Friday, December 06, 2002

A quick note on the Scientist's revelation.

I won't pretend to understand the modified Kantian epistemology business with its simultaneously necessary and contingent conditions (I need to be hand held through that), which may be the very essence of your revelation, which may mean that what I'm about to say is irrelevant, but perhaps still revelatory in its own way (not really, I just like the wordplay of "revelate" and "relevant"--I'm hopelessly literary).

On the question of whether there are constraints upon God whether metaphysical or physical, my answer is a resounding "No!" (surprise, surprise). However, there are real cultural constraints upon Him, especially insofar as He and everything else is defined precisely by relatedness (most obviously, He and we are bound by covenants into which He and we enter). God's success as God is predicated on His observance of a cosmic code of "manners" established over eons out of the interactions of innumerable intelligences.

Intriguingly, in the animate multiverse of Mormonism, I think that this culturalist argument can even extend to the physical realm. Perhaps even in the mechanical universe of modern science such an argument can make sense. A somewhat renegade (and brilliant) scientist/philosopher named Rupert Sheldrake has recently advanced the argument that natural laws are actually nothing more or less than the habits of organisms accumulated over long periods of time, a sort of cosmic cultural hegemony/consensus.

My point is that everything, even seemingly a priori and foundational natural laws, may arise out of the relations between intelligences, out of cosmic culture. Taking the Mormon multiverse's plurality seriously (always remember Joseph's bit on the beasts of Revelation), we must stretch ourselves to imagine other dimensions, universes, planets, where things might operate very differently because of different cosmic historical trajectories.

Some time I'll have to discredit myself entirely by sharing with you some of the fun theories about aliens that my father raised me on. Such science fiction still forms much of the subtext of my conception of the Mormon multiverse.

I want to hear the cutting-edge ideas about cosmogony that only you Mormon minds can supply. If you take my premise that everything arises out of the cosmic culture(s) forged by intersubjective intelligences (which I'm sure you all wholeheartedly and uncritically do), does this force us ask the question of where intelligences "come from"? Or is Mormonism, like pragmatism, a critique of such origins-talk (I sent you all an e-mail about this issue in our prior ontology roundtable, which I'm sure is written in your hearts), refusing to have anything to do with such questions (and is this a limitation or a liberation?).

Specifically, I want to try out the possibilities of mutual organization, which would make intelligences relational and cultural from the start, though I can also go with a pluralistic ontology in which intelligences contain the capacity but not the necessity to relate to one another. However, this still begs the question that the Historian may have caught me in, which is, why would the intelligences want to relate in the first (or second) place?

I actually think this is an interesting question that by no means has some necessary ground of Being as its inevitable answer (sorry Historian). My pluralizing bent makes me think that intelligences must have an infinite range of reasons for wanting to relate to each other in infinitely peculiar ways (just like people do here on earth). And/or maybe it just comes down to a question of some intelligences being simply (and spectacularly!) compelled by some other intelligence(s)'s rhetoric (and power) about a certain kind of salvation (sounds like Abraham 3?). However, maybe this begs another question regarding the nature of intelligence itself that may readily fall prey to another sort of essentialism.

However, by a pragmatic standard, if I suggest that the nature of intelligence is nothing more than the capacity for relation, the conditions that this essentialism suggests are so diverse, plural, and limitless, that my formulation for all intents and purposes escapes any essentializing consequences. One of the classic repudiations of relativism as logically contradictory because it absolutizes nonabsolutism (and so makes the same move that it proposes to critique) is thus true enough in technical philosophical terms (and makes all of the foundationalists feel really clever), but in my mind it remains nothing more than an instance of sophistic one-upmanship with a cash-value related only to the politics of the academy, as the world that relativist premises invoke and evoke is in all of its practical effects thoroughly (in metaphysical terms at least) nonabsolute and limitless.

