(1) [RCH] I would like to achieve further clarity on the concept of Mormon “materialism.” Clearly this materialism, however exactly we understand it, is not to be identified with the reduction of the world to a spiritually meaningless system of matter in motion. You note, for example, that, in Mormon thought, ultimate reality is constituted by moral natural laws as well as physical natural laws. But then I am a bit puzzled when you seem to approve the idea that “engineers may be preparing the way for humans to act more like gods in managing the world.”
This likening of divinity to technology worries me. I suppose everything depends on what we mean by “more like gods.” The essence of the technological viewpoint, I would think, the viewpoint of engineers, is precisely that the power of science to transform matter is not to be limited by any supposed moral “natural law.” Thus a U.S. President recently dismissed a commission of moral philosophers grappling with issues of bio-technology, arguing simply that scientific questions should be left to scientists – not to be trammeled by moral or religious speculations.
The problem, of course, is that power not guided and limited by some higher (immaterial?) purpose is more likely to be destructive than salvific. C.S. Lewis saw this as clearly as anyone in The Abolition of Man: unlimited power over nature can only issue into the power of man over human nature itself, that is, the most radical power of the strong over the weak (including the unborn, notably).
Is there not a danger, then, in romanticizing the power of engineering, the power of technology? And what resources are there in LDS thought for addressing such a danger?
[TLG] Doubtless there is danger as well as opportunity in the powers associated with technology–as there is with all knowledge. I find a scenario in which we relegate our futures to the untrammeled judgment of scientists and techies as frightening as any conjured by dystopian novelists. What I am trying to draw attention to is the mindset that Mormonism offers the hope of a synthesis and not a competition of the spiritual and the earthly. When Brigham Young said the transformation of the earth into a Urim and Thumim would be effected by “angels who are well-instructed in chemistry,” he was envisioning just such a happy marriage. This seems to be a unique perspective and powerful advantage, theologically speaking, of Mormonism.
Secularists frequently deride Christians for what they see as a belief in wand-waving, supernatural Gods that render science ultimately meaningless. Some fundamentalists are quite happy to embrace such dichotomies, scorning human forms of knowledge as poor, paltry things compared to inconceivable omnipotence. Young’s (and Smith’s) version of materialism simply rejects the chasm between the earthly and the heavenly, suggesting a continuum rather than radically discrete realms. It’s that single continuum that I find an original and potent reconceptualizing of religion, expanding its relevance and its efficaciousness.
Technological prowess can produce cleaner water or atom bombs, just as medical knowledge can extend life or more efficiently destroy it in the womb. Technological competence that will tend toward our exaltation must be exercised on principles of righteousness, just like any other power, if it is to redeem and not deform. But the fact that scholarship can be a genuine form of worship, that the “intelligence” that constitutes God’s glory comprises the facts of science as well as mastery of moral truths, is to me an inspiring paradigm that helps us avoid the exclusive “other worldliness” that can be the bane of religion.
(2) [RCH] Let me press just a little further on your understanding of Joseph’s “materialism.” I would like to see more clearly how this relates to your earlier characterization of the Prophet’s worldview was “dynamic” and “fundamentally Romantic,” and thus to explore a little further (begging the patience of our less philosophically-inclined readers) the cosmological and metaphysical ramifications of this world view. My basic question is simply this: just what does it mean to speak of Joseph’s “materialism.” Of course we are all aware of the doctrine, and my point is not to object to it, but simply to ask what it means. It’s easy to think we know what we mean when we say “matter,” but I am not sure the term is so univocal. For example, you seem to situate Joseph in the metaphysical lineage of Hobbes and Spinoza, but I’m not at all sure all are talking about the same “materialism.”
The whole point of Hobbes’ materialism, for example, is to reduce human existence to the sole imperative physical self-preservation (and comfort or “commodious living” along with it, when convenient), and to align politics and morality with this practical materialism. In fact a kind of dualism subsists here, since Hobbes invites the reader to adopt the perspective of a creator-subject in relation the matter-object (including his own material nature) that he is invited to master (in view of the sole imperative of self-preservation). So Hobbes’ “monism” finally resolves into a “dualism” that shares much the spirit of the scientific project of his contemporary Descartes. These modern materialists are both dualists in the most radical sense because they propose a standpoint of mastery outside of a nature that is reduced to the purely material, where material is defined as infinitely available for our mastery.
In comparison with the dualism underlying this modern project of material mastery, then, the ancient dualists (Platonists, for example) were more moderate, and I dare say humane: their “Great Chain of Being” held human nature in closer continuity with the order of some external reality than the extreme “materialism” of these metaphysical moderns.
