Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Joseph Smith and the Concept of Multiple Inhabited Worlds: Just Simple Borrowing from Others?

Neighbors in the Tarantula Nebula, just 160,000 light years away.
Latter-day Saints with an interest in science are often intrigued by the coherent network of ideas Joseph Smith's revelations provide on the nature of the cosmos. These teachings include:
  • the material nature of spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8), including the teaching that spirit matter is a form of matter that is too "fine or pure" to be seen with our mortal eyes, yet is still genuine matter; 
  • the eternal nature of matter (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33);
  • the plurality of inhabited worlds inhabited by sons and daughters of God across the immensity of space;
  • the denial of creation ex nihilo
  • the insistence that the Creation is for a remarkable purpose, namely, God's work and glory, the endless work of bringing about the salvation of his children (Moses 1:39); and
  • the eternal nature of intelligence and the genuine free agency that God's children have.
The compatibility of some of Joseph Smith's views with science does not necessarily provide proof or "signs" that Joseph was a prophet, for many of the concepts he revealed and discussed have parallels in prior debates and in the discussions of his day. Some concepts such as the plurality of inhabited worlds can be found among other voices of the Enlightenment and in other sources, as Robert Paul has thoroughly documented. See Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Plurality of Worlds Idea," Dialogue, 19/2 (1986): 13–36. However, the net effect of what he provided gives a cohesive set of concepts that strikes me as revolutionary in several ways. Regarding the plurality of worlds, Paul states that:
On careful examination, these complex issues suggest that the environmental thesis -- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions – does not provide a wholly adequate explanation of the style and structure of restoration pluralism.
 Such can be argued for much of Joseph Smith's cosmology, and certainly for its overall effect.

As for Joseph's coherent cosmic views relative to Christian theology of the day, Terryl Givens in Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) writes:
From an early Mormon perspective, Christian theology was generally too reticent in probing beyond the bounds of the biblically revealed. What of the time before Creation? What was God doing then? Preparing Hell for such as would ask such impudent questions, was the answer Augustine recounted. What of God's other dominions? Why is there man at all? For Milton, it was to compensate for the third of heaven's angels seduced by Satan; the scriptures, however, are silent. What of human destiny in the worlds beyond? What are humans being saved for? Dante thought a state of eternal, rapturous contemplation, and few have proffered more specifics than that. Post-redemption theology seems an oxymoron. (Kindle edition, Chapter 2, footnotes omitted.)
But again, there certainly were ministers speaking of multiple worlds. Some were using it to defend Christianity from deism or to support other arguments, but as Paul observes, Joseph takes this as a given and uses it to teach us God's work and purpose, addressing issues relatively untouched elsewhere. Unfortunately, some critics of the Church attempt to explain away the many profound cosmological and theological aspects of the Book of Abraham by dismissing it as a 19th-centtury fabrication merely drawn from Joseph's environment. The "CES Letter" offers a supposedly well-informed but somewhat shoddy argument on this point, claiming that Joseph merely drew upon a book available in his day.

The book in question is by Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books. A PDF of an 1830 printing is downloadable at Archive.org. Like a number of other evangelical voices of his day, Dick argues for the Christian faith using arguments drawn from science, and along the way speaks of life on multiple worlds. This certainly wasn't a novel concept introduced by Joseph Smith. But the "CES Letter" makes more serious charges of derivation. It claims Joseph owned a copy (at least by 1844, he did have one that he donated to the Nauvoo Library), that Oliver Cowdery quoted from it in 1836, and, more importantly, that it might be the source for the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and that it also rejected creation ex nihilo.