On a related final note, I want to say that a properly rigorous cultural relativism avoids the abject subjectivism that more cavalier forms can foster and that many people rightly fear, which takes me back to where I began in talking about cultural constraints that are so real that they actually have claim upon God Himself (which perhaps zaps the specter of the tyrannical God of caprices that philosophy may have been in part invented to combat). As William James put it:

"Pent in, as the pragmatist more than any one else sees himself to be, between the whole body of funded truths squeezed from the past and the coercions of the world of sense about him, who so well as he feels the immense pressure of objective control under which our minds perform their operations?"

and, in a similar vein, on the question of what exactly "works"

"[A new truth] must derange common sense and previous belief as little as possible and it must lead to some sensible terminus or other that can be verified exactly. To 'work' means both these things; and the squeeze is so tight that there is little loose play for any hypothesis."

In other words, the exigencies of a field of power relations that goes all the way up to the heavens provide more than enough rigor. We don't need an absolutist metaphysics to ground them. So maybe the slippery slope of relativism is not so slippery . . .

Cosmic historicism, baby,


P.S. Scientist, tell me if anything I said engages at all what you were talking about. And all of you, please call me on my no doubt clumsy and embarrassing (mis)use of philosophical concepts!

Calling all pluralists!

A question for you. God exists, we exist, stuff exists; nothing else does in the form of absolute X Y or Z. Our Historian might argue that Love which binds us together 'exists' (he might call it the light or glory of God or divinity or something) and that at some level is a metaphysical constraint for God. So what about physical constraints on God, IE metaphysical constraints from matter? Do you suppose that matter acts the same way in each universe and that the laws of physics are above God and therefore necessary?

I would like to say that the essence of matter is not number or space or time like that villian Descartes or the early modernists would have us believe, but perhaps mass/energy. Space and time are accidental as they are in Aristotle. Thus m/e can be 'present' to a God whose space/time 'manifold' is radically different from our own (and we know it is: he is eternal, disobeys entropy, is omnipresent etc). This will allow the Historian to say that divinity is relating to everything at once, and it may allow a modified Kantian epistemology: to argue that our perception of space and time is inherent to our 'mortality' and that synthetic a priori propositions are 'necessary' in the sense of our relation to the mortal, physical world, but 'contingent' in the sense that we have no way to get outside ourselves and check 'reality.' For synthetic a priori propositions then read math and physical science: necessary and yet contingent. TA DA!!

Naively yours,
I enjoyed the Ostler enormously. I am still interested in the Historian's rejoicing over Blake's idea that divinity means being related to and relating to everything immediately. Does this require that we only relate to things through the light or grace of God? Or can we do this of our own intelligences? I want a better understanding of the concept of relation also.

On another note I skimmed briefly through some of Paul's Science Religion and Mormon Cosmology. He is a historian of science (I am sceptical of history of science, I see it something like an internal audit) who is very well versed in the cosmology of the 19th century and has done some remarkable research and thinking about its integration into Mormon thought. His thesis seems to be that science and mormonism are completely commensurable, and seems heavily focused on mormon thought up to Widtsoe. (Something I did not suspect: in his later years Widtsoe changed his views somewhat and was not willing to give up as much to science--very interesting). To the extent that Mormonism has never been at war with science as was Catholicism and Protestantism, I think he is right.

But here is what kept me up all night. He states in two paragraphs the mormon philosophy of science (oh please let this be irony please please): that there is 'law irrevocably decreed in heaven' and that Justice, Mercy, Law, Matter, Truth are eternal, real, and accessible through human understanding. Science is not a human construct or model of reality but in some sense really reflects the actual universe. He wants to say that it discovers Truth. He calls this philosophic realism. I call it deeply troubling.

In a way I do want mormonism to restore to science a viable epistemology. I do want to find a metaphysic which will work for science but also allow for mind; I do want man to have a meaningful place in the universe, and have some glimpse into understanding nature and God. It seems this is what mormon thinkers were trying to do, coming up with the above. But by accepting these claims of 'modernism' I think you cannot escape the philosophical funk of postmodernism and the science wars. The metaphysical assumptions of mormonism and science seem incommensurable. And here Paul wants me to believe that mormonism gives theological support to these modernist claims that are WAY TOO STRONG and lead in my opinion to science imperialism and an emasculated Mormonism. I think it leads to literalism, fundamentalism, totalitarianism, and EO Wilson. Flee!!

