Print   |   Back
August 30, 2012
In The Village
Testing God
by Orson Scott Card

“Know then thyself,” said Alexander Pope, “presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”

But Jesus said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

If Jesus thinks we should know God, then we should certainly make a try; but Alexander Pope certainly has a point as well — it’s a lot easier to study human beings. We have so many more of them around, and they’re so much easier to study.

The real problem is that the preferred method of “study” today is science, and science by its very nature is utterly unsuited to studying God.

Science starts from the premise that it will use only empirical (physical) evidence. Data are gathered, and rules are extrapolated as hypotheses. You can never prove that a rule is “true” unless you can test every instance, so instead, scientists try to find any exception to the rule, which would then prove it to be false.

As long as scientists fail to falsify the rule, then it is regarded as useful. This is “practical truth” — the rule works, and so it is treated as if it were true until it fails an empirical test, or somebody comes up with a better rule.

As long as Newton’s rules — his laws of motion, for instance — were uncontradicted by physical evidence, they were regarded as true.

Then Einstein made a guess that would explain the universe differently. It took a while, but eventually other people worked out the math and performed experiments designed to prove Einstein’s story false. They failed — and so we now regard Einstein’s story as a theory — a practical truth.

This method is perfect for exploring the physical world. Where it gets slippery is in explorations of human beings, because humans introduce a different kind of causation.

Science can only deal with mechanical cause — one domino falls, knocking over another, which knocks over another. You push on the bicycle pedal, the gear turns, the chain moves, turning another gear, which turns the wheel.

But human beings have purposes. So do animals, of course — the squirrel climbs the bird feeder because he can see and smell the food that’s just sitting there, waiting to be eaten.

Human purposes lead us to some very complicated behaviors. We can talk ourselves into a lot of idiotic choices, as well as the good ones. Especially because we have both conscious and unconscious purposes, as well as mechanical causes that affect us without our being aware of them.

We can look at human behavior in the aggregate and learn a few things, using only our outward behavior and the chemical and electrical processes in our bodies — the empirical data.

Now and then, a “scientist” will announce that because of great advances in knowledge of this sort, we no longer need to believe in the existence of the human soul. In fact, some even claim that science has proven the non-existence of the mind — that what we think is “mind” is really just the machinery of cell and synapse.

This is actually rather sad, since it is only a proclamation that the scientist making such claims is so poorly educated and illogical that he does not understand that his methodology, by definition, cannot possibly prove any such thing.

When you start by excluding from consideration any evidence that is not physical and measurable, then you can’t conclude that nonphysical, unmeasurable causes do not exist.

In syllogistic form, your logic would be this: “No evidence other than the physical may be considered by our method. There is no physical evidence of soul/mind/God. Therefore there is no soul/mind/God.”

No, Basic Logic students. The necessary conclusion is: “Therefore the existence of soul/mind/God may not be considered by our method.”

This doesn’t stop some from trying to try to apply scientific methods to theology. For instance, there’s the famous attempt to “scientifically” prove the efficacy of prayer.

A list of hospital patients was randomly divided into two groups. One of the lists of names was handed out to believers-in-prayer, with the understanding that they would pray for those people, and only those people.

Then the outcomes of the cases would be compared, statistically, to see if the prayed-for group had significantly better outcomes than the unprayed-for group.

There are a couple of reasons why this was an outrageously stupid “experiment” from the start.

First, good prayer-believers would immediately include in their prayers all the people not on their official list. Why? Because praying only for the people on the list is not really praying at all — it’s testing God. In fact, it’s trying to trick God into healing only the people you mention.

Yes, it’s “scientific” to have a control group. But praying and healing are not scientific. As soon as you pray for a select group to see if they do better than others because of your prayers, you are saying those prayers quite literally “to be seen of men.” It is no longer acceptable to God (Matt. 6:5, 23:5).

The second reason the experiment was doomed from the start is that God does not respond to prayers like a machine.

God is a volitional being who evaluates the motives of the people who pray to him, and Jesus said, “Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation” (Mark 8:12).

There is a test of faith involved — the faith of the healer, the faith of those who pray for the sufferer, and the faith of the sufferer himself. When the nobleman begged Jesus to come heal his son, Jesus said, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe” (John 4:48).

When the man persisted, Jesus told him to go home — his son would live. Believing in Jesus’ words, the nobleman obeyed. And his son lived.

Here is the irony: God’s existence is completely testable.

The test is even empirical. Those of us who have conducted the test — thousands of us, perhaps millions — can affirm it.

The reason why it isn’t “scientific” is not because it doesn’t meet any of the official standards of scientific research. It is because it has one additional standard that cannot be met by any scientist doing mere science:

The experimenter must be part of the experiment.

No detachment. No impartiality. You can only test God in the way that he has offered us: with the way we live our lives. With obedience.

The nobleman had to go home, believing. Naaman had to wash himself in the Jordan River.

God’s promise through Malachi even contains a challenge to test him: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse ... and prove me now herewith, ... if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (3:10).

Remember that words change over time. One use of the verb “prove” has, since the scriptures were written, been completely replaced in our language by the verb “test.”

(See Abraham 3:25; Gal. 6:4; Psalms 26:2, 66:10 and 95:9; D&C 64:39 and 84:79; 1 Tim. 3:10; Luke 14:19; 2 Cor. 8:8; John 6:6; and Daniel 1:12-14; in all these cases, the word “test” can be used with no change in the meaning.)

When Moroni promised proof to the readers of The Book of Mormon (“he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost”) it was contingent. It would happen only “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ” (Moroni 10:4).

A sincere heart, with real intent. You will have all the proof you want — but only if you truly intend to live by all the commandments of God.

Empirical science requires no “real intent,” and there are many insincere hearts involved in scientific research, right?

Well, no. Successful science depends on scientific researchers’ absolute sincerity. When they report their results, they must do so with utter accuracy, withholding nothing.

And the real intent must be there, too — they will not skew their conclusions to fit a predetermined outcome or a private agenda. They will follow the results where they lead.

Not all scientists live up to this. That’s why we get faked-up “hockey stick” graphs and “Piltdown Man” and other scientific hoaxes, the work of insincere scientists without any real intent to live by the laws of scientific research (2 Tim. 3:7).

It’s “faith in Christ” that is the sticking point. Science does not — cannot — require faith in God as a prerequisite to research.

This does not imply that science is anti-religion. No result of good scientific research can possibly contradict religious truth, because both must be true in the same reality, the same universe. (We Mormons reject neo-platonism; we do not think there are two universes, one physical and one spiritual, but only the one coherent reality: D&C 93:24 and 131:7.)

As my father taught me when I was eight years old, “When science and religion disagree, it only means that one or the other or both of them are wrong.”

Our understanding of both science and religion is always tentative. That is, we know that there is such a thing as “truth” and a “real world” (D&C 93:24). But whether we learn about the truth through the methods of science or religion, we always include with each grain of truth all the falsehoods and half-truths and ignorance and fairy tales we carry around inside our heads.

Our understanding of truth, therefore, is never complete, never perfect — but it is always capable of extension, correction, and improvement, as long as we hold fast to the method (D&C 98:12).

And the method is obedience to law. For scientists, the laws are obeyed within the context of meticulously designed and recorded experiments. For Christians, the laws are obeyed in our lives, with our whole heart (1 Thess. 5:21).

The results are replicable in both cases. Anyone who repeats the experiment exactly should get the same results.

Copyright © 2024 by Orson Scott Card Printed from