Exploring Mormon Thought: Immediacy

April 6, 2012 | 33 comments
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The trouble is time.

When the Buddha first turned the wheel of the dharma with his inaugural discourse at Varanasi, he articulated the first pressing reality (i.e., the first “noble truth”) of life as the truth that “Life is suffering.”

He could just have easily said, “Life is time.”

Gotama claimed this “stainless insight” into the order of experience on the basis of an intensive, first-person phenomenological investigation of life as it is lived. 20th century phenomenology is in fundamental agreement: the transcendental horizon of experience is time.

Time is troubling. This being troubled is the stuff of life and the condition of possibility for experience. This trouble marks the impossibility of any pure presence or direct immediacy.

The ceaseless rush of time constitutes the present moment as real but always passing. As pass-ing, the present is given as suspended between the past and the future and constituted by their mediation. The “immediacy” of the present moment depends on the troubling loss of what has passed and on the troublingly open character of what is not yet given.

Experientially, the focal character of the present as focal depends on a network of only tangentially given background objects, feelings, memories, expectations, and signs. This withdrawn background is what structures the present as coherent even as it bars the present from being definitive. The present, in order to be present, can never be self-sufficient or definitive because, as present, it is always passing.

Chapter 10 of The Attributes of God addresses God’s contingent knowledge. Ostler’s view is that God’s knowledge is “contingent” and in the long middle section subtitled “Is Contingent Omniscience Consistent with Scripture?” Ostler is at his best when he argues that a notion of contingent omniscience is consistent with scripture. (I love when Blake engages in these close readings of scripture. He really shines.)

I’m in agreement both with Ostler’s conclusion and with his motives for pursuing the argument. The conclusion is motivated by Ostler’s position that “time is real” (325) and that God’s knowledge, in order to be “perfectly understanding and compassionate” (316) must include experiential modes of knowing that are similar to ours. “It seems impossible for [God] to know what the experience of smelling the rose is like if he has never experienced smelling a rose” (315).

But I have a hard time following, especially in light of these commitments, Ostler’s claim that God’s omniscience gets a supercharged boost by his omnipresence such that God is capable of relating directly and without mediation to everything all at once. In this vein, he says:

God knows all things because he is perfectly related to all reality. God is understood in Mormon though to be omnipresent in the sense that he is the supremely related being, immediately present to but not identical with all things. Thus, he experiences all things immediately or unmediately. (310)

Or similarly,

He knows all things from every perspective because he experiences every perspective. (311)

My confusion stems from the way that this kind of direct, unmediated, and total omnipresence seems to disregard time.

(Perhaps this is related to Ostler’s additional claim that “thoughts are not spatial-temporal entities” (312). Thoughts may not be spatial, but surely thoughts are, in fact, temporal? What would a non-temporal thought be?)

I’m just not sure what it would mean for a relation (i.e., literally, a re-lation) to be direct and immediate. Similarly, is it possible for an experience (i.e., literally, an ex-perience) to be internal and unmediated?

Would the “immediacy” of a direct relation amount to a claim that no third parties are involved? That the relation occurs against no withdrawn background? Or that no aspect of the relation is deferred?

Is an unmediated “immediacy” compatible with the reality of time?

Ostler asks: “Is God more worthy of worship if he is perfect Impassivity than if he is perfectly related to all reality? These categories of perfection are mutually exclusive: God cannot be both wholly impassible and perfectly (internally) relative.” (314)

I suppose my question is: Is God more worthy of worship if he can sidestep the always troubling, always mediated character of time?

Or is his worthiness most manifest in his commitment to and redemption of this trouble?

33 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Immediacy

  1. clark on April 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Great question.

  2. Ron on April 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    It is interesting to try and assess the likelihood of a trait God possesses based on whether it would make him more worthy of worship in our eyes. This runs parallel to us striving to be worthy in his eyes.

    Be that as it may, it seems to me that God sidesteps the mediating character of time in the fact that a spiritual part of the atonement (others returning to God’s presence) did not need to wait for Christ’s advent on earth, yet a physical part of the atonement (others being resurrected) did need to wait. Perhaps God can have it both ways, depending on the nature of what he is dealing with.

  3. Mark D. on April 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    If quantum mechanics provides any clue, it is possible to be coupled with everything in the universe on an instantaneous basis. Divine administration would seem to be more or less impossible if the activity of the spirit were limited to ordinary luminal speeds.

