A Mormon Theogony

May 17, 2004 | 21 comments
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Theogony is not a topic that comes up a great deal in discussions of Mormon theology. We tend to take the eternity of God for granted and as often as not end up affirming the eternity of man as well. The closest we generally get to discussion of the birth of the gods is when we ask the peculiarly Mormon question of how God progressed to become God. Orson Pratt, however, did get down to more fundamental questions of origins.

I have been reading Wilford Woodruff’s diary, and I came across an interesting passage. He is describing the journey of the first band of pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. You have always wondered, of course, about what they talked about as they walked for days and days. (The pioneer children, we all know, sang.) As it turns out, they spent much of their time engaged in theological speculation. On June 26, 1847, Wilford recorded the following conversation with Orson Pratt in his journal:

    Then the question arose how did God receive his present formation? The Answer given by Professor Pratt was sumthing in the following language:

    He sayes I throw out my Ideas not as doctrin but for you to look at. You know when A Chemist goes to work to Analize or try new experiments they often have to try many times before they put a thing perfect & take certain processes which are unnecessary an are afterward laid aside And pursue the most perfect Course that can be [pursu]ed. It may reasonably have been the case with the first being [form]ed which may be Called God. As eternity was filled as it were with particles of intelligence who had there Agency, two of these particles in process of time might have joined their interest together exchanged ideas found by persueing this course that they gained [double?] strength to what one particle or intelligence would have & afterwards were joined by other particles & continued untill they formed A combination or body though through a long process.

    Yet they had power over other intelligences in consequence of their combination, organization & strength And in the process of time this being body or God seeing the Advantage of such an organization desires company or A companion and Having some experience goes to work & organizes other beings by prevailing intelligences to come to getehr & may form sumthing better than at first. And After trials of this kind & the most perfect way sought ought it was found to be the most expeditious & best way to receive there formations or bodies either spiritual or temporal through a womb. (original spelling, punctuation and capitalization retained)

For those of you who worry about such things, Wilford does write, “And Any person who should chance to read these lines I wish them to understand that the Ideas given upon these points were not given as doctrin but opinion untill sumthing better should present itself or be decided by revelation.” It occurs to me that there might be a valuable Mormon apologetic in this discussion. We tend to love faith promoting stories that take the form of “modern science has shown X, but we knew X by revelation long before modern science.” The most common example would be the stories we tell about the Word of Wisdom. Here we have Orson Pratt talking about the random evolution of complex intelligent life from a primordial soup a full twelve years before the publication of On the Origin of Species!

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21 Responses to A Mormon Theogony

  1. Russell Arben Fox on May 17, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Orson Pratt was a professor? Where? Of what?

  2. Nate Oman on May 17, 2004 at 1:15 pm

    He was a “professor” at the “University of Nauvoo,” which in practice meant that he taught a couple of classes on astronomy, etc. in his living room.

  3. Taylor on May 17, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    Nate, I think you mean Theogony. Theogyny is something like the god-ladies :)
    +

  4. Kaimi on May 17, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    First theodicy, and now theogyny. What’s next on the slate, theosophy? Or perhaps we should mention theophany. Hopefully, we can avoid theomachy. (Theology and theocracy being already discussed somewhat throughout the site). That’s it for me, I’m all out of theo- words (but I don’t doubt that Nate has a much larger store of them).

  5. D. Fletcher on May 17, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    Theoddity?

  6. D. Fletcher on May 17, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    Theoddity?

  7. D. Fletcher on May 17, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    Theoddity?

  8. Kingsley on May 17, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    Orson Pratt, a self-taught math whiz who many consider the “builder of the university,” offered courses in “Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Conic Sections, Plane Trigonometry, Mensuration, Surveying, Navigation, Analytical, Plane and Spherical Trigonometry, Analytical Geometry, and the Differential and Integral Calculus,” as well as “philosophy, astronomy, and chemistry.”

