Friday, May 28, 2004

Mormon naturalism

I think one of the great strengths of Mormonism is its naturalism, FARMS criticism of “naturalistic” approaches to the Book of Mormon notwithstanding. The problem is one of equivocation. gives (among others) these definitions of “naturalism:”

Philosophy. The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.

Theology. The doctrine that all religious truths are derived from nature and natural causes and not from revelation.

The assumption in the latter definition seems to be that God is “supernatural.” While this may be definitionally true (one of the definitions of “supernatural” is anything having to do with deity), there is a lot of baggage here. In Western religious and philosophical tradition, God has been understood to be outside or beyond the universe. But this is not the case in Mormon theology, in great part because of our denial of creation ex nihilo and our interpretation of scriptural creation accounts as pertaining to this earth only, and not to the entire universe.

This is both an advantage and a disadvantage in seeking to reconcile Mormonism with scientific thought. The advantage is that our conception of God allows him to be involved in whatever natural processes exist; in fact, we often assert that God always works by natural means. For example, Brigham Young taught:

Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant—that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this—they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings. (JD 13:140)

Brother Carrington was telling us about the way in which money turned up to clear the ship after sending off more Saints than he had means to pay for. Was this a miracle any more than many other things in our lives and in the work of God? No, the providences of God are all a miracle to the human family until they understand them. There are no miracles only to those who are ignorant. A miracle is supposed to be a result without a cause, but there is no such thing. There is a cause for every result we see; and if we see a result without understanding the cause we call it a miracle. This is what we have been taught; but there is no miracle to those who understand. (JD 14:79)

George Q. Cannon was more explicit:

It was no suspension of law on the part of our Savior, that caused Him to gather from the elements the bread and the fishes necessary to feed the multitude. It was no suspension of law that caused Him to open the eyes of the blind, or to cause the sick to be healed. It was no suspension of law that caused Him to ascend in the sight of His disciples after His resurrection when He visited them. I know that miracles are said to be suspension of law; but instead of their being a suspension of law, they are due to a knowledge of a higher law, to a comprehension of greater laws, by the knowledge of which, what are called miracles are wrought. To a person who never saw the effect of electricity, if he were in this Tabernacle and were to see these lights kindled instantaneously by the touch of electricity—a person who did not understand the laws of electricity, would say, “Why this is miraculous.” Or to an ignorant person, a person who knew nothing of the law of electricity, it would seem marvelous that one standing at the end of a wire, stretched under the ocean could, by touching that wire, communicate a distance of nearly 3,000 miles, and could talk to a person at the other end of the wire. Had this been mentioned in the days of our forefathers, they would have declared it was an impossibility. Such a power would have been miraculous in their eyes, and they would have said that such a thing was contrary to all known laws concerning the transmission of sound and thought; but to us who understand this law—or if we do not understand it, who see the operations of electricity; who know that we can go to the telegraph office and send a message to Europe from this city, and get a reply within a few hours; in fact, receive it here at a time of the day earlier than it was transmitted from there, which is frequently done. We, who witness this, no longer look upon it as a miracle, or as a suspension of law, or a violation of the laws which govern the transmission of sound or thought. We accept it because we have become familiar with it. And so, if we understood the law by which Jesus operated when He fed the multitude, it would be as simple to us as the law of electricity is today. If we understood the law by which the sick were healed, and sight restored to the blind, or by which He counteracted the laws of gravitation, and ascended in the sight of His disciples into heaven—if we understood these laws, they would be simple to us, as all laws are when they are understood. (JD 25:149-150)

But there are disadvantages to this approach, too. When we claim that everything follows from natural law, then we should expect “miraculous” events to be subject to criticisms in a naturalistic vein. There is a disadvantage also in claiming that an effect flows from natural law without being able to provide a naturalistic account for it. We may rightly profess ignorance of these laws, but we cannot be content with ignorance, particularly when we claim to be able to receive all the knowledge God has. And the more we fall back on ignorance, the more our naturalism begins to look like supernaturalism, which I think has significant theological as well as philosophical drawbacks.

Following the definitions given above, Mormonism is philosophically naturalistic, but theologically revelatory, and we consider the latter definition (“derived from nature and natural causes and not from revelation”) to be a false dichotomy.

Coming soon: Combining naturalism and materialism...


  1. To preserve continuity with traditional discourse, I suggest that we use the word 'natural' to describe the quality of the state of affairs as it would be prior to any divine ordinance.

    Basically 'natural' should be identified with everything orthodoxy maps to 'potentia absoluta' and 'supernatural' should be identified with 'potentia ordinata'. 'Natural' is what we get before libertarian free will enters the picture - metaphysical necessity ( and metaphysical probability. 'Supernatural' is what we get everywhere intelligence / will intervenes.

    The first and second laws of thermodynamics are good examples. The first is almost certainly a metaphysical necessity, the second a metaphysical probability. God never violates the first, but his whole plan entails the overthrow of the second, in information theoretic (epistemological) terms, anyway.

  2. I suggest that we use the word 'natural' to describe the quality of the state of affairs as it would be prior to any divine ordinance.Is there such a thing in Mormonism? Can there be a "prior to any divine ordinance" if divinity is eternal?

    'Natural' is what we get before libertarian free will enters the picture - metaphysical necessity ( and metaphysical probability. 'Supernatural' is what we get everywhere intelligence / will intervenes.If there is merit in panpsychism, it seems that there is nothing but what you term 'supernatural'. It also seems somewhat problematic to consider all human action "supernatural", as your definitions appear to do (and possibly non-human, but willed, actions, such as those of animals).

  3. The problem with your usage is that not everyone accepts libertarian free will. Some also might say that the distinction between the natural and the free is illusionary. Orson Pratt's panpsychism would, for instance. There "laws" are simply habits that intelligent matter has adopted.

  4. Naturalism is the only possible form of existence. Supernaturalism is self-contradicting; it doesn't even have a way of explaining itself.