The Infinite, part 5. Mormonism and the Infinite.

The complexities of the infinite are magnified in ordinary discourse, and doubly so in western religions because infinity and its verbal relatives like “eternal” and “forever” are used in a wide range of ways, from the metaphorical and metaphysical to the literal. “Infinite” is sometimes used as a synonym for God. In an attempt to describe the “otherness” of God, phrases like, “sits on the top of a topless throne” were commonly used. Such seemingly self-contradictory claims were eschewed in Mormonism, which eventually engaged a very material aspect in the extra-mortal.

While most of the Christian world hid (consciously or by unconscious tradition) the Divine in the clouds of Plotinus and Aristotle (hopefully to remain untouched by the expansions of science) in a separate timeless realm, Mormonism embraced a dualism that claimed materiality on both sides of the divide. (whew)

But this claimed materialism is at least partly a surface semantics. Joseph’s words “there is no such thing as immaterial matter” while forming an empty tautology on its face, are really a swipe at Platonism: “there is no such thing as immaterial substance” would be closer to what he probably intended to say in the vocabulary of 4th century Christendom.

Other statements, like “all spirit is matter” are really saying the same thing. Joseph embraced an imprecise materialism which on closer examination is virtually as dualistic as the subliminally Greek-soaked Protestantism with which he found objection. “Spirit matter” is an undefined substance which cannot be sensed by human beings. Described as “more fine or pure” it is not (apparently) the kind of “matter” we associate with modern chemistry or particle physics.

Nevertheless Joseph attached the infinite to various aspects of his theology. Matter, presumably of any of the at least three kinds he espoused is “eternal.”[1] In this context, he clearly means “without beginning or end in time.” A timeless domain does not seem to exist for him. This is consistent with his material stance, since matter implies motion, and by definition, matter in motion creates the passage of time. Since Mormonism requires an embodied God, God lives in a domain in which time measurement happens by default. Indeed, Joseph gives us a relative time measurement. His oblique answer to the question of William Clayton concerning God’s time and angel’s time shows that he understood some of the implications of his materialism.

But at the same time Joseph suggests a different view of the Divine. For example “all things are present with [God] for he knows them all” or “the planet where [God] dwells is like crystal, and like a sea of glass before the throne. This is the great Urim & Thummim whereon all things are manifest both things past, present & future and are continually before the Lord.”

Assuming Clayton reported this accurately, we get another peak at Joseph’s view of the Divine. Omniscience-indeed this is infinite knowledge. But the implication for God is that time passes for him and the Divine audience with him. This leads us to a paradoxical state in several ways. One is information.

Clearly Joseph believed in an infinite expanse of time, the infinite past, the present, the infinite future. Not only does God have access to events in the infinite past, he can apparently apprehend the infinite future. He can see his own future. Is he free? Or is God bound by his own future? Set in stone like old deterministic views of the space-time manifold. Is man free? Or since the future is fixed in the mind of God, is free will a kind of gentle fiction? (The future’s already there, we’re already fixed trajectories in it in the mind of God.) Hence, is responsibility a fiction too?[2]

Moreover, Joseph clearly postulated that the human soul has existed as a conscious agent/person forever. The aforementioned issue of information comes to bear here as well. The amount of information is infinite presumably. But God knows it all. How does he store this information? Indeed, can it be stored in a material God? The physical universe keeps poor records. It gives hints of the past, but those hints must be plugged into models to generate a more complete picture of the past, and those models are imperfect. They don’t extrapolate to everything. Is the past mechanistic enough that we can run the machine backwards to restore the past in vision? Entropy would deny this.[3]

What of individual minds? Do they store the infinite past? If materiality is literal, the answer must be no. Atomic structures are finite in finite volumes. You can’t store infinite memory in a material mind, at least not in the sense of material as we understand it. Could any other sense be pushed out of the contradictory? The infinite future is in fact just as much a problem as the past. Information will eventually outstrip the physical capacity of any material record keeping. This ignores the attendant problem of information retrieval.

