The problem of how to label Mormon philosophical and theological views is a perennial one, but an issue that must be treated. Mormon scholars have debated the propriety of using terms like infinite, finite, monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, modalism, binitarianism, etc. The list goes on.
Scholarly communities advance and pool together their knowledge by using shared and common terms. Essentially we talk with one another using a common language. Disputes over labeling Mormonism are inevitable and will persist for the unforeseeable future. At worst, the very terms we use to talk with each other have built-in interpretations and often can skew more precise discourse. How accurate or useful is Cartesian in describing the dualism of B.H. Roberts or in Mormon thought generally? Are there dangers of confusion? What qualifications might be necessary?
In the realm of Mormon metaphysics, Sterling McMurrin makes the following observation:
Mormonism teaches a strict numerical dualism of the spirit and the body; through they are both material, they are two different entities. But the dualism is in number degree only and not in the fundamental quality or character of reality, a fact which distinguishes the Mormon position from the typical mind-body dualism that has typified Protestant thought, for instance, since Descartes. . . . It is important to recognize that the mind-body problem, the question of the nature of the soul or spirit and the body and the relation between them, has been a major metaphysical issue in occidental religious thought since the earliest Christian centuries. The Mormon treatment of this problem, which is radically unorthodox when judged by either Catholic or Protestant thought, nevertheless conforms to the general pattern of Christian theology, that the soul or spirit is immortal though the body is subject to death.1
There are those who no doubt question the appropriateness of the term “materialism” as applied to the Mormon case. McMurrin acknowledges this issue:
The materialism that figures so prominently in Mormon thought is, of course, a radical departure from typical nineteenth-century materialism. The latter usually denies the reality of God and the soul, whereas Mormonism simply declares that God and the soul, or spirit, are material beings—composed of matter somewhat out of the ordinary, but material nevertheless.2
Despite any drawbacks it might have, “materialism” has tended to be employed consistently by Mormon scholars in describing Mormon cosmology. Erich Robert Paul, writing in the field of the history of science, and also cautious with applying certain labels to Mormon thinking, nevertheless agrees with McMurrin’s general observations:
[T]he central philosophical problem raised by Descartes in the seventeenth century revolves around the relationship between mind and body. Good mechanists reduce mind to body and proclaim the primacy of matter. Romantics, uncomfortable with the implications for God (or spirit) in such a world, reverse the logic and reduce matter to mind (or spirit). Joseph Smith’s solution was rather novel: While recognizing the importance of body, and, after 1841, in endowing God the Father with a material tabernacle, Joseph rejected the Cartesian dualism, opted for the primacy of matter, and retained spirit as some sort of refined material substance (see D&C 131:7-8). Thus it seems that the very terms mechanical and Romantic may not be altogether useful in order to describe and understand complex Mormon theology.3
While Mormon thinkers do not always necessarily adopt Joseph’s thinking on all matters of doctrine, McMurrin sees materialism as rather consistent among Mormon expositors, including Roberts:
In numerous writings officially accepted by the Church, even God is described as a material being, having “body, parts, and passions.” Orson Pratt, B. H. Roberts, and James E. Talmage, major influences on Mormon thought, all agree with this materialistic principle, insisting that there is no such thing as immaterial matter.4
Further discussing Roberts’ thought in the forward to Roberts’ masterpiece, The Truth, The Way, The Life, McMurrin argues:
Roberts was fully committed to materialism as the foundation of Mormon philosophy, and while he made no contribution to materialistic theory or to the solution of the crucial question of the relation of mind or spirit to the material body, he made, as always, a serious effort to call attention to what he regarded as scientific support for the LDS doctrine.5
Other commentators on Roberts thought draw similar conclusions. Truman Madsen, biographer of B.H. Roberts, discusses Roberts’ influences, but takes care to note areas where Roberts disagreed with his sources.
Among the philosophers he read were: Plato, especially translations of the Republic and the Timaeus; Aristotle, with special interest in Metaphysics; Spinoza, from whom he learned the power and limitations of mathematical interrelationships; Descartes, whose method of “systematic” doubt led him to formulate his own rules for “beginning over” (Roberts rejected out of hand the Descartes dualism of two kinds of being, and rejected, too, Descartes’s eventual re-admission of the Catholic presuppositions, which he traced to Athens not Jerusalem); Bacon, presumably Francis Bacon, who impressed him to avoid “idols”; and Rousseau in his Social Contract.6
Speaking specifically of The Truth, The Way, The Life, Madsen takes care to point out:
Roberts’ analysis makes the “materialism” of the new dispensation all-pervasive. There is no such thing as immaterial substance. (This is more than saying there is no such thing as immaterial matter, which is a tautology.) He wants to insist that everything that really is, is material. Subtler realities such as “thought,” “love,” “grace,” are actually materiate, though of a finer quality than we can perceive with our five senses.7
Writing on “B. H. Roberts on Mormonism and Cosmology” Erich Robert Paul makes no mention of B. H. Roberts deviating in any surprising way from Mormon materialism.8 Blake Ostler, reviewing B.H. Roberts’ theology, also shows no indication that Roberts understood intelligences as Cartesian minds.9 In exploring B.H. Roberts and the problem of consciousness, Steven L. Peck makes no mention of Roberts understanding of mind as Cartesian, although he uses the term elsewhere in his paper.10
A recent and nuanced look at materialism in early Mormon thought is by Benjamin E. Park.11 As McMurrin also pointed out, Christianity had found expression in Cartesian dualism. “Christianity,” Park writes, “gave priority to things spiritual over things physical.” Tracing the development through Mormon thought, Park explains that “most early Mormon writings retained the traditional Cartesian dualism” but this view changed through a number of revelatory developments, the first of which was “the belief that material elements were eternal—a progressive rejection of traditional dualism that had placed spirit above matter—that led the early Saints to a radical materialist view.”12
In other words, the change was more in terms of primacy. Park argues “While not completely destroying the concept of Cartesian dualism, placing spirit and matter on an equal level was an important step toward a corporeal deity.”13
If Cartesian means drawing a distinction between mind and body then Mormonism still retains this kind of dualism. As McMurrin observed, Mormonism “conforms to the general pattern of Christian theology, that the soul or spirit is immortal though the body is subject to death.” However, if rejecting Cartesian dualism means rejecting the primacy of spirit over the physical, then it does seems accurate to say Mormonism opted, as E. Robert Paul does above, for the primacy of matter.