Michael Ash in Bamboozled by the CES Letter  treats this argument, but too briefly for those keenly interested in the scientific aspects of Joseph Smith's universe. More recently, a more thorough response to this issue was provided on the Conflict of Justice blog in the post "Did Joseph Smith Get The Book Of Abraham Cosmology From 'Philosophy Of A Future State'?" The author, Rick Moser, a.k.a "Teancum," is blunt about the CES Letter's reliance Klaus Hansen's claim that Thomas Dick's book teaches eternal, indestructible matter and rejects creation ex nihilo:
False. This is 100% incorrect. Take a look at Philosophy of a Future State. It teaches the creatio ex nihilo doctrine, in contradiction with the Book of Abraham.
None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of stars, which called them from nothing, into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.

What successive creations have taken place since the first material world was launched into existence by the Omnipotent Creator? What new worlds and beings are still emerging into existence from the voids of space? [Dick, p. 214, 1830 printing, or pp. 206-7, Google Books version; emphasis original in Moser]
It teaches that laws and truth are eternal and that resurrection will be a physical restoration, yes, but there is nothing about Joseph Smith’s and Abraham’s doctrine that matter is eternal.
Other seemingly important parallels are shown to have more ancient sources, such as the Bible itself. For example, the notion of innumerable stars, apart from being in numerous other works, is found in the Bible in Hebrews 11:12.

Further related statements from the "CES Letter" are shown at Conflict of Justice to be misquotes or serious blunders, such as claiming that Dick's book and the Book of Abraham teach of a universe that revolves around the throne of God (wrong in both cases!).

Of course, other modern and fairly ancient sources can be found that reject creation ex nihilo, and thus pre-existing matter or maybe even eternal matter will be implicitly if not explicitly taught elsewhere. But cherry picking lone concepts does not create the coherent and satisfying, even breathtaking (for some of us) framework of concepts that arise from Joseph Smith's revelations. Why does he ignore or reject so much of Dick's teachings if that were an influential book for him? If the case is so compelling, why stretch it past the breaking point with assertions that don't bear scrutiny?

Dick has some interesting statements about eternity and the opportunity for mankind to learn much and enjoy much during immortality from the wonders of the cosmos. But he completely misses a key element of Joseph Smith's cosmology and theology: that God's work and his glory in His endless creative work is to bring us into His presence, for we are His children, co-eternal in some way with Him. His glory and His joy grows as we grow and accept the infinite grace He offers. On p. 62 (1830 printing), Dick writes:
The Creator stands in no need of innumerable assemblages of worlds and of inferior ranks of intelligences, in order to secure or to augment his felicity. Innumerable ages before the universe was created, he existed alone, independent of every other being, and infinitely happy in the contemplation of his own eternal excellencies. No other reason, therefore, can be assigned for the production of the universe, but the gratification of his rational offspring, and that he might give a display of the infinite glories of his nature to innumerable orders of intelligent creatures.
 Such thinking is consistent with much of religious thought in Joseph's day, but is hardly the source for the cosmology of the Book of Abraham and the restored Gospel brought through Joseph Smith.

Other scholars and theologians, though certainly not all and perhaps far from a majority, had proposed that other worlds exist. However, what was taught about God's motivation for the Creation of many other planets? Those who recognized from science that other planets probably exist may have necessarily proffered reasons such as saving souls [so they could endlessly contemplate God or praise Him] or, as Dick did above, allowing immortals to learn about the wonders of the cosmos. But if God is perfectly happy without us, as Dick explains, why bother?

