The Infinite. Part 3. The Unexamined Life er, Speech

[Part 1, Part 2. All parts may be found here.]

Last time we agreed that scriptural references to the infinite should be approached with caution and often are not to be taken seriously as pointers to the “actual” infinite. Didn’t we?

But we can’t help it. In a sense, that business with Nephi wanting to avoid context is the natural way to do things when you don’t have or are ignorant of, history. The way we read texts and interpret them depends upon our own individual and cultural background.[1] Mostly we have the tendency to read ignorantly. That is, without considering the language, thought and physical and mental environment of the ancients. We get egged on in this a bit by the rhetoric that surrounds scripture in Mormonism, especially perhaps, the Book of Mormon. “Written for our day” is the mantra. Not disputing that here. But to say scriptural texts are divorced from their productive environment is to claim something that breeds confusion and disappointment and even crises of faith. (The Nephites were transplants – Nephi seems to believe that context is really impossible to communicate accurately – so leave it behind – I think we abuse this idea) </soapbox>.[2]

What follows now is a scrapbook of quotes from Latter-day Saints in the first half of the 20th century. They represent some of the range of discourse where the “infinite” plays a role. A few comments follow each thing.

I believe that we are the sons and daughters of God, and that He has bestowed upon us the capacity for infinite wisdom and knowledge, because He has given us a portion of Himself, we are told that we were made in His own image, and we find that there is a character of immortality in the soul of man. There is a spiritual organism within this tabernacle, and that spiritual organism has a divinity in itself, though perhaps in an infantile state; but it has within itself the capability of improving and advancing, as the infant that receives sustenance from its mother. Though the infant may be very ignorant, yet there are possibilities in it that by passing through the various ordeals of childhood to maturity enable it to rise to a superiority that is perfectly marvellous, compared with its infantile ignorance. – Lorenzo Snow

Snow was expressing some of these ideas at Oberlin college, well before his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The idea of potential development in children, improvement (he was very much

A Younger Lorenzo - A Herbert Spencer in Mormonism?

a product of the “age of improvement” if you will) plays into his eventual famous summary of both his own and Mormonism’s doctrine of progression. “As man is . . .” Snow was neither fan nor preacher of Joseph Smith’s reverse infinity. But that’s a topic I won’t treat now (it does poke its head up in the last two pericopae below). Patience. President Snow’s claim of “infinite” capacity here is interesting and it feeds a whole bunch of interesting paradoxes. Later though. Given Snow’s emphasis on development however, I think we can be justified in thinking that “infinite” here means no upper bound. Not a present “infinity” but the ability to keep going higher if you will.

Up next is Hyrum M. Smith, apostle-son of then Church President, Joseph F. Smith.

While we have not all the truth, still we are in that line of eternal and infinite progression which eventually will place in the possession of the faithful Latter-day Saints all the truth.

This is a really interesting passage and displays a fascinating tendency among Saintly discourse of the times. Elder Smith seems to want an infinite future ahead, and after traversing that “infinity” we will arrive at the end of the “eternal” progression. Now perhaps Elder Smith is just offering a reverent view of the relative positions of man and God. But this sort of speech is used a lot and relates to a usage very common in the period, I mean use of the term “eternities.” “In the eternities . . . ” blah blah blah. What does this mean? I’m afraid to really explore it too much, but I really don’t think it has reference to well, a sort of “long eternity.” I can’t really explain what that is right now. It will have to wait for a later post when you all will have gained a little more sophistication. And you will. If you keep the faith.

Next, my old fav, B. H. Roberts:

So I feel on this occasion that if I can bring my own heart and soul into attune with the Infinite, and can receive the help that comes from the possession of the Spirit of the Lord, then, my brethren and sisters, something of profit, something uplifting in its nature, something that tends to strengthen faith and to increase knowledge, may be brought forth.

