McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, pp. 1 - 11.
This is the first entry in my reading club. I plan on doing appropriate sections of Pratt, McMurrin, and Ostler as both a way to comment on them as well as introduce philosophy and LDS theology. I've started with McMurrin because I've probably been overly harsh on his book and admittedly do like the way he introduces the topic. Even if it is far too superficial for my tastes.
Allow me to first discuss the problem McMurrin has. He introduces lots and lots of philosophers in passing, from Parmenides to Plato to Plotinus up through Spinoza and Leibniz. However he introduces them not to clarify LDS theology but to introduce some topic. For instance on page 9 - 10 he is talking about metaphysical pluralism versus monism. He introduces these figures only to say whether he thinks they are pluralists or monists. Unfortunately this reduces the figures down to one word, often distorting their philosophy in the process. For example I think that most people now recognize that in terms of fundamental metaphysics Leibniz and Spinoza have very similar views. But McMurrin not only tells us nothings about their views, but has them as examples of opposing views. (Monism and Pluralism) Because we know nothing about their views, beyond what we bring to the text from prior philosophical training, the whole paragraph tells us little. It isn't really clear what McMurrin even means by pluralism or monism. It would have been much more helpful to clarify these concepts rather than rattle off philosophers he thinks exemplify them.
I think that the concept of monism and pluralism are very helpful though. In a sense they relate to about as fundamental an aspect of metaphysics one can get into without making things overly complex. In terms of metaphysics the question is really whether there is one kind of "stuff" or multiple kinds of "stuff." By stuff we don't simply mean stuff like rocks or water, but the ultimate constituents of existence. In other words if we consider all things that are real and look at the kinds of stuff they are made of, how many kinds of ultimate stuff are there?
Now McMurrin seems to realize that in looking for a Mormon view of this question he is in trouble. On the one hand he recognizes that we speak about two kinds of stuff - mind and matter. Yet we also believe them to be the same basic kind of stuff, differing only in degree. (D&C 131, which he quotes) The problem is, that while that passage talks about spirit being matter, it isn't at all clear what that means. More fundamentally, while it says spirit is matter, it never says that everything is matter. B. H. Roberts, for instance, believed in a mind-substance that wasn't spirit and thus wasn't matter. He was, in terms of kinds of stuff, a pluralist.
McMurrin tends to take the view that in terms of ultimate stuff Mormons are monists. This really is problematic and not just for the reasons above. Consider, for example, the case of Orson Pratt. Now Orson Pratt is characterized as the ultimate Mormon monist and is probably what McMurrin is thinking of in his comments. Pratt conceives of reality in terms of little intelligent atoms that exist within the universe. The problem is that this means Pratt is logically required to have more existing than just the atoms. Because atoms exist within a place (the universe) we must also have the universe or space as a constituent of all reality. Perhaps there is a way to argue this away. But McMurrin never really brings this issue up. The same problem might occur for Roberts as well. After all, what does Roberts (or any other Mormon) think of matter? Does it exist within space? Is space real? Is it thus a characteristic or the universe?
Now among the philosophers McMurrin mentions but doesn't really explain, this was a real issue. Leibniz and Spinoza end up with the universe not being a place at all, but rather all the constituent parts of the universe -- the stuff making up matter -- are the universe. We can't speak of place separate from the stuff making it up. Thus they are strict monists. Others, who adopt the idea of atoms existing in a universe as a container must be considered dualists of some sort. Perhaps not dualists with respect to the constituents of things, but metaphysical dualists with respect to everything.
Where though do Mormons fit in? Well, we don't know. There is no way of answering that. Even the Mormon thinkers who come closest to dealing with the question never really address it. I think that most end up having space as something real. Pratt ends up having the constituents of the stuff we encounter being one thing. Roberts has them as two. But there's no reason why other Mormons might not have more kinds of stuff.
McMurrin doesn't address the more complex view of degree of stuff either. He mentions it in passing, but it seems fairly important given D&C 131. This notion of "degree" is the idea that not only can we think of kinds of stuff but how "much" of this stuff we have. This notion of "how much" isn't really the idea of quantity. It is unlike, for instance, the idea that a small dog has fewer atoms than a person. Rather it is the idea that the ultimate constituents come in degree. Given our modern mind, it is really difficult to think in these terms. The closest is to think of rationality as a kind of attribute. A person is more rational than a dog. If rationality is "stuff" then a person doesn't have more rationality in terms of quantity but rather more rationality in terms of kind. I'll not dwell on this too much, as it gets very complex and it is hard to think of a good analogy to explain it as it is so alien to our way of thinking. I'll just say that I think it a fundamental issue that McMurrin doesn't address. It gets to the point of mentioning philosophers without really dealing with the parallels.
The last issue of metaphysics McMurrin really doesn't explain well. It is absolutism. The idea is basically that if we have the same kind of stuff, is there one reality behind it all? That is, metaphysically, is all reality One. An other way of thinking of it is to say that not only are all things of the same kind of stuff, but that they really are one stuff. Reality as we experience it are merely different aspects, modes, or attributes of a single thing. One way to think of this by analogy is to think of the sounds a drum makes. There is a single surface to the drum, but it can make different sounds depending upon how it is acting. We don't say that the different sounds are two different drums, but merely different aspects of the same thing. Obviously that analogy isn't perfect, and absolutism is once again something difficult for the modern mind to wrap its mind around. We simply don't tend to think that way.
