"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 11, 2014
A Short History of Two False Theories
by Ami Chopine

The history of science has always fascinated me. I remember looking up at the sky and thinking that I stood on a disk covered by a dome.

I tried to figure out why the horizon changed when we drove somewhere far away and why the clouds moved and the sun and moon rose. Perhaps the disk was just very, very big. Or maybe the sky was a giant sphere we were inside, and it rotated.

When I learned the true nature of the planet I stood on, the knowledge thrilled me. Of course! It made much more sense that we stand on a sphere in the middle of a vast space. Images of space and the solar system captured my imagination.

So when I think of men and women through history trying to figure out the big question, "What is the universe and who are we in it?" and its companion, "Why are we here?” I feel some kinship with them. It seems to be part of childhood, part of our societal growth that we wonder these things.

Which leads to another question: Why do the big questions hold our attention so much? Why do we, even as children, think about them?

We devote a great deal of energy and time to the gaining of this knowledge, which just doesn't seem to be that important to our immediate survival and ability to reproduce and function in society.

Sitting around and wondering such things just isn't very conducive to getting food or making babies and keeping them alive. The bigger picture of being able to get off this planet just doesn't coincide with a purposeless creation.

Even knowing that our existence does have a bigger purpose, I still wonder why we wonder. Is it a symptom of our longing for home and a return to our Heavenly Parents? Or perhaps a desire given to us so that we seek knowledge that would bring us closer to God?

It's telling that the "century of science" — the 19th Century, coincided with the time of the Restoration of the Gospel.

It was during this century that many traditional ideas about nature were disproven and replaced by ones that explained our observations better. It was a hard century for some religions, which had picked up many outside philosophies and merged them with church doctrine.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Copernicus and Galileo from earlier centuries. The Catholic Church had adopted Ptolemy's system of a geocentric universe as doctrine. Earth was at the center of God's creation. A finite sphere is easy for us to comprehend.

But many scholars, not just Copernicus and Galileo, observed that the known facts did not fit this geocentrism. It got them branded heretics. Many were even burned at the stake for the belief, and it wasn't until 1992 that the Catholic Church formally pardoned Galileo.

This, for something that is common knowledge and taught to preschoolers, and is no threat at all to Christianity.

Not all theories have such strong theological implications, but there is another long held false belief with roots in ancient philosophy and to some extent, spiritual beliefs, which had its death in the 19th century. Vitalism as a scientific hypothesis died so thoroughly that most people don't even realize there was a serious debate even though the cultural implications still ring through our society and play a big part in the science and belief discussion.

Many scientists of the early 19th Century believed in a vital spark, a source of life and life processes. The concept went back to the Egyptians and was thrust into favor by the Greek physician and philosopher, Galen. He had hypothesized that the lungs drew in pneuma and blood brought this pneuma, or breath of life, to all the parts of the body.

Close, but this breath of life wasn't an ancient understanding of oxygen. Galen's pneuma was spirit, an active force that caused thought, organic movement and organic processes. And it wasn't an understanding of the Holy Ghost, or what we think spirit is.

It was kind of like The Force — yeah, that one. Lucas didn't exactly invent the idea out of thin air. Organic and Inorganic were opposite each other and disparate.

Though the nomenclature has remained the same, "organic" didn't have the same definition as we have today. Our organic substances are molecules that are made up of chains of carbon with lots of other fun elements added in to make things interesting and useful.

Their organic substances were simply the ones that made up life, and therefore (within the vitalist theory) also had the vital spark.

Only life could produce life. In order for an inorganic substance to become organic, the vital spark — the pneuma — had to be added. And mankind wasn't yet capable of it and perhaps never would be. Maybe only God was the source of the vital spark.

Opposed to the idea of vitalism was a materialist mechanistic theory. Life, including men, were merely more complicated arrangements of exactly the same elements that made up non-life.

We were simply automatons — though many separated mankind out as a special case, our intelligence was the result of having a spirit, which nothing else had.

Many felt and feel that if vitalism proved to be wrong and mechanism correct then perhaps this called into question all things spiritual.

As a scientific theory, it was quite open to experimentation. If an organic substance could be synthesized using only inorganic components without that vital spark, aka pneuma, aka the breath of God, or spirit, then vitalism would be proven wrong.

It was in 1828 that Frederick Wöhler, quite by accident, synthesized urea — an organic compound — out of inorganic compounds. It wasn't the end of vitalism as a scientific theory, but it was the beginning of an end and marked a change in the science of biology.

Of course, we know that all things were created spiritually first and have a spirit. So for us, it's not surprising that no "vital spark" needed to be added. There is no metaphysical difference between organic and inorganic substances.

But it still illustrates the problem, the same problem as with Galileo, when people make a scientific theory into doctrine and scripture into a scientific text, all wrapped up in the ancient philosophies and ideas of men.

It's a dangerous thing to do. It’s exactly the reason people see science as opposed to religion. It is not.

That most important question, "Why are we here?" — which every human at some point asks himself — is answered in scripture not by a scientific explanation of the forces and elements that make us up, but by an explanation of our relationship with God and His intentions for us.

The scientific explanation of how things work is good to know. It gives us a glimpse of God’s grand creations. It helps us to improve our situation in life, and to serve others.

But science does not give us morality (though scientific investigation may prove the efficacy of moral behavior). It does not bind families together in love (though studies may show that intact families are superior). It doesn’t teach us to love our enemies.

And it does not tell us of the Atonement. How could it?

We should not look to science to prove our religion. That’s not what it’s there for.

Our religion proves itself by the fruit it bears, which fruit will fill us with “exceedingly great joy.” (1 Nephi 8:12)

It doesn’t matter why we seek after a knowledge of why we’re here — whether it is in our nature or was a desire given to us by God. It simply matters that we do. That we know the answer to this question is important.

We can only observe the fruit of our religion if we test it out through study and by following its teachings. It’s the most important experiment of our lives.

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About Ami Chopine

Ami Chopine started out her mortal existence as a single cell. That cell divided into a collection of cells that cooperated enough to do such things as eat, crawl, walk and eventually read a lot and do grownuppy things.

When she was seven years old, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, she decided she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. Even though she studied molecular biology at the University of Utah, that didn't quite come to pass. She became a writer instead. Still, her passion for science and honest inquiry has remained and married itself to her love of the Gospel. 

Ami is married to Vladimir and together they have four amazing children -- three in college and one in elementary school, where Ami is president of the Family School Organization. Vladimir is the better cook, but Ami is the better baker. She also knits, gardens, stares at clouds, and sings. She can only do three of these at the same time.

Besides two published computer graphics books and several magazine tutorials, she writes science fiction and has a couple of short stories published. You can find her blog at www.amichopine.com.

Ami was surprised to not be given a calling as some kind of teacher the last time she was called into the bishop's office. She currently serves as the Young Women Secretary -- somewhat challenging for the girl whose grandmother used to call the absentminded professor.

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