Orson Pratt and God: Emergence as Fundamental Mormonism

ON the pioneer trail west, you can get bored. The cure for this is to contemplate questions like, where is the edge of universe, or where did God come from, or if we have bodies in heaven, do we have sex there? Obviously, the last question is the most interesting one, if sex is still interesting for you. If not, how about chocolate ice cream in heaven? You get the picture. Wilford Woodruff cautiously reported this from our friend Orson:

how did God recieve his present formation the answer given by Professor Pratt was something in the following language. He sayes I t[h]row out my ideas not as doctrine but for you to look at. You know when a chemist goes to work to analize or try new experiments they often have to try many times before they get a thing perfect-& take certain processes which are unnecessary and are afterward laid aside and pursue the more perfect course that can be obtained. It may reasonably have been the case with the first being formed which may be called God. An eternity was filled as it were with particules of intelligences who had their agency, two of these particles in the process of time might have joined their interest together exchanged ideas & found by persueing this course that they gained double strength to what one particle of intelligence would have & afterwards were joined by other particles & continued untill they organized a combination or body though through a long process & as they had power over other intelligences in consequence of their combination, organization & strength and in process of time this being- or God seeing the advantage of such an organization desired company or a companion and having some experience got to work & organized other beings by prevailing on intelligences to come together & may form something better than at the first and after trials of this kind & the most perfect way sought ought it was found to be the most expeditious & best way to recieve there formations or bodies either spiritual or temporal through the womb.

Now I freely admit that on the face of it, this is wild and weird. But Pratt fell in love with it, and bulldog-like, never really let go of it. Pratt’s cooperation of agents is not really what we call emergence now-a-days, but it’s close. And let’s face it. Pratt is so close to evolution here, it’s not even funny. For a long time, I spent some considerable effort trying to understand the behavior of fish. No, not fishing really, but this question: how do fish “school?” It’s a question that still plagues people, along with things like, you know, “why” do they do it?[1] These are questions that probably relate to DNA, selection, and other biological processes. But tracing this behavior to genes won’t really work. It is complex behavior in the moment that only weakly connects to microscale properties.

What if somehow Pratt was right? I mean, right in the sense that God is an emergent property of the universe. There are all kinds of ways one could run with this. Complexity is a tricky thing.[2]
[1] See the Grunbaum reference at the end of the linked paper if you’re interested.
[2] For a happier afternoon, see here.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    Yeah, this is just so interesting. The idea of God as emergent with the universe really is compelling, I think.

  2. Sounds exactly like the theory of evolution. Basically we are all just a much of microorganisms that started to work together.

  3. “Emergent.” Interesting, but at first kind of a downer, although in harmony with evolution (which as far as I understand it, is compatible with my religious views). But then, if the rest of the universe is involved system wide in entropy on a huge scale, what is more divine than this non-entropic concept of the progression of God, and in his wake, men and women?

  4. Jason K. says:

    Cool stuff, WVS.

  5. Very cool.

  6. Emergence is an interesting and I think useful line of thought. Ontological irreducibility is an important part of the thinking, and (I think) probably beyond anything Orson Pratt was thinking or saying.

  7. I’ve been working on specifically this possibility in some early drafts of TMTR (Toward a Mormon Theology of Relation). I don’t know whether I believe it, but I think it deserves to be fleshed out carefully.

  8. christiankimball, I’m sure Pratt’s approach was a a result of his reading popular philosophy. But his intuition is as you say, interesting.

    smb, I’m looking forward to seeing your treatment.

  9. Thanks, Jason, Edje.

  10. Caleb J. says:

    What’s the citation or reference on this?

  11. J. Stapley says:

    WW, Journal, June 26, 1847.

  12. Orson must not have attended King Follett’s funeral.

  13. It is compelling (the NPR link more than Pratt, IMO). I am not sure an emergent god can also be a loving god. Don’t we need need a being with passions (if not parts) in order to rationalize love, redemption, atonement, etc.?

  14. Careful, that kind of thinking could easily lead to Spinoza and (for all practical purposes) atheism.

  15. RJ I suppose one might argue some kind of anthropic principle here.

  16. Doug: or Emerson. (Grin)

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