Friday, December 13, 2002

Just for the record, I think that "How Firm A Foundation," alluded to below by the Literary Critic is a fount of false doctrine. I find it deeply annoying to be sitting in a Mormon sacrament meeting singing "What more can He say than to you He has said!" GAG! We should either expunge the hymn or change the lyrics like we have done with other Protestant hymns...
Concerning the Wilson lecture:

Big Bad EO-daddy (granddaddy?) reviewed the major tenets of his 1998 book Consilience in which he argues for the fundamental coherence and compatibility of all knowledge, IE the real sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. He quotes Bacon and 18th century French thinkers and really honestly believes that the enlightenment is the greatest thing since sliced cheese and we should bring it back. By consilience he means that the explanations of all knowledge should be coherent and we should be able to make causal statements from atomic physics to chemistry to biology to cognitive neuroscience to art criticism. It is true that the natural sciences have this type of consilient theory and methodology. He believes that borderland disciplines such as cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology etc will be able to stretch this paradigm to include the humanities. (note that by this he means theories of art/lit/music interpretation, not the creative act itself).

He then ran through examples such as: attractive women have high cheekbones and other features that correlate with youth, since being attracted to highly fertile women is evolutionarily beneficial; the reason you like looking out over a lightly forested park (complete with some type of water) is that humans evolved in the savannah in Africa and this is the environment we were selected for; etc. In one example a study was done where people were shown figures generated by computer with varying degrees of mathematical complexity (think Escher), and their response was measured by detection of brain waves indicating arousal. They found 20% complexity was the optimum, and showed that some art, logos and such contain roughly the same amount of complexity. Another example: the Westermark effect: incest taboos come from spending the first 30 months of your life together. If one of two people is under 30 months and they live in close domestic contact, they will not be sexually attracted later in life, this is the basis of the incest taboo. You get the idea: essentially our chemistry and genes and evolutionary history construct certain brain pathways that can be used to explain the arts. TA DA!!

Well, these arguments remind me of the study that showed that 7 digits is all that can be stored in our short term memories. While this is interesting, and provides a basis for explaning why telephone numbers have 7 digits, I myself find that the telephone digit length did not really require a scientific explanation, and likewise I wonder what sort of value this type of analysis will have for the humanities. It is true that neuro-imaging techniques are increasingly used to study response to art/music and so forth, and that this will affect how theories of such are made in academic humanity. But taking that to the genetic and atomic level, and what is meant by causation anyway, are very difficult problems. My prediction is that there will be inroads into these fields and even linkage to genes involved, and science imperialism will continue to grow, so in this sense I believe him to be right. Yet the relevance of this to your average Joe will likely decrease.

On a related note I've found an interesting treatment of metaphor in 20th century biology by Evelyn Fox Keller in which she discusses the role of the gene in the early 1900s: it is both information and the power to make that information a reality, she likens it to simultaneously the ancient atom and Platonic soul. She shows how geneticists assumed that the gene was causal (as opposed to the cell via development and embryology) and how that effected related disciplines until very recently when epigenetic effects (ie above genetics) are being discovered. Very cool stuff.

But more than that I'm very excited about Newton and Hermeticism; we all know he studied alchemy, but the case has been made very convincingly that this was what allowed him to develop modern physics, especially the concepts of force and gravity which are occult ideas (action at a distance). Initial responses by the mechanists were negative even to his Principia, and it had to be whitewashed by 18th century thinkers. I read about this somewhat in the Paul book, which is very well done. He does acknowledge the problems with Mormonism asserting a strong scientific realism, but I still think his thesis is that the two are compatible. Must read more. As always I want to incorporate the animism and pluralism of mormonism but to be honest do not know how that would do to science. I still want to reject the Uri Gellers of the world that bend spoons with their minds.
I absolutely love the Brigham Young sermon on the eternity of sermonizing. Great stuff. Thanks for never failing to find incredibly cool moments from our richest of traditions, Lawyer.

On Mormonism and anti-foundationalism:

I think it is very hard to deny that many elements--fundamental elements no less--of Mormonism, as you put it, "look like" anti-foundationalist philosophy. Instead of immediately explaining these likenesses away by rushing to establish more seemingly safe and firm foundations, I think it is incredibly enlightening to "experiment upon the word" (our own word mind you!) and see where these definite anti-foundationalist elements might take us. A general impression exists that all anti-foundationalist roads necessarily lead to a devil-may-care nihilism that is inconsistent with Mormon belief, but I think that one of the things that makes Mormonism such an event in the history of philosophy is precisely the trailblazing of an alternate anti-foundationalist route toward a constructive constructivism. In other words, let's trust in the inspired genius of Mormonism and follow these seemingly threatening anti-foundationalist threads into (and maybe out of) the labyrinth.