I think, and I’m sure you do too, that Roberts uses “infinite” here as a synonym for God. It was popular speech in the day and we still hear it sometimes. It sounds majestic. This is poetic language and it doesn’t really avail itself of more precision. Whether Roberts thought God was an actual “infinity” in some sense is problematic. Roberts wasn’t familiar with the work of Russell and Whitehead, say. It’s just reverent language.

Now we come to the poet of the apostles, Orson F. Whitney:

The unrevealed infinite fulness of God is of course incomprehensible to the finite mind. The finite cannot grasp the infinite. That being the case, God in his fulness is incomprehensible to us at the present time. He cannot reveal His fulness, because it cannot be comprehended. The finite can no more comprehend the infinite, than the river can swallow up the ocean.

This rhetorical device of placing a wall between the Divine and the Human is a very common thing in Protestant literature of the time and it still is in some quarters. But getting people to define “finite mind” is hard to do. And what is “infinite mind” then? (By our standard, this would just mean “not finite.” You can already see the problem.) Perhaps the best and maybe most sympathetic way to think about this is to just understand it as an attempt to describe God as unlimited, undefinable in some way. A less charitable way to think about it is “cop out.” Don’t reason about this thing because logic may lead you to see some bad thinking ahead. I admit to favoring this last. My mother sometimes noticed this lack of humility in me. My father would sometimes join in when my adolescent curiosity about Joseph Smith and Mormonism led me to point out some logical problem or other. But the phrase “our finite minds” got used a lot. A few years later I might have asked him if he thought first order logic was inconsistent. But my father would not have understood.

This next one is from none other that James E. Talmage and I have to say it doesn’t really place him in a good light.[3] But there is something odd about the second part of his discussion and you see some weasel factor. Moreover, it does open up a load of discussion fodder. (Remember that most of these quotes are extempore and don’t always display carefully calculated reasoning. This one starts off with a bang.

The infinite foreknowledge of God has made known to Him and does make known to Him the end from the beginning; but there are some of us so short-sighted, so weak of mind, so unfitted or unwilling to analyze the proposition, that we have come to hold and to teach that the foreknowledge of God determines what shall take place. How absurd is such an inference, how utterly unwarranted is such a conclusion, that because God in His wisdom sees and knows ahead what will take place among nations and men, under given conditions, which conditions He can also foresee, that knowledge of His determines that such things should be.

A little anonymous ad hominem here. But really I think most people would agree that the issue is not so much that God causes the future (an obvious falsehood for Latter-day Saints) but that there is a fixed future for him to see.[4] Talmage continues with some examples:

Let us make a concrete example: The college professor instructs his students, explains to them, demonstrates to them by blackboard and chart, and perhaps by apparatus upon the table, makes plain to them the operation of the laws that are under consideration and study; not only that, he will help individually the student who reaches after him, who comes to him in the proper spirit and asks for help; and that teacher foresees the outcome. After he has studied his students well, he says, “I know that that young man is going to fail; I know that disappointment will come to him; sorrow will come to his parents; I am positive that he is going to do himself discredit.”