We may struggle to find plausible environmental sources for the sweeping scope of Joseph Smith's cosmology in which the weeping God seeks to bring His sons and daughters home in an infinite work that spans space and time, endlessly motivated by love for us, His children. In Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (viewable at Google Books), we are reminded that a still significant religious concept is the notion, much like that expressed by Dick, that a perfect God does not need man or any of His creations for His perfection and glory. It is a concept drawn from Platonism and is one I find to be directly antagonistic to the work and the glory of God taught in Moses 1:39. Lovejoy explains that in this Platonic paradigm that dominated Western thought for over 2,000 years (less so in the twentieth century as he wrote, though it is "still potent"):
The fullness of good is attained once for all in God; and “the creatures” add nothing to it. They have from the divine point of view no value; if they were not, the universe would be none the worse…. [It is in this implicit aspect of Platonic] doctrine that we must recognize the primary source of that endlessly repeated theorem of the philosophical theologians that God has no need of a world and is indifferent to it and all that goes on it. This implication of the Platonic Idea of the Good speedily became explicit in the theology of Aristotle…. It is — to cite by way of anticipation only or two our of a thousand later examples — this Platonic as well as Aristotelian strain that Jonathan Edwards may be heard echoing in Colonial America, when he declares: “No notion of God’s last end in creation of the world is agreeable to reason which would imply or infer any indigence, insufficiency and mutability in God or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness….” This eternally serene and impassible Absolute is, manifestly, somewhat difficult to recognize in the sadistic deity of the sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; but Edwards did not differ from most of the great theologians in having many Gods under one name. [Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, pp. 43-44]
If God has no need of a world, he certainly has no need of many worlds peopled with the same kind of offensive, miserable sinners we have here.

Platonic thought is at the heart of Dick's framework and also guides Jonathan Edwards, another source frequently cited as an influence on Joseph Smith, but Platonic thought is far from the revelatory and revolutionary framework of Joseph Smith.

I have no trouble with language from Joseph's environment, such as "intelligences" as a term to describe intelligent life or spirit beings, influencing his use of language to express revealed concepts. I have no problem with terminology and even core concepts from others having influenced his thinking, his choice of words, his inquiries and interests. But for those who are willing to exercise a modicum of faith, there is something much more interesting going on than just trying to generate revenue with some flashy Egyptian relics or bewilder awed believers with fabricated revelations. There is a richness in his cosmological revelations from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants and the Books of Abraham and Moses that answers deep questions in satisfying ways, These concepts continue to be worthy topics to contemplate in light of expanding scientific knowledge. Simple borrowing from his environment, even if he had been among the literati of his day with advanced education, is a theory that lacks explanatory power for what we have been given.


Anonymous said...

YES! All of it is borrowed from others! All of it! The three kingdoms. The story of Enoch. The idea that Jesus bled from every pore! Moroni, Nephi, and all the rest! All borrowed and remixed! Joseph was not a prophet but he was a genius of adapting his contemporary culture into something newish.

Anonymous said...

So says you, Anonymous. If I had to bet my life and even the life of my children on Joseph Smith’s veracity, I would do so.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Anon @3:25, I hope you aren't being sarcastic, because if not, then I think I know you. Aren't you one of those exceptionally tough patent examiners for the US Patent and Trademark Office? The kind who manage to reject every invention as an obvious variation on things already known. It's a remarkable gift. Hope you can explain more how you do it so brilliantly. I'd especially like to know how you do this for Nephi!

On bleeding at every pore, by the way, an interesting old but still useful response to the old objection that you might be hinting at is given at http://www.shields-research.org/Books/Sperry/AChap16.PDF, in spite of an unfortunate typo in the title of this document (perhaps an OCR error).

Anonymous said...

... the environmental thesis -- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions – does not provide a wholly adequate explanation....

Um, no. Straw man.

No one out there is seriously arguing that Smith's "cultural matrix" by itself can account for Smith's cosmology. The argument rather is that Smith's culture plus his own unique, creative religious imagination, without any supernatural/revelatory aid, are sufficient.

Everyone agrees that the materials circulating in Smith's environment did not organize themselves into a new cosmology. The question is whether Smith could have done so himself, without supernatural assistance. The mere fact that, in the course of assembling and remixing his cultural materials, Smith altered some of them, tells us nothing at all. The mere fact that he accepted some of the ideas in Philosophy of a Future State, but not all of them, tells us only that Smith did precisely what Shakespeare and Milton and Terry Pratchett and Ursula Le Guin and countless other writers have done. What accounts for the uniqueness of Smith's writings is the same thing that accounts for the uniqueness of Shakeseare's and Milton's and Pratchett's and Le Guin's: the individual creative genius that they stirred into the mix.

