The Theology of Orson Pratt in Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse

December 27, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 12:52 pm   Category: Theology

I don’t read a lot of fiction. It’s not that I don’t like reading good fiction – more that I have trouble stopping. When I get a book I really like I have trouble sleeping or concentrating until I finish it. For that reason, I tend to read my fiction on vacations and holidays. Last Christmas I was inspired by a post by Kaimi to get a copy of Enders Game. I loved it and powered through it in a day or two. Last week I decided to try the sequel, Speaker For the Dead, and couldn’t put it down either (causing me to drop out of a few hot blog debates here and elsewhere…). If anything, I think Speaker For the Dead might be even better than Ender’s Game. I’m on to the third in the series now, Xenocide. I’m about half way through and it is not shaping up to be as good as the first two books, but it does give me some good fodder for a blog post. As it turns out, the universe Ender and friends live in is apparently built on the theology and metaphysics (ideas about the nature of reality) of 19th century Mormon apostle Orson Pratt.

Monism (versus pluralism)

The fundamental building blocks of the Enderverse are subatomic particles called “philotes”.

“Philotes are the fundamental building blocks of all matter and energy. Philotes have neither mass no inertia. Philotes have only location, duration and connection… They have no mass or dimension.” (Xenocide, 56, 58)

In the novels these philotes band together to create mesons which combine to make up things like neutrons, then atoms, then molecules, organisms, planets and so on. (Of course the obvious question with Card’s given definition is how philotes with no mass can combine to create things with mass… why not just say they have indiscernible mass or something?) This is an example of “monism” where the universe is all made up of a single irreducible type of substance. In this case the entire Ender universe can be reduced to philotes. I briefly mentioned monism versus pluralism (the idea that the universe is made up of multiple types of irreducible stuff) in my recent post on the McMurrin book.

This philotes notion seems to be a variation on the concept Orson Pratt taught about “particles of intelligence” being the fundamental building blocks of all life. It is not clear to me that Orson was a true monist, though. He seems to think that particles of intelligence made up Intelligences/spirits of living things but I’m not sure he thought non-living matter and energy was also made up particles of intelligence. Please chime in if you’ve seen evidence for Pratt’s leaning one way or the other on this.


The other interesting thing about Card’s philotes is that they are “alive”. They have a rudimentary form of intelligence and agency. They choose and act.

More quotes from Xenocide:

“It’s as if the smaller the particle is, the stupider it is… (61) Life is when a single philote has the strength of will to bind together the molecules of a single cell, to entwine their rays into one. A stronger philote can bind together many cells into a single organism. The strongest of all are the intelligent beings. We can bestow our philotic connections where we will… The philote is the soul. (64)”

“If all of reality is the behavior of philotes, then obviously most philotes are only smart enough or strong enough to act as a meson or hold together a neutron. A very few of them have the strength of will to be alive — to govern an organism. And a tiny, tiny fraction of them are powerful enough to control — no, to be — a sentient organism. But still, the most complex and intelligent being — the hive queen, for instance — is, at core, just a philote, like all the others. It gains its identity and life from the particular role it happens to fulfill, but what it is is a philote. (67)”

Who’s down with O.P.?

Here Card is clearly lifting and expanding on Pratt’s speculations. Orson Pratt opined that all living spirits and things are fundamentally “particles of intelligence” that join together to create living souls of varying degrees of intelligence. Here are some quotes from Pratt’s The Seer as reprinted in The Essential Orson Pratt:

Each particle eternally existed prior to this organization [into a spirit]: each was enabled to perceive its own existence; each had the power of self-motion; each would be an intelligent living being of itself, having no knowledge of the particular thoughts, feelings, and emotions of other particles with which it never had been in union. (285)

Pratt goes on to say that a spirit is in fact a union of intelligence particles that are unified in purpose and become One.

When the same feelings, the same thoughts, the same emotions, and the same affections, pervade every particle, existing in the union, the individuals will consider themselves as one individual: the interest and welfare of each will be the interest and welfare of the whole: if one suffers, they all suffer: if one rejoices, they all rejoice… (285)

The expansion by Card includes the notion that at the center of every spirit is a single particle of intelligence that had the intelligence, strength, and leadership capacity to join with and lead other particles in an ongoing recruiting effort to gather more and more “intelligence” with whom to be One. While Pratt talks about intelligence particles being organized together, I have seen no mention of this concept of a single particle at the heart of each spirit (even though Card’s variation is a logical extension of the speculation in my opinion.)