The teacher foresees it and does all that he reasonably and consistently can to avert it. Do you dare affirm that that teacher’s foresight determines that student’s failure? On the other hand he sees one who is devoted, earnest, and able, and he says, “That young man will grow to be a master in his chosen profession; he is leaving nothing undone that ought to be done; he is not studying pages, but subjects; I can foresee for him a great future.” Does that foresight determine the young man’s success? Or consider the case of an earnest, thoughtful and loving father in mortality who watches with great concern the erring ways, let us say, for the purpose of example, of a wayward son. He warns him, he prays with him, he ministers unto him, he sets him a good example and yet he can see, though the vision of the future is a cloud of sorrow upon his soul, that this young man is going to destruction; aye, he can see the prison doors opening for him, and shudders at the thought of what is imminent in that young boy’s life. That father would give anything he possesses to avert what he sees coming. Can we be consistent in saying that because he has thus studied his son, learned his nature, and thus knows what is approaching, that his knowledge determines that that son shall sin? Were that so, it would be better that we teach parents not to study their children, not to know anything about them let them go their way and take their course, because our knowledge will determine what they shall do and be. If I examine the barometer, the hygrometer and other instruments of precision that have been constructed for the purpose of revealing atmospheric conditions, and if by the application of the laws of meteorology I am able to say, “there will be a rain within a few hours; a great windstorm will break upon us soon; we shall have snow before morning ;” can you say that I cause the rain, that I summon the wind, or that I am the giver of the snow? If this be true, ignorance is not only bliss, but much to be preferred, for practical reasons. God’s foreknowledge showed Him exactly what our first parents would do under given conditions, but He did not cause them to fall; He did not cause them to disobey; He gave them their freedom and their agency to do as they chose to do and take the consequences of their choice. Let us be men and be willing to take the blame for our evil acts, if we have chosen the evil.

So Talmage first offers a God with “infinite” foreknowledge. Unfortunately, his example doesn’t really speak to his point. In fact it may work against his own beliefs about salvation/exaltation. Is assessed native ability the determiner of all future choice?

For Talmage, “infinite” seems to mean “complete” or absolute in the sense that combined with lots of power and information, God can predict what you’ll do given certain conditions. He knows the decision tree in advance.

I think this may be troublesome for Mormons from a 19th century perspective. But Talmage was no 19th century Mormon. He did not take 19th century sermons very seriously for one thing. In a way he was a model for the assimilationist general authority. And hence he got on the bad side of the “retrenchers.” This is somewhat ironic since he shares the same picture of foreknowledge with them. More on this later maybe, if I think about it.

Next is that man whose time in the First Presidency probably did as much to shape the direction of Mormonism in the 20th century as anyone, President David O. McKay. (Church president from 1951 to 1970.)

God bless our youth that they may send out these thoughts in prayer and faith and receive the assurance that they are anchored to the Infinite, in God our Father and His holy Son, the Redeemer of the world. . .

Other witnesses corroborate the testimony of the reality of Christ’s appearing, and also to the reality of the appearing of resurrected beings, which confirms the reality of the resurrection from the dead. Christ’s personality, as his divinity, persisted after death. This being true, then God is beyond all doubt a resurrected personal being.

“It is the eve of faith that sees the bread horizons, the color and the gleam. Religion standing on the known experience of the race, makes one bold and glorious affirmation. She asserts that this power that makes for truth, for beauty and for goodness is not less personal than we.” [And that is the declaration of the Church of Jesus Christ, that he is not less personal than we, and that his Father the eternal Father, is a personal God.] “This leap of faith is justified because God cannot be less than the greatest of his works, the cause must be adequate to the effect. When, therefore, we call God personal, we have interpreted him by the loftiest symbol we have. He may be infinitely more. He cannot be less. When we call God a spirit, we use the clearest lens we have to look at the infinite. As Herbert Spencer has well said: ‘The choice is not between a personal God and something lower, but between God and something higher.'”

I think it’s clear that McKay employs “infinite” as sort of catch all descriptor. God can’t really be understood beyond our human projections

Herbert Spencer, 19th century polymath and McKay's favorite evolutionist.

of him. He’s like us, in a sense, but not. The quote is interesting for its compounding of materialism and for lack of a better word, spiritualism. It’s like God is his own chain of being.

Next up is Levi Edgar Young. Long time member of the now defunct, “First Council of the Seventy.”

The gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a champion of the truth concerning the redeeming love of God, “and is the custodian of a particular and exclusive way in which the redeeming power reaches man.” To have the right kind of belief in the plan of salvation is indispensable to right relations with God. We believe in the infinite power of the human mind; we hold to the truth that man is divine, and his personal power and individuality live throughout the countless ages of eternity.

