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.
Was Blind But Now I See
By Lisa Hains Barker, PhD
My sister wrote this essay a few years ago, and shared it with me. A conversation brought it to mind recently, and I asked if she would permit me to post it here, which she did. Lisa is a practicing neuropsychologist, who specializes in helping people recover from brain trauma.
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
I love the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9), because of its wonderful insights into the Savior’s perfect ability to love and heal us. John wrote, “Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind” (John 9:32). John was trying to call our attention to the distinctiveness of this particular miracle. While wondering about why this event was different from Jesus’ other healings, I realized the reason stemmed from basic principles of neuroanatomy and brain function. We don’t really see with our eyes, we see with our brain. Our eyes are sensory organs that take in variations in light, and details from the world around us, then transform that information into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are sent to some very specific areas in the back of the brain (the visual cortex & surrounding areas) that allow us to see and make sense of what we are seeing. While our eyes and the visual cortex of the brain are formed from birth for the very particular task of seeing, our vision and understanding of what we see develop as we interact with our environment. Vision is acquired in much the same way language is, in infancy and early childhood. For example, a young child learns names for visual details like colors and shapes, and eventually that a red, round shaped object might be an apple, or a pomegranate, or even a ball. But if a person is blind from birth, those parts of the brain which are supposed to do the work of “seeing” don’t develop in the same way, and can be encroached upon by other, working senses.
Applying this modern understanding of neuroanatomy, we can appreciate the complexity of Jesus’ miracle. It is more than just the man’s eyes that needed healing. If the Savior had only healed his eyes, the man would likely have been confused by the images he was “seeing” because his visual cortex wouldn’t have developed normally. He would have no frame of reference to understand depth or color or other visual details. In fact, there are modern examples of this very problem. But that is not what happened. The Savior anointed his eyes with clay and told him to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” We are then told that the man went and washed “and came seeing” (John 9:7). The Savior did more than heal his eyes, he healed his brain. He made up for a lifetime’s lack of visual input – almost instantaneously. He restored, or completely repaired the man’s whole visual system.
Isn’t that a profound foreshadowing of later events? That through his atonement, Jesus can completely make up for our lifetimes of weakness and sin; and through his death and resurrection, he will restore our living physical bodies. He can and will make us whole again.
And yet another sweet bit of familiarity comes from this story… when the man was later asked by the Pharisees, repeatedly, about how this miracle could have occurred, the man defended Jesus and defended his works; “Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes…If this man were not of God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33). His genuine testimony resulted in him being cast out. But John was able to capture his words, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”
Spirits and Dark Matter
Ever since it was postulated in the early 1930’s, dark matter has been a mystery of physics and cosmology. Scientists have proposed countless theories and have done nearly as many experiments trying to detect and explain the phenomenon.
In a nutshell, scientists discovered that everywhere they looked in the universe, gravitational laws indicated that the observable motion of celestial bodies (stars and such) behaved as though there was more mass out there than we could see – a lot more. This invisible matter was dubbed “dark matter.”
As the measurements and calculations have been refined – assuming our understanding of the law of gravity is accurate on the scale of galaxies – the estimates of the amounts of dark matter and dark energy in the universe have been calculated to far outweigh the amount of visible matter and “normal” energy. See the graph (from Wikipedia) below:
While science has not been able to come up with much in terms of explanation or even detection of dark matter and dark energy, in 1843, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation that at least partially explains dark matter:
“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8)
That spirits were matter at all was a revolutionary concept at that time, but if we consider spirits to be made of dark matter, this becomes a key intersection between religion and science as to what can be real.
Although there are a lot of forms of invisible matter, the attributes of spirits indicate that they are made of a type of matter not yet understood by science, hence my classification of it as a form of dark matter. There is also some anecdotal evidence of spirits having a measurable weight in the experiments of Duncan MacDougall, which would support this theory.
While this is a mildly interesting thing to contemplate by itself, when we start considering the ramifications of this assertion, we find a number of potentially useful insights that could lead to greater understanding of dark matter.
First, let’s consider the nature of spirits. A spirit is the essence of the consciousness. To be complex enough to contain a consciousness, we need to have matter with properties that both allow aggregation and binding together, as atoms and molecules do with regular matter, with substantial complexity. To attain such a level of complexity requires particles which can be combined in many different ways. This would be further enabled by the existence of different types of particles. So, there are likely at least several different kinds of dark particles with different properties, which may be able to be combined into many different dark elements, and dark molecules.
Dark matter is affected by gravity, as that is how we know of its existence. We also know that spirits animate the physical body, so there is likely some potential for these dark particles to interact with the other forces (electromagnetic, strong force, weak force) that govern the behavior of regular particles. Alternatively, there could be some other force between dark particles and regular particles that allows them to affect each other – perhaps dark particles could affect quantum spin, for instance.
Considering these points and the fact that spirits are animate, it should be no wonder that the scientific community has had little luck detecting this kind of dark matter. The tests typical of the general scientific community look for as-yet-undiscovered particles consists of breaking apart or fusing known particles or waiting for stray particles to pass through their detection devices by chance.
I don’t know how to best to detect particles that may or may not be affected by the forces we currently understand and which may or may not be collected together in regular patterns. However, much of scientific progress starts with a hypothesis.
On the religious side, the quantity of dark matter in the universe indicates that there could be a lot more to the spirit world than we might guess.
Ultimately, the key point here is that spirits are real. Despite the inability of modern science to detect them, we have very good, logical explanations for how they can exist that fits the observed facts.
A Facebook friend of mine, Matt Browning, pointed out to me that the term “Scientific Fundamentalism” has already been defined as the opposite of religious fundamentalism: believing that there is no knowledge but that provided by science, and that nothing else has any value whatsoever. (Pardon my paraphrasing.)
Since this is definitely not what I meant by it, I will begin using the term “Enlightened Fundamentalism” instead. I will be revising my previous posts and tags accordingly.
Special thanks to Justin Kunz for his suggestion.
The term “fundamentalist” is not one used in the Mormon church. As a result of this and growing up in Utah, I never heard it applied to churches or believers until high school or college. In figuring out what it meant, I have felt that there are definitely ways in which it applies to the LDS Church, albeit with caveats.
We believe in miracles, angels, revelations, the Creation and that God the Father was the literal father of Christ. So, what is it that makes us different from other fundamentalist religions? In one word, science. We believe in all truth, whether revealed to prophets or discovered by scientists. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, generally refuses to acknowledge science unless it agrees with established belief.
So, I’ve come to think of our kind of beliefs as “enlightened fundamentalism.” Meaning that we believe in the power of God, but also believe that God is limited (as we all are) by reality — laws of physics. We do not pretend to understand HOW God does what he does, but we believe that he does it through a perfect understanding and ability to manipulate (as scientists do) an environment.
Here are some of the doctrines that enable this kind of enlightened fundamentalist view:
- “In the Church, we embrace all truth, whether it comes from the scientific laboratory or from the revealed word of the Lord. We accept all truth as being part of the gospel.” – Russell M. Nelson, Apostle
- God, angels and spirits are all composed of some form of matter. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter.” D&C 131:7
- We strongly support education. “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” D&C 109:7
- God can inspire us to help us learn non-religious truths. “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Moroni 10:5
Now, the challenge is that no matter how much we learn (time machines excepted), we will never be able to go back in time and use whatever new-fangled scientific tools we might have to detect the actual processes whereby miracles were wrought. So, even if we get to the point where we can explain miracles or detect the presence of spirits scientifically, there will always be at least some amount of uncertainty that requires a leap of faith.
Therefore, for me, the purpose of science in enlightened fundamentalism is not to provide proof or repeatable results, but rather to link together enough information to be able to hypothesize a feasible process that meets our understanding of reality and religion, and that allows a glimpse of the power required to work miracles.
The simplest example is that of how God might cause a person to have a vision. We know from science that all perception is processed through electrical activity in the brain. Because spirits work in the physical world, and people are composed of a body and a spirit, it would be expected that spirits would have some way to affect the electrical signals in the brain. We also know from science that matter is mostly empty space, so there would be no reason why a second spirit could not manipulate the brain concurrently with another through direct contact, in order to “send a message.” (Hence the importance of Enmity, by the way.)
Do we know that this is how it works? Absolutely not. It is, however, a reasonable hypothesis in harmony with both science and the doctrines of the church. It also illustrates the point that science and religion can be used together in the search for truth. We need not assume (as seems to be the popular wisdom these days) that they are contradictory by nature.
When we believe miracles are impossible, its very hard to have faith. When we can imagine processes that would produce miracles, it allows our faith and our understanding to flourish.