Sure 19th century and early 20th century mormons who lived at the time of logical positivism held these views of science, but are they tenable? I want a qualified realism where matter and intelligences exist but that is all. I do not believe in Justice or Law or Scientific Truth in the idealist sense. I really do think scientific theories are models and would like to keep scientific knowledge to a pragmatic basis only; it is true insofar that it is useful. I think if you drop the modernist reading and read the Literary Critic's pluralistic pragmatist multiverse vision of mormonism onto science you might get somewhere. Drop the Widtsoe and Roberts and read Joseph. You save science by pragmatism but reject Scientific Truth, and along the way hopefully you can meld matter and mind together (since all is matter anyway) with spirit fluid and the light and glory of God. Thoughts?

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Great stuff last night, guys. And welcome, Antiquarian! Thank you for your illuminating insights.

"If revelation is always contingent, and nothing is safe from revision, what exactly am I supposed to believe?"

--The Historian

I think that this is the question that Mormonism (and pragmatism of course) pose most pointedly. I am starting to see Mormonism precisely as a radical theory of reading that essentially levels the textual playing-field, making all discourse a sort of smorgasbord from which it can freely and creatively draw those truths that it considers tastiest for the prophetic present. Shockingly, especially considering the religious milieu from which Mormonism emerged, this discursive buffet even includes the canonical paragon of canonicity itself, the Bible. However, Mormonism problematizes transhistorical claims to canonical authority not by foreclosing the possibility of divine inspiration altogether (Enlightenment rationality) but rather by proliferating that possibility (Mormon ecstasy!), by enchanting rather than disenchanting the universe, by distributing charisma more democratically.

Suddenly, anything spoken by the Spirit, anything animated by some measure of intelligence is potentially scriptural (D&C 68:4). The canon is so wide open that it fairly ceases to be a coherent as a canon. On this view, Joseph (and we his intellectual descendants) feel surprisingly free to enlist just about any discourse--even what might conventionally be conceived as profane ones (Masonry, folk magic, science, law, literary theory [the most detestably profane, right?], history?)--that we feel will "work" in the work of our exaltation. Mormonism is a flexible form rather than a coercive content, a fluid medium of translation rather than a fixed language, a metadiscursive method rather than a static creed. Mormonism reconceptualizes tradition as a toolkit rather than a totalitarianism.

What I think is marvelous about this is that it allows texts to be authoritative and have real claim upon us and value for us insofar as they produce good fruits. Exposing the constructedness of a given text, even--or especially--a "canonical" one, does not necessarily have to utterly deflate it, sparking a crisis of indeterminacy. We can still accord it considerable, meaningful power simply by beginning to locate that power not in the mystified conditions of its creation but in the text itself and the effects it produces by its reception (isn't this what Moroni 10 asks us to do?). I refer you all back to my initial rant about cosmic historicism and the consequences for the status of religious claims when we have a King Follett God who admits that He Himself is a rhetorician.

Now the real question becomes, as the Lawyer raised a while ago: what are the criteria for "what works"? What constitute "good fruits"? That's one we should start wrapping our minds around.

You guys rule,

After our soiree last night, the Literary Critic and I were talking about the Orson Pratt-Brigham Young controversy. I think that he should write a play about it. Anyway, the standard article on this was published years ago in Dialogue by Gary Bergera, now of Signature Books. It is a really facinating article, although I think that Begerra is either niave or uninterested in the philosophical implications of the conflict and tends to reduce it to a morality play of "Unthoughtful, Authoritarian Prophet" vs. "Fee-thinking, Intellectual Apostle." Still, it is an excellent article.

Anyway, I note that Bergera has just published a book on the topic Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith. It looks like it would be worth reading at some point.
Welcome to the elderen Antiquarian. I am actually the one who posted the info of Enoch, Islam, and Hermeticism. I will run down the reference when I get back to my books.
The Historian recently brought it to my attention that there had been some discussion of Enoch (specifically with regards to his hermetic and Islamic aspects) within the Metaphysical Elders, and he forwarded me some questions. Below are my responses. However, a few words of introduction are in order. I suspect that most of you already know me, though there may be one or two who do not. In keeping with the traditions of your college I will refer to myself as The Antiquarian. I think that this title pretty much sums up many of my interests and personality. Thanks for allowing me to discuss with the Metaphysical Elders.