  4. Blake on April 6, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Adam: I’m not sure that I understand your question. Certainly God’s knowing that A at t1 is limited by the state of the universe at t1.In that sense it is temporal and couldn’t be otherwise. Further, God’s experience changes from moment to moment and thus his knowledge of what is actual also changes from one moment to the next. That is a supremely temporal mode of knowing.

    If your question is whether God must wait for the data of experience to come to him so that he can know that he knows the state of a distant star when the light signals reach him, then we can hardly think of God as omniscient — or even as “God” for that matter. So I agree with Mark D. about that.

    My point is that God’s knowledge is not limited by mediated or less-than-reliable means of knowing like we are. I am dependent on my bodily senses — which is temporal in nature. But if God knows in that way, then he is vastly ignorant about the majority of the universe if limited to the speed of light. Rather, God’s light which constitutes his intelligence is immediate to all aspect of reality and is included immediately within God’s experience when it occurs or becomes actual. D&C 88 actually states that God’s light and intelligence, which is the means of God’s knowledge of things, interpentrates every reality — it is “in and through all things.” If God’s knowledge is mediated by the kinds of temporal-delay that your questions seems to presuppose, then God is not all-knowing and way too ignorant of matters to be trusted in the ultimate sense required by faith. However, if God’s experience of all things arises from them being immediately present to them, as I believe D&C 88 teaches, then God’s knowledge is not mediated through some other process which would be open to questions of reliability, but immediately a part of God’s experience.

    If your question is “how does God know all things immediately?” then my answer is that he does so by being in and through all things as the law which upholds upholds them. If your question is, “how does God know everything in that way as a scientific explanation?” then my answer is that it isn’t reasonable to expect me to know such things or answer such questions.

  5. Adam Miller on April 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks, Blake, for the response. I’m reminded of that scene in the Matrix Reloaded when the architect responds to Neo’s claim that the machines will never allow the Matrix to be destroyed: “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept.” We may just differ with respect to the levels of limitation we’re prepared to accept :)

    I suppose my question is this: if time is real, then isn’t the set of all immediate things an empty set? Isn’t immediacy a non-temporal category?

    Or again: I suspect that immediacy as a viable category is itself a metaphysical vestige of the kind of atemporal absolutism you’re rightly worried about.

    Or one final time from a different angle: I don’t understand what it would mean to say that a re-lation is “immediate” (that is, that a relation involves no “re”) or an ex-perience is “internal” (that is, that an experience involves no “ex”).

    But answers to these kinds of questions are really difficult and may be, as you point out, significantly above both our pay-grades. Especially in the context of a blog!

    (FWIW, I think that these questions are also just another way of asking the same kinds of questions Joe was interested in last week. Joe?)

  6. chris on April 7, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I think God exists in time and in a particular space but the Holy Ghost exists across time and space. Thus God can know the future, the past, and our thoughts by the power of the Holy Ghost. The sanctifying power of the atonement comes through the HG to my understanding not some separate mechanism so it makes sense that the HG is able to effect things in the past present and future.

  7. Clark on April 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Blake, isn’t an “as” structure inherently mediated? That is if I see a white feathery thing as a goose I think you can’t logically avoid mediation.

    I’ve no logical trouble with the idea of pure perception of raw entities but to see them as something linguistically by its nature is a sign relation which logically is a mediated relation.

    It seems to me the only way to preserve this case of knowledge is to say it is non-linguistical and unlike ours. Once you make that move your back where Anselm is which isn’t to helpful – especially for the kinds of knowledge you want him to have.

  8. Blake on April 7, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Adam & Jeff: My view of God’s knowledge is based on a process view where the universe is analogous to God’s body so that each event is immediately a part of God’s experience. It doesn’t entail an Anselmian view even remotely. It doesn’t entail non-temporality or non-corporeality. It simply entails that each event is a part of God’s immediate phenomenal experience just like my consciousness is a part of mine.

  9. Blake on April 7, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Clark #7: I expressly argue against God’s knowledge being propositional in nature or linguistically mediated. To the extent it is lunguistically mediated, it is human language that is at issue and is both limited and limiting in a way that would be inconsistent with a fullness of knowledge. I argue that God’s knowledge is experiential in the sense that each event is a part of God’s experience.

  10. Mark D. on April 7, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Or one final time from a different angle: I don’t understand what it would mean to say that a re-lation is “immediate” (that is, that a relation involves no “re”) or an ex-perience is “internal” (that is, that an experience involves no “ex”).

    In quantum mechanics terms “immediate” simply means simultaneous, i.e. (usually) separated by space, but (by definition) not by time. There is still a “re-lation” though – the communication is between one particle and other particles that interact with it. Or in other words one particle shares the “ex-perience” of all other interacting particles by degree.