For a fuller explanation of this issue you might want to read the relevant chapters of Harold Bloom's The American Religion.

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

Straw man? The CES Letter, K. Hansen, and Fawn Brodie explicitly argue that specific concepts like creation from eternal matter rather than ex nihilo are found in a specific book by Thomas Dick. The argument was more specific than what you suggest and the simple refutation of that argument merely requires looking at what Dick actually wrote and comparing it to what Joseph actually wrote, and seeing that they are worlds apart in spite of having plural worlds in common. Now showing that their specific arguments lack merit is suddenly a straw man that nobody was ever arguing in the first place?

You know, I think that's kinda cool and deserves some kudos, for your response is strictly by the book. As we read in the Anti-Mormon Handbook, volume 2, section 9.11:

"Never concede an argument. If your ignorant Mormon opponents somehow find evidence or so-called 'logic' that appears to refute a specific argument, do not acknowledge that. Rather, shift the argument to a new field or ideally a related topic, such as a more generalized argument, but first label the apparent refutation as a 'straw man.' Make it appear that the Mormon opponent has deceitfully concocted a weak, easy-to-refute argument to attack, while missing a different target that is the real issue or more important issue."

Well played!

But yes, I will concede that for the more general, fuzzy argument you offer, it is possible that Joseph could have taken bits and pieces from the broad intellectual world of his day and with a great deal of creativity and sharp departures from his environment, concocted the illuminating, coherent, and intellectually rewarding framework of his cosmology just using his own mind (though it makes more sense if we throw in a heavy dose of divine revelation). But this approach based on random bits and pieces plus personal creativity and genius gives an argument that is far more flattering to Joseph than the CES Letter and most anti-Mormons will allow, and far less convincing, so they will continue to follow Brodie, who was convinced that her horrific distortion of Thomas Dick showed that Joseph's framework "came straight from" it.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, when I place a quote in italics above my own comments, it means those comments refer only to that quote. Ergo, my comments at 11:30 concern only your general statement that the "the environmental thesis --- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions --- does not provide a wholly adequate explanation." In fact, those comments were quite specifically about the way that the bolded word "entirely" created a gross misrepresentation of the "antis'" core position (i.e., a straw man).

About your more specific claims concerning "[t]he CES Letter, K. Hansen, and Fawn Brodie" I said nothing at all.

My primary point remains the same: there's still no reason to think the LDS scriptures could not have been written by Joseph Smith himself, without divine assistance, using only the materials at his disposal worked up with a certain amount of purely human ingenuity. This point is indeed "general," as you say, but it is not "fuzzy." And it would be quite easy for you to refute, if you actually had the goods.* But you don't have the goods (certainly none that can survive secular peer review).

-- OK

* In fairness, I should add that this is true not just of the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price. Biblical apologists also have failed to "deliver the goods." There's nothing in the Bible that could not have been written by humans without divine assistance. It's easy to imagine what "the goods" might look like in this case --- e.g., some specific and irrefutable prophecy of the distant future --- but they just ain't there. The problems go all the way down. The Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible: human artifacts, every one.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Sorry for the misreading. Paul's sentence that has "entirely sufficient" is not mean to be read to a literal extreme -- of course some human creativity is implied. But the arguments being made by critics stress Joseph's borrowing of specific ideas from specific sources, but on inspection, these arguments are implausible. When you said, "No one out there is seriously arguing that Smith's 'cultural matrix' by itself can account for Smith's cosmology," that drew my attention since, in fact, Brodie et al. actually were saying that Joseph got his cosmology "straight from" Thomas Dick. And attacking the smoking gun said to the specific source for multiple specific ideas is not a straw man, though your point is on the issue of Dick et al. being "entirely sufficient" versus "sufficient when coupled with human creativity."

So do you agree that the Brodie's and the CES Letter's use of Dick as an apparent source for Joseph is seriously abusing that reference and rather implausible?