So while the metaphysics of Card’s Enderverse clearly embraces animism (the idea that all things in the universe are in one sense or another alive), it is not clear whether Pratt went that far or not. He did say that all life (including plant life) was fundamentally made up of particles of intelligence, but he didn’t say whether he thought things like minerals were also made up of these particles. Perhaps Pratt was a monist and a full-fledged animist like the characters in Xenocide, or perhaps he was actually a pluralist who simply believed all living things have a spirit made up of these living particles of intlligence. I would be interested in evidence supporting either of these.

Scriptures behind Pratt’s ideas (and therefore behind the Enderverse)

Pratt’s theology is not without some scriptural support — depending on how one interprets the revelations at least. Here are some examples:

And again, verily I say unto you, the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation, and transgresseth not the law- Wherefore, it shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it. (D&C 88: 25-26)

These verses could be seen as a support for animism, though I’m not sure if even Pratt saw them as such.

Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. (D&C 93: 29-31)

For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; … (D&C 88: 40)

These verses could be seen as support for the notion that individual, beginningless intelligence particles could and would seek each other out to join another.

But does it make any sense?

Even if it turns out that none of it is actually true, I actually think that Card’s rehashing and expansion of Orson Pratt’s speculations are surprisingly coherent and internally consistent as a metaphysical model. What do you think? Are there some deal breaking problems with these specific portions of Pratt’s theology (and thus the metaphysics of Ender’s universe) that I am missing? Or has Card taken some buried Mormon thought and laid out a viable metaphysics model in his works of fiction?


  1. “Of course the obvious question with Card’s given definition is how philotes with no mass can combine to create things with mass… why not just say they have indiscernible mass or something?”

    This is outside my expertise, but here is an article, “Mass without Mass”, that Physics Today ran a few years ago.

    “The bulk of the mass of ordinary matter (better than 99%) comes from the masses of protons and neutrons. In quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the protons and neutrons appear as secondary, composite structures built up from quarks and gluons. We can maintain an excellent approximation to reality while working with a truncated version of QCD, which contains only the color gluons plus up and down quark fields. The heavier quarks play an extremely minor role in the structure of the proton and neutron. […]
    “Now our resulting truncated, approximate version of QCD contains no mass terms at all. […] Yet, if we use it to calculate the mass of protons and neutrons (the mass of ordinary matter) we find it is accurate to within 10%!

    “How is it possible that massive protons and neutrons can be built up out of strictly massless quarks and gluons? The key is m = E/c2. There is energy stored in the motion of the quarks, and energy in the color gluon fields that connect them. This bundling of energy makes the proton’s mass.”

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 27, 2005 @ 12:46 pm

  2. Thanks John — very interesting stuff. Perhaps the Enderverse model is not completely at odds with logic or current science after all. I read that the mass of quarks was a sketchy thing in the quick wikipedia search I did:

    Although one speaks of quark mass in the same way as the mass of any other particle, the notion of mass for quarks is complicated by the fact that quarks cannot be found free in nature. As a result, the notion of a quark mass is a theoretical construct, which makes sense only when one specifies exactly the procedure used to define it.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 27, 2005 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Oh, Geoff, no way. No way. None of his books is/are as good as Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. What are you thinking? I’ve read them all. The Ender series, I mean, and the Alvin series and a few others.

    Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow were more about people, personalities, relationships, survival. Then he went and got all technical and trees were people and pigs and stuff. I read them, some stuff got to me, some stuff, I thought, “trees that eat each other?” Or was that pigs?

    Your discussion is above my level of intellect, I haven’t studied Orson Pratt. But I do have a gut feeling that everything is alive. It’s just a gut thing that I can’t explain. It could be a mental illness. Like I feel sorry for the chipped plate, so I eat off it once in awhile. That sort of thing.

    Comment by annegb — December 27, 2005 @ 1:49 pm

  4. I actually intend to read Ender’s Shadow after I finish Xenocide, Anne. Rumor has it that it is an excellent book.

    That is interesting about your gut feeling about everything being alive in one sense or other — clearly you are not alone in that feeling. That is partially why I think these questions are worth looking at.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 27, 2005 @ 2:27 pm

  5. Card does a lot along this regards in his sci-fi book largely about priesthood and the problem of evil. (You’d never know that just by reading the book, but once someone points it out it is obvious) The book is Treason also found in an earlier version as A Planet Called Treason. (Card had a bunch of quasi-Mormon books he kept rewriting and then republishing – the other was The Worthling Saga) It’s definitely not his best book and is quite violent. But you might find it interesting.

    Regarding Orson Pratt, I tend to see him as a total panpsychist. But he wasn’t really consistent on the part.

