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Mormon Scholars Testify: Darin Ragozzine
|Title||Mormon Scholars Testify: Darin Ragozzine|
|Publication Type||Web Article|
|Year of Publication||2012|
|Access Date||3 April 2018|
|Last Update Date||October 2012|
|Publisher||Mormon Scholars Testify|
|Keywords||Astrophysics; Early Church History; Faith; Historicity; Restoration; Science; Smith, Joseph, Jr.; Testimony; Translation; Truth|
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There is an enormous amount that we all have in common. Whether you are a strict atheist skeptic, a devout Muslim, an anti-science protester, a lapsed Hindu, or a Mormon-basher, you and I have many shared beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and experiences. I am happy to call you a brother or sister. You may have a different opinion, but I believe that all of humankind is a family and that we are all brothers and sisters, children of Our Heavenly Father. Though I am not perfect, my goal is to love you and the whole human family with a perfect love like Our Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. While my love often falters, Their love is pure and perfect and deeper than we can imagine.
We’re all in this together, but we do have different worldviews. Understanding one another will both increase our mutual respect and broaden our own thoughts, almost always in a beneficial way. We can and should learn from each other’s experiences; this is a key sentiment of both science and the Mormon faith. Both have a strong emphasis on teaching and learning (often in a classroom setting) and in sharing our best estimates of what is true and real, with the goal of helping others to gain an improved understanding. For this reason, I have chosen to express my thoughts in this testimony (a statement of what I consider to be true) and I will express the few aspects that are unique to my experience rather than the innumerable common beliefs which you and I share. That is the nature of this venue. I hope you understand that I write in the spirit of love and education and not divisiveness.
One thing that makes me relatively unique is that I am a devout and active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka a Mormon or LDS) and an astrophysicist working in planetary science (though I’m certainly not the only person who matches this description). For this reason, I feel to talk specifically about my personal thoughts on science and religion, with some discussion of astronomy and planets around other stars towards the end.
Latter-day Saints have a different mindset and thought process when it comes to evaluating religion and it is one that scientists can appreciate. We come to religion (and life) asking “Is this true and good?” That is the paramount criterion for judging our spiritual experiences. This is in contrast with many other Christian faiths; for example, some religions embrace “sola scriptura,” meaning “by the scriptures [Bible] alone,” recognizing that the Bible is clearly one of God’s main methods for communicating truth to men. For me personally, the LDS emphasis on the search for truth has been an enormous blessing in both my spiritual and academic lives, both of which often focus on my search for truth. I like the practical definition for truth given in the Doctrine and Covenants (a part of the LDS scriptural canon that includes revelations from God to the founder of the LDS Church, the Prophet Joseph Smith) Section 94, verse 23: “And truth is knowledge of things as they [really] are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (See also the Book of Mormon, Jacob 4:13, Alma 32:35).
In my life, I have come to learn that there are two major ways of obtaining truth: reason and faith. The first, reason or logic, often employed using the scientific method, emphasizes obtaining truth through objective mechanisms; objective here means something that is independent of the individual. Gaining truth through faith works differently, focusing more on gaining an empirical understanding that is unique to every individual and leads to subjective knowledge.
Objective truth can be agreed upon by a group of people and is “outside” of any one individual. You and I and billions of others can agree: there are stars, they are shiny and are seen at night. Objective truth has the fantastic power that it can be immediately applied to everyone: I guarantee that if the atmospheric and lighting conditions are right, you can go outside tonight and see the stars. Science can be applied in powerful ways (e.g., engineering) allowing for the development of new technologies (though this is not the only goal or outcome). Science is best when it avoids or characterizes biases and uses rigorous statistical evidence to identify objective truth. (Throughout this document, when I refer to science, I mean the “hard” or physical sciences, those which have the strongest ability to identify and rigorously prove universal objective truths.) For all its positives, just because science works and works well does not imply that it is the only method for obtaining truth.