Anonymous said...

About the CES Letter I have nothing to say, not having read it. But yes, I do think Brodie got it basically right about Dick as a source for Smith. Your entire argument boils down to this: because Joseph did not slavish replicate Thomas Dick's cosmos in all of its details, Dick must not have been a source for basic terms and concepts." And that just does not follow, Jeff. That's not how influence works.

I have a question prompted by your characterization of No Man Knows My History as "highly questionable": Have you actually read Brodie's book yourself? If you have, you might have noted how closely most of it tracks with later biographies, including Bushman's. If you haven't read it, but only read about it, perhaps you should be less eager to judge it.

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

So OK, when you say that Brodie got things basically right regarding Thomas Dick as a source for Joseph Smith, I'm curious which aspects of her argument you include in that assessment? She's rather specific and forceful. Here are the points that she sees Joseph taking from Thomas Dick:

1. Kolob and countless lesser stars are peopled by spirits
2. There spirits are eternal as matter itself [pertaining to Joseph's denial of creation ex nihilo, per the CES Letter and Hansen]
3. There is great variety among spirits - granted
4. The spirits progress toward perfection [in knowledge] - granted
5. The cosmos revolves around God's throne.

She sees this coming "straight from" Thomas Dick. Dick does teach multiple inhabited planets as do others, and teach that in immortality we can keep learning and thus make progress toward intellectual perfection. That's reasonable and hardly novel. But when it comes to the cosmology of Joseph, there are serious problems with Brodie stating Joseph got it straight from Thomas Dick. Problems with Brodie's statement include:

1. Joseph doesn't say Kolob or the stars are peopled. She's wrong.
2. Dick doesn't say spirits are eternal. They are created from nothing. She's wrong.
3. Dick doesn't say matter is eternal, as in Joseph's framework. It is created from nothing. Maybe it lasts after creation, but that's not the unique aspect of Joseph's cosmology. Brodie, again, is wrong.
4. Joseph doesn't say that God's throne is at the center of the cosmos. If anything, according to the Book of Abraham, it's out the outermost or uppermost orbits/layers, governing the lower orders. Not to mention that God for Thomas Dick can't sit on a throne, doesn't have a throne, and isn't anywhere in particular.

So what exactly is "basically right" in Brodie's paragraph that seems rather packed with error? That there are stars and planets? New Testament has that covered. Immortal beings who learn? Not unique to Thomas Dick either. God as Creator? Old news. What is it that links Joseph Smith's rather unique and coherent cosmology to Thomas Dick enough to draw a meaningful relationship and cite him as a specific, plausible source?

Anonymous said...

Jeff, what is basically right in Brodie is that Philosophy of a Future State (PFS) discusses things like the image of the Throne of God, the idea of creation as the organization of matter, the concept of multiple levels of intelligences, etc. in the context of early 19th-century science rather than the bibical cosmology. Broadly speaking, this is what Joseph got from Dick and then put to his own creative uses in the BoA.

The use of PFS's terms and concepts, and their placement in PFS's context, are alone enough to suggest PFS as a source. Add the fact that Joseph had easy access to the book, and add to that the timing of that access and PFS's terms and concepts showing up in the BoA, and one has a very good case for PFS as a source.

Your entire argument hinges on the supposed scandal that, rather than slavishly plagiarizing PFS, Joseph processed its ideas through his own creative imagination, retaining some ideas more or less intact and repurposing others. But this is not an argument against PFS as a source; it's simply the ordinary way in which creative writers use sources. The fact that Joseph's planets differ from Dick's stars, or that Dick explicitly has the universe revolving around the throne of God and Joseph does not --- these are immaterial. It's like observing that Holinshed's weird sisters were beautiful wood nymphs whereas Shakespeare's weird sisters are ugly old hags, and then concluding that Shakespeare could not have used Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland as a source for Macbeth. It's just ludicrous, Jeff. One could pick out many, many other ways in which Shakespeare differs from Holinshed, but these differences would do nothing to detract from the significance of the many obvious borrowings. The fact that Shakespeare weaves the sisters into his story of the mad Scottish king, combined with Shakespeare's access to the Chronicles, is itself enough to indicate Holinshed as a source.

