The title of this post comes from a book by Dr. Truman Madsen that I read many years ago as an undergraduate student, and have read several times since. I deeply treasure that book and the insights it offers. It is a ten dollar bargain on Amazon (Kindle edition). http://www.amazon.com/Eternal-Man-Truman-G-Madsen-ebook/dp/B004C052IO/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8
If you read Dr. Madsen’s book you will see how much he has influenced me. The only non-prophet who has influenced me more than Truman Madsen is Dr. Hugh Winder Nibley—my intellectual hero. More about Dr. Nibley and my debt to him in later posts. Dr. Madsen’s book is only 80 pages long, and can be read over and over again with great benefit. I recommend it to you.
In Post #5, “The Elements are Eternal”, I wrote the following, and promised to follow up on it:
“This concept of the eternal nature of matter is deeply interesting to me, and deeply comforting also. Why comforting? Because Mormonism is unique, as far as I know, in claiming that human beings are coeternal with God himself, and that the spirit that is in us is also material, it is substance, and it cannot be created nor destroyed. I am uniquely my own person and so are you. I am eternal and so are you. So is every human being that ever lived.”
Here is a start on my follow up, as promised. There will be more follow up later.
As far as we can tell, human beings are unique among the creatures of this world because of our consciousness—and also our consciences. We are aware of ourselves as individuals. We can think of the future and the past. As Robert Burns expressed it (in Scots English), in his poem “To a Mousie”. http://www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Poems_Songs/toamouse.htm
But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Unlike mousies, we human beings do a lot of casting our “eyes” (our minds) both backward and forward, and, as a result, we “guess and fear”. Also, very unlike the mousies, we have a sense of right and wrong. All of us have an “inner light” (a Quaker phrase) of some sort that we can either respond to or ignore, but we definitely feel its presence. We do know, imperfectly and not unanimously, what is right and what is wrong. (There are perhaps some truly pathological individuals for whom this light is essentially extinguished, but I have never met one. It would probably not be a pleasant experience—at least for me.)
It seems to me that we have three possible explanations for our existence as thinking, conscious, rational animals—creatures able to think about the past, present and future. I believe we may have only have two possible explanations for our consciences, that inner light that gives us so much internal peace if we follow it, and so much turmoil if we do not. (By the way, our bodies are definitely like those of other “animals”…but not our minds, and certainly not our consciences.)
Here are those three possible explanations, as I see them:
- All thought, all consciousness is an accident of atoms and molecules being organized in a particular way. Individual human consciousness appears by accident, as part of an evolutionary process, and disappears during death and subsequent decay when each individual person’s molecules are disorganized. This is when, in Shakespeare’s words, this “sensible warm motion” becomes a “kneaded clod”, “to lie in cold obstruction and to rot” (Measure for Measure). From an evolutionary viewpoint, consciences must also have arisen by such a set of molecular accidents—but I confess I cannot see how.
- Our minds were indeed created by a higher power. Given how marvelous consciousness and the reasoning ability are, you might as well call the power that produced such marvels by the name of “God”. If that same powerful God wants to instill a moral sense in me, to teach me what kinds of actions are right and which are wrong, then that Being is certainly able to do so.
- The intelligence, that self-awareness and other-awareness or consciousness in us, is eternal. It was not created nor made. Our conscience, or in other words, what each person, each intelligence recognizes as “right and wrong”, is the imperfect response of each individual intelligence to a co-existing moral order in the universe. That moral order or “truth” was also not created nor made; it is simply an expression of the way things are in the real universe.
I think explanations 1 and 2 cannot be defended as explaining our consciences and consciousness. Here is why.
Explanation #1: It is all an accident
Bertrand Russell, the famous British mathematician, philosopher and essayist, provided the best expression that I know of about both the roots of (in organic evolution) and the consequences of the first explanation in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship”. http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/br-fmw.html
This essay reflects Russell’s understanding of Darwinian evolution and the conclusions he drew about consciousness and conscience from that process of evolution—and from his understanding of science generally. Here are the first paragraphs of his essay. You may want to read the whole essay…it is not that long.