You cite approvingly Blake Ostler’s summary of the “four radical propositions” that make up Joseph Smith’s “eternalism of matter”:
“Unlike the Necessary Being of classical theology, who alone could not not exist and on which all else is contingent for existence, the personal God of Mormonism confronts uncreated realities which exist of metaphysical necessity. Such realities include  inherently self-directing selves (intelligences),  primordial elements (mass/energy),  the natural laws which structure reality, and  moral principles grounded in the intrinsic value of selves and the requirements for growth and happiness.” 1217
You have to admit these four “realities” seem to constitute a pretty complicated “materialism” – and happily a very different one from the modern systems of Hobbes, Descartes and Spinoza, for example. Besides the “primordial elements” (that sounds pretty straightforwardly “material”), there are three other metaphysical constituents: selves, natural laws, and moral principles. And further you note that “Mormonism asserts the eternal identity of the human as an essential part of the eternal universe Smith described.” But of course the “eternal identity of the human” is a kind of quality that neither Plato nor Hobbes could possibly have attributed to “matter.”
You cite Jane Bennett: “the problem of meaninglessness arises only if ‘matter’ is conceived as inert, only as long as science deploys materialism whose physics is basically Newtonian.” Granted. But inertia is precisely a key to what the philosophical tradition has meant be the term “matter.” I am happy to leave behind this understanding. But then what do we mean when we use the term?
[TLG] you are getting into some deep metaphysical waters, and I am reluctant to journey too far down this path, since I am attempting a narrative history of Mormon thought, rather than a systematic theology, and will leave to the more philosophically inclined the fuller ramifications of Joseph’s cosmology. So rather than fully explicate Joseph’s materialism, I will simply attempt to delineate some of the theological issues and philosophical conundrums to which I think (and I think Joseph thought) some version of cosmological monism might be relevant. First, it suggests, if not a resolution, at least a diminution, of the mind-body problem. If spirit is a more highly refined form of matter, and not a radically, ontologically distinct form of being, then the old Cartesian dilemma of how spirit and body can possibly interact is clearly diminished. Second, if God is posited as a material being, then matter must be seen as primarily divine rather than telestial, ennobled and ennobling rather than debased and debasing, and the whole devaluation of mortality and embodiment are avoided. Third, if our understanding of eternal law can encompass, rather than radically dichotomize, the spiritual and the eternal, then our progress here, the educative experiences of mortality, and the pursuit of truth and knowledge, take place along a continuum in which God himself participates and has mastered, rather than in the context of a temporary, and soon to be transcended and surpassed sphere, which will be rendered irrelevant by the spiritual realities supposed to supersede it.
(3) [RCH] Of course I understand the reasons for rejecting a Hellenized Christian (or Christianized Greek) understanding of transcendence, which introduced into creedal Christian theology a radical dichotomy, an unbridgeable difference of kind, between God and man, heaven and earth, spirit and body. But do eternal human identity and moral agency not imply some stratum of reality distinct from, indeed “above” the material?
[TLG] Certainly the definition and status of “intelligence” is absolutely key to resolving many of the puzzles you allude to above. Joseph gave many suggestive possibilities, confidently explored by Orson Pratt and others (like John Widtsoe), but left more uncertain than certain. We do know he associated intelligence with agency, and with any form of meaningful existence (DC 93:30). The Book of Abraham he produced intimated that all matter is constituted, at the most elementary level, of intelligence vested with agency. (Some theologically inclined thinkers outside the Mormon fold believe they find a functionally comparable paradigm in quantum mechanics, with quantum uncertainty at the subatomic level reflecting the only reasonable hope of escape from mechanical determinism). So if intelligence is part of what Smith considered to be spirit, or “more refined matter,” then the question of whether human identity is grounded “above” the material can find a negative answer, without consigning humankind to the kind of sterile materialism we find in contemporary reductive theories of mind and human consciousness and human identity.
(4) [RCH] Mormon cosmology, as you note, makes a big place for “moral laws that govern the interactions of eternal spirit beings”? But “moral law” is not a notion easily reducible to “matter,” it seems. In fact, it would seem to be more aligned with “form” or “essence” – and thus the old dualism seems to re-emerge. Just how do you understand this eternal moral law, which seems to be in a way not only prior to Divine Will but somehow distinct from the purely mechanical laws governing the motions of “matter”?
[TLG] Finally, as to whether a stubborn embrace of the reality of moral law (as distinct from the laws of chemistry and physics) forces us back into the old dichotomies, I hope not, though I am not capable of articulating a seamless harmony between the workings of law at the physical and moral level. The Pratts were convinced of their congruence, and Section 88 is, I think, highly suggestive in this regard, eliding as it does the distinction between light as a physical entity composed of photons that emanates from the sun, and light as “the law by which all things are governed,” and the “power by which” that sun was made, and the force or power of universal moral awareness known as the light of Christ. That’s a pretty ambitious program of conflation into one ontic level of an enormous range of powers and manifestations, moral and physical–and it’s in Joseph’s scriptural corpus.