Young was a grandson of Joseph Young, one of the initial seven presidents of the Seventy ordained in 1835. His use of “infinite” resembles the potential progressive use we saw above with Lorenzo Snow. But he also uses the word “eternity” and possibly in a way that reflected that of his acquaintance and mentor, B. H. Roberts. I don’t want to explore this too much here because it will come back to haunt us after we have more of the technicalities under our collective belts.

Last and not least is John A. Widtsoe, influential thinker and apostle during most of the first half of the 20th century:

Man is one of the eternal, imperishable realities of the universe. His story begins in the infinite past, before the earth was made. His eternity reaches into the yesterdays as into the tomorrows. He belongs to the endless ages.

Widtsoe may acknowledge an actual infinity here. This is a really fun thing and it was an explosive business. But that is for later.

Next time: The Really Large Stuff. After that we may leave behind the finite. (Part four is here.)

[1] Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat ironically, it is the contextual position Joseph Smith advocated. JS’s technique was to consider the circumstances and the question that drew forth a given passage. The acontextual approach of current Sunday School manuals illustrates the problem here.

[2] Once, in a Sunday School class I was teaching, I was trying to give context and background to some section of the Doctrine and Covenants. One person raised her hand and explained to the rest my class that what I was saying was really irrelevant to the lesson. I love that kind of thing. As far as context is concerned, I suppose this depends on how you think of canon.

[3] While I admire Talmage a great deal generally I admit that this was not always so. This got me into occasional trouble as a younger man. In particular, as a missionary, with my collection of soul-searching material to write to my general authority mission president flagging, I offered a critique of Talmage’s writing style (unfair of me to be sure). A few days later, when I was getting ready to give a lecture on Mormonism at a local college, the assistants to the president dropped in (this was a significant trip – about 500 miles round-trip I think). They informed me that I was *never* going to be a “senior” companion by virtue of this letter. In a mission where much of missionary status depended on your leadership level (we had very few baptisms/missionary – so most missionaries valued this horse race) this probably seemed like a dire threat. The MP was in his last year though, so it didn’t stick.

[4] I should observe that acceptance of the absolute (what Talmage seems to mean by infinite) foreknowledge of God means the acceptance of the knowledge of an actual infinity (unless of course you believe that the future is finite or equivalently that all change ceases at some finite time in the future – for fun you can see here). I rather think Talmage is not really criticizing Baptists here. He’s thinking of some Saint or Saints.


  1. Just as an aside. There used to be a check on the idea that one could believe in something one could not understand. ‘I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it, it is incomprehensible.’ For some reason, I’ve always rejected any idea, any gesture towards the idea that God is somehow incomprehensible, to our minds or any minds, finite or whatever. There are things He does that we don’t know how He does. (By “we” I only mean “I.”) But that is for lack of information, on our part, not for lack of ability to understand if we had the information. To me, the real useful model is Joseph F Smith’s vision of how the spirits in prison are preached to. In response to “How did Jesus preach to all those spirits in just three days?”, he did not get “that is beyond your comprehension”, he got a quite easy to understand look at how it is done. This, for me, is beautiful. I don’t find beauty in the incomprehensibility of anything as such.

    This leads me to another aside about “mystery.” A mystery is only a mystery until it is solved. Then it is no longer a mystery. There is not a class of things or ideas that are mysterious in their essence; there are only things not known. I recall in Dostoevsky’s great chapter on the Inquisitor that he includes “mystery” as one of the ways the priesthood is to keep the people under their thumb. Keep them managed.

    Thanks, WVS. I am anxious to see where you are going next. Not least because it might effect the way I have been thinking about the word “eternity” for some time.

  2. Thomas, that is one way of looking at things. But as your comment illustrates, there was (and is) a much more handicapped version out there. I mean a version that suggests we are not able to understand a long laundry list of things – not even the explanation. An Isaiah 55:8-9 response if you will (without the context).

