The Infinite. Part 2. Large.

[Here is part 1. All parts may be found here.]

Humans do not deal directly with the infinite and there has been considerable debate on whether the idea makes sense at all. Imprecision is the name of the game where infinity is concerned.

If that isn't Mormon, I don't know what is.

Eventually we will see that trying to codify the idea is difficult and puzzling. It is as much a problem with intuition as logic. But first let’s look at a related discursive family: The Very Large.[1]

Look at some of our unique scriptural record. It stakes out a territory that often seems to coincide with much of post reformation Christianity. For example:

D&C 20:17 By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them.

Here we have Oliver and Joseph clasping a little of the language of the creeds close to the Mormon breast.[2] The testimony suggests an antecedent and that antecedent is the translation of the Book of Mormon, something which Oliver saw as miraculous. The expansive language links the old and new — the new revelation with a cherished section of Westminster Catechism.

Or how about this:

2 Nephi 1:10 . . . having a knowledge of the creation of the earth, and all men, knowing the great and marvelous works of the Lord from the creation of the world; having power given them to do all things by faith; having all the commandments from the beginning, and having been brought by his infinite goodness into this precious land of promise . . .

This last is good old Lehi, engaging in some hyperbole. The use of infinite here by Joseph Smith is one of devotion. (Lehi had no real equivalent to the way we use infinite in terms of size.) God’s goodness is unbounded in the sense that it is not to be measured by man’s puny efforts. It is somehow incomparably large. Quantifying this kind of expression may not lead anywhere useful but we will think about it later in a different context.

Now I know that this next bit may well be a sensitive point for some but consider the following passage:

Moses 1:27 And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the spirit of God.

Moses 1:28 And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore.

1:37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.

1:38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.

Moses - He sees the details....

Sands of the sea shore is a metaphor. We are not supposed to try and count grains of sand (Psalms 139:18). The heavenly bodies are similarly boundless in number. Beyond comprehension.[3] But shall we use the word infinite?

On another related note, how long has God been in business (see above)? The theism that developed from Augustine on, did not really allow this question. More precisely, asking “how long” shows a disgusting tie to the grossness of the world of flesh.

Next time, we’ll see a more modern side of The Very Large. (Part 3 is here.)

[1] The shiny world of informal 19th century philosophy (a la Spencer and Lodge) found continuing expression among some Latter-day Saint leaders in the 20th century and that emotive poetic language made interesting interface with the classical Mormon angelophanies. The infinite plays a role. I’ll think a bit about that in a later post.

[2] Why did they to that? That’s another story altogether.

[3] Ok, counting grains of sand is a little problematic for several reasons. Early numbering schemes didn’t go very far partly because they didn’t have the advantage of the positional/exponential system we use for writing or representing numerals. The sands were indeed “numberless,” like Joseph of Egypt’s grain.a The “modern” LDS scriptures take their cue from the Bible. A less effective metaphor maybe, but there you go. We get a little funny about Moses seeing the “particles” of the earth here. We’re not talking neutrons. Reading modern astronomy and physics back into scriptural texts leads us away from their message into the land of non sequitur.

a Yes I know about Archimedes.


  1. Toe notes in a blog post. Awesome.

    I must confess to being completely ignorant of ANE counting systems.

  2. Love those toe notes. ANE counting seem to begin in Mesopotamia. The Egyptians worked things up to about a million which also gets used in poetry as a synonym for “vast.” Early Greek top named number was myriad. I think = 10,000 (its poetic use survives obviously). Archimedes worked out a scheme to count much larger quantities, but he’s late on the scene (250 bce) and not very broadly understood. The vast majority of ancient peoples were essentially innumerate.

  3. I’m afraid of the future predicated in blog toe notes.

  4. Before telescopes, the known, visible stars numbered about 6,000. That’s a quantity where a person could conceivably know each one, like the members of a stake. When God blessed Abraham that “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore,” that must have once seemed two very distinct levels of hyperbole; a quart of sand holds on the order of a million grains. Now, though, we can contemplate, 100 billion observable galaxies, each with its 100 billion stars, and presumably some number of beaches among those.

  5. “Reading modern astronomy and physics back into scriptural texts leads us away from their message into the land of non sequitur.”

    But can be quite fun.

  6. My goodness! Isn’t that picture the chalkboard from the old TV series Dr. Kildare? I haven’t seen this for years, but I remember the beginning sequence with the hand writing on the board, with the voice-over, “Man….Woman…..Infinity”, cue the music!

  7. I guess I’m a little confused. Maybe I haven’t digested it enough yet. I’m not quite sure what to take away from the post. I like the discussion of infinity, and I see the parallel to “very large.” Indeed, in the real world (engineering world that is, not for you mathematicians) infinity doesn’t even make any sense. You can’t design for infinity, you can’t count to infinity, you can’t integrate, etc. etc. We develop numerical methods, and other tools for handling infinity. At the end of the day, infinity is nothing more than “really really big.”

    For me, I have those two concepts divorced. Infinity for mathematicians is an axiom with little to no bearing on the real world. It’s a useful tool that alleviates the need to actually deal with discrete units (which is what the world appears to actually be made of). Infinity for the engineer is either something I don’t worry about, or a really really big number. I most certainly utilize the guarantees that allow me use solid mathematics to solve complex problems, but I suppose I hold it as a useful tool, not so much a reality.

    I’m waiting for you to convince me otherwise ;-)

  8. Paolo, it’s from the competition at the time: Ben Casey. Everybody wanted to be that rebel doc. At least that was TV’s thinking. Now everyone wants to be that rebel lawyer apparently.

    jmb275. You’re just repeating me. I do cell movement modeling right now. I know the tool perspective you speak of. But stick with me. I’ll lead you down a long path to …….

  9. Re WVS
    Well, I guess I’m getting the message then.I await the journey. I hope those ellipses don’t indicate an infinitely deep rabbit hole ;-)

  10. I’m looking forward to the remainder of the series as well. Its been fun to watch.

    Infinity and Eternity tend to be over-used place holder words for things we cant be bothered to count. Kinda like “bajillion”. Of course, without practice and practical usage, even things as small as “million” are comperable. We have a hard time handling references we don’t have experience in. For example, to my teenager, my 80yr old father is “ancient”. Viewed from my fathers perspective, 80 years is only a fair amount of time, and the teenager has been alive for hardly a moment. See? We do it to big and small. Being told our life here is “but a moment” doesnt help our perspective on years of suffereing we see ahead.

  11. Frank, there is truth in what you say. I’m here to make that truth go away. Employing alliteration all day. In reverse.

  12. clarkgoble says:

    Just to go along with John’s reply sand is often used as a metaphor for infinite. Obviously the grains of sand on a beach is extremely large and impossible to count yet it is finite.

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