Mormons and Extra-terrestrials
I came across a post on IFLScience the other day, about the likelihood that we will very soon be identifying extra-terrestrial planets that have life of one form or another on them. The author then went on to pose the philosophical and theological question of how our human religions might react to the information. I read through the first part of the article with a bit of smugness, as I am confident the Mormon perspective here is rather unique and robust in the face of this particular “disruption.” I was then rather surprised to see the Mormon beliefs called out in particular, in a section with several examples. I guess that’s progress – people know something about us besides the fact that we used to condone polygamy.
Anyhow, the doctrine about other worlds is not really central to our perspective of the Gospel, so it’s not talked about much, nor are there many details laid out specifically. So, it’s not surprising that IFLScience’s summary of our belief does not appear to be fully inline with my understanding of the doctrine. I do admit, however, that much of my explanation that will follow will be an extrapolation from the revealed word, and so, may also not match explanations other Mormons might give. Nevertheless, as this is probably one of those things that people might classify as cult-ish, I will endeavor to explain how the doctrine fits in with the rest of the Mormon belief system, and how it therefore makes sense.
The doctrine of many worlds is tied to the concept of people as the literal children of God. I went into this doctrine in detail in my series on the “Plan of Salvation.” The key points are that as children of God, we have the potential to become gods ourselves, to continue the life-cycle (so to speak) and create our own progeny and worlds for them. God Himself, as an eternal being, has done this before, and will continue to do it after this world ends. As such, the greatness of His creations is truly unfathomable. It is this superlative greatness that Moses glimpsed, according to LDS scripture, when God told him, “worlds without number have I created… there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:33-35)
There are many supplementary non-canonical discussions about this doctrine that have been documented between early Mormon leaders – the nature of the eternities and of godliness seemed to be a favorite topic among them. There are some perspectives from these discussions that are in-line with the gist of what was summarized in the IFLScience post – that among God’s creations, this world is “special” because His Only Begotten was born on this world. However, I am not fully convinced of that perspective. It seems consistent with God’s established patterns that He would have a “Firstborn” of every “generation” of His descendants, and that each generation might get its own world. It might also be the case that God was trying something new with this world, and that other worlds had previously been handled differently. The doctrine of the “war in Heaven” (Lucifer’s rebellion – also mentioned in my Plan of Salvation posts) seems like it would have only have happened if the plan for this world was unexpected. In which case, other worlds would have developed in dramatically different ways.
Suffice it to say, there are many ways one could look at this doctrine to see different relationships and perspectives about how other worlds might have been organized. The point is that it is not a central point of doctrine, is not entirely clear, and that there are, have been and will be many more worlds of one form or another created for people like ourselves. There may also be other worlds created with other forms of life on them. One could even start to postulate about other universes in relation to this doctrine. The wonderful thing about this in my mind, is that these questions were being discussed and considered long before a definitive scientific answer was even dreamed as possible, and that the answers provided by science will not require any change to LDS theology to bring it in-line.
Reconciling the Creation, part 2
So, in part 1, I started it off explaining how I believe in the Creation, but not quite literally as outlined in the scriptures. I was just getting started explaining how the story of the Creation might apply to how the Earth was actually formed.
I don’t believe the Creation started from nothing. In describing the Earth as “without form and void,” (Genesis 1:2) why should we assume the void of space? I’m not an etymologist, but I’m pretty sure the term “void” has not meant a vacuum until fairly recently, historically speaking. I interpret it, therefore as “empty” or “without purpose.” Without form, I interpret as being in a state of raw materials. So, in my opinion, the earliest the Creation would have started in terms of the “days” was well after the formation of the planet.
I should probably also say that the “days” are a pretty arbitrary construct. In the LDS Church, they are sometimes referred to as the “creative periods.” It is also my understanding that the original Hebrew word does not translate directly into “day” and also supports the “period” interpretation. So, with these assumptions changed, we’re suddenly looking at a scenario that can be reconciled with science; the Earth was formed from raw materials over a (really long) period of time.
The first thing God does is the creation of light and the separation of it from the darkness. What does this mean? If we take “light” and “darkness” as symbols, meaning jumps out. He separated the good from the bad. He was an engineer and this was the design phase of the project. He defined the purpose, created a plan and organized his resources.
Following on the same train of thought, on the second and fourth “days” He created the foundation and infrastructure for the project. There is a lot here that I don’t understand. Why does he have to create Heaven? What do the waters symbolize? How could plants have possibly come before the sun and moon? I suspect that all of this is symbolic more than literal, still. I’d love to hear ideas on this.
The first living things created are plants. This makes sense, of course given that all energy for life has to come from the sun and plants are how that light energy is converted to chemical energy, thereby making it available to other organisms in the food chain.
The next life created is in the seas and the birds. I’m also not a paleontologist, so I don’t know when birds came along in the evolutionary chain of events relative to land animals.. It could be their mention here is more symbolic, placing them “below” the land animals. Or perhaps it’s just for narrative convenience in order to leave the sixth day for land creatures.
In any event, the sequence of things is similar enough to the evolution that occurred according to the current understanding of the history of life on this world that I do not feel any contradiction of the scientific understanding of things, including the theory of evolution. It certainly does not imply evolution, nor does evolution support the exact narrative supplied, but when we are looking at this from a less literal perspective, the apparent conflict turns into harmony. It is my belief that God used his knowledge and power to cause evolution.