The hard sciences have a rule of identifying hypotheses that are objectively testable by experimentation of cause and effect (e.g., Popperian falsifiability). We use statistics and control groups to identify correlations and make them unique, respectively. However, even in very controlled and apparently clear-cut circumstances it is sometimes difficult to rigorously prove hypotheses with much certainty (and actually it is usually only technically possible to disprove alternate hypotheses). Despite the zeal of those who have fully embraced science as the only way to interact with the world, strict objective methodology is not possible in most aspects of real life. I agree that it is used less often than it should be (especially by the media, which care more about hype than reality or truth), but there are countless everyday circumstances where scientific methods are inconclusive at best and inapplicable in general. This is because, among other things, 1) there is no “control group” for most problems, 2) many systems are chaotic in the scientific sense of the word, i.e., they have literally unpredictable outcomes, and 3) humans are irrational and emotional and predicting deductively their behavior is a fruitless exercise. There’s no mathematical treatise on how a specific friendship will develop (some suggestions maybe, but certainly not the rigor we require in physics). There’s no predicting the details of the stock market. You can’t set up a scientific experiment to test different geopolitical policy options. There’s no equation that can identify who you should marry. And on and on. Science cannot do it all (though it should be consulted when possible).
(In fact, most non-scientists are often shocked when they learn how much of scientific progress is actually governed by emotion, intuition, and irrational feelings, even in the most objective problems. While good scientists have a mindset of self-skepticism to make sure their work is more than simply a reflection of their own biases, in the end scientists are people and are governed by subjective thoughts and experiences, even in their most objective endeavors.)
Therefore, to augment our intellectual interaction with the world around us, we need something more than science. About that, there should be no question. And, frankly, hard science gives us very little insight on how we are to fill this gap. How do we manage? Well, we draw upon our personal knowledge and experience: how we were raised, our own insights into how things work, cultural values and expectations, the expertise of those whom we respect, etc. I’ll call this personal knowledge “subjective,” meaning it is based on individual knowledge that cannot generally be transferred to another person. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I call “experiential” knowledge, knowledge gained by experiencing something that goes beyond the facts encountered; this is one form of subjective understanding that can lead to truth. Ideally, we would test these assumptions in the most objective way possible, but usually we just do the best we can and figure things out (for ourselves personally) as we go along.
Faith, properly defined and exercised, is a powerful route to obtaining subjective knowledge of the truth. It is an empirical method, meaning that it is guided by experimentation and focused on actual experienced results (as opposed to theoretical outcomes). A general definition of faith (applicable even outside the religious sphere) is that of an expectation that something is true (e.g., Hebrews 11:1). How strong this personal, subjective expectation is depends on a lot of factors, but having faith implies that there is some non-zero level of expectation, but that the expectation is not 100%. (When we have direct patent evidence that something is true, it becomes “knowledge.” See Alma 32:34; this whole chapter is a fantastic treatise on faith.) One common example used in the scriptures to illustrate faith is that of planting a seed (Alma 32, Matthew 13). When you plant a seed, you don’t know for sure that it will grow, nor do you know if it will eventually be successful and bear fruit. (Keep in mind that the scriptures were written in ancient times, when, I suspect, seeds had lower probability of success than the seeds we would today buy at a store.) Without faith in the idea that there is a possibility that the seed will be successful, there is no reason to plant the seed; the expectation that planting and investing in the seed could eventually yield a satisfactory return on investment is faith. In my opinion, it is this meaning that Joseph Smith had in mind when he said that faith is “the moving cause of all action” (from his excellent Lectures on Faith). With this definition, you can see that even the most irreligious are constantly using faith. My scientist colleagues may frame this same concept in terms of probabilistic expectation values or Bayesian priors; I think this captures a similar feeling to this general definition of faith.
LDS theology has a unique understanding of faith. We define faith as a principle of action (doing something, often without direct evidence that it will yield a positive result) and which is distinguished from “belief” which is a more passive “this is what I think.” It is important to recognize, however, that everyone uses the words faith, belief, and knowledge differently.