I can agree that Mormonism technically may not fit the anti-foundationalist bill on the grounds that it does involve in some measure a metaphysics of persons (thanks for the term, Lawyer) and/or an ontology of eternal intelligences. However, by the same token, such a metaphysics/ontology means that Mormonism certainly does not fit the foundationalist bill either, as, in the animistic Mormon multiverse, a foundation based on persons who progress and intelligences who evolve, engaged in ceaseless cosmic cultural exchanges, is anything but firm (contra the popular hymn). What we may have is the delightfully paradoxical and problematic concept of a shifting foundation/decentering center. The pragmatist in me can't help thinking that such a shaky ground of being is in its effects ultimately not much of a foundation at all.

In other words, a metaphysics of dynamic divine persons and/or animate intelligences only seems to make the anti-foundationalist case that much more: the "foundation" itself becomes a cosmic cultural construction, a convergence/conversation of intelligent beings, that is so endlessly reconfigured by ongoing interactions that it might better be conceived as a living tradition. As I argued in my last little ditty about relativism, we must not sell cultural tradition short: it makes powerful claim upon us, but it is by no means an ultimate metaphysical baseline of some kind. So is there really any value added in calling Mormonism foundationalist? Does it make us feel better at night? Does it distinguish us from all those godless relativists that we love to hate? Again, I have to say: why don't we try fully embracing our tradition in all of its startling radicalism--even if that means we come out as anti-foundationalists of some kind and momentarily end up in bed with the likes of Richard Rorty--and believe that it will take us somewhere that we (and the world) will want to go? Or will we continue to be colonized into a kind of cautious conservatism that actually makes us distrust and disbelieve the revolutionary force of Mormonism, which is the reason that we all love it so?

Well, I just fulfilled my rhapsodizing call-to-arms quota for the day. I make a point of issuing at least one manifesto every 24 hours. Now, I can really talk. Lawyer, in your very smart remarks about the Brigham Young sermon, when you admit its clear anti-foundationalist bent, you speak of "a very demanding kind of anti-foundationalism." I think this is where Mormonism can take us: to a hard, rigorous relativism that will constitute a major contribution to world thought. Better than any discourse that I know, Mormonism begins to provide a language for articulating the complexities and claims of a universe that is a cosmic culture. It suggests a world that is neither an aimless free-for-all (which is precisely what many fear about anti-foundationalism) nor a fait accompli of metaphysical necessity (which is precisely what the anti-foundationalists fear). It posseses the resources to teach us how to survive and thrive in a bewildering cosmos, in short, how to become Gods ourselves.

I'm talking too much. And I have to go to class. More later.
A fascinating passage from Brigham Young on the contingency of gospel knowledge:

But let a Gospel sermon be preached, wherein all the principles of salvation are embodied, and we will acknowledge, at the end of the mortality of this earth and all things created upon – at the closing up scene, at the final consummation of all things that have been from the commencement of the creation of the world, and the people of it unto the latest generation of Adam and Eve, and the final finishing up of the work of Christ – I say, we shall acknowledge that there is the Gospel sermon, and that it could not be preached to finite beings, in one short life.

I make these remarks for the purpose of extricating myself form the arduous tasks of undertaking to set before this congregation, every item of the doctrine of salvation, in all their various significations, as they are presented in this life, and according to our understanding. I make these introductory remarks to free myself from the great tasks of finishing the discourse I shall commence. I did not expect to finish it; I don not expect to see the end of it, until the winding up scene. I don not even commence at the beginning of it; I only catch at it, where it comes to me, in the 19th century, for it has been before me; it is from eternity to eternity. (Journal of Discourses 3:30)

This seems to be (one of) Brigham's solution to the problematic of continuing revelation and eternalism. We are thrown into the middle of a story without a beginning – remember intelligence is coeternal with God – and we have incomplete information – remember God has said that he will always have something else to reveal. So, says Brigham, we don't build philosophical systems (Brigham is taking a not so thinly veiled swipe at Orson Pratt in this sermon); we preach sermons. Yet they are always incomplete sermons, for we cannot begin at the beginning and we cannot say everything until everything is over. And, of course, one of Brigham's central beliefs is that really it is never over. It is just one long sermon.