    So if you have a sea of electrons, for example, a combined wavefunction mediates the interactions of all the electrons together, ontologically and spatially separated, but temporally immediate.

    Here is a recent example:
    Nature News, “Entangled diamonds vibrate together”, 1 Dec 2011
    http://www.nature.com/news/entangled-diamonds-vibrate-together-1.9532

  11. joespencer on April 7, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Yes, Adam. This is, exactly, a way to restate my questions and concerns from last week—though with actual talent. :)

  12. Blake on April 8, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Joe and Adam: What we have here is a fundamental failure to communicate. You are coming out of a continental tradition (and Buddhism to boot) which views experience as a human phenomenon following especially Heidegger. Mark and I are coming out of a different tradition altogether, the insights into the enfolded nature of experience and time arising with the advent of quantum mechanics — which BTW was a major source and impetus for Whitehead’s formulation of a process view of time. In this quantum worldview, everything is related and influenced by everything else in the very act of becoming in each new moment of reality. There is immediacy. I frankly have never been able to get a grasp on what Heidegger was saying on this matter — and the endless, conflicting commentaries on what he could have possibly meant suggest that I am not alone.

    Whatever Heidegger was addressing, he was not addressing the nature of God’s knowledge. If God is dependent on some means for his knowledge, then his “knowledge” is no more reliable than the means of transmission of data or whatever is the basis of knowledge. If God is dependent on physical information travelling to his body to be acted upon as your approach seems to me to entail, then God cannot be aware of the vast (and here vast is an understatement) majority of what exists. If God is all-knowing, then God’s knowledge cannot be mediated in these senses. You probably don’t mean mediated in these senses, but I am at a loss to figure out what else you are asking.

  13. Adam Miller on April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Thanks, Blake. You’re right that I’m likely missing things here because my Whitehead is sketchy. And I agree there are two things in play here: phenomenological time (as transcendental horizon) and physical time (speed of light type stuff).

    Still, Blake says:

    “My view of God’s knowledge is based on a process view where the universe is analogous to God’s body so that each event is immediately a part of God’s experience. It doesn’t entail an Anselmian view even remotely. It doesn’t entail non-temporality or non-corporeality. It simply entails that each event is a part of God’s immediate phenomenal experience just like my consciousness is a part of mine.”

    I’m hesitant to agree to this model in which the universe is analogous to God’s body. But even if we do grant it, I don’t know of any aspect of my phenomenal experience of consciousness that is immediate and direct. In fact, my relation to my own body may be the most mysterious, temporal, deferred, and mediated aspect of my experience altogether!

    Consciousness seems to me to be a prime example of that which is never immediate and direct.

  14. Blake on April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Adam: My knowledge that I am conscious seems to me to be immediate and direct — it is only what it is at that point in time. However, my “consciousness of” this thing or that event is not immediate and direct. But that is precisely my point. If God’s knowledge is merely mediated sense experience, then he cannot be remotely all-knowing. Certainly you are not claiming that all of God’s knowledge is derived from empirical experience are you?

  15. Mark D. on April 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    If we are the body of Christ, perhaps it might be reasonable to say rather than the universe, the divine concert is the body of the Father. It seems highly likely to me that all the omni-characteristics of God are mediated in part through the other members of that union, by spiritual communion and mutually indwelling glory. Member A transitively experiences what B experiences, in much the same way as B experiences C.

    Then we may rightly say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end.

  16. Adam Miller on April 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Blake says: “My knowledge that I am conscious seems to me to be immediate and direct — it is only what it is at that point in time. However, my “consciousness of” this thing or that event is not immediate and direct.”

    It seems to me (both on the basis of first person investigation and “canonical” phenomenological investigations) that consciousness is mediated in both cases.

    This is, I think, the basic upshot of Levinas’ phenomenological version of Buber’s I/Thou: that self-consciousness is itself a gift given to me and mediated by my relation to the other.

  17. Adam Miller on April 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Mark #15, I’m sympathetic to this. I’m suggesting, in general, that we allow for God’s omni’s (such as they remain) to be much more distributed, decentralized, and bottom-up than our typically very centralized, top-down, command model. How does this fit with the transitivity you’re proposing?

  18. Mark D. on April 9, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Adam (#17), if it helps I basically believe that a high cardinality social trinity is the most consistent way to read the scriptures. In its most controversial aspect, the identification (in the proper sense) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost with divisions of that trinity.

