You are on page 1of 13

1 From Humanity to Fullness the Mormon Way: Is Science Eternal?

April 5, 2013 I was happy to receive an invitation from Lincoln Cannon to address the transhumanism conference. There is something liberating in the very name of this group. It seems like an invitation to think beyond ordinary human limitations, to speculate about what may be, to peer into the future. Encouraged by their theology, Mormons of a certain stripe delight in this kind of free thinking, and I plan to join their ranks today. I have thought of various subtitles to my somewhat obscure formulation: “From Humanity to Fullness the Mormon Way.” To clarify my intent, I have added the subtitle: Is Science Eternal? It could have been: Are There Laboratories in Heaven? From those clues you might deduce that I want to reflect broadly on the relationship of science to the Mormon view of the world, and that is indeed my aim. I am not at this point interested in the more common approach to the relationship of science and religion epitomized in the title of Andrew D. White’s nineteenth-century treatise, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology.1 There is plenty of that in Mormonism in the conflict over the DNA evidence on Indian origins or the nature of the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated. Conflicts like this need to be attended to; Mormons should never bury discomfiting scientific facts. But these controversies tend to fade over time as the strong positions taken by the antagonists are modified and adapted. No one that I know of worries about the age of the earth, a question that troubled religious people 150 years ago. A few Latter-day Saints are still concerned about organic evolution, but not many. Seventy-five years ago it was a major conflict but no more. These issues demand attention but turn out to be less consequential in the long run than they seem at the time.


I am interested more in another aspect of the science-religion relationship that is speculative and controversial but not contested. It is playful and provocative rather than argumentative. I am thinking of the strain of Mormon thought running from Parley Pratt through B.H. Roberts that sees Mormonism and science as not only compatible but harmonious and mutually reinforcing. These thinkers, among them John A. Widtsoe and James E. Talmage, believed that Mormonism was uniquely capable of assimilating the scientific world view and in fact the two, Mormonism and science, shared basically the same view of the physical universe. Parley Pratt struck this note in the first chapter of his Key to Theology. “Theology is the science of communication,” he began, meaning by communication revelation from God. But it was also the science of creation, of life, of faith, and spiritual gifts, and finally the “science of all other sciences and useful arts”: philosophy, astronomy, history, mathematics, geography, and of all “matters of fact, in every branch of art, or of research.”2 He drew no boundaries between science and religion. Theology was a science, and all science was theology. Pratt did not get very far in explaining how this all worked out in practical terms, but he participated fully in the nineteenth century’s enthusiasm for science. Ellen G. White, the leader of the Adventist movement in the second half of the century, shared that enthusiasm. The word science appears over 1800 times in her writings, most of the references in the spirit of Pratt.3 Everything religious was a science, and true science was entirely compatible with religion. Mary Baker Eddy wrote in the same vein under the title of her masterwork Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.4 Despite the conflict over evolution, the mid nineteenth century was a time when the promise of science and the hopes of religion could be envisioned as intertwining and mutually reinforcing.


That picture darkened as the century wore on. The deep conflict between the evolutionary conception of human origins and biblical ideas of creation came to appear more severe than was comfortable. By Andrew White’s time it was possible to reconstruct a historical tradition of ongoing warfare from the time of Galileo to the present, with religion opposing scientific truth at nearly every important juncture —the Copernican conception of the solar system, the geological estimations of the age of the earth, and finally the descent of the human species, with many lesser conflicts, such as smallpox vaccination, along the way. At every turn, religion appeared to have opposed scientific truth in defense of its dogma and its ecclesiastical power. By the turn of the century, instead of promising a productive collaboration in the pursuit of truth, the words “science” and “religion” evoked images of mortal combat with the soul of the world at stake. Mormon thinkers, however, did not follow other religionists into this battle. Rather than despairing of science, early twentieth-century Mormons embraced it more enthusiastically than ever. In his 1915 manual for the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums, John Widtsoe explained that “a rational theology,” the title of his book, “is based on fundamental principles that harmonize with the knowledge and reason of man.” In 1915, of course, “the knowledge and reason of man” meant science. Widtsoe, a scientist himself, was sure the principles of his religion and science harmonized.5 By modern philosophical standards, Widtsoe did not probe very deeply into the relation of these two systems of thought, but he was carried along by an immense confidence. “Man must learn of the universe, precisely as it is, or he cannot understand his place in it,” Widtsoe wrote.6 The words “precisely as it is” imply a complete openness to fact whether religious or scientific. Widtsoe was sure he could accept anything that came along in scientific or personal investigations and build on it. In fact, his view of eternal progression, the great Mormon doctrinal innovation at that time, was of intelligence