This connects, a bit, I think with our discussion of Bushman's “Joseph Smith for the Twenty-first Century” essay. From Bushman's assessment of the the new openness to Joseph made possible by anti-foundationalist philosophy, we strayed – surprise! Surprise! -- to the more general question of Mormonism and anti-foundationalist philosophy. At the end of the day, despite the Literary Critic's claim that refutations of relativism are all sophistry, I don't think that it is possible to be a real anti-foundationalist. However, it seems that Brigham suggests something that looks – philosophically at a least – like an anti-foundationalist philosophy, although (knowing Brigham) it is sure to be a very demanding kind of anti-foundationalism. However, it seems to me that Brigham is nevertheless grounded in a distinctly Mormon ontology: intelligence is eternal, the possibility of progression is boundless, and a trustworthy God in whom we can place our hope.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

I would love to hear the Scientist's response to the E.O. Wilson lecture last night. I missed it since I was watching the Scientist's daughter. What did Dr. Wilson say? What did our post-Newtonian, Kantian, neo-Prattian biochemist think of it?

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

An aphorism for today:

"That which does not expand is not Mormonism."

-Jedediah M. Grant

Interestingly, it comes in a sermon given by Grant during the Mormon Reformation of the 1850s. The sermon is -- in part -- a Jeremiad against Orson Pratt and his belief that God is incapable of progression. Interesting in light our reading of Ostler, who in many ways a is a Pratt disciple.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

In reply to the Literary Critic's question about my reticence about cosmic Cokianism (I don't think that is a word!):

I am mainly attracted to the theory on disciplinary grounds. All you scientists, historians, and literary critics get all the interpretive glory. Everything has to be about YOU! Thus, I am predisposed to theories that give jurisprudence greater prominence. It makes me feel better about studying law. However, I am uneasy with the Coke reading for a couple of reasons. First, as a matter of synchronic reading, it is unlikely that Joseph or any other Mormon of his time had anything like the legal sophistication to work this theory out.

Second, as a matter of jurisprudence, I am not sure that I buy Coke's theory. The historical jurists of the 17th century spent a lot of time making up history. Furthermore, it is not clear why the fact that something has been around for a long time should confer on it any normative force. I suppose that there is the Burkean argument that practice essentially institutionalizes wisdom that is beyond our conscious understanding. The problem is that even if this argument is true, it seems useless, since by definition I have no way of knowing what old practices encapsulate the wisdom of the ages and what old practices are just old. Coke and Hale had a slightly different argument, claiming that practices acquired normative force by virtue of the fact that they were accepted by the people. However, this seems circular: aren't things supposed to be accepted because they have normative force not vice versa? It is important to understand that Coke is making a strong claim about the force of law: historical practice OUGHT to be obeyed. Thus, he is not simply arguing for prudential conservatism and pragmatic application.

There is final part of Coke that is interesting, but I am not sure how it fits in here. That is the idea of artificial reason. I suspect the Literary Critic will like this as well. Coke and James I got in an argument over the law. James thought that the king could judge the law just as well as the judges. "Law," he argued, "is simply reason, and the King has reason just like any other man." Coke's responded by arguing that the law was reason but of a special sort. It was an artificial reason that could only be acquired by long study of history, judicial decisions, and details of the corpus iuris. It was this reason that guided the judges to make their decisions, not the natural reason referred to by the king. I suspect the Literary Critic will like this because it points to the idea of reason that is rooted in history and practice and purports to be solely dependent on them. We can analogize from Coke and we are off and running with the artificial reason of the gods.

However, the standard critical response is to say that the idea of "artificial reason" is without substance -- it is just a power grab by the judges and lawyers. They clothe their judgements and biases in the impartial and impenetrable language of the law in order to direct attention away from the way in which they are exercising raw power. Thus, the whole ideology is a self-serving and deceptive illusion. I think that there is something not quite right with this critique. I actually think there is something to the idea of artificial reason. However, it is a powerful critique and I am not quite sure what I think is wrong with it.