I would also point out that believing that God guided evolution makes evolution itself a stronger theory. According to the second law of thermodynamics, all closed systems gradually decay into a state of the lowest possible energy, in other words, into their most disorganized state. Evolution from random amino acids to single-celled life to human is in direct opposition to this law. Evolutionists will typically tell you this is because the Earth is not a closed system – the sun provides energy for this transformation. Yes, it is true that if you build a solar oven, and put cake batter in it, you can bake a cake. However, if you leave the batter in the sun indefinitely, it won’t turn into cake, it will dry out, and turn into dust. The solar oven and knowledge of when the cake is done is a critical element. Random changes to genomes is far more likely to result in a species’ extinction than its survival. Without God guiding it, evolution does not make sense.
So, the Creation story all leads up to the creation of the human being, and similarly, the most evolutionarily advanced species on the Earth is the human being. Humans are the supreme product of both processes. Of all the species on this planet, only people have the capacity to significantly and willfully alter our environment. Many will tell you this a trait that evolved in us. I, obviously, believe it was it God-given.
I would further argue that it makes more logical sense to believe that our difference from other species is due to our relationship to God, than it is attribute it to evolution. Scientists have studied this a great deal, and have had many theories as to what sets Homo sapien apart from other animals. They once believed it was opposable thumbs which allowed the use of tools. Many other animals have since been documented to use tools. Others postulate that language is the key differentiator. However, many modern studies have shown many animals have a significant ability to use language. There have been other theories, too, but none have achieved broad general acceptance.
On the other hand, if you accept that God made us above the animals you have a new set of possible hypotheses. I’ve heard that some Christian faiths believes Humans are the only life forms with a soul or spirit. The LDS Church teaches that all living things have a spirit, so we can’t rely on that. You could also theorize that it is because God is our Father. That answers the question, but is not terribly specific. I would assert that the difference is that of free will, or as the Church calls it, agency. We are the only living things with the power to make our own decisions and decide our own fate. Animals are bound by their instinct, training and environment.
To sum up, God had a plan. He organized the world in order to create human beings. He guided and controlled natural processes in his creation. It is no less miraculous thus explained, just more real.
So, this gets us through the literal creation. What do you think? I think I’m going to stop here for now and take on the symbolism in yet a 3rd part.
Reconciling the Creation, part 1
Following on the theme of scientific fundamentalism, let’s consider the Creation. Obviously, the Earth was not created either from the absence of matter or in six days. We do, however, believe that the Earth was “created” for us. So, where does that get us?
To some degree we have to treat the Creation story as a myth. Unless you are a strict fundamentalist, it seems clear that the story serves more to communicate the way God works than it provides a strictly literal account of how the Earth came to be. We have to remember that the prophets who were given the revelation of the Creation could not possibly have understood the complexities involved in plate tectonics or the movement within the solar system, for instance, let alone communicate that to their fellow believers.
Now, we don’t typically use the term ‘myth’ in the LDS Church when speaking of scriptures, even if some might argue that is the correct word in certain circumstances. The term used by the Church in these scenarios is “symbolic.” The key difference, at least in the common vernacular, is that myths are seen as misleading or uninformed, whereas symbolism is used specifically to teach. So, what is it that the story of the Creation is meant to teach? I’d like to approach this question in two ways. First, I’ll analyze how the story might be interpreted to apply to the actual formation of the world, then I will discuss the purpose behind the symbolism in the story.
Just so you know, I’ve thought about this a reasonable amount, but I will definitely be making some of this up as I go, so feel free to offer different interpretations or punch holes in my logic. 🙂
Members of the LDS Church are fortunate when it comes to the Creation, in that we have several accounts in our scripture, each of which emphasizes slightly different points. So for instance, although the Biblical account starts with, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” (Genesis 1:1) the account from the Book of Abraham uses the phrase, “And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.” (Abraham 4:1)
Right off the bat, there are several key differences. Rather than “created,” we have “organized and formed.” We also have multiple actors in the account from Abraham. When something is organized or formed, it is accomplished with materials already existing. This is an important point for me, as we know from the principle of conservation of mass, that matter cannot be created or destroyed.
I also appreciate the multiple actors. It allows us a glimpse into what it means to have the power of God, in that it’s not necessarily about the power to cause wondrous things to happen with just your mind, but rather about providing a vision of something great and having the leadership to make it happen. What I would specifically like to de-emphasize here is the concept of multiple gods. Abraham came from a culture that believed in multiple gods with a complex hierarchy, and was merely using the language understood by those around him. A more accurate description would be, “heavenly beings.” In fact, there are places in Mormon doctrine that identify us – that is the pre-mortal spirits of the people who have inhabited this planet – as those beings who helped with the Creation. (I don’t have a source on this now, but I’ll look for it.) Despite this, it is right to still consider the Earth God’s creation. Do we not also give credit to great individuals for leading others to great accomplishments? (“He/She single-handedly turned around the company/won the war/brought peace/etc.”)
I don’t intend to belittle the power required for the Creation, as it is still, even with my proposed interpretation, far beyond anything mortal humans could hope to accomplish. However, to understand God is to know God, “and this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) This is my search for understanding.
It’s too late, so I think I’ll post this in multiple parts… Next up the “days” of the Creation.