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Nibley
Hugh Nibley
and
Karl Popper

The nature of science as it applies to religion - and vice versa.

Introduction

A non-LDS reader noted recently that I had discussed the nature of science without mentioning Karl Popper. I replied that this was deliberate - Nibley has already covered that ground much better than I could. But I was forgetting that most people know nothing of either Popper or Nibley, and I really should have introduced them for new readers. This page corrects that oversight.

Who is Hugh Nibley?

You can't read much LDS thought without coming across the name of Hugh W. Nibley. he is not a scientist, but is emeritus professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Nibley is the best known scholar in he church. Anyone who wishes to attack the church with any credibility must first find a way to dismiss Nibley. They usually do this by referring to the fact that, as a scholar and a humble man, he is quite open about making mistakes and changing his mind. Nibley has been famous church-wide since the 1950s, so it is easy to find something that, out of context, looks bad in hindsight. You can do the same with any scholar. But in general, his work has been cutting edge (on LDS related topics) and has stood the test of time. There are now many scholars in the church who have gone beyond Nibley in specific areas, but they are the first to acknowledge that, like Newton, they are standing on the shoulders of a giant.

So who is he? This is from the forward (by John Welch) to volume one of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (CWHN):

"His life is a rare combination of faith and scholarship, of teaching and research, of orthodoxy and eccentricity, of rigor and homily, of spontaneity and tedium, of anonymity and legend, of an intimidating genius with a genuine humility. "Who is this Nibley?" many visiting scholars have asked. ...

"His publications over the past forty years cover a wide range of topics, including ancient history, politics, classics, education, science, Egyptology, early Israel, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Christian origins, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, temples and temple worship, Church history, and society and the gospel. Though he considers it spiritually irrelevant, most of his nearly two hundred titles are classics. A good synopsis of his academic interests can be gleaned by scanning a few of those titles: For example, No Ma`am That's Not History (1946); "The Arrow, the Hunter and the State" (1949); Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (1952); The World and the Prophets (1954); An Approach to the Book of Mormon (1957); "Christian Envy of the Temple" (1959-60); "How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book" (1962); "The Expanding Gospel" (1965); Since Cumorah (1970); "Brigham Young on the Environment" (1972); "What is Zion?" (1972); "Beyond Politics" (1974); The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (1975); "The Early Christian Prayer Circle" (1978); "Patriarchy and Matriarchy" (1980); Abraham in Egypt (1981); and "Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free" (1983). All the while, he has carried on voluminous correspondence, magnified his distinctive calling in life as Church teacher and speaker, and been a major contributor to Church magazines over the years~often on short notice and under considerable pressure from publication deadlines. ...

"Still, he does not take himself at all seriously. Repenting and giving thanks are the things he thinks he does best. He sees his learning as forever tentative, incomplete, and accumulating. Once discovered, his innovative insights are so painfully obvious that it is hard for him to see why he had not noticed them before. He willingly describes himself as a buffoon and, from time to time, as a frustrated fiction writer, waiting for the real scholarship to begin."

For free samples of Nibley's work, visit FARMS.

So Nibley is well known in LDS circles. But who is Karl Popper?

Who is Karl Popper?

Popper is not a Mormon. He probably knows very little about the church. But he is the most famous philosopher of science. If science tells us about the world, Popper tells us what it means. For more about Popper, see The Karl Popper Web.

Karl Popper is best known for his statement that scientific discoveries are "forever tentative." Many people think that science is marching towards "truth" by establishing "facts." But Popper showed that science does not deal in "facts" in any permanent way. It just suggests temporary theories that explain what we see. A good scientific theory will last only until something new and unexpected comes along to disprove it. "Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite" (from a lecture in 1960).

"Popper's most significant contribution to the philosophy of science was his characterization of the scientific method. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934; trans. 1959), he criticized the prevailing view that science is fundamentally inductive in nature. Proposing a criterion of testability, or falsifiability, for scientific validity, Popper emphasized the hypothetico-deductive character of science. Scientific theories are hypotheses from which can be deduced statements testable by observation; if the appropriate experimental observations falsify these statements, the hypothesis is refuted. If a hypothesis survives efforts to falsify it, it may be tentatively accepted. No scientific theory, however, can be conclusively established."

- from Funk & Wagnall's Encyclpedia


Where Nibley refers to Popper

The remainder of this page quotes passages where Nibley refers to Popper. This is not to say that Popper knew how he was being quoted. But I believe this exercise is useful in showing how mainstream LDS thought approaches science and the study of ancient scripture.

All of these quotations are (unavoidably) taken out of context. For more detail, and cross-references, please consult the original texts. It is not difficult to get hold of Nibley's work. Just visit FARMS. The vast majority of his publications, plus a couple of thousand other LDS books, can be bought on one CD-ROM for less than $100.