An interesting set of questions. Enoch actually occupies an exalted place in orthodox Islamic thought so it is not surprising to see him showing up in schismatic movements as well. There is in fact quite a literature on Enoch in Muslim folklore, much of which was translated into English and circulated in America before the Jewish originals got translated (i.e. it was circulating in the 1850s and decades earlier). It seemed that American publishers were more interested in the folk-tales of infidels than Rabbis.

Well, long story short there are lots of correspondences between the common Islamic Enoch and the Jewish traditions, mostly because the Koran and other early Islamic thinkers borrowed extensively from Jewish sources (but don't say that in public unless you want your own personal fatwa for Christmas). For example, compare the opening section on Adam and Eve in the Koran to the 'Life of Adam and Eve' (and the endowment for that matter) sometime. Certainly they picked up some Enoch stuff this way.

However, they also have some fairly unique things that have little to no correspondence to the larger tradition. For instance, Enoch is never called Enoch, he is usually referred to as ‘Idris’. Some scholars think that Idris was a pre-existing folk or literary character, and Enoch's reputation was attributed to him. I have not followed this strain of the literature in any detail, but I've seen some controversial articles on both side of this debate on-line.
If true it might explain why some of the Muslim Idris material is so alien to the larger tradition.

I would be interested in whatever references or translations of Islamic hermetic material with Enoch the Lawyer digs up. Enoch has long occupied this sort of role. The fact that 'God took him' inspired a whole literature about Enoch's heavenly exploits. He became in both 1 Enoch and especially 3 Enoch (a work by the Descenders of the Chariot) the guardian angel and guide to those who sought to enter God's heavenly Temple. He meets the mystic at the threshold of God's throne room in his guise as Metatron, or ‘little YWHW’.

3 Enoch is also interesting in that it relates a whole magical angelology. This combined with the demonology in the Testament of Solomon formed the basis for a certain school of ritual magic in Europe and ‘practical’ Kabbalah more generally. Within the European ritual magical tradition the names of the demons and angels from these Enoch texts were remembered and invoked (often in painfully garbled form) and Goetic texts were attributed to Enoch (as well as Seth and Abraham). Within the more hermetic magical traditions Enoch's role as master of initiation for those seeking mystical union with God seems to have been remembered, if only as a shadow. For instance Enoch was a subject of interest for that brilliant mathematician turned Magus, John Dee, who knew about and even produced a 'Book of Enoch.' As a matter of fact, it appears that Dee managed to piece together a pretty decent understanding of who and what Enoch was. In many ways it was similar to JS. But here is the difference. Dee was one of the most well educated men of his day. His personal library was the largest collection of books in all of England (yes, larger than the collections at Oxford) and he spent his whole life researching arcana like this. Joseph came up with similar answers, but provided a huge amount of additional detail, and did all of this in a few revelatory sittings without the benefit of an extensive library, education or lifetime of study. But I digress. The Ars Magica are just like that.

The Antiquarian

It seems to me that the Historian has two, contadictory worries about texts. The first is that desire to keep interpretation of scripture open and the fear that doctrinal pronouncments will close this off. The second is an axiety about the authority of texts in the first place. It seems that on one hand you are worried that the push for certainty will destroy the wonder of pluralism, and on the other hand that the brute fact of pluralism undermines the possibility of certainty. The fact that you can have both of these fears at once may be reason to think that in the end you have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Finally, I agree that texts have limits, but I am not clear about what they are. My point is not that we can make them say anything that we want them to say. Rather it is that they frequently say lots of different things and we should be suspicious that they are going to collapse down to a single, straigh-jacketing meaning. Nor, in the end, do I think that this straight-jacket effect is what authoritative church texts are for. I think that when reading something like the proclamation on the family we must look not only to the text (which I don't want to viciate or explain away), but also to the context in which it is given. Within this context, I think it is important to realize that the primary function fo such texts may be less to spell out precise rules than to push us in a certain direction, or perhaps simply to act as a counter-weight against powerful alternative messages from other sources. That said, I agree that texts will foreclose some options...
I suppose that name dropping and using author's as short hand for arguments is always dangerous, and it looks as though I messed up. Just for the record, Ronald Dworkin would agree with the conclusion offered by the Historian: the multiplication of texts forecloses interpretations. Dworkin would even go farther and say that once the body of texts to be interpreted reaches a critical mass there is only one possible right interpretation. My point was to say that while I agree with the methodology that Dworkin describes -- you come up with the most normatively compelling story/theory for explaining the texts before you -- I am not sure that I agree with the conclusion that he draws from that methodology. Namely, that a complex body of texts has a single correct or best interpretation by virtue of its complexity.

