?)

    2) I really like your question “How can we know anything of a spiritual nature?” (I believe and I have faith, but I struggle with the claim of “knowledge”)

    3) I feel in agreement that the (8) points of the scientific method you share represent scientific practice…what I struggle with is the literal or equivocal comparison to the Book of Mormon…here’s why:

    a. Define the question (correct me if I am wrong, but don’t most scientific questions ask in the affirmative? i.e. “what IS the effect of this drug? Instead of Moroni’s ““ask God if these things are NOT true.” I remember watching the TV show Cheers one time and Cliff Clavin was on the TV show Jeopardy. For the last question he answered “someone who was not in my mother’s kitchen.” Although his statement was true. It was not the correct answer. I like you am an active Latter-day Saint. If someone of another faith prayed to find out if a different church was not true and said they had a spiritual experience and knew theirs was true, would we also accept their answer. If not, wouldn’t that require “additional evidence” on our part?

    b. Gather information and resources (In science they utilize a principle called falsifiability / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiablity / I assume that you are familiar with this principle. It requires that it be possible for data to be proven wrong, for claims to possibly be true. If I proposed that a watermelon was 12 inches wide, this claim would be falsifiable because it would be subject to a ruler. Like my concern with “define the question”, it seems difficult to find the method of gathering information only from a book which bears the method to test whether or not it is true. I still recall serving a mission and thinking that born again Christians had faulty logic when they said “I know the Book of Mormon can’t be true, because the Bible said no more scripture could be added, and God wrote the bible.” This claim is not falsifiable and if every Christian followed that logic none of the people my companion and I taught would have joined the church. I struggle to now use the same faulty logic I did not like others using against me.)

    c. Form hypothesis (the dilemma I have on the one is that scientists form questions then seek the answer without fully believing one specific outcome will occur. Moroni first proposes a condition: he states that we must first have “faith in Christ” and then “he will manifest the truth of it unto you”. Scientific hypothesis do not require a subjective acceptance of a particular outcome before they pose the question. This does not mean that Moroni’s method is or is not true, but it does cease to make it scientific. If a Jehovah Witness came to a church activity and asked “who here is sincere in heart? Who here values truth? If so then first believe in some of the tenants of our faith and then pray and ask to find out if it is not true?” would we willingly follow their recommendations?)

    d. Perform experiment and collect data (similar to my last point, you mentioned in your blog post that Moroni is “implying that we already believe them to be true just as when performing an experiment”. One question I struggle with as a missionary, as I do today is the question of phenomena and interpretation. Church makes me feel good [phenomenon], but I honestly do not “know” whether or not my feelings are evidence of truth [interpretatoion]. As a missionary I told families that “when you feel ___ it means ____ and then you need to ____”. How can I be certain of what they were feeling? How can I be certain that the interpretation I gave them was objectively true? What if they felt lonely and they were feeling the warm attention of two well-dressed young men who treated them with respect and love? I still have this question…only it no longer concerns me.)

    e. Analyze data (Once again on my mission, if the individual said “I feel good”, my companion and I would say “well if you feel ___ then that means that ____ and if that means ___ then you know you have to _____ if you truly want to follow God” Then I would say “[name] do you want to follow God?” I am still open to all of this being correct, but I still have my doubts. A lot of time circular reasoning enters here as well. The same circular reasoning that I found fault when fellow Christians used it to refute my truth claims…it goes “the bible is true because it says so, and it came from God, who wrote the book, which says it came from him, and it is true, because God wrote it………………” scientists are aware of circular reasoning, and it cannot be scientific because it is never falsifiable, which is what makes the difference between genuine vs. pseudoscience…you with me yet?)

    f. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as starting point for new hypothesis (This brings up a major difference between science and religion, science is subject to the possibility of being wrong. This “I could be wrong” principle is applied to previously studies. It is not likely that gravity will stop, but possible…not probable, but still possible. I think from my previous comments you can see that I find certainty very difficult with your proposed methods, but let’s say that the method worked and it did establish “knowledge”. The dilemma then, is that if we followed the scientific method and admitted “we could be wrong” and at the point where “we could be wrong” how could we claim “we could be wrong, but we also know with certainty”. There seems to be a conflict in this reasoning. I feel more comfortable acknowledging this now than I did on my mission.”

    g. Publish results (the one I agree with…we as a faith do publish our results. Not empirical results, but personal testimonials. I can see from your method how this would qualify as results.)

    h. Retest (I am still back at step one, I have no comment on this one.)
    Tim, I don’t know that the church is true. I believe in the principles that Jesus Christ taught regarding how to treat other people. I act on these in faith, because I believe that the means are adequate and are still meaningful and useful enough to me with or without eternal ends. Though my comments demonstrate differences we have, I am still open to the possibility that what you are saying is true. I also give you props for sharing your believe and for giving adequate thought to these deep questions. Trust me when I say the reality is not that I know more than you…the reality is that “I don’t know”. Thanks for you post, clearly it has provoked a lot of thought for me as I anticipate it will for others.

    Fellow Traveler,

    Robert

    1. Tim says:

      Robert,

      Thanks for your great comments. They’ve caused me to think a lot about this. I’d like to share a few of my thoughts with you. I apologize that I probably won’t answer all of your questions, but I’ll try to answer the ones I have good responses for.