gathering information. The primal entity was imbued with will. “It was by the exercise of their wills that the spirits in the beginning gathered information rapidly or slowly, acquired experiences freely or laboriously.” His description of original spirits sounds suspiciously like an amoeba emerging from the slime: “The exercise of the will upon the matter and energy within reach, enabled the intelligent beings, little by little, to acquire power.”7 Both Widtsoe and Roberts based their confidence on the Mormon doctrines of what Widtsoe called “eternalism.” By that he meant that Mormons did not postulate a creation out of nothing, the critical act of God on which belief had been based for centuries. Instead Mormons believed that matter, energy, and intelligence were all eternal and had been simply organized by God. As Widtsoe put it, “The Gospel holds strictly to the conception of a material universe.”8 That put Mormonism in the camp of science as contrasted to traditional theologies which had imagined a metaphysic that was entirely extraneous to science. Within this material universe, Widtsoe placed a God who had learned and was learning like all other intelligences. In ‘the beginning’ which transcends our understanding, God undoubtedly exercised his will vigorously, and thus gained great experience of the forces lying about him. As knowledge grew into greater knowledge, by the persistent efforts of will, his recognition of universal laws became greater until he attained at last a conquest over the universe, which to our finite understanding seems absolutely complete.9 It was easy for Widtsoe to believe science and religion were compatible because God himself was a scientist. He had achieved his position through interacting with the forces around him until he gained sufficient knowledge to regulate the universe.10


Roberts elaborated Widtsoe’s perspective in the early chapters of The Truth, the Way, the Life, his thwarted attempt at a Mormon summa theologica completed by the early 1930s but not published for 60 years. Roberts hoped to follow Thomas Aquinas in attempting to build a theology purely by reason starting from ground zero. Aquinas had said that if you will grant that something exists, he would bring you to God using only the tools of reason. Roberts did not strip away quite so much in his construction but he did want to start with common knowledge. “How can we reason but from what we know,” was his starting point.11 By “what we know,” Roberts assumed with Widtsoe the facts as they were generally understood by science and common experience, with no theological premises about God or revelation.12 From that base he worked his way through commonly accepted astronomical findings to the solar system and the stars. Mormons reading the early chapters sense at once that he is building toward the notion of superior intelligences existing in some remote sphere who generously choose to communicate with their lesser brethren on earth. That was indeed where Roberts was headed, but in pursuing that track, there came a point where he knew he must go beyond the facts as they are commonly accepted to get to his destination. He steps beyond “what we know,” meaning scientific knowledge, to what, “can only be known with approximate certainty” and is only to be found out “by the process of ratiocination.” Such things can be known, as he put it, “up to the point of moral certainty,” by which he meant what common sense feels must be true or how things had to be.13 This method allowed him to conjecture about millions of other planets inhabited by benevolent beings, but there again he must stop. He has extended the bridge between scientific knowledge and Mormon theology as far as he can by ratiocination. From there on, his conjectures become mere possibilities. Here is how he put it: “Surely what we have observed about the universe and the probability of millions of other worlds than


our own being inhabited by great intelligences—greater than those of our world—would tend to the conception of the possibility of their sending forth a revelation as we have supposed.”14 That is the climax of his ratiocination: the possibility of revelation from benevolent, superior beings on other worlds. From there on he moves to the biblical tradition of revelation. I admire Roberts’s grand theological enterprise. He nobly undertook to construct Mormon theology from the ground up. He followed a path that only a Mormon could have trod, because Mormonism embeds God so completely in the physical universe. There is no thought of a God outside of time and space with footing in eternity. Roberts’s God governs from a planet within a solar system somewhere in the vast expanses of the sky. He is every bit a part of the universe we know. Roberts went beyond Widtsoe’s abstract eternalism to demonstrate how Mormons might concretely envision a material god within the world science has constructed. I am less concerned to test the validity of this theology than to point to it as the inheritance of modern Mormon transhumanists. Even though they have largely been forgotten, Roberts and Widtsoe are your ancestors. They make your speculations possible even though their views of science and religion receded after the 1930s. It became increasingly apparent, especially as the evolution debate heated up in the church, that science and Mormon theology were not always going to be peaceful bedfellows. Writing in 1940, Lowell Bennion adopted the view of science and religion now most common among Mormons. Though an admirer of Roberts, Bennion did not see science and theology as occupying the same sphere. Weaving science and religion together to create a unified picture of the universe was antithetical to Bennion’s thought. Religion was one approach to life, and science, philosophy, and art were others. “No person can comprehend the whole of life in its beauty, depth and breadth through a single one of these human interests to the exclusion of others,” Bennion


wrote. Science and religion occupy different realms, each with its own purpose. “Let each field of human endeavor speak for itself!” he wrote, emphasizing his point with an exclamation mark. They may conflict, but each must be allowed to perform its own functions, harmonized by granting each its due rather than integrating them. Science “gives us a description of the world in which we live, thereby enabling us to reckon with the forces at play.” “Religion is focused on the meaning, purpose, and why of life.” It helps man to “aspire to the more abundant life of God.” His plea to his student readers was not to give up religion when conflicts arose, but to respect the good that could come from each approach.15 I sketch in this historical background to remind transhumanists of their theological heritage as Mormons. Probably few modern Mormons share Widtsoe’s and Roberts’s confidence in the full compatibility of science and religion; on the whole we are more with Bennion. But I think that Mormon transhumanists still are interested in exploring the possibility of continuity, by which I mean a path leading from our current scientific and engineering to the powers of godliness. Is there a smooth curve between here and there, between humanity and fullness? Is intellectual progression in the hereafter in some way a continuation of science as we know it now? These are questions Roberts and Widtsoe would appreciate. We all know the theology that fosters this aspiration. Besides the doctrine of eternal progression as propounded by Widtsoe and Roberts, there is the scriptural assertion that the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there (D&C 130:2). Mormons commonly believe that heavenly life is an exalted continuation of earth life. Why should that sociality not include scientific investigation? Hence my initial question: Are there laboratories in heaven? Furthermore, Joseph Smith’s assertion that God was once a man, perhaps the prophet’s greatest heresy, encourages us to think that along the course to godliness, human achievements are not trivial.


The suggestion of laboratories in heaven, however, may dampen our enthusiasm for continuing scientific inquiry. We may talk of making and governing worlds, but we don’t necessarily think of test tubes and electron microscopes in the afterlife. Will we have to run experiments in heaven to learn how to make worlds? Will there still be research centers producing scientific papers that are published after peer review in scientific journals? Will we still have to collect data, form theories, debate among ourselves, and only gradually settle on standard models? We pause when we take the analogy this far, and it is this hesitation that I want to explore in the remainder of my talk. No Mormon contests the scriptures that say my ways are not your ways. We hold with Jacob that “it is impossible that man should find out all his ways” (Jacob 4:8). Human knowledge comes nowhere near God’s knowledge. God’s science permits him to create universes. He can organize matter, manage big bangs, perhaps lots of them, and devise worlds that foster human life. His science must be light years beyond ours. We are in elementary school; he is at the farthest reaches of graduate school and beyond. My question is what will happen when our pitiful human science confronts his advanced divine science? Even if we allow that we are on a path that leads from our current science to divine knowledge, how will we deal with the gap between the two when we come into the presence of God? I can imagine three responses. The first is what I call the textbook approach. By this I mean that the vast accumulation of divine science will have been recorded in books, and we must study them to catch up. We can imagine Richard Feynman sitting in the library for the next thousand years reading textbooks, perhaps emerging from time to time to play Brian Greene and explain to the rest of us what he has learned. Under the textbook model, scientific exploration as we now practice it will give way to scientific study as boys and girls in high school and college do it. We won’t need laboratories or


theorists to push us into new realms. Human science will come to an end as we bow before divine science and humbly try to catch up. The second model I am labeling investigative learning. On this view, we will indeed be light years behind God in our knowledge but to catch up we won’t revert to studenthood again and learn from textbooks. We will learn in laboratories rather than libraries. The best way to enhance our knowledge will be to keep on investigating with teams of scientists exploring every corner of the universe to figure out how it works. The job of discovering and disseminating will continue much as it does now. Scientists will continue their labors to acquire knowledge of creation by experimenting, theorizing, debating, and testing. This is the divine pedagogy. God doesn’t tell us everything he knows. He helps us to learn it for ourselves. This is an appealing model but it has one shortcoming. It leaves us with the feeling that all the while we are struggling to find out, the answers are already there in the back of the book. If only God would give us a break, his angels could tell us everything we need to know. We labor away on projects that were carried out eons ago. Our learning is an exercise like a high school chemistry lab. We are not really discovering new knowledge but learning old knowledge for ourselves. Science is more like a guessing game where we try to dope out what the masters of the universe already know. This problem can be partially overcome by a third model, what I am calling plural science. Under this scheme, our science is truly our discovery. It approaches the understanding of matter and energy in its own way. It has the potential of understanding everything, but is distinctively our own. Elsewhere there may be other sciences that go a long way toward understanding the same phenomenon in other ways. Each of these sciences has advantages and virtues that are its own and so are worthy of developing. They all hold the promise of bringing us godly power in their own ways. So rather than halting our investigations when we reach the other side we will be


instructed to carry forward our researches and elaborate our science as far as it will stretch. We may practice comparative science under this heading, holding conferences to learn from each other about differing solutions to particular problems. We won’t abandon our earthly science in favor of other sciences, because we will value the virtues and potentialities of the earth approach. We will feel a divine mandate to learn all we can by our own lights and indeed have divine support in our undertaking. To the question is science eternal, we would have to give a qualified answer. The project of science is eternal, to figure out how the universe works and can be managed. But the approaches, the formulas, even the mathematics, may take different forms to reach similar ends. Our science will be one variety, a species, of a universal inquiry. I am rather partial to this third model because of its compatibility with the Mormon belief in many revelations coming to people all over the world. Everywhere God seems willing to bring us along in our own way, allowing us to cultivate our own fields and draw close to him as best we can within our own cultures. The radical idea of many gods invites Mormons to think pluralistically. We are in some sense united in one grand cause, the cause of the divine order, but the end we seek is not uniformity but fullness. We want to pursue the potentialities of our various natures, to achieve fulfillment in our own ways. We pray that spiders and hummingbirds will fulfill the measure of their creations and hope the same for all our brothers and sisters around the globe. Why not for many populations on many worlds perhaps in many universes, each one following the Spirit of God to a fullness? You can see that I have taken full advantage of the transhumanist license to speculate freely. Probably only in a congregation of Mormon transhumanists could such thoughts be voiced. It had to be Mormon because we are the ones to narrow the distance between God and man and thus to sponsor B. H. Roberts’s attempt to go from what we