Is the physical universe of Mormonism infinite? The same kind of question has been fielded in science and given various answers. Some are consistent with a universe that might be of infinite size. If the physical universe is infinite, perhaps consisting of infinitely many “Hubble Bubbles,” how does a material God, operating through physical means, stay in communication? Is causality meaningful for God?[4]

Given an infinite past for individual conscious agents in Joseph’s cosmology/ontology, and adding his views on the nature of existence, that mortal experience is a necessary step in the lives of such persons, should they choose to “advance” in Joseph’s theological sense, the question of how “many” minds are out there waiting to advance may be important. The number may be finite, but if there is but one cycle through the mortal estate, then the process would have begun some finite amount of time previous to the present for those persons and will be complete “soon.” Of course the question arises as to how such time is measured. Joseph was clearly into a kind of primitive relativity as Clayton observed.

A more normative Mormon view would be that there are infinitely many minds. This raises the possibility that some minds would never have the chance for advancement to the physical plane. It all depends on “how” infinite the number of minds might be. Countable, and at any given time in the past, no mind has more than a finite wait for mortality provided there is at least one earth available to be embodied on, from some time in the past and on through the future.[5]

Does God contemplate all these minds at once?

Another interesting way in which the infinite may impinge on Mormonism is through its concept of theois. Does God have a history of mortality? Joseph seems to say he does (in a number of places and times). Moreover, most (but not all) Mormon thinkers who have considered this agree that Joseph thought God had a father in the Divine sense. In other words, that God was a human being on some physical world at some time in the (not infinite) past. The God of that universe, by a kind of reverse induction, was a mortal at some time in the distant past. The question of what “past” means here is relevant, and would be interpreted to mean the past of the subject. The point is, that this might imply some kind of infinite regress. Not in itself paradoxical perhaps, but it suggests a kind of authoritative conundrum. [6]

At least some of these questions can be addressed in various ways. Some of them are probably ill-posed — there is no good answer as they stand. Some can be reinterpreted by considering more carefully the language of scripture and Joseph Smith and his contemporaries.

And all these matters are connected with the infinite somehow. We’ve seen how seemingly innocent statements with regard to classification can entail paradox. Similar statements regarding the Divine may also be connected with paradox. To avoid that, perhaps uncomfortable restrictions must be placed on how we speak of God (and in Mormonism, man).

“You can now have this book in your home forever!” an ad touts.
Likewise, when the infinite is appealed to in informal Mormon discourse, a charitable attitude is useful. Many such statements can be reinterpreted as references to what, to the speaker or writer, seem incomprehensibly large, or otherwise difficult to understand objects or events. Such colloquialisms as “the eternities” and similar expressions are to be taken merely as a kind of reverential reference to the Mormon concept of infinite future and past.[7]

Finally, the nature of infinite time in Mormonism appears in nearly every case as a reference to a kind of objective continuum. In the physical universe at least, it is not clear that this idea can be made coherent. No one has offered a seriously rigorous interpretation that would be a complete theory (including all the other aspects of reality in Mormonism).

In the face of the infinite, there is much more that unites us than divides us, whether we share faith, or not. Mortality is our common lot and though our views of “before” and “after” may be hopeful, even comforting in the struggles of we “earthlings,” perhaps sharing a common bond of living and dying here ought to rank higher than it does. But whatever we do or believe or say, infinity awaits.[8]
[1] The matter which defines resurrected persons is at least one more kind perhaps.

[2] This destroys any chance of free will. Free will implies that moving through time there is actually the possibility of many futures. Seeing the future becomes an exercise in probability. The future is undecidable. The literature about this problem extends well beyond Mormonism.

[3] There is of course a long-standing strain of Mormon thought that postulates human minds began at some time in the preexistent life. Indeed, this strain shows itself in the current course of study for the Church’s priesthood/relief society. I think this strain is antipodal to Joseph Smith’s ideas (exclusive of whether it is correct or not). This alternate view has more serious problems with infinity, and free will. And it’s a pretty silly concession. Sorry Origen, et al. Also, the information problem suggests a radical difference in “spirit matter” and “mortal” matter!

