Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “‘Self-evident’ Premises of Science,” I cited six premises listed in the opening essay of the BYU physical science textbook. The authors explain, “All reasoning must rest upon assumptions, and the scientific method … assumes basic philosophical ideals as a foundation. … There are some assumptions that are so logical and basic that we present them here as six “self-evident truths.”1 I questioned each assumption as defined in the text and gave my reasons for doing so with three of them: non-contradiction, existence, and causality. I will now address the other three:

Position symmetry. The laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe.
Time symmetry. The laws of nature have remained the same through time. They are the same now as they were in the distant past, and they will be the same in the future.
Simplicity (Occam’s Razor). If alternative explanations of any phenomenon are available, where each are logical and explain the phenomenon equally well, then the simplest explanation shall be chosen.1

Discussion

Simplicity. Also called the principle of Parsimony, Occam’s razor is stated in various ways, sometimes saying that, all else being equal, “Simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complex ones.”1 Simply stated, there is no way of knowing that is true. When exploring unknown regions of the physical universe, a person does not know what law governs the phenomena he is studying. So how can she assume anything about the final explanation, when she hasn’t reached it yet? Simplicity seems to me more like a practical premise that is often true, than a self-evident premise that is always true. It may be very useful for expediting scientific inquiry, but I would never let it prevent me from considering possibilities just because a simpler explanation that was available also explained all the data. As Jeff explained in “Odd Realities and Moral Imperatives,” reality is often something we could never have guessed.

Position symmetry. With the exception of divine revelation, the only way I can think of that a person could claim to know whether the laws of nature are not different at different locations would be to experience those laws functioning at every point in the universe. In other words, God himself would have to tell you this, or you’d have to have some god-like capabilities to test it. Position symmetry seems a likely possibility to me, but I have no way of showing that it’s true or not. Maybe the laws of nature are different at different locations. Maybe certain parts of the universe “govern all those which belong to the same order” by different natural laws (Abr. 3:3, 9). I hesitate to cut myself off from the full range of possibilities, especially when we have studied such a small fraction of the universe.

Time symmetry. It seems to me that the scriptures contradict the way people usually interpret time symmetry. Heavenly Father has said he is consistent in his attributes, such as wisdom, power, justice, and mercy. But how can we say, “The laws of the universe do not change with time,”1 given what we know about the fall of Adam? Excepting the fall, “all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created,” which sounds to me like many fundamental changes occurred (2 Ne. 2:22). We have no idea what all was entailed in the fall. Many prophets have made statements that the fall affected not only Adam and Eve, but the entire planet. Death entered the world, and none of us knows what changes may have happened at a biological, chemical, or physical scale. So how can I be sure that carbon-14 has always had a regular decay rate, or a steadily-changing decay rate? There is no way I can ever demonstrate that. I can see why geologists assume it; it gives regularity and organization to their observations. But I would once again call it a pragmatic premise, not a self-evident one.

Conclusion

As I said before, some of these premises seem true in many ways, but I hesitate to call them all “self-evident” truths. And because of that, I can’t help but mentally qualify every conclusion based on them. I can see someone replying, “Well yes, of course we are aware of exceptions that the restored gospel brings up, but these statements are mostly true, in most situations.” To me, it seems short-sighted to use something as a premise when we acknowledge exceptions. When we know of exceptions, it is not a strong premise, and treating it as such is an unwarranted self-limitation. At best, we cut ourselves off from many possibilities when understanding the world around us. At worst, we abandon revealed truths in favor of speculation, merely because the speculations have been repeated for so long by so many.



Notes

1. Physical Science Foundations, 2nd ed., BYU College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences.