I like to study philosophy (“dabbling”, I guess is what it’s called). It helps me to express myself a bit more precisely, if nothing else. There are some blogs about things more or less related to it that I like to follow intermittently. I’d like to refer you to two discussions on a blog I read now and again; they are about the nature of spirits, and the limitations of analogy.
Anyway, in the former, the writer quotes Joseph Smith as having said,
The elements are eternal. That which has a beginning will surely have an end. Take a ring, it is without beginning or end; cut it for a beginning place, and at the same time you will have an ending place.
(5 January 1841- William Clayton’s Private Book)
By the way, thanks for a cool reference to Wm Clayton’s notebook, GeoffJ. He was one of the more reliable recorders of the things around him. If only my descendants had anything of the like…
Anyhow, there are a couple of things I’d like to pick apart just a little here.
One is, that Joseph did apparently teach and believe in a non-dualistic world. He tried to dispel the spirit vs. matter dichotomy by trying to describe spirit as matter, but different than the one we are in connection with via our senses.
The other is, that this is a good example of the limitations of using an analogy. If you do take a ring, and cut it, you will no longer have something without end or beginning. You’ll indeed have a beginning and an end. But let’s look at what else Joseph and the Scriptures teach us.
Whether or not the spirit (mind) of man was created or not, his physical body most certainly was created, and we are taught in all standard works that in resurrection we will receive a glorified, perfected physical body; never to die again. This is, what we call immortality (NB! not the same thing as Eternal Life). So, a beginning, but no end.
At the same time, we are taught that this Earth was created at one point; after it has fulfilled its purpose, it, too, will experience a sort of a resurrection, and a New Earth will be brought forth, which will become a Celestial sphere for the ones who will inherit Celestial glory (at least that is an approximation of it; the other Kingdoms of Glory may be on this same physical sphere, but spiritually segregated somehow; I just don’t know about that). There, again, there is a beginning but no end.
This kind of reasoning brings us to the simple/irreducible vs. complex/destructible dichotomy. In the material world, science is seeking the primary particles that will explain how physical substances are formed. It is logical, that we should be able to reduce matter to ever smaller particles, until we come to a point, where we can no longer divide it into parts. From this, a “common ingredient” for all physical substance should emerge. This was one of the original thoughts of natural philosophers in Greece (for a good and simple description of the development of philosophy I can recommend Jostein Gaarder’s Sofia’s World — your local library is likely to have it).
(If I understand right where we stand in this right now is that on the micro level, scientists are grappling with particles that behave quite differently than things which normally have a mass and a velocity — apparently for some particles, only one or the other can be calculated. Some are speculating, that we are not dealing with a particle at all, as in having dimensions, but is more like a force, whose behavior can resemble a particle. And we are already familiar from quantum physics, that observation has an effect on the behavior of photons (Berkeley would surely have enjoyed knowing that). However, I’m quite certain you can find much better-informed people to instruct you on science…)
Discussions often deteriorate into arguing rather than genuinely trying to see and appreciate another’s point of view. Thing is, that in the end we do not need to be able to fully and finally formalize our ideas of this world and our lives. Naturally the standard is higher if we are philosophers, who want to express an idea to other philosophers. Then we do need to formalize it so that our peers will know what we are talking about, and precisely what kind of argumentation is used to come to a certain conclusion. And much of the progress of humanity has come from such exercises.
But try as we might, we can only speculate on things like the eternal nature of spirits/minds/intelligences (words, which Joseph Smith used somewhat loosely from a philosopher’s point of view, and he did not have the time to polish his ideas into a book late in life).
My speculation here is that we are evolving organisms. And I’m not talking about organic evolution; I’m talking about eternal progression. We most likely have an ingredient, that is eternal. Call it what you like; spirit, mind, consciousness, intelligence are all good words to describe at least facets of what I have in mind, but none probably fully describes it. Some part of who we are is dependent on having been “organized” (and thus having a beginning of sorts — see Abr 3:22), while some apparently exists independently.
We are personally — at least hopefully — learning new things all the time. It is true that we also forget some, but arguably our personalities become more and more complex as we absorb more experiences and information. However, at the same time, there is a trend toward streamlining, toward pruning, whatever you call it — an ever greater degree of organization is being achieved by our minds, as we pick up stuff, examine, and then let ideas simmer and mature.
Here I point out the obvious connection that LDS theology makes with organizing and creating. We tend to summarily dismiss “ex nihilo” ideas, and I wish to do so, too. Nothing can be created out of nothing. Joseph, in the teachings like the one quoted above, wanted to emphasize that nothing came out of nothingness, and that we are eternal beings — in whichever configuration we were before we were organized. Joseph, too, would have quickly recognized that the ring’s nature that he used to describe something without beginning or end is dependent on the particular way in which the ring is organized.
Since I started by pointing out a discussion about the limitations of analogies, I’ll be closing this one with an analogy. We all know that the higher we go above sea level, the better we see certain things about the Earth. The same way, the higher our level of understanding is, the better we can see some structures; on the other hand, we also need to take a closer look at some, because they have an intricate internal structure that helps us perhaps understand something bigger. We need to take a close look at how we deal with our companions, neighbors and others. We must not forget that if we have no charity we have nothing at all. I’m pretty sure that if I read this a year from today, I will have a better understanding of at least some things.