[4] See D&C 88 – influence of God fills space. What space?

[5] This assumes that time is Archimedean. If minds have some kind of extension, then infinite space is required to hold them. Unless of course, that extension can become arbitrarily small. Fun.

[6] This kind of regress is usually rejected in set theory because it savors of the antinomies. Some Mormon exegetes have found a kind of Divine mind in the (transfinite) union of these divinities. Admittedly, this is not normative.

[7] We assume that such speakers are not telling of topological wonders like the “long line.” [The cartesian product of an interval with the first uncountable ordinal. Yikes. Mathematical grin.]

[8] 2 Nephi 2:2. Moreover, afflictions are apparently not confined to mortality. Moses 7:28. They’re infinite. Hot dog!

12 Responses to The Infinite, part 5. Mormonism and the Infinite.

  1. Eric Nielson says:

    This is a great series. Very well done.

  2. WVS says:

    Thanks Eric. It was fun. I can tell from the stats that it has not been terribly popular — but had to get some off my chest for some reason. Who knows, it might become a ‘nacle reference(;)

  3. Eric Nielson says:

    Could be. It is hard to tell since the future is open.

    I have been interested in this the last few days, since I am perhaps anticipating an infinite regress question at the SMPT conference. But hey, infinite sets are infinite sets, right? If you can accept that God has existed for an infinite amount of days, then there is no logical reason to not accept the possibility of any infinte set without other reasons.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Great post, WVS. I’ve submitted in several places that if the past is infinite then our knowledge must approach zero at some point.

    …there is also that reference to “eternal” as sort of divine hyperbole in section 19.

  5. W. V. Smith says:

    Probably not zero at some finite time. One could conceive of a kind of convergence to zero. But the future presents a genuine problem for material storage.

  6. Jacob J says:

    I enjoyed your thoughts. I posted a couple of years back on the information problem (here). You may find that discussion interesting if you haven’t seen it.

    and by definition, matter in motion creates the passage of time.

    Did you really mean the word “creates” here? If so I can’t make heads or tails of that, but if you meant that matter in motion relies, for its definition, on a concept of time then I am with you all the way.

    Mormonism embraced a dualism that claimed materiality on both sides of the divide. (whew)

    I really wish we had more from Joseph on this topic. It doesn’t seem like it would have taken too much longer in developing theology for him to have run into the problems lurking here and I wish we could see his approach to solving them.

    Since Mormonism requires an embodied God, God lives in a domain in which time measurement happens by default.


    • W. V. Smith says:

      Yeah, creates is probably the wrong way to think about it. Time is an embedded concept in moving matter. d=rt and all that.

  7. Jacob J says:

    I’m pretty sure links in my comment here sent it to spam or moderation if you want to fish it out.

    • W. V. Smith says:

      There are two links there. Were there more? Perhaps Joseph would have expanded his ideas here. I wonder. I think he did do some expansion over time, but I have questions about how much of this apparent expansion is from better reporting over time and perhaps some increased expressive abilities. I think his knowledge is best represented as a punctuated equilibrium. Many of his later ideas seem to appear in somewhat abbreviated form some years previous. I’ve been accused of believing these things about man came out of his experience with the papyri. Though interpretive depth may have only come with time.

  8. Jacob J says:

    Yea, that is the comment above, it wasn’t showing up for me before.

    I don’t have a firm opionion on the degree to which Joseph’s theology developed over time (or the shape of the development), so perhaps I was too strong in my statement. Punctuated equilibrium certainly seems to describe the way he rolled his theology out, I like it.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Probably not zero at some finite time. One could conceive of a kind of convergence to zero. But the future presents a genuine problem for material storage.

    Agreed. I sort of had in my mind the idea of the limit of our intelligence as it approaches zero. I’m not a big proponent of four dimentionalism, but it has some potential of solving the storage problem, I think. But then again, I generally don’t have strong attachments to the absolute infinite.

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