  9. lyle on May 17, 2004 at 2:36 pm

    I don’t know what theo-theo is next: but…I suspect it will support classical liberalism. Who would have guessed that Pratt/Woodruf could have written about spontaneous order long before Mises/modern economics types. hm…

  10. clark on May 17, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    As I’ve often discussed on my blog, Pratt is quite interesting as many of his notions parallel later pragmatists. In reading some of the earlier sources on both (Scottish common sense realists, german idealism such as Leibniz and Schelling, Swedenborg, etc.) this makes a bit of sense. However the evolution notion was much easier to adopt after the popularity of Darwin. So it is interesting that Pratt adopted it so early. Indeed in many ways early Mormons always had a lot of evolutionary ideas. I don’t know if that was because of pre-Darwinistic evolutionists or simply an implication of our belief in becoming like God.

    Anyways, thanks for the quote Nate. I’d not seen that one before.

  11. Grasshopper on May 17, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    How in the world did Orson Pratt get from this kind of speculation to his views on absolute omniscience that Brigham Young condemned? They seem difficult to reconcile without a fairly radical finitism with regard to the universe.

  12. Sci on May 17, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    Wow! Chemistry and primordial soup explain the origins of God. It is interesting how empirical and experimental the whole process sounds. My kind of God. Very cool, thanks for the reference Nate.

    I would also like to point out the hint of natural selection: “they gained [double?] strength to what one particle or intelligence would have.” While not the full-blown concept that appeared in Darwin’s book, this idea does seem to imply some level of competition amongst intelligences.

    One thing that is odd is that Pratt’s picture sounds to me like intelligences conglomerating until they reach some critical mass of intelligence in a lump that then thinks, “wait, I have a better idea, we could remake us faster if we did X Y and Z instead.” In contrast, origin of life researchers emphasize self-replication–early on, RNA became able to copy itself, and further developments occurred in an arms race to form better self-replicating systems. Pratt’s idea seems more like things sticking together and then replication being an afterthought. I have to say I favor Leslie Orgel in this case… the agglomeration model just seems too wildly improbable. But I suppose I shouldn’t take these wild speculations of Pratt (esp. his analogies) quite so literally.

  13. Nate Oman on May 17, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    Sci & Clark: I thought that you two in particular would enjoy this… ;->

  14. clark on May 17, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    I think, Grasshopper, that Pratt believe that the aether and the spirit were the same thing. He also took seriously passages like D&C 88 where God is in and through all things. By this he interpreted that atoms of this spiritual “stuff” were in close proximity to all matter. Thus omniscience followed given the epistemology of Scottish realists. Of course it is in epistemology that Pratt has the most glaring ommisions (IMO) so I agree that this is a problem.

    I don’t think the issue is necessarily finitism, but rather what kind of infinities were allowed. Pratt held to actual infinities, but these infinites were constituted from finitudes and thus were infinities of order aleph0. I personally think (but am not prepared to argue here) that Young’s views entailed higher order infinities.

    I think, though, that Pratt’s main views simply arose out of a protestant influenced Biblical literalism. Young appears to have had little patience for such views.

  15. Jason on May 17, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    “aether and the spirit were the same thing”

    Let’s have some more Starwars-Gospel parallels.

    “The scientific Star Wars explanation,” says Lucas, “is that the meta-chlorines can hear the Force, and they communicate with cells, and cells communicate with your consciousness.”

  16. Ben Huff on May 17, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    I wonder if Pratt read any Empedocles, or Democritus . . .

    So God is a community of intelligences, eh? sounds right to me : )

  17. clarkgoble on May 17, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Pratt’s view was slightly different from a community of intelligences – depending upon what one means by that. The spirit is a collection of intelligent atoms, all in harmony in terms of unified dispositions. This spirit is in each divine being and they are unified with it. But the spirit or the aether is more significant than the individual.

    I doubt Pratt read any of the classic atomists. I think his emphasis on atomists arose out of the way Newton was read in the 18th century.

    Still there are lots of interesting parallels between Pratt and various Greek philosophies. Not just the atomists, like the epicureans, but also the Stoics. Indeed a lot of Pratt’s views on how two atoms become one individual parallels the Stoics probably more even than Leibniz.

  18. Sheri Lynn on May 17, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    “they gained [double?] strength to what one particle or intelligence would have.”

    Double-stranded DNA comes to mind.

    Take two complementary strands of RNA, methylate all the uracils, anneal them together within a lipid bilayer or two…and call me in the morning. :-)

    Phooey. The electron was designed. Nothing by chance…except how many times I click on the post button.