FWIW, you actually seem to be broadly agreeing with me on this stuff --- you seem to be basically saying you "have no problem" with the environmental thesis, properly understood --- when you write this:

I have no trouble with language from Joseph's environment, such as "intelligences" as a term to describe intelligent life or spirit beings, influencing his use of language to express revealed concepts. I have no problem with terminology and even core concepts from others having influenced his thinking, his choice of words, his inquiries and interests. But for those who are willing to exercise a modicum of faith, there is something much more interesting going on than just trying to generate revenue with some flashy Egyptian relics or bewilder awed believers with fabricated revelations. There is a richness in his cosmological revelations from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants and the Books of Abraham and Moses that answers deep questions in satisfying ways….

Yes, exactly. Joseph was influenced by his environment, but in writing the BoA he went beyond what he took from that environment. Yes, there is something more interesting going on. Very much so! But this is true of every writer worth reading. It’s not evidence of divine revelation; it's simply how influence works. Influence is not the same as plagiarism. It's not just slavish copying. It involves creativity and imagination. It involves the creative transmutation of the source material to fit one's own ends.

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

Dick teaches creation as creation from nothing, ex nihilo. Now that matter is there, yes, God works with it. But when Joseph speaks about the organization of matter, it is organizing an eternal substance, not something created out of nothing, as Dick and most others in his day clearly taught. Joseph's denial of creation ex nihilo can only be attributed to Thomas Dick by willful ignorance. The same applies for Brodie's ridiculous claim that this was also the source for the concept of eternal souls, souls as eternal as matter.

Abraham 3's treatment of intelligences is in the premortal state. This is a vital and unique contribution of Joseph. Brodie and you try to pass this off as just a reflection of Thomas Dick's different levels of intelligence among current beings after their creation from nothing, now in the mortal and post mortal world. There's nothing at all interesting in noting that there are differences in humans now, or differences between humans and non-humans (Dick's angels and seraphim). The CES Letter and Brodie attempt to explain the unique premortal views in Abraham 3 as just something taken "straight from" Dick. They are stretching things terribly in making those arguments.

As for the "image of the throne of God," for Dick the throne does not exist. God is immaterial and has no throne, so he explains away biblical references to the throne as being figurative, not being anything real with a real image. But, he argues, since he thought the universe had a center of revolution somewhere, that center could metaphorically be called the throne of God. Not the image of anything. Not anything concrete. Not a place where God actually reigns and could sit because He can't sit anywhere. And all this is a polar opposite of what Joseph taught. But most surprising of all is Brodie's claim that Dick was the source of Joseph's central throne of God around which everything rotates, when if anything, the Book of Abraham teaches the diametric opposite. The throne is near Kolob which is in the outermost layer of Abraham's cosmology, not at the center.

How can we go from such polar opposites (ex nihilo versus eternal matter, eternal intelligences in a premortal state to intelligences created from nothing now showing differences, of course, in mortality and beyond, and a figurative throne of an immaterial God at the center of rotation to a real throne of a tangible God at the outer limits/highest level of the cosmos), and claim that this is "basically right" of Brodie, pretty much the same, and that Joseph got all his unique material from the very non-unique Thomas Dick? Dick did mention planets and progress, and that's interesting but hardly unique, hardly an evidence of influence. It is something other sources had discussed, but is only the beginning to what makes Joseph's framework so intriguing.

But if you're really comfortable with Thomas Dick as a key source, that's fine. It's definitely OK to believe that Thomas Dick was the source for significant content that Joseph dressed up with a bit of his farmboy creativity. Joseph's creativity may have been notable, but I think it pales in comparison to that of Brodie and the CES Letter.