Monday, December 09, 2002

The Scientist is on a hot streak! Instead of viewing the body as a mere shell for this spirit, which alone is defined as the site of identity and soulhood, Mormonism makes the body integral to that soulhood (D&C 88:15), which seems to be a major concession to "modernism" and a possible point of rapprochement between science and religion (?). We are not living souls unless we we possess flesh. Because what does that flesh represent: precisely the fact of our relatedness! The body proves central to the communitarian teleology of Mormonism, as it is such a powerful means to overcome the solitude of a liberal ontology of distinct intelligences. At the genetic level and at the quantum level (the idea that we actually exchange particles when we touch, literally becoming in some sense, each other), the body embodies our universal kinship with all who have ever lived. In other words, we are not fully ourselves until we are embodied, which means that we are not fully ourselves until we are not fully ourselves. The body can hellp us to move from a politics of identity to one of nonidentity, from self-centeredness to other-receptiveness (i.e. "lose your life to find it").

Now we have to figure out exactly how and in what measure the body contributes to living soulhood, and the Scientist stated the clear dangers. We might have to engage in a discussion of the politics of premortal family selection. Can we choose? Or are we assigned? Can spirits try out bodies before they pick? Do genetics figure into the unfolding of the plan of salvation (scary thought?)? One important caveat that can save Mormonism from lapsing into some kind of eugenic project (sometimes! don't forget whitening Lamanites and pre-1978 priesthood issues) is the concept of the literal blood change that the Holy Ghost effects in the converted. In other words, blood really matters, but blood can be changed. What a wild solution! Is this some kind of Mormon theory of genetic/spiritual (it is matter after all) engineering?

For the Lawyer: why the reservations about a Cokian reading of cosmic law? It does make me happy, which is indeed valuable in and of itself, but doesn't it make you happy too?

I have always assumed that one of the reasons that we must have bodies is that it is impossible to have sex without them. This seems to be a particularlly important mode of relation that is unqualifiedly affirmed within Mormonism (and Judiaism) rather than relegated to a necessary evil status a la Augustine. In other words, it seems to me that in Mormonism sex is not something that we must endure because regrettably we have bodies (which have "needs"), but rather it is one of the reasons that we want to get bodies (and keep them forever). And I am not just talking about our own bodies here...

Great reference to the Steiner book, thanks Antiquarian. It starts off with Eugene Wigner's essay on "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences" which is my sentiment exactly and the Wigner reference that I have been trying to track down. In Steiner's book he concludes that "the claim that human constructions (ie math) manipulated according to human convenience (if you can call math convenient, which I won't) supply insights into reality belongs to what traditionally has been called magic. Naturalism has no place for magic, yet the applicability of mathematics to physics is magic" (quoting from the review). The reviewer of the book is named William Dembski; he has a PhD in math from chicago, philosophy from Illinois, and an MDiv from Princeton, after which he did postdoc work at five institutions. Think I'll stay in science. But he has written some very interesting and sophisticated papers on intelligent design vs evolution; since I work on the directed evolution of proteins and nucleic acids, his comments are right up my alley. I'll read more and report later.

During EQ yesterday my mind wandered somewhat to the Ostler/Historian's idea of divinity being the immediate relation to everyone and everything. I would guess that most Mormons think of being together forever as a family in a sort of Michael Mclean, FHE kind of way, though it seems impossible to be with your kids since they will be off with their spouses (spice?) and to be with God since you'll be off creating your own pluralistic literary universe. But if we see divinity as immediate relation to all then we can see how the unity between exalted men, God, spouses, etc can solve this problem, and perhaps gain just a bit of insight into the nature of sealing or as Joseph would have it, 'welding.' The vision of the three degrees of glory in DC76 is interesting also as the celestial has the presence of the father, the terrestrial of Christ, and the telestial of the holy ghost--the lower kingdoms are cut off from full unity and immediacy but allowed some relation through the power of Christ or the Holy Ghost, which I find very interesting. How is it that we relate now? I am still intrigued and stumped by this Ostler idea.

