What is a spirit? Joseph Smith talked a good deal about spirits and minds, but he never clearly articulated his view of what constitutes a spirit. This leaves us in an unfortunate position of trying to piece together what he must have believed about spirits from other things he said. On one hand, he was clear and consistent in asserting that spirits are co-eternal with God and have existed from all eternity. On the other hand, he used language that suggests an ontological dualism in which mind is a different sort of thing than matter.
The Book of Mormon divides reality into “things to act” and “things to be acted upon.” This bifurcation is found again in modern revelation where it contrasts “element” with “spirit” and “intelligence” (D&C 93:29-36). The language in these passages goes beyond compatibility with dualism and actually suggests it. That is, these texts represent an obstacle for those arguing against an ontological dualism in Joseph Smith’s theology.
Things are complicated by the vagueness and imprecision of the language in the writings of Joseph Smith. Notice that in D&C 93 “element” (i.e. matter) stands in contrast to “spirit.” But, in D&C 131:7 Joseph tells us that “all spirit is matter” (with spirit matter being more pure/fine/elastic/refined than coarse (regular) matter). If spirit is ultimately a form of matter, where does this leave for mind to fit into the equation? Does this suggest an ontological trialism of mind, spirit matter, and coarse matter? The original divide seemed to be between mind and matter. D&C 131:7 simply divides matter into two kinds (spirit matter and regular matter), thus leaving us with some statements equating mind and spirit and others putting an ontological divide between them. This is not a small problem.
Trying to sort this problem out leads quickly to a bunch of related questions: Must mind be distinct from matter, or could it ultimately be a product of spirit and/or coarse matter? Is “a spirit” the same as “spirit”? Is “intelligence” equivalent to “spirit,” a property of it, or something distinct? In D&C 93, the eternal part of man is “intelligence,” which cannot be created and is “independent …to act for itself.” Is intelligence equivalent to spirit (and therefore a form of matter) or if not, how is it related to spirit? Joseph Smith did not answer these questions and we are left to make our best guesses.
These problems, it should be noted, arise naturally from the theology of Joseph Smith without regard to the ideas of later figures or ideas that sprang up after the life of Joseph Smith. Thus, attempts to marginalize one or another position by explaining them as attempts to harmonize Joseph Smith with the ideas of other people are not persuasive.
Since it is unclear how Joseph Smith would have answered these questions, let’s explore the space a bit.
First, let’s consider the position taken by several people in these parts (Blake, Geoff, J. Stapley) that spirit bodies are eternal. This position rejects the tripartite model in which it is suggested that an uncreated “intelligence” at some point receives a spirit body and then later a physical body. Rather, it suggests that the spirit body is, in fact, uncreated. By rejecting the existence of minds apart from spirit bodies, this position seems to require that mind arises from a spirit body.
In other contexts, Blake (Ostler) has argued that free will radically emerges from a physical brain. This would be one attractive way to solve the mind-body problem with respect to spirits and would fit well with the idea that there is no intelligence separate from a spirit. However, it also introduces some interesting questions.
Intelligence is uncreatable?
D&C 93:29 says (or seems to say) that the intelligent part of man has always existed and is, in principle, uncreatable. “Intelligence …was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” If intelligence is emergent from spirit brains, then this seems to suggest that it is creatable. After all, spirit can take various shapes and the concept of emergence seems to require that in some shapes spirit matter would not be intelligent but in others intelligence would emerge (and thus be created).
A second problem under this heading is that it seems a spirit brain can be destroyed if it is just matter in a certain configuration. One presumes that a spirit hammer could make quick work of a spirit brain. This makes intelligence appear somewhat more fleeting and contingent than what is described by Joseph Smith in the King Follett Discourse.
What is the form of a spirit?
In order for intelligence to be emergent, it seems we are tied to the idea of something like a spirit brain from which the intelligence can emerge. This raises the question of what a spirit looks like. Mark D. has often asked if an uncreated spirit is presumed to have ten fingers and ten toes? If so, we are left to wonder why this human shape has existed from all eternity. Is the human form something of a Platonic ideal?
But there are worse problems here. It becomes extremely problematic to hold to the idea that spirits take a definite form. For example, animals are said to have spirits and evolution has created all sorts of crazy bodily forms, most of which have become extinct. Does this require a pre-existence in which there were spirits that looks like all the extinct species? Furthermore, our physical appearance is largely determined by (1) genetic influences of our parents and (2) our history on earth (accidents, eating habits, etc.). It becomes untenable to hold to the idea that a spirit must match the physical body exactly. Luckily, we can draw on the idea that spirit matter is â€œelasticâ€ to account for this. Perhaps spirits can stretch to virtually any shape necessary. If this is the case, the idea of a spirit brain with emergent intelligence becomes a thorny issue because emergent intelligence requires a definite shape for our spirit brain. An amorphous blob does not appear to fit our needs.
Wrapping Up This Post
The argument about eternal spirits vs. eternal intelligences who acquire a spirit body is often framed as a battle of Joseph Smith’s ideas vs. later LDS theologians. I believe this framing is both inadequate and ultimately unhelpful, as it avoids the real questions that lie at the heart of this issue.
This post begins a discussion by raising some questions in the context of the “eternal spirit” model. I plan to follow this up with a similar analysis of the “eternal intelligences” model. In the comments, I hope we can discuss the pros and cons of this model with respect to the kinds of issues I have raised in the post. I am hoping we can save the problems with the “eternal intelligences” model for the subsequent thread.1
1. Because I find it an unfortunate stacking of the deck to talk about Joseph Smith’s model vs. B.H. Robert’s model, I am calling them the “eternal spirits” vs. the “eternal intelligences,” both of which come from the language of Joseph Smith’s writings and revelations. I think this is a much more fair-minded way to approach the issue. Maybe if these catch on we will end up referring to the ES model vs. the EI model who knows.