The Relevance to Evolution of Brigham’s Science-friendly Statements

Jared has a nice post on the changing publication history of a very interesting quote from Brigham Young, and Jeffrey and Clark give some other interesting statements of Brigham’s. No question it’s gratifying to perceive support for one’s own sympathies for science in general, and interpretational flexibility of Genesis in particular, from someone of Brigham's stature; but there are some reasons for enthusiasts of naturalistic evolution to not to get too excited.

First, Clark italicizes a statement that, taken out of the context of the totality of Brigham’s thought, seems open to evolution; but Brigham surely did not intend it as such. In saying “Our spirits are His: He begot them. We are His children; He set the machine in motion to produce our tabernacles,” the ‘setting in motion’ Brigham had in mind could only have been the initial procreation by divine beings of the first parents of the human race, and not the initiation of naturalistic evolution by the creation of rudimentary single-celled (or even sub-cellular) life.

Second, the full statement Clark cited has potentially conflicting ideas on God being subject to natural law and God decreeing natural law, and also gives some ammunition to Intelligent Design advocates. Says Brigham,
But it is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law.
So far, so good; sounds like God as Engineer. But then he immediately says
It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author. … It is strange that scientific men do not realize that, all they know is derived from Him; to suppose, or to foster the idea for one moment, that they are the originators of the wisdom they possess is folly in the highest!
Here Brigham is either not recognizing a distinction between God as Engineer and God as First Cause, or is at least denying man’s ability to discover the regularities of nature through the scientific method without divine inspiration. Finally, a general teleological argument:
As for ignoring the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being, I would as soon ignore the idea that this house came into existence without the agency of intelligent beings.
For more on the distinction between God as First Cause and God as Engineer, and the styles of arguments from design they respectively inspire, see this post.

Finally, with regard to the ultimate relevance of Jared’s well-done and much-appreciated detective work: when it comes to what people and organizations take as religious doctrine, older and original are not always deemed more true. In fact, the opposite may be true. (This is contrary—not inappropriately, for science of course, and perhaps also for a religion with acknowledged infallible authorities and an open canon—to the usual values historians deploy in plying their craft.) We applaud Brigham for applying this principle in recognizing the limitations of the creation account in Genesis, by taking account of what we ‘know’ today—either by science or revelation/inspiration—that previous prophets did not. However, this freedom to set aside older statements is a two-edged sword: we may be less excited about the contemporary Church availing itself of this principle in selecting for current consumption only the portions of Brigham’s statements that are today considered good doctrine by the current presiding authorities.



I think you make some good points. I noticed the end of Clark's quote also, but didn't comment further on it.

Anybody familiar with the broader range of Brigham's ideas, or even the larger history of the Church, would have to conceed that older isn't necessarily better.

But then neither is newer. Of course, it is absurd that ultimate truth changes based on who holds office. I think this leads back to one of your old posts . 

Posted by Jared

1/25/2006 01:26:00 PM  

Yes, I agree that neither newer or older is "ultimate truth." But when it comes to defining what is "doctrine," or acceptable for the purpose of official discourse, newer---that is, the latest word from the authorities---is "correct." As I say in the post you referred to (thanks!), for me this means that "doctrine" and "ultimate truth" have to be allowed to be separate things. Mostly overlapping, one would hope; but history shows there must be allowance for some slippage between them.

An interesting thing about newer vs. older is that there are strong traditions in the Church of both restoration and continuing revelation. This means one can never be sure whether ideas no longer taught have been superceded by greater light, or are awaiting a future appropriate time to be openly preached again. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/25/2006 05:22:00 PM  

I don't think I disagree with you at all.

And just for clarity, I don't think I tried to make too much out of the quote--I'm well aware that Brigham would have been no friend of Darwin. 

Posted by Jared

1/25/2006 05:51:00 PM  

There's no doubt that applying Young's comments directly to evolution is problematic, if only because Young wasn't familar with evolution so we don't know how he'd have reacted. (Probably negatively)

I don't think one should see Young as arguing for God as First Cause. I think if we're going to make Greek comparisons he's closer to something Platonic than Aristotilean. I think Young really truly believes that our know-ing is tied to God is some direct way. That is all true knowledge comes via some sense of revelation. (I think Nibley adopts a similar view, for the record)

So Young truly believes that any discovery of a real law is actually a revelation from God. (Of some sort - I don't think it likely entails a normal communicative revelation that we in the modern church normally think in terms of)

One thing I almost mentioned in that post but didn't, is that Young is using "science" quite differently than from how we think of science. To Young something is a science if its laws are known. That is he uses it more for what we would think of as technology.

The reason I don't think this would support ID is that Young is arguing that all creation works by fixed law whereas ID depends upon there being a violation of law. i.e. their whole argument is that law isn't enough whereas Young's whole argument is that it is.