A question for you all: why do we need bodies? Why does God have a body? Why all this trouble about an earth and mortality and gaining a body? I talked with the Literary Critic about this a bit yesterday before we were cut off by our angry wives (who no doubt were bothered that we were not relating to them immediately). It seems that the atoms, molecules, stuff that makes up our bodies must have spirit/mind attached to them that is profoundly not us (at least not premortal us). I find this disturbing, yet not too strange from a biological point of view, since our genes, bodies etc do certainly have an effect on who we are as mortals. Joseph was very concerned about blood lines (he talked about Adam as the epitome of man before the race's degeneration). This raises the ugly spectre of eugenics, makes me wonder what would have happened had I been born into a football star's body, and makes me cower in the face of biological determinism. It also seems to put a wedge back between spirit and body (which together we believe are soul) that may have us in hairshirts before long. But regarding relation, maybe we need to learn to control some matter, some elements and their animistic spirits (even if only the mass of our bodies) before we can relate to the entire multiverse. It develops our skills in relation, provides a critical mass of 'followers' and strengthens our ability to choose. As we make a giant mess the first round through, we slough off the battered old body and through a priesthood ordinance of resurrection we create a new one and are off to the races.

I'm looking into some post-modern philosophies of science by Sheldrake and Griffin as recommended by the literary critic; if you know of other interesting material please pass it on.

Speculatively yours,

Sunday, December 08, 2002

I was reading the last series of posts with interest and decided that the Metaphysical Elders might be interested in a book review I just came across. Check out this link:


http://www.leaderu.com/offices/dembski/docs/bd-lastmagic.html


In this volume, entitled The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem (Harvard UP, 1999), a philosopher named Steiner notes that mathematics is the major tool which scientists have used to explain the observable universe. Such a mechanistic universe as theirs does not privilege human existence or thought and mathematics has become the almost universal key to understanding a non-sympathetic world.

The one problem with all of this as Steiner notes is that systems of mathematics are culturally produced and highly variable. They exist only as human created constructs yet have a utility for exploration and investigation that the mechanical world view seems to predict they should not. Check out the article if you are interested in the seeing the details of the argument and where the author tries to go with it.

I would also like to the thank The Lawyer for the citations of the Enoch material. That was more helpful than you might know. I’m currently putting together an edited volume on Enoch (mainly focused on primary sources). The folks at FARMS seemed quite enthusiastic about publishing the project when I met with them this summer. They thought it would compliment their Abraham volume nicely. So feel free to pass on anything you run across.

The Antiquarian
I agree with the Historian, that Ostler is wrestling with a fundamental problem with his Christology, although I don’t think that he himself conceptualizes the project in quite the same terms. The traditional problem of Christology, “solved” at Chalcedon (as I understand it), is how to make sense of the fact that Christ was both human and divine. This leads to all the two natures stuff and arguments about which nature is doing what. Ostler, drawing on King Follett, purports to solve this problem in with a single stroke – there is no essential distinction between divine nature and human nature. The new problem that the Historian points out seems to be how to understand Christ’s divinity prior to his birth, when he didn’t have a body.

On this problem, I wonder if thinking about Adam-God might be useful. I am serious! Joseph Smith (and later B.H. Roberts in The Mormon Doctrine of Deity) took Christ to be the prototype of the man who became god. Part of what his atonement showed was the possibility of human beings (since Christ, having been drained of his pre-mortal glory was fully human) becoming gods. The problem is that Christ is not just a man who becomes god. He is a god who becomes a man who becomes a god. We have a theory (of sorts) about how the second change takes place (eternal progression), but not much of one about how the first one takes place. Ostler points out that D&C contains lots of materials from which a kenotic theory can be constructed, which begins to point in the direct of how to understand the first transformation. This, I think is where Adam-God becomes useful.

Adam-God also tells the story of how a god becomes a man and then becomes a god again. Michael, along with Elohim and Jehovah, make up the pre-mortal council that creates the world and begins implementation of the plan of salvation. It seems that Michael is fully divine. Indeed, BY taught that he even had a glorified body. He was then brought from another world where he used to live with the father and placed on earth to become Adam. Here he also has a glorified body. Then through the fall he becomes fully mortal and begins the process of working out his salvation, until he is crowned with glory to rule and reign forever over his posterity. Most of this, I think, is still good doctrine. BY did not identify Christ with Jehovah and therefore taught that Michael/Adam was the father of Jesus Christ. This is the part that we don’t like, but it really seems peripheral to the theory. I think that what BY was trying to do was work out a single consistent theory of how gods related to worlds, and he decided it was as patriarchs. Adam is the patriarch of this world, ergo he must be “the father” of this world. However, we have since softened the theological patriarchy a little.