    If more than one individual can be a heavenly parent, then I am inclined to associate “the Eternal Father” with the body of all heavenly parents. Similarly, I am inclined to associate “the Son” (or “Christ” without qualifier) with the body of Christ, i.e. all the sons and daughters of God who suffer in his name, a body led of course by the Lord Jesus Christ. And of course “the Holy Ghost” with a third division.

    For clarity, I like to refer to the first of those three divisions in particular as “the divine concert”, bound together by common consent, indwelling glory and perichoristic union.

    So the question is, if you have a divine concert bound together with a fulness of divine glory shared between them, to what degree does one member with spiritual posterity A know or need to fully participate in the details of another member with disjoint spiritual posterity B. That would mostly be a matter of speculation, because the nature of a fulness of divine glory is difficult to understand.

    What I am personally convinced of, however, is that the basics of shared experience – joy, sorrow, and so on, if not the details, are shared across the divine concert such that one shares not only in the joys and in the sorrows of the other members, but with those that they preside over by degree. That is what I mean by experiential transitivity. I mean that person A in tune with person B in tune with person C, experiences at least the gist of what C experiences, at the same time that C experiences it.

  19. Adam Miller on April 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

    To put this another way, it seems to me that the most fundamental characteristic of consciousness (empirical or otherwise) is that it is received rather than possessed.

    Consciousness is a gift. It is a grace.

    Is God less of a god if his consciousness is likewise received as a grace? The tradition clearly thinks that, were this the case, he wouldn’t be God at all.

    For my part, I suspect that the tradition is wrong.

  20. Mark D. on April 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    The tradition is clearly embarrassed by the concept of a trinity as well, because it is always interfering with the ideal of divine simplicity. In the Eastern church they devised a way around this by making a distinction between divine essence and divine energies – the essence remains as paradoxical as elsewhere, but the energies are social, related, and so on.

    Of course perhaps a more viable path is to drop the former as it is classically conceived and focus on the latter instead.

  21. Adam Miller on April 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Mark says: “Of course perhaps a more viable path is to drop the former [divine simplicity] as it is classically conceived and focus on the latter [trinitarianism] instead.”

    Nice, Mark. I think this is right. And I think Blake agrees.

    The question is, then: where to draw the line? How much multiplicity is too much? How much centralization needs to be retained?

  22. Mark D. on April 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Adam, I believe the scriptures give us a great deal of guidance on what it means to be one with God (or with another) without being identical or coercively bound to them. First you have the passages that suggest that within Christ dwells the fulness of the Godhead bodily, or that in fact the glory of the Father indwells in the person of the Son. That suggests a great deal of spiritual unity.

    But on the other hand, you have passages like the latter third of D&C 121 that suggest that the very essence of this unity is persuasion, long suffering, gentleness, and meekness, and love unfeigned, and that the (interpersonal) authority and power of God cannot work in persons who attempt to operate on principles contrary to that – that the “heavens withdraw”, the Spirit leaves, and the authority disappears.

    Or one might say that divine power comes in spiritual unity founded on the principles of love, and by no other means. This idea is so persuasive with me that I can hardly imagine what it can mean for an individual to be divine in and of himself, or in the absence of a loving relationship with others.

  23. Adam Miller on April 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Mark, I agree entirely. Love is the thing. What we have to say about God ought to proceed from a consideration of love and its conditions of possibility.

    Again, if I understand Blake, he’s on board with this. The question then becomes: what is love and what are its conditions of possibility?

    Here Blake seems to have a much stronger view than I (grounded in his reading of the LoF) of the minimal conditions for God to be a worthy object of our loving devotion. Those these minimal conditions are for Blake not nearly as strong as those demanded by the tradition.

  24. Mark D. on April 9, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Adam, I tend to look at the question in terms of what was required for the divine concert to become the divine concert, and what is required for them to stay that way. We often talk about persons being divine in embryo – I suggest it would be more accurate to talk about a society being divine in embryo.

    Now I understand that Blake does this in a way with a society of cardinality three, that has perfect relationality going back to t minus infinitity, and most of the classic omniattributes by virtue of the perfect social unity of those three individuals.

    Where I would say that while the divine concert may have started with three individuals (Joseph Smith apparently suggested just that), it became the divine concert by inviting an ever increasing number into indwelling participation with the same. A dynamically increasing perfection in other words, increasing in glory, power, love with the salvation, sanctification, and exaltation of each new member.

