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Guessing leads to knowing
By Orson Scott Card March 17, 2011

I've been reading a biography of Albert Einstein, and I was struck by the fact that his great breakthroughs in physics did not come from mathematics -- he relied on other people to work out the really hard math supporting his ideas.

Instead, Einstein performed thought experiments during his free time -- and during some of the dull hours of his work in the Swiss patent office.

(He was grateful to finally get that job through the intervention of a friend, since he had managed to irritate or antagonize the professors who could have given him a recommendation for a teaching position.)

He worked out his ground-breaking physics theories mostly by thinking about trains that he imagined moving at the speed of light. It was all speculative thought: What if this happened? What if that?

It reminded me of my own speculations when I was in my teens. My imaginings about geometries of infinity and other such abstruse topics did not lead to earthshaking changes in science. They only led to quirky ideas in my science fiction stories. Because, sad to say, I'm no Einstein.

But neither was Einstein; that is, when he was sitting there speculating about changes in our understanding of the laws of physics, and their testable consequences in the real world, he was just a former physics student who was so out of favor he couldn't get a job in his field.

How do you think human knowledge improves and increases? The scientific method is well described -- you have a testable hypothesis; you design experiments to try to prove it false; when you fail to do so, you design new tests.

But where does that hypothesis come from? Well, let's change the word to "guess" and we come right to the heart of things.

Knowledge can only advance in areas where we are ignorant, or where the things we think we know might be wrong.

Somebody has to sit there wondering: Why do things work this way? Is the currently accepted explanation the only possible one?

Or you think: How can I solve this problem? What if I use this item as a tool, or that one?

It's the people who wonder, who guess, and who try out their guesses in the real world who advance our knowledge. The people who simply learn what is already known may do great and useful work, and are worthy of our respect. But it's the ones who speculate who push out the boundaries of the world and show us things we've never seen before.

Long before I read a biography of Einstein, though, I noticed this process at work somewhere else, namely: The Doctrine & Covenants. Look at the headnotes to the revelations and you'll see how many of them came because Joseph Smith was asking a question.

And the more you read the history of the Church and the lives of the prophets, the more you come to understand that when the Lord tells us to "ask," to "knock," he means it: Many of the most important revelations came because somebody was wondering, and asked the Lord.

In the early days of the Church, many of the Saints, marveling at the great new vistas that Joseph Smith's teachings had opened to them, could not help but wonder about many things.

They speculated, making guesses about how this or that newly revealed idea might fit with older teachings, or with new ideas from the world outside the Church.

And they tried their guesses out with other people, testing them. In those exciting early days, their speculations ranged so far that some ideas fell off the edges of the gospel, and we no longer consider them even possible as doctrines. I won't list them here; if you're a student of Church history, a nice list of those rejected speculations has already popped into your mind.

When we read those early talks and speeches, diaries and letters, articles and books, we must keep in mind that much of what we're reading may be the results of thought experiments, guesses, attempts to make new ideas fit.

We're no different today -- our minds are going to ponder and question and wonder, because that's what human beings do. The only danger comes when we forget that the ideas that come to mind are only guesses.

We tell our friends or colleagues or students, and the idea appeals to them as well. What if! But as the idea gets repeated, the "what if" drops off, and people start talking as if it were doctrine.

That's a natural part of the way public knowledge grows. When many people around us speak as if something is true, our brains automatically move the idea into the "truth basket." But as soon as we store something there, we stop doubting it.

So we must be careful that when it comes to the gospel, nothing slips into the "truth basket" without having been approved by the prophets who have been appointed guardians of the doctrines of the Church.

Repetition does not turn a guess into truth, and when a pretty good idea is incomplete, believing in it prematurely can stop us from seeking to complete it. It's too easy to forget that doubting our own and others' guesses is how we test them.

In fact, we need to doubt our own doubts -- too many people have damaged their testimonies because they took their own doctrinal speculations too seriously!

We are mortals, with incomplete knowledge and understanding. We have many ideas that are truer than what came before, but that does not mean they are final: the Lord will yet reveal to us many great and wonderful things.

That's what the veil is for: It frees us to wonder and guess and question and doubt.

When it comes to the gospel, there are really only two experiments that work:

1. We pray for the confirmation of the Spirit.

2. We live the commandments as best we understand them, so that we test them in our own lives.

Neither experiment works without the other. And no matter how much you study and ponder and pray and obey, there will remain questions, and inquiring minds will come up with guesses. How else will we learn and grow?

But the Lord's house is a house of order. What we ponder privately does not move into the realm of doctrine except by the words of the prophets and the sustaining votes of the Saints, with upraised hands and with lives of commitment and obedience.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

 
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