A guest post submitted by our good friend J. Stapley:
In this post, I hope to successfully describe what I believe to be a prominent and persistent failing among individuals seeking to explore Mormon cosmology. Specifically, I will describe the common use of analogy, its limitations and highlight how, when employed in the exploration of Mormon thought, it frequently yields conclusions that are highly unreliable.
When forming an analogy, an individual takes a source and then maps attributes onto a target. For an analogy to be successful, both the source and the target have to be systemically continuous. That is to say, they have to be playing by the same rules. Furthermore, for any likelihood that the analogy be accurate, the observer has to be aware of the rules.
Let’s look at some historical examples of failed analogies and how they relate to the two requirements of likely analogical success:
In the nineteenth century, and for a number of reasons, scientists grew to believe that the universe was filled with a substance called the ether (or aether) which was necessary to transmit electromagnetic waves. If you want the whole skinny the development of the idea, there are many sources, but simply put, scientists used as the source of analogy, those systems in which they could readily describe the propagation of waves. Waves travel in matter, for example water. They then mapped certain attributes of the source onto a hypothetical ether. Now I think we would all agree that waves in water and light waves are systemically continuous. It was fair for individuals not to believe that whereas waves in water are natural, light waves are supernatural. However, because the people making the analogy didn’t understand the rules of nature, their analogy was deeply flawed.
Another example of failed analogy is the model of the atom. Neils Bohr mapped certain attributes of the solar system onto a target structure of atoms. As the planets revolve around the sun, so to do electrons revolve around the nucleus, he thought. The failure of this analogy can be read as a failure of both requirements for success. As of right now, general relativity (which is our best method of describing the solar system) and quantum mechanics (which is our best method of describing the atom) are discontinuous. They don’t use the same rules. Now many might have faith that there is a set of universal and unified rules, but we don’t know them yet. Neils Bohr certainly didn’t know the rules.
So what does this mean for Mormon cosmology? First people making analogies to describe Mormon cosmology assume that the system is continuous and that they understand the rules. Both of these assumptions are simply not tenable. Let’s take a look at the existence of spirits:
Do spirits follow the same rules that the observable universe does? No. If they did, then we would be able to predict and observe spiritual phenomena according to our current models. Even if there are grand rules by which all things operate, both spiritual and observable, we are completely unaware of them. Because of this systemic discontinuity, any analogy made has a tremendous likelihood of being faulty.
We look at our bodies and observe the incredibly complex material mechanics necessary for cognition. A possible analogy would be to map those mechanics of cognition onto a spirit body. When people have visions of spirits, seeing them with purer eyes if you will, they perceive bodies in similar form to our own. Spirits consequently need to have spirit matter â€“carbon, hydrogen, calcium, etc.-and breathe spirit oxygen to enjoy cognition. Unfortunately, because we don’t know the rules of spiritual existence, this analogy is most certainly false. Just like the ether necessary to propagate light. Similar analogies made between the discontinuous systems are all equally unlikely. Any real understanding of spirits, beyond their revealed existence is simply impossible without data.
Sound, light and my body are all waves, but what that means is very different in each case, and this is within a system where we generally comprehend the rules. How different might existence be, temporal and spiritual, where the rules are beyond our comprehension?