In this essay, Russell is not attacking the biological theory of evolution. He has accepted evolution as essentially true. In this essay is expressing his reaction to the idea that we live in an indifferent and amoral universe, which he believes grows out of the idea of evolution.
|“TO Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:||1|
|“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshiped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.||2|
|“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: ‘There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled: and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.||3|
|“‘Yes,’ he murmured, ‘it was a good play; I will have it performed again.”’||4|
|Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”|
Russell recognizes Man as possessing the “power of thought” and “the knowledge of good and evil”, which I have called consciousness and conscience above. He also recognizes the “thirst for worship” that we obviously have. Many, if not most, of us do seem to have an inborn need to devote ourselves to something greater than ourselves. More about that in another post, but not now.
However, Russell believes that consciousness and consciences, in fact, everything uniquely personal about us results from “accidental collocations of atoms”. Because of this, nothing will preserve us as individuals beyond the grave. Ultimately, and he says these conclusions come from science, our lives are meaningless and purposeless. Then he reaches the inevitable end point of all his reasoning: we can only build our lives “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair”.
Well, that is quite literally a hell of a foundation on which to build, Mr. Russell: “a firm foundation of unyielding despair”. But I think your explanation of the current human condition, the “soul’s habitation” is widely accepted in this world. The fruits of despair are seen everywhere: slow and fast suicide in a thousand different ways. (Just as Russell himself often planned suicide as a child.)
But in an evolutionary sense, I also cannot see how a series of accidents at the atomic level (“accidental collocations of atoms”) can ever give us awareness beyond that needed to preserve our lives and reproduce. We are the only life form that has self-awareness. All the other life forms seem to preserve themselves and reproduce just fine without consciousness—the cockroaches are great at it. Of all the forms of life, why would humans alone need consciousness?
And I cannot see any evolutionary reason, none at all, for the sense of right and wrong that I have found in every person I have ever talked to in any depth. We all have that sense, and perhaps none of us has it perfectly. Why is there a sense of right and wrong in organisms whose sole purpose (in evolutionary terms) is to pass their genes along? A conscience has no evolutionary value at all. To illustrate, while your ancestor with a conscience was hesitating about whether or not to steal the other cave guy’s food and girlfriend, my cave guy ancestor without a conscience would come along and grab both the food and the chick. (And probably bash in the heads of the other cave guys, just to be sure he could keep both the grub and the girl.) With more food and more mates, my ancestor would be more likely to pass on his genes, beating out both the other losers in the evolutionary race, especially that wuss with a conscience. His conscience was a real evolutionary death trap for the wuss.
So, no thanks, Mr. Russell, to your evolutionary explanation based on science, as you understand science and evolution. I find no convincing reasons why evolution should have given me both consciousness and a conscience. I hope I have both; but they seem to have little or no evolutionary survival value. If so, why don’t other biologically-successful organisms have them?
Explanation #2: God did it all and therefore He predestined it all
OK, if these two human attributes of conscience and consciousness didn’t “evolve” because of their survival value, then perhaps some very powerful being gave both attributes to me. Let’s call that powerful being “God” for the sake of brevity, although I have a real problem with calling such a God “good”. I think such a God is both capricious and cruel, as I will explain shortly.
I run very quickly into two insoluble problems with any God who is at all like that particular god.
First, if God created me and made me conscious, then God is responsible for me, and He is thereby responsible for everything I do. If I am a created being, if he actually created me out of nothing or ex nihilo, then my Creator is responsible for me. He made me and He therefore predestined me as part of that making. Having a conscience is a cruel joke. It is a really, really cruel…super sick joke. I am required to believe that I am created by God with a conscience that lets me know right from wrong. And yet God also created me with a huge disposition to do wrong, to violate the conscience that he gave me? He is responsible for everything I do because He created me, all of me, and yet God also holds me accountable for everything I do? What a cruel, sick God. He created me and therefore predestined me to be a terrible person, and then punishes me for being terrible? How can that be right?
Second, while this God will hold me accountable to Himself for my acts in some future Judgment Day; I already feel terribly accountable to myself. But my acts are His acts. He created me. So then He is going to judge me for the very obvious fact that I am a stinker? But just for extra fun, out of plain old cruelty, He also makes me accountable to myself, through that conscience that He also gave me? Heck, if He weren’t so cruel, at least He could have created me without a conscience or consciousness. That way that I could enjoy being a stinker without being troubled by a conscience that already holds me accountable to myself and the self-awareness to know what I am doing, the awareness to know perfectly well of my stinkerness (or stinkerosity, as long as we are inventing words).
If you think I am exaggerating about that kind of God, then you need to read some St. Augustine and especially some John Calvin on predestination. Between Augustine and Calvin we have covered both the Roman Catholic roots of predestination and the “orthodox” Protestant view of predestination also, although Martin Luther was in some ways even more rigid about predestination than Calvin. (Eastern Orthodox Christianity is quite a bit better on the topic of predestination than Western Christianity but I am not discussing that detail here.)
While there may be such a predestining God, I refuse to worship a Being that gave me both a moral sense and consciousness…and then abused them so badly by creating me to violate my conscience and also be acutely conscious of my violations, to be self-aware. Having come to this conclusion, I could never have continued to worship the kind of God that I was taught about in the Protestant church of my childhood.
About the time I was learning about predestination in that church, I was also reading all kinds of stuff, including lots of poetry. (Grade school and high school didn’t engage me very much…so I read the encyclopedia in fourth grade just to have something to do after finishing my homework. I am serious, the whole darn encyclopedia, A to Z.)
Among the poetry I read was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Omar expressed fervently what I was already feeling about predestination. Here are verses 57 and 58 of the Rubaiyat:
|Oh Thou who didst with Pitfall and with Gin Beset the Road I was to wander in.|
|Thou wilt not with Predestination round|
|Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?|
|Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,|
|And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;|
|For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man|
|Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give–and take!|
So I couldn’t accept predestination as a kid. More than 50 years later, I still cannot. Even less so now than then, if that is possible.
But I also couldn’t deny that I had both consciousness and a conscience. I was both self-aware and other-aware and I was also terribly aware of my failure to keep perfectly the moral law I recognized in myself. How to explain both conscience and consciousness?
Explanation #3: Man is coeternal with God
I briefly summarized Mormon teachings on the nature of man and God in my first post “Why This Blog” (January 15, 2015). Here is an excerpt from that first post, relating to the “terrible question”.
“The answer to the terrible question “Is this all there is?” has been given through Joseph Smith and other prophets of God. The answer is this: we are eternal beings. You and I have always existed. In the words of Dr. Truman Madsen, “nothing is something you never were and never can be.” We came into this mortal life out of eternity, we are here as mortals, without the memory of our past existence, and we are here being prepared for the next phase of our eternal existence. After death we go back into eternity as eternal, individual, conscious beings with all the knowledge and experiences we have accumulated in this life.”
Here are excerpts from a few of the revelations God gave to the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning the eternal nature of man, law, truth and light, our intelligences and our bodies.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 88:
6 He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;
7 Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
11 And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;
12 Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—
13 The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.
I am going to devote another blog, at least, to what “light” is, and why and how it gives life to all things, and how human beings also radiate light. But that is for a later day.
34 And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.
35 That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.
36 All kingdoms have a law given;
37 And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
38 And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.
39 All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.
Science works hard to discover and explore natural laws. I think this idea of law as governing both human beings and the natural world around us is a wonderfully rich area for trying to better understand ourselves and the nature of God. Again, more about law in a other post, another day.