Now McMurrin suggests that Mormons aren't absolutists. I'm not so sure. To be honest I'm not aware of any Mormon thinker, until recently, who really addressed the idea. Most adopted the popular views of their time which rarely were absolutist. For instance both Pratt and Roberts felt that each intelligent was a truly separate and independent being and not different aspects of a single reality. However neither one really even focused in on what reality is or why it is. Mormonism, as McMurrin points out, adopts a kind of eternalism wherein the universe always existed. There is no metaphysical creation, only physical creations which consist of arranging reality. I think that this leaves, unthought, many issues. Since Mormonism doesn't really address the issues, I'm not sure we ought to say that Mormon theology clearly takes a position. One could infer a position. Yet, I think most of these inferences are merely due to the assumptions the thinkers bring in. For instance Pratt and Roberts tend to assume there is no absolute. But they never argue for it.
Why McMurrin introduces this subject - and even then only halfway - isn't at all clear. It seems simply to muddy the water. Certainly Mormons don't tend to speak like Hegel. But I think it safer to simply say that Mormonism has not really concerned itself with fundamental metaphysics or ontology rather than taking a position. What Mormonism really worries about is closer to the level of the physical. McMurrin never really addresses this point. When Mormonism adopts a materialist position, I don't think it is so much taking a metaphysical position so much as saying that the entities and phenomena Christianity has addressed aren't metaphysical topics but physical topics. For instance spirits aren't metaphysical substances only able to be discussed metaphysically by philosophers. Rather spirits, as topics of conversation, are the same sort of phenomena as the regular entities we encounter day by day.
I think that here McMurrin makes his gravest mistake, perhaps being confused by a few thinkers and missing the more fundamental trends in Mormon philosophy. He nearly gets there in his discussion of pluralism as arising naturally from a more empirical mindset. He also mentions briefly in passing the American pragmatists and their similarity to Mormon theology. But he never really explains why this is significant or how this affects Mormon theology. To the degree he does (such as how characteristic ways of knowing imply a metaphysics) I think he gets it fundamentally wrong.
Responses to other chapters in McMurrin's The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion can be found on our Reading Club page.
Alright, I'm in. I posted my own comments on McMurrin pages 1-11 over at my weblog. I'll try and dig up a copy of Ostler's book this weekend and my local Southern California Deseret Bookstore.
I'd made a few comments over at Dave's blog entry. I thought I'd put a few slightly edited forms of them here for when I ever get the search engine working. Plus he raises some good questions that I'll hopefully get to in a future post. (Not a lot of posting this week due to illness and other commitments -- so I'm behind)
Dave raised the rather good question of what the real difference between what we believe and what most Mormons believe relative to spirit is. Well, the orthodox Christian position is kind of hard to explain and I'll try to do so more fully in a future post. But the idea is that a spirit isn't "stuff" like the stuff we experience every day. It is atemporal. While not completely accurate, it is more akin to the notion of red existing as a real abstraction independent of all red things. That's not completely accurate because a spirit also has faculties and other such capabilities. But it really is more akin to a Platonic abstraction like the color red independent of any red thing or phenomena.
This means spirits are atemporal. You can't ever see them as a spirit. You may see a spirit when it acts as the form of matter. Thus an angel can appear to people by forming matter via its substance. That means a spirit as a spirit doesn't experience time. In terms of what we think of in everyday life as living, a spirit doesn't do in itself. It only does this when embodied.
A Mormon view of spirit, in constrast, is just a regular body like we think of our current bodies. It moves, experiences change, progress, and so forth. If it provides form to our current body, it does so only via causal interactions, much like our DNA provides form to our body. (Which isn't to say how a spirit interacts with our body or what parts of our form it conditions)
So they are radically different. More fundamentally from a metaphysical perspective, Mormon views of spirit can be explained by there being only one kind of stuff. Traditional Christians, in contrast, need at least two kinds of stuff. The stuff that ultimately makes up matter and then these atemporal spirits. The closest analogy for Mormons is, as I noted, the view some Mormons have of "intelligence" which is more fundamental than spirit. Although, as Orson Pratt shows, one can think of intelligences without adopting dualism.
With regards to naturalism, naturalism is fairly easy to misunderstand. In terms of metaphysics it ends up being the assertion that there isn't anything fundamentally different that exists beyond what is necessary to explain the stuff around us that science encounters. That is a too simplified definition. But it'll do as an introduction. While Mormonism accepts entities that traditionally were considered supernatural like angels and so forth, how we view them is different.
Most Mormons (not all) believe that all these entities are subject to some ultimate laws of the universe. They are thus analyzable by science. All of what we call miracles are perhaps best considered technology or scientific phenomena that we aren't yet familiar with. The analogy that is often made is the difference between real magic as opposed to technology. A person living 2000 B.C. might see a handgun and consider it magic. But we'd know it is really explainable in terms of things in the universe.
The notion of the supernatural is the idea that there are things that can't be explained by what is in the universe. Further if there is some set of ulitmate natural laws, those exist by the whim of God and can be violated at any time. By and large, few Mormons accept that view.
I don't own a copy of this (I should order it from Signature Books), but I read it not too long ago, so I recall a fair bit. Thanks for starting this, Clark.
It's available from Amazon for about $10. It really isn't that great a book, all things considered. It's one of those overviews that mentions things but doesn't go into them nor answer the question, "why?" Ostler's book is far better and avoids many of the mistakes McMurrin makes. However if you are interested in reading along at your blog and writing up your own comments, it would be fun. I find it useful more as a way of going off on other tangental issues. Right now I'm more contrasting McMurrin and Ostler, but I'll probably in the future discuss McMurrin less and use him as a way of delving into ideas more.