Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Relevance to Evolution of Brigham’s Science-friendly Statements

Jared has a nice post on the changing publication history of a very interesting quote from Brigham Young, and Jeffrey and Clark give some other interesting statements of Brigham’s. No question it’s gratifying to perceive support for one’s own sympathies for science in general, and interpretational flexibility of Genesis in particular, from someone of Brigham's stature; but there are some reasons for enthusiasts of naturalistic evolution to not to get too excited.

First, Clark italicizes a statement that, taken out of the context of the totality of Brigham’s thought, seems open to evolution; but Brigham surely did not intend it as such. In saying “Our spirits are His: He begot them. We are His children; He set the machine in motion to produce our tabernacles,” the ‘setting in motion’ Brigham had in mind could only have been the initial procreation by divine beings of the first parents of the human race, and not the initiation of naturalistic evolution by the creation of rudimentary single-celled (or even sub-cellular) life.

Second, the full statement Clark cited has potentially conflicting ideas on God being subject to natural law and God decreeing natural law, and also gives some ammunition to Intelligent Design advocates. Says Brigham,
But it is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law.
So far, so good; sounds like God as Engineer. But then he immediately says
It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author. … It is strange that scientific men do not realize that, all they know is derived from Him; to suppose, or to foster the idea for one moment, that they are the originators of the wisdom they possess is folly in the highest!
Here Brigham is either not recognizing a distinction between God as Engineer and God as First Cause, or is at least denying man’s ability to discover the regularities of nature through the scientific method without divine inspiration. Finally, a general teleological argument:
As for ignoring the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being, I would as soon ignore the idea that this house came into existence without the agency of intelligent beings.
For more on the distinction between God as First Cause and God as Engineer, and the styles of arguments from design they respectively inspire, see this post.

Finally, with regard to the ultimate relevance of Jared’s well-done and much-appreciated detective work: when it comes to what people and organizations take as religious doctrine, older and original are not always deemed more true. In fact, the opposite may be true. (This is contrary—not inappropriately, for science of course, and perhaps also for a religion with acknowledged infallible authorities and an open canon—to the usual values historians deploy in plying their craft.) We applaud Brigham for applying this principle in recognizing the limitations of the creation account in Genesis, by taking account of what we ‘know’ today—either by science or revelation/inspiration—that previous prophets did not. However, this freedom to set aside older statements is a two-edged sword: we may be less excited about the contemporary Church availing itself of this principle in selecting for current consumption only the portions of Brigham’s statements that are today considered good doctrine by the current presiding authorities.

[This is cross-posted from Mormons and Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]