40 For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own; judgment goeth before the face of him who sitteth upon the throne and governeth and executeth all things.
Contrary to the old saying, opposites do not attract. It is like things that attract each other, both physically and “spiritually”. One of the remarkable features of “Mormonism” is how deeply it mixes the material world and the “spiritual” world. In fact, the material and the “spiritual” are not and cannot be separated.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 93:
28 He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.
29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
32 And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.
Here is that set of traits, “consciousness” and “conscience” that are at the center of what it means to be human, to be both a mortal being and also the literal offspring of God.
33 For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
34 And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.
35 The elements are the tabernacle of God; yea, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples; and whatsoever temple is defiled, God shall destroy that temple.
36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 130
18 Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.
19 And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.
Abraham Chapter 3
21 I dwell in the midst of them all; I now, therefore, have come down unto thee to declare unto thee the works which my hands have made, wherein my wisdom excelleth them all, for I rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligences thine eyes have seen from the beginning; I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences thou hast seen.
22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
By the way, as I mentioned in my first post “Why This Blog?”, I think we have two alternatives to explain these and other marvelous writings and teachings of Joseph Smith. First, the explanation Joseph gave: the revelations came from God. Second, a 20-30 year old farm kid with almost no schooling came up with them on his own. I accept the first alternative.
Back to the topic: summarizing from these and other revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith and other modern prophets, human spirits are organized “intelligences”. They were organized by God our Heavenly Father. We know very little about the process by which intelligences are organized or what the word “organize” means in that context. (I will have more to say about organization as “anti-entropy” in another post.)
The intelligence, that is, the core of my personality that is uniquely and eternally me, was not created nor made. Therefore it cannot be destroyed. God did not create my intelligence and even He cannot destroy it. My intelligence can, however, grow in capacity as it comprehends more and more. An intelligence can also voluntarily circumscribe itself and limit its intellectual growth by rejecting or not seeking additional knowledge. An intelligence can grow morally (in goodness) by voluntarily giving fuller and fuller obedience to the universal moral order. It can also limit its own moral growth by refusing to adopt and practice the truth of which it is already aware. Both my intellectual and moral growth are ultimately up to me. They are mine to choose.
Last week I reread Viktor Frankl’s great book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Frankl survived the Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz. Frankl makes the point over and over again that every freedom can be taken from us except this one: the freedom to choose how we will respond to our circumstances, to choose our way. I will probably write a post some day on Frankl’s book. So much of what Frankl experienced in prison echoes Joseph Smith’s own experiences in a terrible dungeon called (ironically?) “Liberty Jail”. The power of choice and the other side of that coin, our corresponding moral accountability, are both absolutely central to Mormon teachings.
Back to my main subject: our abilities to grow both intellectually and morally are greatly aided when our spirits (organized intelligences consisting of matter, real stuff) are placed in bodies of flesh and bones. Contrary to nearly all religious (and philosophical) traditions, “Mormonism” affirms that our bodies are a great blessing and are essential to achieving our highest eternal potential.
Thus “Mormonism”, the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have given me the only emotionally satisfying and intellectually rigorous answers I have ever encountered to two absolutely critical questions: 1) what is the origin of my consciousness, my awareness of self and others?, and 2) where does my conscience, my knowledge of right and wrong, come from?
The answers are, respectively: 1) I am an eternal being. I have always existed and have therefore always, to some extent, been self-aware and also other-aware, and 2) My knowledge of right and wrong reflects the response of my own individual, imperfect, independent intelligence to the light and truth that also exist, also eternal and independent of me, in the real universe.
Well, this has been a very long and dense post—it has taken more than a month to prepare. I will make the next one lighter and shorter, I hope. But first I need to respond to Becca Winder’s thoughtful and respectful questions regarding my first blog post “And It Came to Pass”. That comes next on my blogging list. Stay tuned for further events. 🙂