While faith as a principle can lead us to truth, there is a specific kind of faith that is most powerful: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the LDS Church, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is identified as the first principle of the gospel (the gospel being the set of teachings necessary for producing salvation) and this is true in many other Christian churches as well. When we have an expectation that Jesus Christ is real and true (in the supernatural and not historical sense), we initially aren’t 100% sure that His teachings and His gospel will work. There is no objective reason for us to identify something He taught as true or real and to, therefore, adopt it in our lives. Let’s pick a specific principle to make this concrete: having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means that you have an expectation that appealing to the Atonement of Jesus Christ will allow you to obtain forgiveness for past misdeeds about which you feel seriously guilty. The process required for gaining God’s forgiveness is called “repentance” and I won’t go into the details here, but it is much deeper than simply uttering “Father, forgive me.” Without faith, there is no expectation that the burden of guilt for something you have done and feel sorry about can be lifted and that you can feel forgiven. With faith in Jesus Christ, you give yourself an expectation that, if you repent in the way He has designated, He truly can heal you and forgive you. I have experienced this directly in my life and can confirm that the Atonement of Christ is real, in that it has had a real effect on my life and happiness and that it can have a real effect for you too if you have faith in Him and properly repent.
This method of putting faith into action by doing something based on an expectation instead of knowledge (or even apparently contrary to observed knowledge) is called “exercising faith.” The promise is that, when we exercise faith, God will give us to know that the principles in which we are exercising faith are true. This confirmation comes as a subjective feeling called inspiration or personal revelation and it comes from the Holy Ghost, also known as the Spirit. It usually comes as the result of both exercising faith and asking God, through heartfelt and sincere prayer, i.e., asking God to give us true knowledge.
Rarely will this result in a vision or an audible voice. There is an ability to recognize personal revelation (defined as [subjective] truth that comes from God) that needs to be developed. . . . I’m still working on mine. Although I can describe some basics here, if you are sincerely interested in how to do this, you need to get in touch with someone who can help you. I would be willing to talk with you directly, if you think that would help. In the LDS Church, when there is a desire to learn more about how to receive subjective religious/spiritual knowledge, especially if you are not currently a member of the church, the best reference is the LDS missionaries: young men or young women who have put their lives on hold to go out and help others to understand the principles of gaining subjective spiritual confirmation regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you meet with them, I hope that you will have the humility to look past their youth to the eternal principles and truths they will convey.
When I pray for guidance, I usually get a feeling (often a reminder of an answer or feeling I have previously had) that I need to do something or change something in myself. The feeling may not be qualitatively different from what seems to you as your own personal idea, although it is often much more spiritual and deep. I have experienced revelation from God many times myself and testify that God does hear and answer prayers for our benefit.
I have put forth the idea that faith in Jesus Christ is the most powerful method for obtaining truth. To gain a truth by this method, you first have to have an idea of what the truth is (Lectures on Faith) and be guided by someone more experienced in that truth (e.g., Acts 8:26-39).
So, how do we know, how can we know, which of the thousands of interpretations of religion to investigate for truthfulness? I admit, this is a daunting problem as simple metrics like “Which religion has the most members” or “Which religion is oldest” or “Which religion has people who appear to have the most firm faith” may or may not correlate with the truthfulness of that religion (and for many religions, there is no single answer to even these straightforward questions). Undoubtedly there is some truth and value in practically all religions, though I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that some religions have more truth than others.
Interestingly, it is this very question that founded the LDS Church. A young man in upstate New York named Joseph Smith was in an area receiving a spiritual “upheaval” which he described as a “contest of religions and a tumult of opinions.” Recognizing his need for forgiveness for past mistakes and his utter inability to determine which Church was the one to join either by study or by the Bible alone, Joseph came across a powerful scripture in the New Testament book of James, chapter 1, verses 5 and 6. It reads, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth [chastises] not, and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” The advice is to communicate with God (in what is called prayer) with an expectation that God will answer and with a true willingness and intent to do whatever God says.
