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A Liberal Ontology
The Doctrine and Covenants declares, â€œMan was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or light and truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.â€ (D&C 93:29) Along similar lines, Joseph Smith taught in the King Follett Discourse:
We say that God himself is a self-existent being. . . . Man . . . exist upon the same principles. . . . The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself. . . . The intelligence of spirits has no being, nether will it have an end. . . . There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal with our Father in heaven.
These statements constitute the classical rejection in Mormon theology of the ex nihilo creation of the soul. In its place is a vision of uncreated â€œintelligences,â€ existing with God from eternity to eternity.
There is no definitive consensus about the precise nature of the primal and uncreated intelligence. With Mormonismâ€™s strong emphasis on progression, it is not surprising that many LDS thinkers have interpreted intelligence as referring to some simpler or primary order of existence from which manâ€™s current spirit has evolved. Thus, for example, Orson Pratt elaborated the concept of intelligence into a theory of panpschyism where all matter is animated with lesser or greater degrees of intelligence. In a simplification of Prattâ€™s theory, Bruce R. McConkie taught that intelligence referred to an undifferentiated â€œspirit substanceâ€ that did not possess individuality until organized into a spirit at some point by God.
However, the most extensive elaboration of the concept of intelligence is that offered by B.H. Roberts. According to Roberts, intelligence refers to a primal, uncreated, core of individuality in each soul. â€œ[A] proper immortality . . . means the eternal existence of the â€˜egoâ€™ . . . before birth as well as existence after death.â€ According to Roberts, the â€œegoâ€ or intelligence is indestructible, even by God, and has existed with him without beginning. Robertsâ€™s elaboration also comes the closest to being an official declaration of the church on this matter. In an early twentieth century article in the Improvement Era, Roberts laid out his full theory of the eternal individual. Although the church shied away from giving a formal endorsement of the theory, the article was prefaced by a sentence stating:
Elder Roberts submitted the following paper to the First Presidency and a number of the Twelve Apostles, none of whom found anything objectionable in it, or contrary to the revealed word of God, and therefore favor its publication.
Furthermore, because of the sophistication of its elaboration Robertsâ€™s thought has provided a starting point for most of those involved in the current philosophical discussion of Mormon theology.
Sterling McMurrin maintained that â€œthe pluralistic metaphysics [of Mormonism] . . . logically supports Mormon liberalism.â€ Unfortunately, McMurrin is not clear about what sense in which he is using the word â€œliberalism.â€ He seems to be using the term to refer to theological liberalism and some kind of optimistic humanism. However, despite McMurrinâ€™s ambiguity, his statement also points to the congruence between Mormonismâ€™s ontology of the human soul and the political philosophy of liberalism. This link is most readily apparent in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and its later life in liberal political theory.
Kantâ€™s philosophy is played out against the background Descartes, Newton, and Hume. Like Descartes, Kant is interested in the problem of how one justifies knowledge of the world independently existing â€œout there.â€ Newton had impressed him as an example of real and certain knowledge, and Hume had convinced him of the inability of empiricism to account for this knowledge. Kantâ€™s solution was radical and far reaching. He argued that the experience of the world is structured by human thought, in particular the concepts of space, time, and causality. These concepts are necessary elements of our experience of the world, but they are not themselves given by that experience. At the same time, it is impossible to doubt these categories of thought in the manner of Descartes. According to Kant, we can have knowledge of the world, but it is never a world â€œout thereâ€ or a knowledge that comes purely from experience. We know the phenomenal world, but it is a world that we participate in creating.
The question naturally arises, â€œWhat is the nature of the self or ego that is doing this knowing of the world?â€ First, the egoâ€™s knowledge is structured by the categories mentioned above. Second, the ego itself is not controlled by these categories. The ego observes a world in which causation holds sway and every object is the effect of some previous cause. However, in order for this world to be intelligible the ego itself cannot be merely an effect. It is free. Furthermore, this fundamental ego is transcendent and universal. Everyone who experiences the phenomenal world does so through the categories of causation, extension, and time and every knowing ego is, of necessity, free.
From this transcendental ego, Kant draws ethical conclusions. The phenomenal world is filled with objects, but reason dictates that people cannot be treated as objects. To do so would be to deny the necessity of the transcendental ego. Thus, the individual must always be treated as an end in and of itself. In this conclusion, it is easy to see the autonomous, rights bearing individual of philosophical liberalism. Furthermore, Kantâ€™s philosophy decisively subordinates any notion of the collective to the rights of the individual. It prioritizes the right to the good. When liberal thinkers such as John Rawls state that â€œthe rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interestsâ€ they are professing a profoundly Kantian ethic.