      First, about the question of knowledge and of how scientists ask their questions, as an economist who also considers himself a bit of a statistician, I’ve always found it interesting how scientists (social or hard) form their hypotheses. After collecting data, any scientist has to analyze that data. The tool for this analysis is always statistics. When engaging in statistical inference the scientist always has to write out two hypotheses: the null and the alternative. The null is the hypothesis that the scientist is wrong and the alternative is the hypothesis that the scientist is right. The scientist then checks to see at what level of confidence the data allow her to reject the null, or to reject the idea that she is wrong. Due to the mathematical formulas behind the statistics, this level of confidence can never be 100%. This means 1) that no scientist can ever know that a hypothesis is true, no matter how many times the experiment is repeated, she can only know the probability that it is false (which can be very very low) and 2) that even scientists pose their question in the negative, “given the data, what is the probability that my hypothesis is not true?” So it’s really not so different in religion. I believe that this is actually where the scientific method breaks down, because the method can only give a certain confidence level of truth, but I believe this method applied to spiritual questions can give much more certainty due to the fact that the laws of probability do not apply here. There is no probability distribution for receiving certain answers from God. That’s why we can’t test our hypothesis using statistics or using other people’s results. We can only use our own results.

      The most important part about the spiritual scientific method is that it is personal. Everyone receives their answers in their own way, but everyone should follow the same basic steps to get those answers. I don’t think this is where the leap of faith comes. I think that was with the initial belief in your hypothesis and in the assumption that a good feeling, a feeling of certainty, or whatever form your answer comes in is an answer from God. The faith was exhibited in you doing the steps.

      Anyway, I think my point in this post was mostly that people need to recognize the uncertainty involved in scientific conclusions and scientific “proof” because if they don’t, by asking for proof of religious questions, they are imposing far more stringent requirements than they place on scientific questions.

  7. Anna says:

    I have actually given a great deal of thought to these ideas–how we can really “know” spiritual things. I’ve even considered the idea of applying a scientific method to spiritual ‘truth’ to test it). But ultimately, even here, there is a leap of faith. There is a leap to accept as “data” something that is not objective–feeling/emotion. I think this is where a lot of people get tripped up with religion–they only believe things that can be proved with physical data in the objective world that can be observed and tested by others.

    But once one is comfortable making that leap–accepting that these thoughts, feelings, improved outcomes in our lives are adequate “data” then this scientific method can definitely apply in the spiritual realm. Particularly if there are specific spiritual truths we struggle with–we can “test” these truths and see if the changes in our lives are “significant” enough to lend us to believe that truth.

  8. Summer says:

    Whoops I meant to address that to Tim. Thanks Tim!

  9. Summer says:

    Jacob,

    I thought it was interesting that this scripture says “ask God if these things are NOT true.” I think I naturally would say “if these things ARE true.”

    My husband, who is a scientist, has it ingrained in him to question everything he hears (which, incidentally, has taken a lot of time getting used to :) . He feels that he needs to try to disprove something first, and if it turns out that the thing can’t be disproved, then he feels comfortable believing it.

    Do you think there is any correlation with religion or does faith just not work that way?

    1. Tim says:

      Summer, I sympathize with your husband as I act pretty similarly most of the time. I think there is a definite correlation with religion. I think the correlation is found exactly where you said, in Moroni’s direction to us to ask if something is not true. This is a direction for us to ask God to tell us if something is not right before we pursue it. If he gives us no indication otherwise, no disproof, then we are to proceed. I guess the difference is that there may still be ample evidence against our hypothesis, so this may be a little different…

  10. Teppo says:

    In my mind the biggest difference is the need to be able to objectively reproduce the results. I’m not sure that this exists in religion. What do you think about that?

    1. Jacob says:

      Teppo-

      I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your point in trying to discover my own faith. I know what I’ve experienced, but I’ve also known that I can never be truly unbiased. In science we use the repeatability of our experiments performed by other people to ensure objectivity, but I didn’t think that basing my faith on others was very valid either. I was hung up on that for a long time. In the end I just decided that I would need to try to be as sincere as possible and then trust my own experiences.

      What have you (the collective you on the blogosphere) done to try to both be objective and trust your experiences?

    2. Tim says:

      I think you make a very good point Teppo. I think replication is very different in the context of spiritual questions. In science, one scientist can follow the exact methods of another scientist and check to see if she gets close to exactly the same results. With religious questions, the process is not so clean. While I believe one can replicate another’s process of testing a hypothesis, the results will not necessarily be the same. I think this is for two reasons 1) the spiritual scientific method is stronger than the secular scientific method in the sense that it requires not only that actions be the same, but that intentions also be the same; and 2) everyone receives answers to spiritual questions in a different manner.

  11. Brigham says:

    I think it’s a great point you make that our standard of “knowledge” in the scientific sense is not really different from the standard in the spiritual sense. And the role belief plays in the scientific process is probably under appreciated! In some sense it seems suspect for a scientist not to be wholly impartial and neutral with respect to the hypothesis being tested, but in practice I think without belief, the energy, imagination, and just plain stick-to-it-iveness required for any progress to be made on tough questions would be impossible. How do scientists form this initial belief? How do we form this initial belief (or desire to believe) in spiritual questions?

    1. Tim says:

      These are good questions. I think scientists form initial belief the same way economists do, through theory. I think some disciplines are more mathematical than others, but that they all use logic in some way to initially believe in a hypothesis.

      I think the same goes for us. We can conjecture hypotheses by studying history and looking at religion logically. This will lead us to certain hypotheses about doctrine which we can test using the method described above. I think the perfect example of this is C.S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity, where he started from atheism and produced a book of logical theories which could be tested through the method of Moroni.

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