The claim of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that it is the only true and living Church (D&C 1:30). The “only true Church” part means that it encompasses more divine and saving truth than any other religion. The “only living Church” part means that it is actively receiving more truth through the direct guidance of Jesus Christ to a living Prophet, equivalent to a modern day Moses, Peter, or Muhammad. We do not believe that we have a monopoly on truth, that other religions are fruitless, that we have exclusive access to God, or that people cannot be happy elsewhere. We do not believe that anyone will be condemned for not living in accordance with truths that they did not know; through God’s grace, such will be forgiven as He sees fit and will eventually (potentially in the next life) have the opportunity to learn and accept all truths necessary for ultimate happiness. However, we know that learning and accepting our unique truths as soon as possible will allow people to become better, happier, and closer to God.
Therefore, we invite all men and women to learn more about Jesus Christ. We plead with those who will listen, hoping that they will open their minds and their hearts to gaining spiritual knowledge through faith in the principles of the gospel. We exhort others to familiarize themselves with our unique and powerful doctrines, which confirm the truthfulness of the Bible and expand our understanding of our purpose on this Earth and how we can return to our Heavenly Father (i.e., go to heaven). We send tens of thousands of young men and young women into around a hundred countries to declare the truth and to follow Christ’s injunction to “go ye to all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
(I will note that I have used the word we to suggest that I am speaking for the Church itself, but I am not an officially endorsed spokesperson. For an official point of view—which I believe will not be substantially different—go to mormon.org or lds.org or talk to the missionaries.)
One of the best ways to exercise faith in order to gain a knowledge of whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its teachings are true is to learn more about the Book of Mormon. Its purpose is to testify of Christ and to allow us to gain a spiritual confirmation that He lives and loves us. Through the process of studying the Book of Mormon, you can determine whether or not the LDS Church is true.
Let me describe my knowledge and testimony about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
Scientists should be expert skeptics (e.g., Feynman’s Caltech graduation address) and, as a scientist and a debater, I am a trained and expert skeptic. I know all about biases like confirmation bias, fallacies like post hoc ergo propter hoc, statistical uncertainties, expectation values, systematic errors, and other relevant aspects of skepticism and objective scientific proof. I believe that virtually all pseudoscience is incorrect and/or misguided and am extremely skeptical of “science” that doesn’t come with a well-written peer-reviewed journal article. In fact, those who have submitted astrophysics journal articles where I was selected to be the peer reviewer would corroborate that I provide extensive, thorough, multi-faceted reviews.
So, I’m often savvy to issues that arise from the Atheist (used in the sense of the philosophy that denies anything supernatural) Skeptic concerning religion. When it comes to the Book of Mormon, however, I just can’t find any serious argument against its reality, but see dozens or hundreds of reasons to accept it. I am clearly biased by my upbringing and by the fact that I have received subjective, spiritual, and emotional confirmation from God that the Book of Mormon is true. I believe I have a strong ability to mostly step outside of my biases and present nearly objective evidence (though I understand if you doubt this ability), following the scientist’s objective rules, and in that role, the Book of Mormon continues to stand as inexplicable without invoking the influence of God.
The key question is, “Where did the Book of Mormon come from?” The goal of the skeptic is to show that there is a plausible naturalistic explanation for its origin. I won’t go over the various theories here, but none of them stand up to serious investigation.
