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Interpreting Interpreter
Old-Fashioned Humility

This post is a summary of the article ““We Live in the Olden Days: Reflections on the Importance of Scientific and Theological Humility” by Steven L. Clark in Volume 54 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Clark reminds us that smart people in the past have confidently held beliefs that we now know to be mistaken, a fact which should lead us to treat the confidently held beliefs of the present with patience and humility—including those that appear at odds with church doctrine. The inability to fully understand gospel truths should encourage further investigation of those truths (via both spiritual and scientific means) rather than prompt their immediate rejection and should caution us against making claims that are absent of both empirical and spiritual support.


The Summary

In this article, Steven L. Clark provides his perspective on our relationship to truth, and how we should be cautious of both confidence in and rejection of ideas, particular when there is apparent conflict with the gospel. He cautions us against epistemic hubris of both scientific and spiritual varieties, and suggests that a “serious pursuit of truth” requires a “rejection of the arrogant belief that anything we cannot understand through the lens of scientific investigative techniques cannot possibly be true.”

Clark begins with an anecdote from medical school seminars, wherein he would highlight historical scientific ignorance about the biological causes of identical and fraternal twins, and the startlingly incorrect theories that were used to explain it. He then reminded his students that they were no smarter than those mistaken scientists of the past, and that the future would likely prove them wrong about many of the things they held to be true in the present. Several past generations have scientists who believed themselves to be near the pinnacle of human knowledge, but even knowledge built on careful and systematic observation is prone to error, as it can never fully incorporate all possible perspectives.

Given the fallibility and incomplete nature of empirical knowledge, Clark sees the dichotomy between Science and Religion as a false one. We believe in many things in the church that aren’t currently explainable or replicable, but things like smartphones would’ve been similarly unexplainable only a short time ago. The strengths and limitations of both scientific and religious inquiry should lead us to employ them both (though we should be careful not to mix them). Science can help us better understand scripture, and faith in turn can provide motivation to better understand our world.

Science reminds us that we should also exercise spiritual humility. There are varying empirical explanations for why, for instance, we encourage children to be careful when hiking next to a cliff. All of these are correct in their own way, even though some of them are not fully understood (i.e., the nature of gravity). Usually, we give the child the explanation they’re most likely to grasp, and God may take the same approach when it comes to spiritual matters. Clark provides the example of Christ’s exchange with the Sadducees—the Lord’s response was not likely intended to provide a complete explanation of the nature of post-mortal marriage, but may have nevertheless been the most meaningful one for his specific audience. We, too, may search for deeper and more satisfying answers to spiritual questions, but might have to be content for the moment with the answers we’re ready to receive. As Clark concludes:

“…just as the serious scientist takes great care to limit his conclusions to those fully supported by the data, the man or woman of faith must continually take great care to avoid promulgating untruths by creating new doctrine from vaguely defined scriptural sketches…both scientific and religious arrogance continue to be dangerous to the serious seeker of truth.”


The Reflection

As a scientist, very few things stick in my craw more than people taking the name of Science in vain—invoking science to make claims that science and logic itself can’t support. Science, at its heart, is open-minded investigation. Though repeated observation and credible theorizing can imbue certain claims with trust, no scientific door is ever permanently closed or permanently open. To wield science as a cudgel against claims it isn’t designed to address is, itself, anti-science, and such perspectives should be treated accordingly.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen religion used in much the same way—using past prophetic statements or personal spiritual insights as a means to advance ideologies or to cut off dissenting voices. Though sometimes well-intended, this can represent a kind of spiritual malpractice, serving to close minds off to the truth. In both instances, I see the openness and humility promoted by Clark as being essential tools that allow us to identify and ward off error as well as being able to receive the truth when it arises. Though I suspect I could quibble with some points (he’s correct that you can’t prove the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon with differential equations, but that doesn’t mean math is helpless in pointing us in the right direction), Clark provides with some useful advice as we continue in our “serious pursuit of truth.”

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