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March 10, 2014
Faith and Science
A House of Order, Part One
by Ami Chopine

Math has always been one of my favorite subjects. It's orderly. And, well, when one understands the language (and I only know the tourist basics), it's poetry.

It has within it the ability to precisely describe our world. Matter and energy can be quantified. Objects have locations in relation to each other. We can measure the passage of time, at least within our sphere of existence.

The order revealed in the world by math existed before we could calculate or understand it. The earth orbited the sun regardless of the mistaken beliefs by some ancient astronomers. Neptune was discovered because the mathematics describing the orbits of the known planets said a planet must be there, and predicted where it would be.

Things are as they are, regardless of whether or not we know them. That makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Apparently, not to everyone.

There is a tendency in academia to frame everything in terms of human experience, especially for those studying the less easily quantified social fields. Some of this is good methodology. Since cultures can be so dissimilar, to really understand another culture we need to know its frame of reference.

What is "common sense" to people? What are the things that everyone knows? To do this, researchers try to put their own cultural biases on the shelf.

In Japan, for instance, child rearing is quite different. Japanese children generally don't get to make choices in their clothing, their food, or the way they spend their free time. In some places they aren't expected to do any housework, but they do have to study hard.

It would be easy to disapprove of this, especially in our highly individualistic culture. Our common sense says the Japanese are holding their children back by not letting them express themselves.

But this isn't the whole story. Their parents love their children. They want them to grow and have new experiences. Their children just don't get to choose what those experiences are. The Japanese ideas of childhood and our ideas are quite different, but both cultures manage to grow young humans into adults that function well in society.

Methodological relativism can be a useful tool. There are many ways in which our cultures can differ that are not a matter of righteous behavior, and setting aside these differences in light of the gospel and its central principles can help us to love each other as Christ loves each of us.

The gospel is true, no matter what the culture, and it's interesting to see how these truths get expressed in other cultures.

But some take relativism further than cultural differences and imagine that there is no universal right or wrong, only what is right and wrong in that culture, or in that individual's eyes, and you get moral relativism. And some go even further, slipping into a philosophical relativism in where the truth itself is determined by our beliefs.

Follow that logic, and Neptune apparently came into being when a couple of mathematicians did the calculations and came to the belief that it was there.

It is commonly met in academia in both the soft and hard sciences. Methodological relativism can naturally lead people to critically think about their own culture. This sometimes leads to criticism of everything, including reality. The hard sciences, though absolutist in truth, sometimes lead to atheism, which takes away the foundation for moral certainty.

Moral relativism has been going on for so many generations of teachers and students that there is another road to relativist sophistries — social and authoritative pressure.

Someone once argued with me that 2 + 2 = 4 was a cultural belief, saying that I might have "known" something different if I grew up in a completely different culture. They were so proud of being able to believe that they could go to their heaven and I could go to my heaven.

Relativism is appealing because it appears, at first, to be the most tolerant of all views. I have my truth, and you have your truth. May we all prosper in it.

But, being an objectivist — a believer that there are facts that remain facts no matter what we believe — I tell the relativists that they are wrong. And because my belief system invalidates their "truth", I am intolerant. And that is the ultimate sin of relativism.

Do you see the irony? This "most tolerant" of all views leads its believers to be the least tolerant of those who disagree with them on that basic philosophical level.

Claiming that a person cannot possibly hold a certain belief or standard and still be tolerant of a person who doesn't hold that belief or standard says more about the claimant than about the defendant. True tolerance is when people get along despite opposing differences in beliefs and what constitutes moral behavior.

Relativism is the demon that whispers to us that there is no devil. These ideas are told to us by authoritative sources, through our secondary schools and media.

Relativism is a philosophy of pride. Its followers are never wrong, picking and choosing which beliefs they want to have (I think they call this "finding themselves"). Cheering each other on, the adherents of this point of view further puff themselves up. The end result is that they are spiritually blind.

Well established in their comfort zone of postmodern thinking, they can appreciate the logical beauty of the gospel from afar, without having to commit to it.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

Mormon scholarship is not immune. I've read articles by LDS authors whose treatment of the Church puzzled me until I realized they had taken a relativist position. Whether that was done to be published in a journal, to gain the praise of the world, or if relativism has actually infected their philosophy, I don't know. In academia, it’s probably all three.

Relativism is a demon that whispers to us that there is no devil. It’s everywhere — in our schools and in media. It’s not just people doing bad things. It’s those little “morality” tales and the “common sense” approach that everyone is special and if you only believe, you can make anything happen.

It was in Life of Pi, Frozen, The Lego Movie, and other pieces of popular culture. It’s the foundation of several of the moral debates taking place now.

In the next column, I’ll cover absolute truth and morality from the scriptural, doctrinal, and logical/philosophical sides.

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