Future Mormon 6: A Radical Mormon Materialism

Welcome to the oft delayed sixth chapter of the once weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. Hopefully we’ll get back to weekly again. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most.


…what we need, instead, is a theory of grace that explicates salvation not in terms of the coincidence of a material subject with an ideal law but in terms of the exception itself.

This is an other chapter dealing with a Terryl Givens book. This time the book is Wrestling the Angel and the focus is Mormon materialism. I truly enjoyed Wrestling the Angel and think it’s the best overview of Mormon theology written thus far. It’s ridiculously better than McMurrin’s The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Most significantly Givens does a great job situating Mormon thought not only against the wide swath of Christian history over the centuries but also ancient thought as well as contemporary philosophy. Because it covers so much, the chapters are necessarily brief. One will always find things that are left out or that seem questionable. Adam uses Givens chapter on materialism to launch an interesting analysis.

Adam brings out a certain inherent ambiguity in what materialism means. It’s an incredibly vague notion in Mormonism.[1] Givens argues that in Mormonism the common dualism of the 19th century, such as with Descartes soul, is collapsed into a single tier monism. Adam notes the problems with this with some people suggesting eternal law is independent of God — a more idealist claim. I’d add that a tripartite view of the soul was common in the 20th century. Spirits were material but intelligence was often seen as closer to a Cartesian mind or soul.[2] This suggests that Givens seeing Mormonism as adopting an ontological material monism is problematic.

For Adam it’s laws (or Law) that is the big problem. If matter obeys laws what are these laws? Are they platonic-like forms? It seems that the early Mormon tendency to reify Law pushes against Givens material monism.

Ultimately it’s the fixed ideal abstractions and other ideas that Adam sees as problematic. In a certain sense their ontological status is a secondary problem (although one he definitely raises). While Adam starts the argument more in terms of the traditional debate between materialists and idealists really it’s the problem of ideas as ideal, complete and present that at issue. If Christ is an ideal we are to be like then the question is whether this ideal is something complete and comparable or not.

Adam’s solution is to say, “idealizations are themselves one more material thing added to that network of material things.” What Adam means by this is that the sign for an idea must have a token that is itself material. His example is a map where what is represented by the map is done via a token that is material. (The physical map itself)

Adam pushes this to argue for a radical materialism where one might say it’s tokens all the way down. Each of which is a material object. There are only particular things, but unlike say atomism where everything is composed of material simples, here it’s material tokens of various sorts. There is no “ultimate laws of the universe” and thus the threat of idealism because there are no pure ideas.

What’s the point of all this though? For Adam, it matters (forgive the pun) because of the Atonement. “Our materialism rules out the possibility of thinking about atonement as the perfect conformity of particular material individuals with the governing ideality of eternal laws.” That’s because there only are material tokens and no ultimate law with which we have to conform. This is in contrast with Givens for whom atonement is seen as compliance with law or conformity to some ideal. Effectively Adam argues Givens’ theology of atonement while appearing to be materialist actually has a Cartesian like dualism at its core.

For Adam, atonement should be seen not as conformity but exception. (This gets back to his first chapter) There Adam contrasts seeing God as some ideal to which we conform versus some overflowing never complete notion.


First off where Adam critiques Givens in terms of Law as idealistic seems somewhat problematic. It seems true there is a strain in Mormon thought that reifies Law. (That is treats it as an independent object) However I’d object a little to Adam’s critique here. While some people’s theology might indeed have this problem, it’s fairly easy to imagine laws as emergent from the structure of matter. In my own background in physics it’s easy to derive the classical laws of thermodynamics given just matter and the symmetry in their interactions. The ultimate Laws of the universe, whatever they are, may function in a similar fashion. That’s not to say there aren’t well known basic problems with materialism that philosophers still debate. But I’m not sure it’s as big of a problem nor as big a push towards idealism as Adam suggests.

To be fair though Adam’s ultimate critique of Law isn’t its ontology so much as its idealitiy. That is it’s an ultimate fixed conception.

Adam’s clearly critiquing Givens in terms of his own notion of secular grace as a kind of materialism. That’s not the only solution though. A middle ground between materialism and idealism could be found in American Pragmatists. They are a clear influence on Adam and especially some of those who share Adam’s views such as Levi Bryant. However where Adam emphasizes the materiality of tokens, such as the physical map as opposed to what the map represents, the Pragmatists emphasize the sign. A sign has three parts: its object or what it represents, its sign-vehicle (roughly akin to a material token except that it needn’t be material), and its interpretant or the end product or representation.

