Is secular knowledge a spiritual distraction?
One of the most common criticism of space exploration is that it’s much too expensive. “Why are we sending all of that money into space when we have so many problems here on earth?” the argument goes. An identical argument can be made against a lot of basic research. Although much spending on scientific research can be justified by the economic or practical benefits that result from it, some simply can’t. It’s very unlikely that anyone will benefit from knowing what dark matter is.
A similar argument can also be made on spiritual grounds; in fact, it’s already come up on The Thread That Would Not Die. God wants us to be charitable to each other. We are to help the poor and visit the sick. We are to preach the Gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead. Why are we wasting time trying to understand quarks and taking pictures of other planets? Or, for that matter, theorizing about economics or history or art? Sure, we have all of those quotes in the Teachings of the Prophets manuals about gaining knowledge and becoming educated, but most of those either refer to spiritual knowledge or justify education for its practical benefits. For the most part the prophets are silent about the idea that secular or scientific (or artistic or literary or historical) knowledge is innately valuable. So is it? Or is it just a distraction from the real spiritual work of mortal life?
I think God wants and expects us to seek knowledge (all kinds), to make scientific inquiry, and to explore the universe. Here’s why.
- Because gaining knowledge is an attempt to understand God.
- Because it’s childlike. If you are a parent, then you probably have noticed this — children are constantly experimenting, making hypotheses and testing them out. That’s how they manage to figure out the rules the world works by so quickly. Children are the prototypical scientists, and many scientists describe what they do as just a continuation of childhood. I think that when Christ taught that we should be like little children he was referring to having the faith of a child — but maybe there’s room in there for having the wonder of a child as well. Without a little wonder we get jaded. I don’t know about you, but it’s really easy for me to ignore a mushroom growing in my yard, until I start looking at its structure, and realize it’s actually made up of billions of cooperating cells, and that its relatives has been on earth for millions of years, and produce one of the widest range of pharmacological substances of any living thing. We weren’t meant to be jaded.
- Because God is an artist. I alluded to this in a previous post: the universe is unbelievably beautiful. I don’t believe He created it all just for us to appreciate, especially since there’s so much of it that neither we nor anyone else will ever see. But I also don’t think He made it so beautiful without expecting it to be appreciated.
- Because God created us in a way that allows us to understand the universe. Have you ever thought about how surprising it is that a man-made construct, mathematics, can describe the laws by which the world operates? We’re completely used to the idea, but it’s actually so amazing that it took thousands of years to figure out. Until Galileo, in fact. I don’t think God gave us this remarkable ability for no reason. You can make similar arguments for our artistic and musical abilities.
I really want to be eloquent here. I feel like I should be able to. But I can’t, this is the best I can come up with. I’m having a “describe the taste of salt” moment. So here’s my best reason:
On a night when there’s no moon, turn out all the lights and go outside. If you live in a city, drive to somewhere away from the city lights. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness for about 30 minutes. Then look up.
Many of you have chosen to devote your careers to producing beauty or truth. How do you justify yourselves?