In the absence of revelation on the subject, we are left to speculate on the nature of spirits. In this post I will to sketch out some of the possibilities.
Spirits vs. Intelligences vs. Minds
One of the first difficulties we have is with definitions. There is no clear revelation that explains whether a spirit is the same thing as an intelligence or not. There is some evidence to support the idea that spirits/intelligences/minds are all names for the same thing, or at least that Joseph Smith considered them to all be names for the same thing. But counter arguments have been made that spirits are a more complex things than intelligences/minds. (Eternal minds and intelligences are almost universally considered to be the same thing in Mormonism as far as I can tell.)
Beginningless or not?
Near the end of his life Joseph Smith taught that the “mind of man” is co-eternal with God and thus without a beginning. Brigham Young was away on a mission when Joseph Smith publicly taught this idea and Brigham taught years later that the mind of man does indeed have a beginning. BH Roberts and others later attempted to bridge this gap between Joseph and Brigham with the tripartite model of spirits where our spirits are essentially bodies (with a beginning) made of spirit matter that are powered by our beginningless (presumably immaterial) minds/intelligences. Orson Pratt speculated that spirit matter is made up of atoms or particles like all other matter and that at least some individual spirit particles have a rudimentary intelligence. He further suggested that these intelligent particles could somehow unify to create higher order minds. So in his model, only the rudimentary parts of the mind of man are beginningless while the human-level mind clearly has a beginning.
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 (D&C 131: 7)
As the verse above shows, Mormonism is committed to at least a variation of materialism. Yet the tripartite model of spirits basically assumes that minds exist eternally prior to being united with spirit matter. These immaterial minds are sometimes referred to as Cartesian minds in reference to the influential philosopher Rene Descartes who taught of a mind/body (immaterial/material) dualism. While there is nothing in Mormonism that explicitly precludes the possibility of eternal Cartesian minds, the fact that the revelation in section 131 came through Joseph Smith combined with the fact that Joseph treated the words minds, intelligences, and spirits interchangeably serves as the basis for an argument against a beginningless Cartesian minds model.
Simple and irreducible vs. complex and destructible
On more than one occasion Joseph Smith taught:
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 Claytonâ€™s Private Book)
The idea that everything that has a beginning must have an end has no conflict with the concept of eternal Cartesian minds. Cartesian minds presumably would be simple and irreducible and therefore in no danger of decomposition ever. But the idea that everything that has a beginning must have an end doesn’t jibe well at all with the idea that our “eternal” minds have a beginning as a result of quasi intelligent spirit particles joining together at some point in the distant past. Those who like a variation on the Orson Pratt model are mostly left to dismiss the teaching from Joseph Smith that everything which has a beginning will surely have an end as simply mistaken.
Eternal thumb twiddling, eternal hibernation, or eternal recursion
A problem with any beginningless minds model when combined with an eternal progression-toward-a-permanent-exaltation assumption is that these two assumptions don’t mix well. No matter how far we go back in time in this so-called eternal progression there is necessarily always an infinite amount of time prior to that that could also have been used for progression toward the prize of exaltation. If progression has been occurring for an infinite amount of time it is difficult to explain why just a little more time will finally do the trick (though Blake will vigorously show you why it is not logically impossible). I have said in the past that this reminds me of the old infinity+1 line kids would use on each other.
I have only encountered two approaches addressing this problem: (1) An eternal hibernation assumption in some variation, or (2) An eternal recursion assumption where all spirits cycle through probations throughout all eternity. The eternal hibernation model is essentially a way of saying minds have a beginning. Beginningless minds are a hard concept to account for and so there is some beauty in simply trying to avoid it if possible. Eternal recursion models are basically a way of dismissing the eternal unidirectional progression toward a permanent exaltation assumption by making eternal progress a loop or “eternal round”. I think variations on an eternal recursion model have a certain elegance to them but have noticed they tend to be too radical for many people besides me to find them intriguing. I’ll post specifically on that subject soon.
Why does it matter?
Well, because the answers to these questions are among the core building blocks to the answers of the great questions of existence: “Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?”