    On this account individuals have a fulness of divinity not in and of themselves, but rather by full indwelling participation in the quorum of the exalted. I might suggest that the theoretical merit of this scheme is that it makes the gospel as we know it apply along the same lines to exalted persons as it does to us, just with a fulness of glory which we do not now enjoy.

  25. Blake on April 10, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Adam re: #16: Adam, I don’t believe that my phenomenal consciousness is dependent on the other Thou unless that other Thou is God. I don’t believe that God’s knowledge is mediated by the other.

    However, you don’t address the issue that I raise that to the extent God is dependent on some less than reliable means of knowing, his knowledge is unreliable and thus not divine knowledge. It is that concern that you must address.

    I also believe that there were primordially 3 in a relationship of indwelling unity and that others have now been invited into and joined into the divine unity. However, I don’t see how that is a basis of God’s knowledge unless, as I believe D&C 88 and 93 assert, it is this unity from which the spirit of God proceeds to be present (immediately) to all things because “in and all through all things … [as] the power by which they are governed.” Being in the unity gives rise to the emergent properties of divinity inherent in the nature of the divine persons. It is the same for us if and when we freely choose to love as they do — at which time we are joined into this divine unity and participate fully in the fullness of divine knowledge and power.

  26. Adam Miller on April 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Blake, good questions. I don’t have a cut and dry answer to the reliability of knowledge question. I’m not very worried about it, though. I think this issue takes a back seat to more basic questions about the possibility of divine love and the nature of suffering.

    In my view, both love and a cogent take on the nature of suffering require that God not be an exception to the constitution of consciousness as something received rather than possessed. I think the phenomenological work on this question (re: Levinas, Derrida, Marion, et al.) is extremely persuasive. I don’t know what an “immediate/unmediated” consciousness would be. But this is a difficult question. We can try to talk more about this in relation to other questions.

    In some ways, it comes back to my earlier post on the nature of the trinity. I think we need a stronger sense of irreducible otherness in even these divine relationships in order to avoid metaphysically purifying love of its real (and difficult) character.

  27. Blake on April 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    I guess I’m mystified that you would dismiss the reliability of God’s knowledge as a small matter that doesn’t need to be addressed or considered. Even if it were to take a back seat I believe it must be accounted for and not dismissed.

    In addition, it seems to me that we are likely speaking past each other. Certainly, a condition of God knowing that X is that X must first be the case. However, it doesn’t follow that God’s being omniscient depends on the existence of X. It seems to me that you are addressing something very different by “immediacy” than when I speak of divine immediacy.

    Perhaps we could make some progress if you explained just what divine mediated-ness is and the argument(s) to support it. i admit that I get frustrated when continentals use vague terms that often are so equivocal in meaning that they disappear on close inspection — at least for me.

  28. Adam Miller on April 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Blake, sorry for using vague terms. I tried to steer clear of more precise, technical language after we had trouble last week talking about “transcendental structures.”

    Why don’t we try it like this: are you familiar with Derrida’s very precise, technical term “différance”?

  29. Blake on April 10, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Yes. Though you see it as more precise than I do. That is why it takes an entire tome to explain it. Even then it remains an open term with a lot play and equivocation in my view.

  30. Adam Miller on April 11, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Yeah, technical language often requires a lot of work. Technical terms often seem more confusing and vague than helpful if you’re not very familiar with them.

    What’s your baseline understanding of “différance”? And then I can work from there with the argument.

  31. Blake on April 11, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Adam: I’ve read Différance and Positions at length and Husserl’s Speech and Phenomena. I don’t have a starting point since the very point is that there is no privileged starting point and meaning is always deferred, so even attempting what you ask is to deny that what you ask is possible if I take what Derrida says seriously (and it is instructive but very debatable). However, I fail to see what that has to do with God’s knowledge. Derrida is addressing the production of textual meaning in relation to what is traditionally privileged speech acts and God’s knowledge is not limited to production of textual meaning.

  32. joespencer on April 11, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Because I was traveling over the past few days, I’m only now catching up on this. I’m eager to see where this goes.

  33. Adam Miller on April 12, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Okay, I can sympathize with your impatience with Derrida.

    Derrida does explore différance in relation to the production of textual meaning, but then he fries this same fish, in Speech and Phenomena most famously, in relation to the temporal synthesis of consciousness per se.

    Ultimately, différance is, I think, best understood as an ontological rather than epistemological, phenomenological, or semiotic operation. In this sense, it has everything to do with God’s knowledge insofar as it has to do with the nature of time and the nature of the real.

    But this doesn’t look like a useful way to talk about this. Let’s go for now with Joe’s thoroughly analytic approach in his new post.