Now a sign can function in a material way. A weather vane can signify the direction of the wind for instance. But they needn’t be. Among the Pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce pushed signs the farthest. It was signs all the way down. Materialism rather than being foundational was itself an manifestation of signs. This is more in keeping with modern physics where the line between idealism and materialism blurs. In quantum mechanics it’s hard to even make sense of what we mean by materialism. There are interactions that can when aggregated give our expect material objects. However fundamentally there aren’t solids. There just are these quantum mechanical objects best describe by complex mathematical wave functions that interact in ways completely alien to the material objects we’re used to.

While Peirce wrote decades before the advent of modern physics, his conception of signs in some ways anticipated many of the changes physics brought. For Peirce things that seemed material were just signs that functioned in a relatively consistent fashion. When that consistency breaks down they seem more like what we’d term free will or consciousness. Peirce would often describe this by saying matter is just congealed ideas.

Now I can’t explain Peirce’s somewhat controversial ontology here. I just raise it to note that there’s an interesting countermove to the approach Adam takes here. Further, because of the logic of Peirce’s analysis we can still continue to talk about ideals. We may, as finite beings never reach such ideals. The question then becomes more in what way is God or other divine beings infinite and in what ways are they finite? Adam doesn’t address that here of course, but I think that question actually undermines the critique of Givens that Adam gives.

If God’s power and temporality is finite, then it seems fair to say he will never reach an ideal. It may even well make sense to say that true ideals (and perfect ideas) simply don’t exist. If God is infinite in some sense in terms of his power, then that line of logic starts to have problems. The implication of this is that Givens argument of conformity to an idea becomes possible. In other words Adam has snuck in assumptions of finitude and what that means to the atonement. Those need analyzed and critiques. (Which isn’t to say Adam is wrong – just that there’s a key component of the argument missing)

1. Materialism is somewhat ambiguous. It’s not just in Mormonism. In the pre-quantum mechanics days it was easy to say materialism was to say only spatially extended objects existed. When “extension” became problematic materialism tended to become far more ambiguous than many realized. Typically these days the term is physicalism but many people still are careless with how they use the term.

2. Given the common tripartite view that separates intelligence from spirit I think assuming Mormonism inherently embraced strict materialism is problematic. It rejected immaterial spirits but one should be careful going farther than that. People tend to associate more strict materialism with Mormonism primarily on the basis of Orson Pratt’s works. But he was hardly the last word in Mormon thought. He also wasn’t a strict materialist or physicalist the way the term is often used but adhered to a strong property dualism. (Material objects have both physical and mental properties at a foundational level)

1 comment for “Future Mormon 6: A Radical Mormon Materialism

  1. “While some people’s theology might indeed have this problem, it’s fairly easy to imagine laws as emergent from the structure of matter. In my own background in physics it’s easy to derive the classical laws of thermodynamics given just matter and the symmetry in their interactions.”

    I love this concept. The more I understand the circumstances of existence, the more I realize the essential concept of emergent phenomenon.

    Much of what makes up what we call existence is emergent, not deliberately brought about like items produced from a manufacturing process, more like semi-accidental cooking where ingredients are brought together and heat/pressure applied, then there’s less intrusive coaxing of the entirety toward a desirable finish.

    From a physics point of view, nothing is created ex nihilo, and my small understanding of Mormon theology/cosmology is similar: matter is not created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another.

    Einstein’s E=mcsquared is, in essence, a more complex version of Newton’s force equation, but one which equates matter and energy.

    My main understanding of quantum mechanics is that what we perceive as material is not solidity but interactions of forces at an atomic and subatomic level, and a binary view is insufficient for imagining subatomic particles.

    It is this potential of things being one state, another state, or both states simultaneously that makes quantum computing so desirable for future data analysis.

    The closest philosophical notion to this seems dialectical reasoning, long a part of Confucian philosophy but limted in western philosophy to Hegel, to my limited knowledge.

    My personal belief is that LDS theology/cosmology aligns more closely with dialectical thinking than with the either/or logic that seems the Greek/Roman foundation of Constantinian Christianity.

    So even LDS members who apply either/or logic to LDS theology necessarily overlook essential elements, and ignore emergent phenomena like I believe grace really is, that which arises from our faith reaching to God and God’s reaching back to us.

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