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In My Hands . . .

As I consider my “scholarly” thoughts on God, the phrase that keeps coming back to me is one I have noticed at scientific seminars and conferences recently. “In our hands,” the speaker will say, “the experiments turned out like this, and that proves our hypothesis.” Often, adding the phrase “in our hands” means that the results are different than what another researcher has reported. It can indicate that the experiment in question is sufficiently complex or challenging that it would be impossible to control every variable in the experiment, and it could be one of these uncontrolled variables that leads to the unique reported observations.

In my experience, use of this phrase in science should, if anything, be more frequent. When I start collecting data on a new experiment, multiple repetitions often give results that don’t fit with my expectations. Sometimes the problem is a mistake I’ve made, while other times I just haven’t controlled all of the important variables accurately enough. Of course, once I figure everything out, the mess that previously seemed at best random or at worst contradictory now fits together in a coherent story. But even then, it doesn’t hurt to preface a recounting of my results with “In my hands”—while I may see a story in the data, it is likely that there are layers to the story that I haven’t yet uncovered, and levels of understanding I haven’t yet reached.

Why does this phrase keep coming back to me when I consider my thoughts on God? To see why, try reading this passage from the Book of Mormon, Alma’s passionate testimony to Korihor (Alma 30:37-44) about the existence of God, while imagining the exchange taking place at a scientific conference.

“And then Alma said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And he [Korihor] answered, Nay. Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come. And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only. But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true? Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God. And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words. But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”

In my mind, I can see Alma standing in the front of a darkened auditorium, laser pointer in hand, going through a slide with a bulleted list. “Look at all this data I’ve collected. It is proof that there is a God!” Although he specifically mentions the earth and the motions of the planets, I think that when Alma says all things witness to him that there is a God, he really means all things, including every individual experience he has in his life.

For Korihor, the world looks different. He sees the same data, but is not convinced that they have anything to do with God. And in my mind, Alma’s approach to convincing Korihor is a bit off the mark. I personally know a lot of scientists who would laugh me off the stage if I told them that a closer look at the motions of the planets will prove the existence of God.

When I talk about God, I can’t help but feel the need to preface my comments with “In my hands.” The experiment is complex, there are a host of uncontrolled variables, and previous researchers have come away with a variety of different conclusions. But if that qualified testimony is the best I can give to other scientists, is there any chance a person will change from a latter-day skeptic to a saint? My answer is yes, because my hope is not that others will believe my testimony, but that they will be try the experiment for themselves.

My personal journey is taking me away from Korihor’s and toward Alma’s view of the world. This journey has inspired me to make changes in my life that in turn allow me to see God’s hand in the world more and more. This is something you have to experience for yourself to believe. I love the description of this experience given by Mark Wrathall in his 2006 article “The Revealed Word and World Disclosure”:

“Philosophers from Aristotle to Hubert Dreyfus have shown how, in developing habits and practicing actions for dealing with a particular domain, we acquire skilful dispositions so attuned to that domain that we can perceive things of which we were oblivious before. As I practice baking bread, for example, I gradually become sensitized to notice things like texture and elasticity in the dough, fine variations in colour as the bread browns in the oven, etc. The skills allow me to experience the world in a way that I could not without them. . . . Faith is, then, the condition of one who has acquired the skills of religious living, and thus has the dispositions to feel and act appropriately in the world that appears when one has those skills. . . . Faith will then not be amenable to proof in the way one verifies a cognitive state or proposition (i.e. demonstrating that it is true). But it will have the kind of confirmation or success conditions that all other skills have. Baking skills are confirmed or successful when they allow me to cope with the kitchen. Religious faith will be confirmed or successful when it gives me the practices and dispositions I need to cope with the world as a whole. As Father Zosima notes in Dostoevsky’s classic depiction of existential Christianity, ‘one cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.’”

In my hands, increased faith in God has brought more happiness and an increased ability to deal with life’s challenges. I hope you’ll try it in yours.

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Dula Parkinson is a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley.

Posted October 2010