I’ve been absent for some time from general activity on the bloggernacle, and I’ve missed it. I’m currently in the middle of wrapping up my PhD and there is more to do than there is time in the day. I’m just holding my breath, hoping to make it through soon and participate more in the online Mormon realm.

My research has been evaluating a relatively new imaging system (to which I made adjustments) and testing to see if it can improve targeting accuracy for lung tumor biopsies. To prove that this new system can improve the targeting accuracy, I’ve had to develop a good lung model (with ‘tumors’) to test it on. I’ve special ordered pig lungs with the hearts still attached. I found that vaseline (with a little barium) works well for mimicking tumors in CT scans. I pumped some fluid into the vessels of the lungs by just submerging the hearts into fluid and hand pumping the heart. Finally, to have the lungs inflate, they’re placed in a vacuum chamber so that a pulmonologist can put a bronchoscope into the trachea of the lungs. Additionally, the pump is set so it can oscillate and mimic breathing. Check out a video of it below:

[iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/i_-gXNU6Hgg?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen]

All this talk of breath, and all my experience studying the sciences has made me reflect a bit on the relationship of science and religion. First, what they have in common is an aspiration for truth; an ideal that there is truth out there for us to acquire. I think it is important to hold that as a primary goal of each, and if we take Joseph at his word, then truth is a grand fundamental principle of Mormonism. We must seek truth from any source (including other religions and science) and gather it or we won’t come out ‘pure Mormons.’

Now there are obvious differences. Science simply looks for the explanations that best fit the evidence. Religion tends to look for the evidence that best fits the explanation which it offers. This is a crude analogy, because religion does far more than just offer explanations of how things work. However, for this post I’m focusing specifically on those religious explanations. As I reflect on this, particularly with some of my more recent work with the lungs, I’m reminded of some of this history as science has infringed upon these religious explanations.

Lung in Greek is πνεύμων (pneumo-) which is where the root of pneumonia comes from. πνεύμα (pneuma) is Greek for breath, and also Greek for spirit or soul. This etymological tie between breath/wind and spirit/soul holds in Hebrew and Latin as well. When Elijah says that God wasn’t in the fire, or the earthquake, but was a ‘still small voice’ that phrase can also be translated as a ‘gentle breeze.’ We also see this when Jesus says that the spirit blows where it will and no one knows the origin of it, it again can be translated as the wind blowing (and Jesus saying we must be born of water and of the Spirit, becomes water and the wind).

Ancient peoples didn’t have the same knowledge we’re blessed with today regarding anatomy, physiology, etc. Breathing is an easy identifier for whether or not someone is alive or dead. So for someone observing this millennia ago, breath is seen as some mystical property, because it is somehow tied to a body being alive. When it is gone a body is dead. So God gives the body made of clay the ‘breath of life’ because breath is life. This logic led to thinking that there is this wind/breath that enters the body and makes the body be alive, thus we have spirits and bodies. We as Mormons still have some of this logic used in our doctrine and practice. The most common statement from church leaders regarding when life begins is when a child takes its first breath. If this doesn’t occur (if the child doesn’t breathe) then the child isn’t recorded on church records. No sealings are performed for stillborn children. We still have practices in place based on this connection of spirit=breath.

Yet we long ago stopped tying our spirits to our breath. Most are aware of how lungs function. Today, if you ask most people how the spirit interfaces with the body, they would likely say the brain. Science has moved the location where people feel they can place this religious explanation of life, the individual’s spirit. Science moved the location of earth in the cosmos. The earth has four corners in scripture because people believed it was flat and had four corners. Pillars held up the sky, or firmament, which had waters on top of it. That’s what happened when the waters below (oceans, lakes, etc.) and waters above (the sky) were separated. Rain was God opening the windows of heaven/sky. Science has pushed these explanations away and in general religion has redefined many of these things into various metaphysical explanations.

As I’ve been able to study neuroanatomy and various forms of functional imaging, I have to stop and ask if we won’t see science (in our lifetimes) push our understanding of how God interacts in our lives, or more specifically how our spirits work with our bodies. We know now that many aspects of our personalities can be pinpointed to specific regions of our brains. We know of many psychological disorders which are the result of chemical balances in our brains. As we continue to gain this further light and knowledge, where will be left to push the interface of spirit and body? Perhaps it will be relegated to stochasticity. To the random fluctuations of energy states of atoms, or to the random firings of neurons. That is an option, which is more compatible with a very early Mormon limited-God view than most other conceptions of God. If we accept a concept of God who is (or are) not omniscient because the knowledge of God is growing and expanding, a God(s) who is not omnipotent because the power of God is growing and expanding, a God(s) who is tied down by laws which are capable of making God cease to be God if they are violated, then we have a limited-God that can be circumscribed to functioning in the white-noise. However, if this is to happen, the church would need to return to this view of God. It’s in our hymns, it’s in our teachings, it’s in our scriptures.

If we brought someone from thousands of years ago to see these ‘breathing’ lungs I’m working with, it would be direct evidence for them that there was a spirit/breath in them. Do we mourn this worldview? or rather do we rejoice that we’ve received more light, knowledge, and understanding? Can we do the same as more and more evidence comes to light on a variety of areas which may conflict with our explanations? Many still struggle to do so with evolution. Vastly more will struggle to grapple with what neuroscience is highlighting about the biological basis of many traits which we’ve come to ascribe to our spirits. I personally think we’ll need to redefine how our spirits affect our bodies/personalities and embrace the biological basis for many of these areas. How will this transition play out?

I’m optimistic about our church’s ability to adapt and incorporate new evidence. If we look to the closest analogy to this, I see cause for hope. When western medicine made its sweep across the US, there was some fight against it. Brigham Young Jr. thought that we needed to reject modern medicine which would “force Babylon into the people” and “disease the blood of our children” and instead have faith for healing. He thought we need to rely on faith and reject this reliance on ‘the arm of the flesh.’ He and those who followed him had some sway for a while. They were able to get Utah to vote down compulsory vaccination. However, about a decade later and several preventable deaths later the leadership endorsed compulsory vaccination. Additionally, we saw many faith-healing practices fall away as we embraced new medicine. We left baptisms for health, we left temple healers, we left women giving anointings and blessings for health. Instead we said that we need to use these blessings of medicine as part of our faith.

So will we adapt? Will we grow? Will we be a ‘living church’? I’m willing to hold my breath.

Geoff was born in Northern Utah and raised primarily in Central California. He received a BS in Biomedical Physics from Fresno State, a MS and PhD in Bioengineering from Stanford, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah working as a Clinical Medical Physicist. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He's married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently the ward organist and primary pianist.

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