One of the most amusing theories about the Book of Mormon is that it was plagiarized directly from other extant sources. Proponents of this untenable idea point to portions of the book that quote (or appear to quote) from other sources and use this to justify their straw man conclusion. The reality is that there are AT LEAST dozens of chapters and scores of pages that are completely original (though they usually draw on pre-existing themes, as would be expected from scripture whose purpose is to confirm the Bible). My testimony of the Book of Mormon comes from, in large part, the awesome sermons and discourses of these ancient inspired prophets. There’s Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, Nephi’s psalm, Jacob’s treatise on the Atonement, Nephi’s concluding chapters, Jacob’s Allegory of the Olive Tree, Enos’s repentance story, King Benjamin’s sermon, Abinadi’s testimony, the story of the people of Zeniff, the conversion of Alma the Younger, Alma’s discourses to Zarahemla and Gideon, Alma and Amulek’s preachings in Ammonihah and later to the Zoramites, Ammon and Aaron’s missionary preaching, Alma’s advice to his sons, Helaman’s teachings of his sons, Nephi and Lehi’s experience in the temple, Mormon’s frequently interjected commentary, Samuel the Lamanite’s prophecies, the story of Nephi preaching on his garden tower, Mormon’s mourning over his people, the origin of the Jaredites, Ether’s preachings, Mormon’s epistles to Moroni, and Moroni’s final words. And these amazing, doctrinally rich, and powerful sermons are dwarfed by the visit of Christ Himself and His teachings at the Temple at Bountiful.
All of these stories provide the substance of the Book of Mormon and practically their entire content is original in the Book of Mormon (though some of the prophets occasionally quote their scriptures, i.e., the Old Testament of the Bible). It is these beautiful chapters that cannot be explained away with any theory of plagiarism whatsoever. Anti-Mormon arguments avoid these sections like the plague because there is no alternative explanation for these most powerful sections of scripture. (And don’t even get me talking about the other scriptures authored by Joseph Smith: the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price). These are the parts of the Book or Mormon that particularly bring the Spirit into my heart, confirming the truth of the Book of Mormon.
If you want to argue against the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon (from the atheist or non-Mormon religious point of view), start with these passages and not random phrases. If you sincerely want to know whether the Book of Mormon is true, start with these passages and ask God, the Eternal Father, if they are true, with sincerity, faith (the expectation that you truly can and will receive an answer), and real intent (meaning that you are open to acting on whatever answer you receive, even if it is not the one you expect) and He will manifest the truth of these passages unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:5). By that subjective, spiritual, and personal method, I know that the Book of Mormon is true, besides the objective reasoning, only a tiny part of which I’ve mentioned here (which further convinces me). One good place to start is chapter eleven from the book of 3 Nephi, which is the beginning of Christ’s visit to the people of ancient America. Chapter 17 is particularly powerful.
I think the evidence for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is overwhelming and that there is no plausible alternative explanation for its origin other than the divine origin given by Joseph Smith. As always, reaching this conclusion requires subjective judgment on what is acceptable evidence and how compelling it is. But by reading it yourself, exercising faith, and praying, you can gain a subjective truth that is deeper than any objective argument concerning its authenticity.
My conviction of the truth of the Book of Mormon is one of the main pillars of my testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though these pillars are based on subjective personal experiences, the knowledge I have of these is more real to me personally than the objective truths of science. Of course, each pillar inter-supports the others, but these are truths that, in my testimony, could readily stand on their own. The other pillars of my personal testimony are my knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves me and my family; that I have received forgiveness of my sins through Christ’s Atonement and that His Atonement is real; that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God called to restore His truth to the Earth; that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true and living Church on the Earth; that we are led by a prophet and apostles today who share with us God’s will (particularly through “General Conference”); that paying tithing (a charitable donation of 10% of your income to the Church) leads to financial protection; and that God has restored His authority on the Earth, which we call the Priesthood, and that it has actual power including the ability to give efficacious priesthood blessings.
Most active Latter-day Saints have similar testimony pillars; I am one of literally millions who can testify to the validity of these principles. We have gained our knowledge through subjective faith. You can too. I hope you will seriously consider planting the seed of faith in Jesus Christ in your life.
Now I will turn my attention to another unique aspect of my personal experience which I can share here, that of the LDS astrophysicist.