    Comment by Clark — December 27, 2005 @ 2:35 pm

  6. AnnegB! I’m giggling. And now accepting the voices from the dolphin figurine over there as legitimate.

    Well, okay, so my sense of humor is lame. If I can’t make fun of mental illness, who can? Teehee!

    And no, the dolphins don’t speak to me. Darn it. :D

    Comment by sarebear — December 27, 2005 @ 11:14 pm

  7. er, that’s make fun of MY mental illnesses. that is. oops.

    Comment by sarebear — December 27, 2005 @ 11:14 pm

  8. I agree with annegb, Enders game was by far the superior book here. Not even close.

    Now, as far as the philotes, it seems clear that these are an equivalent to intelligences. I have only read a few quotes from Orson Pratt, but it does seem similar in concept. Perhaps all Orsons think alike.

    I got the bood Rational Theology for Christmas – inspired by my brief experiences here. I think that his ideas are somewhat similar in his speculations about how God came to be God.

    Comment by Eric — December 28, 2005 @ 6:34 am

  9. I’m thinking there are things in the later books that totally were over my head that appealed to Geoff. I read pretty much on the plot level. I remember at the time thinking that there was some comparison to our belief in eternal intelligence, but I didn’t dwell on it.

    Sarebear, it is so hard for me to throw out stuff because I’m afraid “it” will feel rejected, like old towels. I honestly have to talk myself through it and say, “you’ve filled the measure of your creation, thank you for your service, see you in the resurrection.” No lie, I think it’s crazy, too.

    I didn’t finish the Alvin series, I usually dislike sequels anyway, but the comparison to Joseph Smith was obvious.

    I really wonder what’s going on in Mr. Card’s head.

    Comment by annegb — December 28, 2005 @ 8:18 am

  10. This is fine and all, but really the fact that Bro. Card is writing fiction is the clincher. This is all just fun speculation, for which we have no evidence (strained verses of the D&C not withstanding), either revelatory or scientific.

    Morever, I see Card’s reading as supporting the whole clothe model as you like to call it: There are spirits that are uncreated and that exist in a gradient of intelligence/capacity.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 28, 2005 @ 11:33 am

  11. I remember reading that intelligence is what gives all matter the ability to obey God’s commands. I wish that I could find the reference for this. If someone recognizes it and knows the reference please let me know. Does Faith, a Principle of Power ring a bell?

    If this is an accurate statement, then it seams to support animism.

    Comment by Russ J — December 28, 2005 @ 3:11 pm

  12. Russ J. I think you are thinking of Skoussen.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 28, 2005 @ 3:35 pm

  13. J. that is entirely possible. In fact, I think I listened to it on tape which would explain why it isn’t in my library.

    Comment by Russ J — December 28, 2005 @ 3:55 pm

  14. Actually, J., speaking of the Alvin series, I wondered if Mr. Card wasn’t just stealing the story line from Joseph Smith’s story making it a fantasy, so would that technically be fiction? Maybe I should say “borrowing” not stealing.

    I thought Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, as are many of the books I’ve read were original, but when I read Alvin’s books, I felt strange. Strange isn’t a good word, but I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to do there, so I quit after the second or third book.

    Comment by annegb — December 28, 2005 @ 5:08 pm

  15. “It’s as if the smaller the particle is, the stupider it is… (61) Life is when a single philote has the strength of will to bind together the molecules of a single cell, to entwine their rays into one. A stronger philote can bind together many cells into a single organism. The strongest of all are the intelligent beings. We can bestow our philotic connections where we will… The philote is the soul. (64)”

    The thing that bothers me about this is it seems to imply a kind of pre-destination.

    By the way, another author that I think borrows heavily from her Mormon roots is Martha Nibley Beck. Her life-coaching stuff sometimes seems to be warmed over church doctrine with an “it’s all about me” twist.

    Comment by C Jones — December 28, 2005 @ 5:26 pm

  16. I don’t see how it implies pre-destination unless one believes that Card’s “philotes” aren’t free.

    Comment by Clark — December 29, 2005 @ 12:06 pm

  17. Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Ender’s Shadow are the best of the Enderverse books. Geoff, you should probably get to Children of the Mind before reading Ender’s Shadow. I’ve read all the Bean books to date and they get progressively worse. My personal favorite OSC book is one that nobody ever mentions, which is currently most easily found as The Worthing Saga. It contains the seeds of all the rest of his fiction and is very LDS, touching on creation, agency, and even the temple ceremony and its origins. I would love to see him return to that universe and add more stories, though I would guess that he is going to finish the Bean books first, then the Alvin Maker books, and maybe do something with the Homecoming series which stopped with something of a thud.