On science and the Book of Mormon

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, p.226 - 227
In trespassing on scientific grounds, or rather in timidly peeping over the fence, we are only seeking enlightenment. We have heard so often that "science" has disproved, nay "disemboweled," the Book of Mormon, that we are naturally curious to have a look at some of the more spectacular havoc. Where is it? We have tiptoed into the archaeology museum and there found nothing that could not be interpreted many ways. We have entered the house of the anthropologists, and there found all in confusion--and the confusion is growing. We have consulted with the more exact or authentic scientists and found them surprisingly hesitant to commit themselves on the Book of Mormon. A definitive refutation must rest on definitive conclusions, and of such conclusions scientists are becoming increasingly wary. "Observation and experiment cannot establish any-thing finally," writes Karl Popper. "Essentially, they help us to eliminate the weaker theories," and thus they "lend support, though only for the time being, to the surviving theory." Hence "the method of critical discussion does not establish anything. Its verdict is always `not proven.' " And the most hopeless task of all is to prove a negative.

On a typical piece of Book of Mormon evidence

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Preface Notes, p.423
We can illustrate how the method of `problems--theories--criticism' works by taking the case of Hermounts in the Book of Mormon. It is admittedly remarkably close in form and meaning to the Egyptian Hermonthis. But therewith the problem is not solved but only introduced. The resemblance between the two words has to be explained, and so we invent a theory, namely, that Joseph Smith must have had access to authentic ancient sources. That settles nothing, however, since (to quote Popper again) `the number of competing theories is always infinite,' and we can think offhand of a dozen different theories to explain the Hermounts phenomenon. And so we come to the discussion, which will never settle the question but which may lead to the discovery of much new and relevant information.

On scientists relying on authority

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.1, p.119 - 120
If you were to read these written records [Dead Sea Scrolls, Ebla texts, etc.], would they give you the same picture of the world that the scientific transcripts give us? In the scientific fields the Book of Nature has been read; it gives us one picture, and these written books give us another picture. Remember, reading them both impersonally, we're viewing them both as phenomena: do they tell us the same things? No they don't. They give a totally different picture of what was going on in the past, the so-called scientific view. This is very good news, because until now we have been told there is only one possible valid picture of the world--the picture science gives us at the moment. Many scientists are getting over that now--men like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. People like that are giving us a very different picture, showing us that it's always changing-which we should have known all along anyway. We shouldn't be stuck with just one picture at one image, even if we are laymen and can't understand the scientists. They say, "Well, you have to take it, this is it; this is it." That's the voice of authority speaking: "I'm sorry we'll just have to settle for that."

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, preface, p.xi-xii
But today it is being pointed out in many quarters that authoritarianism is the very antithesis of true science, and that the best scientific theory is not the sane, cautious, noncommittal one but the daring and revolutionary one. "A theory which asserts more," says Karl Popper, "and thus takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very little." And he further notes that preference should always be given to the theory that makes more precise assertions than others, explains more facts in greater detail, invites more tests, suggests more new experiments, and unifies more hitherto unrelated problems. On all these points the Book of Mormon scores high. It is the very extravagance of its claims that makes it so deserving of the respect which is denied it. The outrageous daring of its title page is the very thing that should whet the appetite of a real scholar: here is a book that is asking for a fight, so to speak, and if it is as flimsy as it looks at first glance any competent schoolman should have little trouble polishing it off in an hour or so.

On limits to knowledge

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.3, Ch.31, Pg.274 - Pg.275
To judge by the more popular scientific journals, there seems to be a growing suspicion among scientists that perhaps Hume was right--there may be absolute limits to our scientific knowledge. The mathematician Le Corbeiller points out that just as there were no more continents to discover after Columbus, so "there are just so many ways of combining certain things, and no more," and G”del has proved to the world that it is impossible to "prove the consistency" of any significant set of postulates. Warren Weaver suggests that "the mysteries of life--perhaps they are intended to remain mysteries," and a famous biologist warns us to be "prepared for the possibility that the human brain will never be able to understand itself, or consciousness or perhaps the nature of life itself." Where does science go once it realizes, with Professor Bridgman, that "the world is not constructed according to the principles of common sense"? Grand Old Men in various fields remember the exuberant days of their youth, when "always just around the corner was the answer to all the riddles," and ruefully admit that the long years have not fulfilled the promise. More alarming still, what was once regarded as the chief strength and virtue of science, namely its ability to reject old ideas and accept new, is now viewed as an indication of a fatal deficiency. It is all very well to admit that we were wrong yesterday, but can we in the same breath insist that we are right today? We cannot. "The great lesson of the Piltdown business for me," wrote the anthropologist Hooton, "is that it is unwise to accept current scientific decisions and `proofs' as final, irrevocable, and conclusive, no matter how authoritative they may sound or look." The renowned philosopher of science Karl Popper recently wrote: "Science is not a system of certain, or well-established statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances toward a state of finality. . . . The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative forever." The italics are Popper's, and they give us furiously to think. Today's science may be better than yesterday's, but the final answers are just as far away as ever. "This is a rather shocking thing to say," says Weaver, "--that science does not furnish any really ultimate or satisfying explanation. . . . Science is superbly successful at dealing with phenomena, but . . . it possesses the inherent defect . . . that it cannot furnish ultimate explanation. . . . Scientists--even the greatest ones in the most advanced field of physics such as Einstein and Bohr and Planck and Dirac--cannot agree as to whether and how science explains anything."