Perhaps we use Adam-God to reconceptualize Christ’s kenosis. The council in Abraham 3 becomes in a sense a kind of Garden of Eden in which Christ, like Adam, undertakes a fortunate fall out of love of others. Like Adam and Eve, Christ undertakes the fall in order to obtain knowledge that he could not obtain in any other way. The question is why. Adam makes sense. In Adam-God he falls in order to begin a race rather than to work out his salvation. However, if we take the approach of King Benjamin (and Ostler) and say that one reason Christ comes to earth is to experience the alienation, pain, etc. that he would otherwise not know then it seems that contra Adam-God his “fall” occurs in order to perfect his knowledge and relation to others. Yet, both Adam and Christ fall in order to become related in ways that they could not be related before. However, it then becomes difficult to figure out in what sense they were both pre-mortal gods, so perhaps there is no value added in the comparison after all. Hmmm.
Both the Literary Critic and the Scientist seem to be excited by the possibility of understanding the relatedness of the universe socially. I would just point out that this has been done in Mormonism before. In The Great First Cause, Orson Pratt purports to solve the basic problem of Newtonian physics: how do bodies separated by space “know” the mass and position of other bodies so as to react properly. Orson’s answer is that they are all obeying the command of God. I believe that this was actually Newton’s solution as well. Pratt, however, has the embodied God of Mormonism rather than the simply omnipresent God of classical Christianity. Not to worry, he solves the problem with – you guessed it! – spirit fluid. This wonderful stuff fills everything with God’s influence and tells all of the animate matter what to do. I am not sure how the Scientist is going to work this into his post-Newtonian, Kantian metaphysic, but it would certainly be fun to see!
Antiquarian, thanks for the stuff on Enoch. Very interesting. My source for the information on Hermes and Enoch in Shi’ism is Henry Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, Liadain Sherrard trans, (Kagan Paul Inernational, Islamic Publications & The Institute for Ismaili Studies: London, 1993) (French 1964) page 125. According to Corbin, the Shi’ites picked up the identification of Hermes and Enoch from the Manicheans and the Sabeans. Apparently, he ends up popping up in early neo-platonic Islamic philosophers, who claim that their wisdom comes down in an unbroken chain from Hermes/Enoch. This will make the Historian happy, seeing as he lusts after the fleshpots of Platonism.
A note on law and cosmic historicism:

The D&C talks about “laws irrevocably decreed in heaven.” At some point in time the standard Mormon interpretation of these passages become Newtonian. These are laws that exist logically prior to God and bind him. Thus we get our standard Mormon explanation of the atonement. The Literary Critic doesn’t like this he wants the laws to be cosmic manners. Perhaps there is another interpretation; we can call them cosmic “laws.”

In the early 19th century virtually all law was common law. It was judge made law. There was legislation, but not much of it. Accordingly, virtually all theorizing about law tended to focus on the common law. The dominant theory was that the common law – contrary to what folks believe today – was not made up by judges. Rather they discovered it. The question then arises what was the law that they were discovering? Here you have two somewhat contradictory theories existing side by side. On one side you have the idea of natural law. The law discovered by judges is the reason imminent in nature itself. You get this kind of language in Blackstone, and even more so in the political discourse of the Founding period. (Although the relationship of natural theory in the Founding period to the jurisprudence of the common law gets really complicated. Jefferson, a big natural law guy, hated the common law). The second theory is that the law discovered by judges represents the law inherent in the traditions and history of England. The rules of the common law come down from time immemorial and the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. The idea is that it is the acceptance of a rule and its continuation through long historical practice that makes it law. (It shouldn’t surprise you at this point to learn that Edmund Burke studied law). This theory of law is most forcefully set out in the work of Coke, Hale, and Selden – the great common law jurists of the 17th century.

Now, I don’t think that there is much reason to suppose that Joseph Smith had a great deal of legal sophistication, at least not before the Missouri and Nauvoo period, when his relationship to the law became a constant issue. However, if Michael Quinn can in impute to Joseph Smith in the 1820s the contents of virtually every book – no matter how obscure – circulating in the United States and England at the time, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to impute to him two of the most important legal treatises of the time: Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and Coke’s Reports and Commentary of Littleton. While native treatises like Kent’s Commentaries were beginning to make inroads, Blackstone and Coke were still very much alive. Webster and Clay read both for example.

Bringing it back to the D&C, we might read the reference to “law” in light of Coke and see it as reference to the immemorial practice of the gods to which the memory of gods runs not to the contrary. I am not sure that this reading is a good idea, but I suspect it would make the Literary Critic happy, which is a value in and of itself.