But just as materialism needs qualification in Mormonism so might the term Cartesian. One distinction that Descartes drew was that bodies may be divided, but minds were indivisible. According to Joseph Smith the mind is uncreatable; if uncreatable and eternal, one could argue that for Joseph the mind is also indivisible, as Descartes believed. However, while Joseph clearly accepted a distinction between the immortal soul or mind of man, and the mortal body of man, Joseph did not believe the mind was created as Descartes certainly did.14 Does a rejection of creatio ex nihilo render Cartesian inappropriate to describe Mormon views on mind-body?
In taking up the topic of consciousness, Peck observes:
Little has been written about LDS thought on consciousness as such. Implicitly, however, Latter-day Saints have both a unique and a profound view of consciousness as informed by modern scriptures, by prophets, and by theology. We can garner three general themes from the scriptures: (1) The universe contains things that act and other things that are acted upon; (2) Consciousness in its basic form is not created; and (3) Consciousness can exist without the material world as we know it.15
This distinction between things that act and things that are acted upon was discussed by Roberts (as well as other Mormon thinkers). He writes in his chapter 8 of his magnum opus:
This chapter has especially to do with the mind-element of the universe; for we shall hold here that there is a distinction between mind and matter, as there is a difference between that which acts and that which is acted upon; as there is a difference between the thinking essence or substance and that which has or manifests mechanical force merely.16
Roberts uses the term “mind-element” on more than one occasion. He speaks of “Intelligence, or the mind-element of the universe.”17 Mind, apparently, is still element, but it is thinking element. Elsewhere Roberts wrote: “Intelligence is material. But it is also conscious. Matter is not. This is the ultimate dualism.”18 While phrased somewhat awkwardly here, this is consistent with Roberts’ view that some element is conscious and other element is not.19
Clearly one can speak of dualism in Mormon thought, but if it is appropriate to describe element which is conscious and element which is not, as Cartesian, then it seems likely to apply not just to B. H. Roberts, but according to Peck, to the overall nature of consciousness found in LDS scriptures.
1. McMurrin, Sterling M. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), p. 6.
2. Ibid., p. 44
3. Paul, E. Robert. “Early Mormon Intellectuals: Parley P. and Orson Pratt, a Response,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Autumn 1982): 47-48.
4. McMurrin, Sterling M. “Some Distinguishing Characteristics of Mormon Philosophy.” Sunstone (March 1993): 35-46
5. McMurrin, Sterling M. “The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” in B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts, ed. Stan Larson (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xx.
6. Madsen, Truman G. Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), p.85
7. Madsen, Truman G. “The Meaning of Christ — the Truth, The Way, The Life: An Analysis of B.H. Roberts’ Unpublished Masterwork,” BYU Studies 15.3 (1975), p. 264
8. See Paul, Erich Robert. Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology. (Urbana, Ill: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 148-155.
9. Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 1: The Attributes of God. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2001): 93-98.
10. Peck, Steven L. “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 38.1 (2005): 36-64 (57-59); See also Peck, Steven L. “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 43.1 (2010): 1-36.
11. Park, Benjamin E. “Salvation through a Tabernacle: Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, and Early Mormon Theologies of Embodiment, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43.2, (Summer 2010): 1-44.
12. Ibid., 4, 6, 9.
13. Ibid., 12.
14. René Descartes, Discourses on Method, Part V.
15. Consciousness Landscape, 55.
16. The Truth, The Way, The Life, 76.
17. Ibid., 83. Roberts also uses the term “mind-force.”
18. Roberts’ notebooks on Spinoza, B. H. Roberts Collection, Church Historical Department, as cited in Madsen, Truman G. “The Meaning of Christ — the Truth, The Way, The Life: An Analysis of B.H. Roberts’ Unpublished Masterwork,” BYU Studies 15.3 (1975), p.4n14.
19. See also B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907-1912), 2:503. In addition to “mind-element,” Roberts uses the phrases “a finer and thinking kind of material” “thinking material” and “a finer, thinking substance.”