If there is one thing that I would want everyone to know about astronomy, it is to have a feel for the unimaginably immense distance and time scales that are seen in the universe. (This is one of my favorite visualizations of the size of the universe.) There are no analogies that are adequate to grasp an understanding of these scales: if the Sun is a pea a few feet away from the Earth (at this scale, the size of a grain of salt), then the nearest star is 120 miles away. The galaxy is millions of miles wide with billions of stars, most smaller than a pea in size. As we will discuss below, there are likely billions of billions of worlds like our own in the observable Universe. As mind-bogglingly large as this is, it may be only a microscropic fraction of God’s creations. Joseph Smith restored God’s revelation to Moses in the scripture we now call the Book of Moses, a part of the LDS scriptural canon contained in what we now call the Pearl of Great Price, although this is effectively a prelude to Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Before discussing the creation of this Earth, God tells Moses: “Worlds without number have I created… by the Son.” Even if you do not believe in God, the awe-inspiring size of the Universe serves to provide perspective that should bind us together as the human family. (I enjoy Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” quotation in this regard.)
Heavenly Father is so amazingly infinite, why would He possibly care about someone as insignificant as me with all my comparatively nanoscopic problems? The reason is given in this same passage from Moses: “For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Psalm 8 in the Old Testament shares a very similar message: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalms 8:3-5). One of the top leaders of the LDS Church, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, recently called this contrast a “Paradox of Man”:
“And while we may look at the vast expanse of the universe and say, “What is man in comparison to the glory of creation?” God Himself said we are the reason He created the universe! His work and glory—the purpose for this magnificent universe—is to save and exalt mankind. In other words, the vast expanse of eternity, the glories and mysteries of infinite space and time, are all built for the benefit of ordinary mortals like you and me. Our Heavenly Father created the universe that we might reach our potential as His sons and daughters. This is a paradox of man: compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God. While against the backdrop of infinite creation we may appear to be nothing, we have a spark of eternal fire burning within our breast. We have the incomprehensible promise of exaltation—worlds without end—within our grasp. And it is God’s great desire to help us reach it.”
Why does God care for us in the vastness of creation? Because we are His children and He loves us with an infinite love, as evidenced by Christ’s Atonement. Besides that, LDS theology confirms that, just as children one day become like their parents, we have the potential to become like God. That is, we have infinite potential. This makes us the most important and valuable of all the creations of the Universe. I like the pictures of beautiful nebulae and colorful star-forming clouds as much as anyone, but (like most astronomers), I put far more value on intelligent life. God does too. He has a plan for His children, called the Plan of Salvation or the Plan of Happiness, that allows us to grow and progress and become more like Him. This wonderful piece of LDS doctrine clarifies our role in the universe, where we came from before this life, who we are, and where we are going after death.
Besides organizing the Plan of Salvation for the whole human family, I testify that He knows each of us by name, understands us more deeply than we understand ourselves, answers our individual prayers, and is close to each of us. The claim that our Heavenly Father knows, cares for, and interacts with ALL of His children in every age, around the world, and then around the universe, tends to create two responses. The faithless see such a Grand Being as impossible because the very idea is unbelievable and/or incomprehensible. On the other hand, those who have taken the time and effort to establish a relationship with their Heavenly Father and who examine their lives for Heavenly Father’s influence discover numerous examples of His hand of guidance and arm of mercy and must admit to the truth that He knows them personally. I know that Heavenly Father is aware of and cares for me and for my family through the many ways in which He has blessed our lives. (And, believe me, I’ve corrected for observational and confirmation bias.) For me and others, the fact that God is able to be an influence in a personal way to billions upon billions serves to exalt God and verify His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence. (On the other hand, rejecting something just because you don’t know how it works is not particularly scientific; it is prideful and awful hubris which leads people to believe that the universe cannot possibly contain anything that much more impressive than themselves. [Perhaps amoebas feel the same way].)