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Preface Notes, p.421-422
A third case, the most impressive of all, is Newton's theory of gravitation. `There never was a more successful theory,' Karl Popper assures us, noting that even the great Poincar‚ believed `that it would remain the invariable basis of physics to the end of man's search for truth.' But in our own time `Einstein's theory of gravity . . . reduced Newton's theory to . . . a hypothesis competing with others.' Instead of the absolute truth, it again became a problem open to discussion. This, according to Popper, `destroyed its authority. And with it, it destroyed something much more important--the authoritarianism of science.' Karl R. Popper, `Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,' 964. ...

On rejecting religion without discussing it

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Preface, Pg.xii-xiii
But their attack, to be effective, must be met with the strongest possible resistance: if it meets a half-hearted defense it can never boast a real victory: "Since the method of science is that of critical discussion [Popper again], it is of great importance that the theories criticized should be tenaciously defended." That is, there must be a discussion, with the purpose of discovering by all possible means every weakness in both positions. But that is not the way Mr. de Voto and his friends see it at all. For a reliable defense they trust implicitly in the impartiality and intelligence of the prosecution. They give the prize to their champion not for bringing new life into the discussion but for effectively silencing all further discussion. The last thing in the world they want is for the debate to continue. In the impressive footnotes and credentials of accepted authorities they see their own release from endless years of drudgery and research and from the risks and uncertainties of an indefinitely prolonged debate with its constant danger of new and disturbing revelations and its frequent and humiliating disclosures of great gaps and defects in the knowledge even of the foremost investigators. How much better to put the whole thing to bed with the announcement that sound scholarship has at last settled the issue once for all.

On being "objective"

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Preface Notes, p.421-422
It is the view, already expressed by Hotchkiss above, that `all that was needed was to approach the goddess Nature with a pure mind, free of prejudice, and she would readily yield her secrets.' Today in the scientific journals--the more popular of which we duly peruse every six months--there is an impressive outpouring of articles showing that the inductive method of Bacon does not really apply in science, that Popper is right when he says that `the idea that we can at will . . . purge our mind from prejudices . . . is naive and mistaken,' and indeed downright pernicious, since `after having made an attempt or two, you think you are now free from prejudices--which means, of course, that you will stick only more tenaciously to your unconscious prejudices and dogmas.' Ibid., 962. The old authoritarianism of science is now being supplanted by a new approach, which Popper sums up in three words: `Problems--theories--criticism.' Things start moving with a problem, some difficulty, something that has to be explained. To account for the thing, a theory is proposed; it does not have to be a foolproof theory, since it exists only to be attacked, for `there is only one way to learn to understand a serious problem . . . and this is to try to solve it, and to fail.' As soon as one comes up with a theory, then, one must try to devise some test to refute it, `for to test a theory, or a piece of machinery, means to try to fail it,' ibid., 968, 963. By that standard, the land-bridge theory and Hutton's vast sweep of time have never been in danger of any real testing: they have been accepted from the beginning as final solutions. The one way to progress in knowledge of things is `to use in science imagination and bold ideas, though always tempered by severe criticism and severe tests.' How can we be assured of the necessary controls? By taking sides: therein resides the objectivity of science, and not in the minds of individual researchers. `It would be a mistake,' writes Popper, `to think that scientists are more "objective" than other people'; in fact `there is even something like a methodological justification for individual scientists to be dogmatic and biased [!], since . . . it is of great importance that the theories criticized should be tenaciously defended,' ibid., 970, 965; he quotes Darwin: `How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view,' ibid., 967.

On the purpose of knowledge

Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.9, Ch.3, Pg.81
Are we here to seek knowledge or to seek the credits that will get us ahead in the world? One of the glorious benefits and promises for the gospel given the Saints in these latter days is that "inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; . . . and inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time" (D&C 1:26, 28). But they had to want it and seek for it. What is the state of things? The late President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in the Melchizedek Priesthood Manual: "We are informed that many important things have been withheld from us because of the hardness of our hearts and our unwillingness, as members of the Church, to abide in the covenants or seek for divine knowledge." "A faculty . . . may be enlarged," says Joseph Smith, "in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect." "If [a man] does not get knowledge he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world as evil spirits will have more knowledge [and] consequently more power than many men who are on the earth. Hence [there needs to be] Revelation to assist us [and] give us knowledge of the things of God." There is indeed an order of priority. The things of God come first, and the seeker ever tries to become aware of that priority. "All science," says Karl Popper, "is cosmology," concerned fundamentally with the questions of religion. The most important question of all is that of our eternal salvation.

 

The bottom line

Science is forever tentative. In the meantime, religion must deal with the big questions of eternity. They can, and should, work in harmony.

 

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