‘Mormonism is open to falsification’: LDS philosopher on pushing the boundaries of faith and knowledge

When it comes to the nature of the universe and God, the details matter to Tarik LaCour.

Asking big, hard questions is in Tarik LaCour’s DNA.

A convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he spent nearly three years pelting missionaries with them and hasn’t stopped asking since his baptism in 2009. Now a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, he is at work arguing in favor of the existence of free will and “against a cosmos filled with the immaterial.”

The Salt Lake Tribune sat down with LaCour to learn more about how his faith and studies shape one another, the relationship between religion and science and why he chose Mormonism over Catholicism.

The following has been edited for length and clarity:

Why did you join the church?

LaCour • I had studied the church for about three years. I started investigating because I always thought there should be one church, so that left me with Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Mormonism. I strongly considered Roman Catholicism, but I didn’t believe in the traditional Trinity, and I don’t believe in anything that’s immaterial. That’s to say, I don’t think anything exists that current or future physics couldn’t tell us about.

The Doctrine and Covenants mentions that God is a person of flesh and bones and the Son also. That’s also something that Joseph Smith talked about in his famous King Follett sermon. I just find it very unlikely there are immaterial forces in the cosmos, so I couldn’t go the traditional Christian route.

What questions drive you?

LaCour • Perhaps I’ll just quote Stephen Hawking: “I want to know everything about the universe and how it works.” That’s what drives me.

More specifically, though, I am a proponent of scientism. So I think science is our way to understand the world and truth. And by science, I don’t just mean physics. I mean history, linguistics, language and other things as well — so “science” in the very broad sense of the term. But we should also understand how science works, what its limits are, what we can hope to achieve with it, and what is probably going to be beyond our horizon.

There’s a lot we can know, and there’s a lot we probably can’t. So I’m trying to push the frontiers of knowledge that way.

Elsewhere you’ve said, “Faith without evidence is not faith at all.” What do you mean by that?

LaCour • People within the New Atheism movement — people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens — have said things like “faith is believing without evidence.” And I don’t think that’s right.

First of all, I don’t think faith is about belief per se. Faith is about doing, not about knowing or believing. Those are two different things. Faith is what you do with what you know.

How are science, religion and philosophy connected for you?

LaCour • Science can show you what the world is like and our place in it. Religion gives us something to live for and work toward.

Some religions are more personal philosophies. And then there are others, like Christianity, that make claims about external realities — there’s a God, Jesus Christ is risen. Those types of things. Science can track certain religious claims, with the caveat that science is always open-ended and can change its mind.

Can you give me an example of science tracking a religious claim?

LaCour • Yes, for example Mormonism is open to falsification because it believes God is physical. So, in principle, if you could describe all of the cosmos physically, you can determine whether God is there. Mormonism is sticking its neck out and saying, this thing is in the cosmos. You can verify or falsify it. Whereas in traditional Christianity, it wouldn’t really matter how much you knew about the universe. You would never find God.

And do you find that compelling, that willingness to stick its neck out?

LaCour • Yes, if your beliefs don’t take risks and aren’t open to being falsified — I’m very skeptical of those types of things.

Have you run into a culture within the church of discouraging the asking of difficult questions, especially those aimed at truth claims?

LaCour • When I was investigating the church, I had a lot of questions. Certain people didn’t like that, so I stopped asking them and decided I would just have to get answers on my own. But I wouldn’t say in a typical church atmosphere that I’ve been told not to ask questions.

I can understand, though, how some people could feel that way. There are people who have been told either that a question isn’t important or not to worry about something. My view is if truth is your aim, then you don’t have to be afraid of anything. So ask questions and keep diving until you get an answer.

How have your studies informed your politics and vice versa?

LaCour • Academia being more left-leaning, I would say it’s helped me to be more open to other forms of opinion, even if I have my own. That seems to be the trademark of the American left, being open to questioning that way. I certainly have learned philosophically how to defend my political beliefs, and I do want them to be in line with what science is teaching us.

There are those for whom faith very much drives their politics. Whereas I would see mine as somewhat detached. If I were an atheist, I feel that my politics would be the same. I see them as consistent but not driving the other.

What, if anything, is missing regarding the conversation of race within the LDS Church? Is there anything you would hope to see changed?

LaCour • Obviously, the church has gotten better on the race front since 1978. And obviously President Russell M. Nelson has been very vocal against racism on multiple occasions in his presidency — President Dallin H. Oaks, too. From that standpoint, I think it’s good that they’re decrying racism openly. It’s important, though, that the church be a bit more forthcoming about whether or not it was right or wrong for the [priesthood/temple] ban [against Black members] to take place in the first place. That hasn’t really been talked about as much.

But, overall, I think the church is heading in the right direction on race. For example, Nelson meeting with and supporting the NAACP has been very good.

In the philosophy of race, I’m just interested in the question of whether race is a biological or scientific concept or is it just a social construct. Which is a very live topic these days because racism unfortunately in 2024 remains a very important issue for some reason. You’d think we’d have moved past it, but apparently it just keeps going through cycles.

Do you think the church should apologize for the priesthood/temple ban?

LaCour • In one sense, I think that’s logically impossible. I think an apology is something one has done wrong. Since none of the current leadership was involved in implementing or sustaining the ban, I don’t think they can apologize for it.

I suppose there’s another sense in which you can apologize and say, “I’m sorry that this happened.” But that could only come after acknowledging that the ban was wrong. So we have to grapple with that first.

Are there any Latter-day Saint thinkers whose writings are especially compelling to you?

LaCour • Obviously Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I know that President Young has a bad reputation among Black members of the church due to comments he’s made and that’s well-deserved, but I think a lot of what he said was very interesting. B.H. Roberts is another one, and Sterling McMurrin. The philosopher Blake Ostler, who’s a good friend of mine. And while I don’t always agree with him, Adam Miller is also a very interesting thinker with whom I wrestle.

As far as non-Mormons, there’s David Hume, David Albert, Daniel Dennett, Alex Rosenberg and Bas C. van Fraassen.

There are not a ton of Latter-day Saint philosophers.

Why do you think that is?

LaCour • There’s a saying about philosophies having been “mingled with scripture.” So perhaps people hear that and think all philosophy is bad. Also, philosophy is more of a college-level discipline that’s not really taught in high schools, at least in the United States. Many people just don’t have an exposure to it or see what it’s useful for, even though they use it all the time.

Also, if you look at the field paper surveys, most philosophers are atheists. So I think members of the church associate philosophy with atheism.

Has anyone ever pushed back against what you do by arguing that we already know everything we need about the universe and our place in it through revelation?

LaCour • People will ask questions, but I’ve never had any hostility or any pushback.

If anyone were to say that, how would you respond?

LaCour • There’s just a lot that scripture and revealed religion doesn’t tell us but that we’re commanded to know. Even though you have a framework, the details matter.

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