    For example, perhaps God does have a perfect understanding of the universe. If that is so, then he does not do it as an insider.

  3. Hugh Nibley once compared individual salvation to quantum states. Something like, you can know where the baseball is headed (that is, prophecies about the future), but you can never know the exact orientation of each electron on the baseball (that is, personal salvation). Personally, it’s an awful analogy that fails to comprehend what quantum superposition is really about, but it’s a creative attempt to resolve some issues surrounding foreknowledge and individual agency.

  4. Nibley unfortunately made abundant use of physics metaphors. Sadly he also often screwed them up horribly. (Don’t get me started on Nibley and thermodynamics — ugh)

  5. That was a fun post. I laughed at your stories, and some of the quotes, but also thought about them.

    I’ll just rattle off what comes to mind:
    1. Overall I would say *most* of the people you quoted haven’t thought much about or studied infinity. They were merely trying to sound impressive and/or reverent. In the same vein as “every fiber of my being” whatever that means.
    2. I haven’t read Talmage in a few years, but I didn’t notice that before. Interesting. I think at the time I read his books I was so enamored with Talmage I couldn’t even begin to pick out any flaws in his reasoning or writing.
    3. The details surrounding finite minds is interesting. I recall a psychology class in which a number was placed on the amount of information we could have in our memory. I see no reason to conclude that the mind of a human being is infinite in any way. It has been hypothesized that no human on earth is capable of understanding a modern microprocessor in all its complexity. It could be conceived as “infinite” in some of the says ways people have thought of God as “infinite.” And yet, we created it with finite minds and understandings.
    4. On a more theoretical level, I have some theories that have bearing on this discussion. Up to this point in the world we have conceded the idea that the world is continuous, that there is infinity, etc. This is part of a worldview that appears to me to be changing. The physics SM seems to suggest that in fact the world is discrete, not continuous, that infinity is, in fact, just a really large number. In other words, continuous mathematics is in fact an approximation for a discrete universe. If that’s true, how would this change our view of God? Would God still be “Infinite” or “infinite”? Would we even be postulating whether or not the human mind was infinite? Or would we postulate that God is also “discrete” like us (whatever that might mean)?

  6. Discrete world is the going idea, lattice theory intersects quantum field theory. But like statistical mechanics, no computing system will ever deal with it in toto. Even so, getting complete information about the system seems impossible.

  7. jmb275 – “It has been hypothesized that no human on earth is capable of understanding a modern microprocessor in all its complexity.”

    I wonder about that, simply because with the extreme speed of the advances in technology, it appears that with each generation humans are able to know and understand much more than their predecessors. Will we get to a point that we have quantum theory in grade school, having been at a point where algebra was too much for children that age at one point in time?

  8. I agree with jmb275, that most of the quotes cited here are just hyperbole, never meant to be taken as greater than token value.

    Microprocessors — there are people who understand them in an overarching way. The may not totally have a grasp of every little element of the 40nm gate etch step, but they know about the gate etch step and particularly the economic and yield implications of that step. Likewise the logic and arithmetic functions.

    About the discrete nature of the universe: the probability function is not discrete and can be calculated to a fundamentally infinite precision. So while the particle is discrete, whether it is here or there can be calculated ad nauseum.

    The question: does God calculate the probability wave function for every particle in the universe to infinite precision? And even then it is just probability. So even knowing that an electron has the probability of being in a certain place it is essentially not fore-knowledge because it is just probability (unless there are spooky interactions, which we know there are not). God is stuck or must disavow quantum mechanics in favor of something classical (which apparently will not work, at least in this world, unless this is a simulation and quantum mechanics simply appears as a handy puzzle for the avatars to solve).

    I have to say it is very difficult to imagine a classical universe, which God inhabits, where all differential equations can be calculated to infinite precision for every particle which are non-probabilistic. Where there are no crystals, carbon bonds, photons, etc.

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