While astronomers identified the terrific scale of the universe over the past century, one of the most interesting current developments is the identification of planets just like Earth around other stars. I am an astronomer who studies planets around other stars (extra-solar planets or exoplanets), and am currently working with the Science Team of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. In a short time from this writing (October 2012), Kepler will undoubtedly announce the discovery of a nearly Earth-sized, potentially habitable planet. In some ways, this will be a completion of the Copernican Revolution, which started the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe or special by suggesting that the planets orbited the Sun instead. After identifying a few examples, it is the main goal of the Kepler Mission to then draw statistical conclusions about the prevalence of such planets in our Galaxy (with preliminary estimates already ranging from millions to billions). While Kepler will identify planets that are at the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, whether or not actual water is present requires a large host of other assumptions about the properties of that planet (primarily, that it has a small and well-behaved atmosphere). Although Kepler will bring us closer than ever to identifying planets just like our own in the universe, it will be ten to forty years until these assumptions can be seriously tested; these will remain only “potentially” habitable worlds for decades to come.
Still, with the imminent discovery of potentially habitable worlds and the decades-long search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) via direct efforts to search for intelligent signals, some groups, religious and secular, are thinking about the strength of the fundamental philosophical shift such discoveries may eventually have. Superficial investigations wonder if religions will crumble under such news, but I think that ignores the complexity of the question. I am saddened to say that there are undoubtedly many religions and individuals who will simply ignore any scientific progress on this problem, refusing to take the time to think about the philosophical and cosmographical implications for them personally. (Indeed, most of us don’t currently appreciate on an everyday basis the unimaginably huge universe and our ridiculously small part of it.)
In particular, LDS teachings have always affirmed that there are a grand multiplicity of worlds and that “the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:24). As we discussed earlier about the Pearl of Great Price, God clearly reveals to Moses that He has created worlds without number through His Only Begotten Son. In this passage, He also explains that some worlds had already passed away, that some were currently going, and that others would yet be created. This is entirely consistent with the modern scientific understanding of planet formation: there are many habitable worlds in the galaxy (Kepler is going to give a precise estimate, but no one doubts that the answer will be in the millions to billions range.). New stars and planets are currently forming (and will form in the future); other planetary systems have died. Note that this was somewhat contrary to the predominant astronomical understanding of the early 1800’s, which usually imagined the universe as static and unevolving. Joseph Smith wasn’t the first to suggest the idea of large numbers of inhabited planets (see Prof. Michael Crowe’s excellent investigation of LDS thought in a historical setting in Extraterrestrial Life Debate: 1750 – 1900) or a continually evolving universe. Still, though, it is interesting that modern astronomy strongly validates the cosmological worldview presented in chapter one of Moses, a central theological tenet of the LDS church.
Although I have unique experience as a devout Mormon astrophysicist, in the end, I see no conflict between true science and true religion. While there are religious teachings and scientific results that sometimes appear to be in conflict, there are no fundamental principles of one or the other that require one to make a choice. Like most scientists that are presented with two seemingly incompatible sets of evidence (it happens regularly when you’re at the edge of discovery), I am content to wait until we can get more data. Actually, I cannot wait for the amazing and joyous opportunity I will have (presumably after this life) to learn true Astronomy, Physics, and Planet Formation from the Creator of the Universe. In the meantime, I will gladly contribute to the scientific endeavor to learn more about the worlds He has created and I am grateful for the talents, abilities, and inspiration He has given me that allow me to be a scientist.
I testify that He loves each of us individually, that Christ’s Atonement is real, that we can learn truth through confirmation by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, and that we are all brothers and sisters and children of God.
Darin Ragozzine is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Astronomy Department at the University of Florida. His research focuses on the orbital dynamics of planetary systems, particularly systems of multiple transiting planets and Kuiper belt objects in the distant solar system. He has co-authored several publications as a member of the NASA Kepler Space Telescope Science Team, which continues to be his main research focus. He has published other astrophysics journal articles as well, on topics relating to exoplanets and the dwarf planet Haumea.
Darin has a Ph.D. from Caltech in planetary science and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in physics and astrophysics. He is currently serving in the Sunday School Presidency in the Gainesville 2nd Ward, in the Gainesville Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Posted October 2012
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