    Comment by a random John — December 29, 2005 @ 2:05 pm

  18. A lot of OSC series get progressively worse. It’s sad that happened with the Enders series since the Bean series started off very strong. Card’s greatest weakness is never quite knowing how to provide a satisfactory ending. This was actually a problem with the original Ender’s Game (as opposed to the short story it was based upon) The main conflict ends quite a bit before the book ends. Card himself has acknowledged this. This problem is even worse in the last two novels focused on Ender. (Forget the name right now) The book has about 1/3 written after it’s logical conclusion and then you need the sequel to make sense. Even then the last two Ender books were quite unsatisfying, despite the interesting LDS theology.

    The Alvin Maker books were just as bad. The first two are amazing. The first in particular is arguably Card’s best work. (IMO) By the third though it is definitely feeling forced and the next few were very disappointing.

    Comment by Clark — December 29, 2005 @ 2:18 pm

  19. Sorry to be away. Here are some responses:

    Eric – I really enjoyed Widtsoe’s Rational Theology. I agree with most of his theology too. I actually was disappointed because he demurred when it came time to discuss these details. However, it does seem that his clear notions about our God formerly being a man like us and becoming God through self-effort could fit well with the Orson Pratt atomism.

    J.Morever, I see Card’s reading as supporting the whole clothe model as you like to call it: There are spirits that are uncreated and that exist in a gradient of intelligence/capacity.

    I actually think that is a good point — this reading of Pratt does reconcile quite nicely with the notion that there are eternally existing independent spirits/intelligences. The difference is that they are single particles in this model that attract and then lead other particles that become one with them. The new unified group is a different entity than the original and controlling central particle though.

    The analogies abound for this. For instance, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had Joseph Smith as the original organizing heart (as guided by Jesus Christ). But the Church is more than just Jospeh Smith now — it has grown into something far greater then he was alone.

    Russ – Yes, that is mostly the Cleon Skousen take based on Pratt’s ideas. I linked to them here.

    C Jones – I think you bring up a good question. It is best answered by the analogy I used earlier. While there is an original governing particle of intelligence that attracts other particles, the whole becomes the union of all not just the original. So just like my family as a whole is greater than the some of its parts, so our spirits become greater than the some of the unified particles of intelligence that make them up (and that are presumable continually being added or subtracted from the who based on our free choices).

    I’m not convinced it all works or is true yet, but I like some of the implications of this model. It seems to have many parallels in our world with the whole “synergy” thing of the whole being greater than the parts and with the scriptural emphasis on becoming One with God.

    I’ll probably post more on the strengths and weaknesses I see in this when I get back to a more regular schedule next week.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 30, 2005 @ 1:16 am

  20. Clark,

    While the 4th and 5th Alvin Maker books really drag (a 75 page detour about birds???) the 6th one is actually quite good and gives me some hope for the series. I have no idea how can end it well though given what must happen. Also he hasn’t touched polygamy at all, which might make things messy.

    Comment by a random John — December 30, 2005 @ 11:40 pm

  21. Hmmm…I don’t think I got that far. I will have to look for one.

    I would like to see someone like OSC tackle polygamy.

    Comment by annegb — December 31, 2005 @ 11:00 am

  22. I’m afraid I gave up after the bird man. I think Card made several mistakes. He lost William Blake, his Gandalfesque figure. He also significantly changed the style and tone of voice used in the series. The original had a very unique voice that added a lot. He shifted to a more traditional narrative and that hurt the series. Then he started to face the same problem his alternative series on the Book of Mormon faced. (a horrible series that perhaps picked up at the end – I don’t know as I’d already given up) Where the characters and logic of the story wants to go and where he wants to take it as a kind of commentary on history are at odds.

    Comment by Clark — January 2, 2006 @ 1:51 pm

  23. The bird think got old.

    I should mention that in addition to The Worthing Saga another good one is Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Colombus. In some ways it imagines what could have happened if the western hemisphere was already Christian when Colombus showed up. Interestingly this is what Mormons think would have happened if the Book of Mormon story had turned out differently. Since it is currently a stand alone work it doesn’t suffer from having bad sequels. There might be another one based on Noah at some point…

    Comment by a random John — January 2, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