Not that this is a response to the points raised by the Historian, but having made the mistake of referring to Dworkin by name, I figured that I ought to clarify his claim.
After reading Ostler on Christology, I realized what a serious problem he is trying solve. There needs to be some definition of God that accounts for Jesus' divine status in his pre-mortal state (not to mention the Holy Ghost). This Christological problem arises from our conception of soteriology. In order to be gods, we must have physical bodies and have passed through mortality and obtained all those important experiences to make us love enough, but Jesus was God before any of this. The problem is further complicated by the fact that we claim that Jesus created the world. We generally think that when we become gods we will create our own worlds, but God assigned this to Jesus. So, what exactly is God's role in all of this if Jesus, a premortal spirit, was given the opportunity to govern this world, and what does that mean we will be doing when our turn comes? BH Roberts sees Jesus (rightly) as the exemplar of our salvation rather than some bizarre metaphysical exception of divine/human mumbo jumbo. So, if this is true, how do we define "divine" or "God" as to include all three members of the Godhead and their various metaphysical/experiential conditions?
The discussion about authoritative texts is an important one, and though I am always impressed by the creativity of the Literary Critic and the Lawyer in this regard, they seem to be overlooking some issues. I think that my discomfort with the authoritative texts on doctrinal matters is precisely because it limits the amount of creative interpretation possible in the scriptural canon. Despite Dworkin, the more texts you have and the more specific they are, the less room there is for potentials. Now, people still try to get creative with these texts. I once heard a female lawyer in NYC discuss the Proclamation on the Family. She applied a very creative reading of the text, specifically this "clause" that comes after a weighty discussion of gender roles: "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation." She understood "other circumstances" as "or, if you don't really believe all of this crap you can disregard it." I thought this was a nice lawyerly reading, but at the same time gutted the text of any authority. My point is that texts do have limits, despite what literary critics and lawyers sometimes think... Now, coming up with a grand unifying theory of everything sounds good to me, but I am not really sure that it can be done without either badly interpreting some things, or just excluding them altogether, especially within the plurality we call Mormonism.

The second problem is related, but it is less about the flexibility of interpretation of texts than their ontological status. There is a tension in Mormonism between the status of revelation, church proclamations, and even scripture as authoritative, and the concept of continual revelation. The moment a revelation is given, it is subject to revision due to its ontologically contigent status. It makes even the most foundational texts in Mormonism radically contigent. This is kind of scary. Worse, it calls into question the reason for reading any of the canonical texts at all. Is there a standard for navigating one's way through these texts and knowing what it is that one is supposed to believe in them, and what one is supposed to disregard? Do I know that King Follet supercedes Mos 15:1-4 because it comes later, or is better, or do I just prefer it? If so, why should I read Mos 15:1-4 at all? With all of the possibilities for doctrine within Mormonism, BoM, D&C, Bible, early JS, late JS, BY, etc, how do I know which one is correct? Or, as the Literary Critic seems to be saying, are none of them "correct"? If revelation is always contingent, and nothing is safe from revision, what exactly am I supposed to believe?

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

I like the Lawyer's law-based conception of authoritative texts, which I think is essentially how literary critics have come to regard canonical texts ("canon" after all is an important word for both lawyers and literary critics). However, I don't know that your average Saint would conceive of authoritative texts as being so ultimately multivalent. In other words, I think that such a take is ultimately not much more conservative and orthodox than a "never-ending cultural criticism."