  19. Dan M. on May 18, 2004 at 1:11 am

    I don’t know who started this post, but their comment about Pratt making statements about evolution before it was ever postulated has one little exception. The term “missing link” (that I imagine most of you are familiar with) doesn’t come from Darwin, but from a Catholic heirarchy of the species that predates Darwin by hundreds of years. They had a comprehensive chart of the progression of living organisms from the dumbest up to the white man. Scientists were comissioned to find links that would bring the primates closer to the man. The African to be more specific. Eugenics has its roots in this practice. Most of the ideas that we understand about evolution are actually a synthesis of Darwin’s theories and this ancient Catholic principle.

    As far as theogony goes, in the vaults there are several documents that address this issue. I’ve never seen them personally, but I’ve been told of their contents. One interesting little tidbit is how long ago, in years, Elohim was exalted. Big number. Joseph Smith apparently had more revelations than most of us are aware of.

  20. Mark Butler on May 18, 2004 at 5:53 am

    Quantum Mechanics makes material panpsychism (alal Pratt / Whitehead) rather untenable. The reason is that that ordinary particles (fermions, in this case) are extremely well proven to be statistically indistinguishable. Single electrons might appear to be flaky and unreliable, but when they are in a large group they always behave like clockwork. It is inconceivable that an army of electrons could mount a full scale rebellion against the status quo. There is absolutely no evidence of free will in ordinary matter.

    Quantum Mechanics is the most reliably deterministic theory ever devised, all rumour to the contrary. Metaphysical randomness is an eliminable feature of Quantum Mechanical theories, a feature not required to explain the experimental evidence, which is all statistical.

    We need free will somewhere, though, so the conventional LDS alternative is to adopt the idea of discrete intelligences, one per person, using a non-naive dualism of active and passive entities synechistically coupled together. The most well known representative of this view in Mormon history is B.H. Roberts, of course.

    Where does theogony come in to this? Well, on the Smith / Smith / Roberts view, personal intelligences are self-existent in essence, uncreated, everlasting, and eternal (cf. D&C 93:29), so theogony in the fundamental sense is a mute issue. How the Most High came to acquire a (spirit) body is a much more interesting issue, of course. LDS views seem to divide into three categories: Platonism, Accidentalism, and Intelligent Design.

    Infinite _backward_ recursion (a la Young, Pratt, Roberts) pretty much holds that the term “Most High” applies to an infinite number of divine persons, that every exalted father becomes El Elyon to his posterity. This inevitably entails Platonism of some sort, eliminating divine discretion over anything really important, like the human form or the plan of salvation. Somehow God as Author sounds more appealing than God as Adept. This weakness is well known to orthodox Christian commentators in and out of the Church.

    Theologies like those of Ostler and Paulsen lack this devastating weakness. One might of course, attempt to repair Brigham Young’s cosmology by interpreting the Hebrew notion of El Elyon, the Most High, the “Eternal God of all other gods” (D&C 121:32), in the natural sense – the one who righteously presides over the whole host of heaven – elected, sustained, chosen, upheld, it doesn’t really matter (cf. D&C 29:36).

    Essentia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

  21. Clark Goble on May 18, 2004 at 9:27 am

    Mark, that all depends upon what you mean by free will. If you define free will as violating probabilities, then yes, you’re right. If one argues that the probabilities arise out of free will and that the indistinguishing arises because of the structures or habits of freedom then what you say doesn’t follow. After all they are only indistinguishable with respect to certain properties. But that begs the question of why they have those properties.

    The problem really ends up being what kind of freedom you accept. If you accept the kind most compatibilists are comfortable with then there is no problem. However the ontological freedom some argue is required for responsibility conflicts with this. Many might say though that QM is very compatible with notions of panpsychism. Not that I think Pratt right, mind you. However if one looks at say superstring theory there are interesting parallels between Pratt’s extremely small atoms and vibrating strings of planck length.

    I should also add that while I personally find it quite problematic for reasons I won’t go into, the physicist Penrose has written extensively on equating freedom and quantum indeterminacy. Indeed he sees the mind as emergent from quantum effects.

    As for issues of infinity, medieval Judaism adopted a different approach wherein true infinity was possible via something called the En Sof. However this was a strong neoPlatonic influence on Judaism. (Although some scholars, such as Idel argue for the reverse relationship – pointing out that strong elements of these beliefs can be found long before the rise of neoPlatonism)

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