know to what God is in one smooth motion. It had to be transhumanist because we are charged in this organization to explore this very boundary between human science and divine achievement. But my concluding question has to be: Is this serious or is it just fun. It is certainly fun to let our minds roam in these realms, just as science fiction is fun or missionaries have fun pondering the mysteries. Is it also serious? Or to put it another way, does it make any difference how we think about the relationship of science to our religion? Is anything important at stake? I think there is a serious question underlying my excursions today. And that question is the one I voiced at the beginning: Is science eternal? Are scientists today discovering truths that will last, that give us access to elemental truths—or to put it more dramatically, are scientists exploring the mind of God? Does He think scientifically? On the one hand we might say no. “And no man knoweth his ways save it be revealed to him,” Jacob said. [Jacob 4:8] Science is only partial or human truth. It is useful for instrumental reasons; it makes us more comfortable on earth through applied science or engineering, and it gives us a coherent take on the universe. But it is not eternal. On the other hand, is it possible that God is revealing himself to scientists in their investigations? Is it not consistent with our belief that God would disclose his mind to inquiring humans via inspiration? Certainly Roberts and Widtsoe considered science to be true, and by that I mean true like from God. Probably most educated moderns feel the same. Don’t Mormons generally believe that scientists are discovering how the universe actually works? Scientific truths come as close to absolute truths as anything we have, many would say. Choosing between these two alternatives is of great importance. Because if we accept science as eternal, that is, as accurately describing how the universe works, we are by


that admission validating human reason. We implicitly affirm that the best human thinking can acquire eternal truth, not via a prophet but via a human inquiry through a collective of scientists. Once we open that possibility, that human reason can discover eternal truth, we are in a different world. We don’t have to accept every product of reason as eternal, every philosopher, every poet, every social scientist, as speaking for God or revealing truth. But we have to accept the possibility that humans are capable of discovering truth. Truth is within the realm of human reason. It may be hard to find, it may be obscured or distorted, it may be buried in error, but truth is there. This may be more of an admission that most Mormons care to make, because it means if we are to know the truth we must read more than scripture. We must not just absorb but sift, evaluate, discern, and judge the works of human reason. We must be on the hunt for truth all around us, not just in church. It is not enough to say that we have the most essential truths, the basics for salvation, and the rest can be learned in the libraries of the afterlife. The admission of truth in reason demands that we pursue it now, just as the scriptures demand to be read and evaluated for their truth. We must seek out of the best books even by study and also by faith (D&C 88:118). It is a larger burden than most of us care to assume, but we don’t have to bear it alone. The search for eternal truth, like the scientific enterprise itself, is necessarily collaborative. We can spread the work around. A community of seekers can work on the problems we cannot assume ourselves. If my reasoning is sound, this is serious business. We cannot at any time see this communal endeavor as trivial or incidental. It may be fun but it is also significant. As the scriptures tells us, if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, we must seek after these things. That is an essential part of going from humanity to a fullness in the Mormon way.


I commend the transhumanists in this organization for asking where will science and engineering lead us in another two hundred years. How do we extrapolate from the past two hundred years into the centuries ahead? In my opinion, we are right to believe that scientists are grasping the innermost secrets of matter and that engineers are on a divine errand in helping us to live better on this earth and perhaps on other planets or moons. Pratt and Roberts would commend this enterprise. Their Mormonism gives these inquirers its full backing. To these endorsements I add my own.


Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: D. Appleton, 1896). 2 Parley P. Pratt, A Key to the Science of Theology (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1965), 11-12. 3 Gerhard Pfandl, “Ellen G. White and Earth Science,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 14 (Spring 2003), 178. 4 Many editions. 5 John A. Widtsoe, A Rational Theology; As Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1915), iii. 6 Widtsoe, Rational Theology, 7-8. 7 Widtsoe, Rational Theology, 17.
8 9

Widtsoe, Rational Theology, 11. Widtsoe, Rational Theology, 23-24. 10 . Cf. Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,”Sunstone 5:4 (July-August 1980):24-33. 11 B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1994), 17. 12 Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life, 17 13 Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life, 90, 102 14 Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life, 105. 15 Lowell L. Bennion, The Religion of the Latter-day Saints, rev. and enlarged (Salt Lake City: L.D.S. Department of Education, 1940), 17-19.