On that note, the question of teleology is an interesting one. Does that put us back in the realm of the Transcendent? I don't think it necessarily does, because:

1) The communitarian telelogy of Mormon dispensationalism is itself a cosmic cultural construction--we must remember that there were potentially many other plans discussed by no doubt various councils; we must be able to conceive of the infinite number of alternatives that God(s) could have pursued throughout the course of cosmic history in response to infinite variables (what if Adam and Eve had stayed in the Garden longer, for one, not to mention the question of salvation practices in other realms of the infinite multiverse);

2) The teleology's fulfillment is by no means a foregone conclusion--here we must retain a sense of millenarian anxiety about the possibility of failure (think the account of the Flood in Moses 7 for one).

3) The teleology is a flexible praxis that arises out of the events at hand rather than a static form imposed upon a readily manageable reality that God more or less wills--the dynamism of the universe effectively makes the course to the telos so ad hoc, so improvisational, so fragile, so tenuous, so demanding of ingenuity, that facile teleology talk is significantly problematized; in other words, the demands of the how-to-get-there along the way somehow affect the where-we-finally-end-up; we constantly redefine and reconceptualize the telos in reaction to the exigencies of the cosmic present.

4) Teleology depends on a definite end of time when all we have is never-ending time--the job is never done; we never arrive at some kind of steady state; every telos begs another telos, which only reinforces the sense of teleology as a useful construction, a provisional game plan, a pragmatic strategy to achieve desirable objectives that are just that--desirable, good, justifiable, counseled-over, but not necessarily necessary (in the philosophical sense of the word), absolutely absolute, or ultimately ultimate. As you may all recognize by now, I think D&C 19 is just such a critique of deterministic teleology, as it represents a sort of divine course corrrection, or perfection, that redefines the means to the end in such a significant way that it may end up altering the meaning of the end.

More on all this later,


Sunday, December 01, 2002

In some of our discussions I have sensed some discomfort among some -- the Historian and the Literary Critic -- with the idea of authoritative texts. The discomfort is less directed at scripture than at things like "The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve," "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," etc. It seems that the concern flows from: first, a delight in the possibility of alternative -- more creative or historically sophisticated -- interpretations; and, second, a sense that official pronouncements stifle the luxuriance of interpretations. I have been trying to figure out why I have less of an issue with these sorts of things. It may simply be that I am more conservative and orthodox. However, I think that a large part of it is that I am a lawyer. In my game, THE GAME is the interpretation of authoritative texts. The point of legal interpretation is that authoritative texts -- as authoritative texts -- premit (even require) a broad range of interpretations. Thus, I am inclined to see official pronouncements as the beginning rather than the end of the interpretative game. Once we have the text we then get to ask interpretative questions like levels of generality, universalizability, context, background rules, etc..

In legal theory, Ronald Dworkin is famous for the proposition that the multiplication of legal materials constrains legal interpretation. In his book Law's Empire he argues that proper legal interpretation involves coming up with a story that both fits and justifies all the relevant legal materials on a principled basis. I think that Dworkin's approach to legal interpretation is probably right, but I am dubious that it collapses to a single right answer in the way that Dworkin posits. Rather, I think that I tend to follow Karl Llewellyn, who argued that it was precisely the multiplication of authoritative texts that precluded singularly, correct, deductive answers to legal questions. I tend to take law as an analogy for official, doctrinal pronouncements. Interpreting "church doctrine" is not a matter of "looking it up" or even of deductively deriving right answers. Rather it is a matter of creating plausible theories and stories that account for the authoritative texts in charitable and normatively compelling ways. Those who dismiss "legalistic reasoning" as arid, authoritarian, and without creativity tend to be lay men who know very little about actual legal reasoning.

The problem of course is deeper than this, both in law and Mormonism. In law the question is whether or not we want to have a system that is open to creative interpretation. The argument is that such a system creates official discretion and undermines the very notion of the rule of law in unacceptable ways. It is not such a bad argument. It is not clear that a world in which clever and creative lawyers and jurists flourish is a good one. Likewise, we should be cautious about assuming the validity of our own intellectual aesthetic intuitions. It is not clear that disucssions such as those that flourish in groups like the Metaphysical Elders are always good for the cause of Zion.