I do think you're right though that Young's portrayal is closer to what one would expect from a Deist. Indeed the language here is very much like the Deist. So perhaps I'll take back slightly my "First Cause" comments.

One final point to your concluding paragraph concerning the relevancy of Young's comments. I fully agree with you. I merely quote Young (and others) to show the diversity of thought within Mormonism rather than for arguing what is or isn't right. I find argument by proof text ultimately pointless. But if someone is going to do it, I can whip out the references as easily as anyone else.


Posted by clark

1/25/2006 06:14:00 PM  

Jared,  I agree you didn't make too much of it at all, or try and bring evolution into it. You're right that we agree; I didn't intend this post as a rebuttal, but just as some further thoughts sparked by your post.  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/26/2006 03:36:00 AM  

Clark,  that view of all science (really "technology" as you point out) as being "revealed" even if the scientists didn't realized they were being inspired seems to persist widely to this day in Mormonism. You'll hear sentiments like "people were inspired to invent computers so they could be used for family history work", or "satellites were invented so the Church could broadcast General Conference." It has always puzzled me why this would always be assumed. If humans have eternal intelligences too, can we not ascribe any independent capacity to them? So this sentiment of Brigham's seems anti-science to me (where here I use "science" in the modern sense of the scientific method).

Recognizing he means "technology" when he says "science," I guess I agree with your first sentiment that in the statement referred to he wasn't thinking of God as First Cause, but of teaching technology, like passing down knowledge in an artistic guild. Yes, very similar to what Nibley said was going on with the Watchers who revealed the secrets of the heavens (technology, really) to humanity without authorization. (This would be like unauthorized communication of the arts outside their legitimate guilds!)

That he believes laws, procreation, etc. are eternal I don't think makes him a Deist; he still requires the divine beings to individually organize each world, and populate it with seeds and each sample of species to propagate after their kind, etc.

It's true IDers say law is not enough, but do they require violations of law? They would say natural law is not enough to bring, say, an airplane into existence; but I don't think they would also say the engineers are violating any natural laws.

His final statement in your quote related to "design" is not really legitimate ammunition for IDers because he didn't mean it about the creation of organisms; he thought all that was done by procreation after their kind, for animals, plants, and humans, by bringing seeds and samples here (cf. the ritual creation account for which he was responsible). The "design" he referred to must have been the organization of the earth and solar system, and the bringing of individual species to it.

He didn't use the word "design", but his construction metaphor suggests he was thinking along the lines of the Masonic "Great Architecht." Perhaps for many non-Mormons the activity of the "Great Architecht" included the specification of natural laws, but I guess Joseph---and, following him, Brigham---got past this by anthropomorphizing the Father and placing him within the universe and subject to its eternal laws. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/26/2006 04:27:00 AM  

I don't think one can say that is anti-science. There is a real philosophical debate about the nature of knowledge here. To make an analogy where the problem is more obvious, consider mathematics. When a new theorem is "discovered" is it discovered or merely created? That's a real debate and was the point of concern for philosophers focusing in on science like Husserl.

The further issue is how to take D&C 88 and the relationship between God and creation. That is, to what degree is God involved with the workings of all things. It seems to me that a very valid interpretation is that God is very involved. Whether that involvement is in a Deist fashion, a neoPlatonic fashion, a purely metaphoric fashion, or (as Blake Ostler takes it) a kind of loving relationship isn't at all clear.

I'd be cautious though of arguing that any of those interpretations entail being "anti-science."

Even if one takes a much more limited view of divine involvement, I don't see the problem with God being involved at least in the environment to allow the current explosion in knowledge that's been going on for about 200 years. Why now and not earlier? When a scientist has that "aha, flash of insight" do we really want to say that in all cases it is purely the effort of the scientist? I'm not prepared to say God doesn't inspire all minds from time to time. I think I can see it in my own life, often subtly.

With regard to the similarity of Nibley and Young, I wasn't thinking of the Watchers issue and technology but more of the neoPlatonic idea that innovation only occurs via an openness to the heavens. That is real thinking is an openness to Being whereas poor thinking is a kind of repetition. I discussed this a fair bit in my Nibley reading club . It's basically the distinction between the mantic and sophist that Nibley (and others use). I should add that I think it largely bunk. But I think one ought keep it in mind when reading these things.

The notion of the Masonic Great Architect is a good one. I suspect your right there. Young was very influenced by Masonry.


Posted by clark

1/26/2006 09:57:00 AM  

Interesting points for discussion, Clark. I'll just pick up one briefly: I'm not sure how necessary it is to integrate D&C 88 philosophically. It may represent an earlier absolutist conception of God that Joseph later moved away from. Perhaps sentiments like those Brigham expressed on the Bible and Book of Mormon also go for the D&C! 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/27/2006 06:36:00 AM  

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