With this background, the link between Mormon ontology and liberalism becomes clearer. The intelligence of the human soul that is coeternal with God seems to have the characteristics of Kantâ€™s transcendental ego, or at least those characteristics that drive Kantâ€™s moral theory. Indeed, in specifying the characteristics of intelligence, Roberts used language that seems very much at home in a Kantian political theory:
There is in that complex thing we call man an intelligent entity, uncreated, self existent, indestructible . . . . [I]intelligence is the entityâ€™s chief characteristic. . . . [T]here goes with this idea of intelligence a power of choosing one thing instead of another, one state rather than another.
Mormon scriptures draw the distinction between the freedom of the subjective intelligence and the necessity of the causal universe. They speak of â€œthings to act and things to be acted uponâ€ (2 Ne 2:14) and note that man was to â€œact for himselfâ€ (2 Ne 2:15). Roberts made the distinction explicit.
[T]here is a difference between the thinking essence or substance and that which has or manifests mechanical force merely . . . as also there is a difference between intelligence viewed as â€˜the light of truthâ€™ â€“ the power by which truth is discerned â€“ and substances capable merely of manifesting chemical force dependent upon union in certain combinations and proportions with other substances.
Intelligences thus seem to have the properties of freedom and reason ascribed to Kantâ€™s transcendental ego, and like the transcendental ego, intelligence has necessary existence. For Kant the necessity of the transcendental ego lies in way in which it constitutes the phenomenal universe. For Mormonism, the necessity of intelligence lies in the fundamental ontological pluralism of the universe. Both of these philosophies, it seems, could equally well support philosophical liberalism.
There is a second way in which Mormonism could support a liberal political theory. While many liberals adopt a Kantian ethic, his rationalism and abstraction have not always appealed to Anglo-American philosophy. The result has been the reformulation of the Kantian ethic by John Rawls. According to Michael Sandel, Rawls seeks â€œto preserve Kantâ€™s deontological teaching by replacing Germanic obscurities with a domesticated metaphysics less vulnerable to the charge of arbitrariness and more congenial to the Anglo-American temper.â€ Rawls does this by means of an intellectual device that he calls â€œthe original position.â€ He engages in a thought experiment in which people construct a society behind a veil of ignorance that keeps them from knowing what position they would occupy in such a society. Justice is simply the choices that free and reasonable people would make in this original position.
The Mormon ontology of the soul leads to a novel explanation of the relationship of man, God, and the human condition. In a system animated by the doctrine of ex nihilo creation, the relationship is rather simple: God creates man and the world from nothing through divine fiat. Human experience and human suffering are therefore traceable back to an act of creation (or noncreation) on the part of God. Such a formulation, however, is not available to Mormonism. Since intelligence is coeternal with God, creation alone cannot operate as an adequate account of the necessity of human experience or the relationship of man and God. The answer to this conundrum in Mormon theology bears a striking resemblance to Rawlsâ€™s original position.
According to Mormon theology, prior to the creation of the world God held a grand council in heaven in which the future structure of experience was to be decided. Two plans were offered. One involved a future â€œwhereby all would be safely conducted through the career of mortality, bereft of freedom to act and agency to choose, so circumscribed that they would be compelled to do right â€“ that not one soul would be lost.â€ Another involved a world of travail and wickedness, but it also included freedom and the possibility of righteousness. According to Mormon scripture, every soul that came to earth accepted the second plan.
This theodicy, which flows from the Mormon ontology of the soul, has strong resonance with liberalism. The primacy of agreement in justifying a state of affairs is a striking parallel to the contractarian justifications for the state offered by liberal political theory. Furthermore, the mode of justification involved in this story seems to mirror that offered by Rawls. The conditions that would accept ex ante without full knowledge of oneâ€™s personal circumstances are offered as being normatively justified. In Mormonism it is the acceptance of a life of real moral possibility coupled with real moral risks. In Rawls, it is a society governed by the priority of the individual to the collective and the demands of justice to the demands of the good.
In conclusion, the ontology of the Mormon soul and the mode of moral justification occasioned by that ontology seem to point toward a liberal political theory. Both Mormonism and liberalism view the individual as being necessary, free, and reasonable. Both employ the moral discourse of agreement and original positions. Mormon ontology seems to provide all of the ingredients necessary to construct a Kantian justification for individualism, justice, and rights. In short, the ontology of Mormonism seems to point towards a commitment to liberalism.