  24. Alright, I just finished Xenocide (all 590+ pages of it). Here are my impressions:

    First, I thought it was humming along really quite nicely. Clark said the first half was good, but I was pleased to read the first 500+ pages — exciting turns; interesting philosophy theology and metaphysics; believable characters, etc. Then came the last 60ish pages… What happened? What a mess. I suspect that OSC must have hit a writer’s block and succumbed to the pressures of his publisher to get the book out because the last sections felt like some hack of a writer hastily filled in for the actually talented writer that wrote the first 500 pages. The tone and pacing changed; the storyline took a painfully absurd turn; and on top of it all, half of the problems were left completely unresolved. It was like a big budget motion picture that ran out of funding so the producers tacked on a cheesy low budget made-for TV ending. The partial exception was the final chapter with the “Gloriously Bright” character wrapping up (with its interesting commentary on excessive religious zeal) — but that seemed like a separate short story that was awkwardly jammed in to the book too. Needless to say, I can understand why lots of people don’t make it to book #4 in this series… Reading Xenocide was like a very good meal that ended with a spoiled dish and left a bad aftertaste for the whole experience for me.

    Anyway… There were some things I did think fit well with the discussions we have had here.

    Free Will vs. Determinism — There was a whole chapter on this subject and I could tell the Card was preaching a similar version of this subject that I have proposed here. I recently learned that there is a position called “agent causation” that closely matches my take as well. I’ll probably post on that in the near future.

    Gods as parents — There is some strongly Mormon sounding commentary in the book on what gods ought to be like. The general idea is that proper gods should be like good parents that want others (their children) to be just like them rather than always subservient.

    Timelessness — Card also made a play for the idea of a timeless place where philotes exist outside the bounds of our Universe. The unwritten implication is that God and spirits reside there too. I have posted quite often on why I think this atemporal notion is a crock. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I am not in lock step with brother Card in his Enderverse theology…

    More on spiritual atomism — I was a little disappointed in the way OSC sort of dropped the ball on the Orson-Pratt-like philotes thing he started early on. It seemed he started implying that a single “philote” (particle of intelligence) was in fact a fully formed soul of its own but that doesn’t really jibe well with Pratt’s atomism idea in my opinion. Rather, I thought the idea is that our souls are the new (and ever-cahnging) entity that arises as a result of the union (or seperation) of innumerable particles of intelligence gathered and joined together over the eternities. Anyway, I’ll speculate more on that in future posts as well.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 3, 2006 @ 12:02 am

  25. Oh, I forgot to mention that Card also spends a lot of time discussing evolution in the book in the context of the free will vs. determinism debate. Again the point seemed to be that even though we all have genetic strings pulling us there is something in us that alows us to choose freely as well — not that we always use it.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 3, 2006 @ 9:07 am

  26. Geoff, when I say “first half” take that loosely. Especially with books I’ve not read in years I can’t remember exactly where the break takes place. It could be the last 60 pages. I’d note that the main part of the book with the girl with obsessive compulsive disorder was originally a short story and quite good. I think Card really is better suited towards short stories and novellas rather than novels. He never can get the pacing right nor link the sub-plots together. So you’re always left with at least around 100 pages beyond the natural end to the story. With series it’s that much worse, since those problems are even more compounded.

    Comment by Clark — January 3, 2006 @ 12:37 pm

  27. I heartily agree Clark. He seems to have a lot of really great pieces in him but fumbles when it comes to smoothly and coherently piecing them together. Oh well – the good parts of this series outweigh the pacing and cohesiveness problems. Still, the hasty and bizarre end to this book was jarring and disappointing to me.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 3, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

  28. “Even if it turns out that none of it is actually true, I actually think that Card’s rehashing and expansion of Orson Pratt’s speculations are surprisingly coherent and internally consistent as a metaphysical model. What do you think?”

    How does his view deal with “quantum weirdness?” How does a photon know the path of least action, even if the available paths changes *after* the photon leaves its source? And what about non-local action such as the spin reduction of correlated particles? These things tend to mitigate against the idea that electrons and photons are “real” in any conceivable common sense way.

    Comment by bill long — September 28, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  29. bill long

    Actually I think that the metahysics introduced by Card goes along very nicely with quantum weirdness. One feature of an electron is that it’s pair will automatically have the exact opposite spin, no matter where it is in the universe. Card suggests that philotes can make instant connects with other philotes without dimenisions of space like we understand them and so can electrons in real life. At the end of the book, Ender and the other characters manage leave one planet and travel “Outside” and then back into another point in space, or another planet lightyears away, thus achieving faster than light travel. Electrons do something similiar through what’s known as quantum tunneling, as an electron teleports from one atom to another or from one energy level to another.

    Comment by Thatdude — December 16, 2014 @ 10:57 pm