I recently finished reading Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by physicist Brian Greene. It’s an excellent book and I commend it to interested readers.

Chapter 5 includes a description a niche scientific theory that has deep roots and/or parallels in classical and spiritual thought: “panpsychism.” This theory posits that “individual particles themselves [gluons, protons, electrons, etc.] are endowed with an innate attribute of consciousness … that cannot be described in terms of anything more fundamental” (132). In other words, all particles have the properties that we’re familiar with (“mass, electric charge, nuclear charges, and quantum mechanical spin”) but also a degree of subjective consciousness where the particle is aware of its own existence. (More is available here.)

Greene presents panpsychism as one of the possible explanations for how human beings can experience consciousness and self-awareness from within a scientific, materialistic paradigm. Perhaps it is not so much that there has to be a critical mass of complexity (in our case, in the neuron connections in our brain) before consciousness can exist, but consciousness already exists to some degree or another in everything.

This has intriguing parallels with an interpretation of Joseph Smith’s early teachings regarding the concept of “intelligence.” Doctrine and Covenants 93 reads:

29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.

30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.

32 And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.

33 For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;

Doctrine and Covenants 93:29-33

The 1992 Encyclopedia on Mormonism further explains:

While the revelations leave no doubt as to the existence of intelligent matter prior to its being organized as spirits, speculation sometimes arises regarding the nature of premortal existence and whether there was individual identity and consciousness prior to birth as a spirit. Some hold that the terms “intelligence” and “intelligences” have reference to a form of prespirit conscious self-existence, which included individual identity, variety, and agency (so reasoned B. H. Roberts, pp. 401-423). Others maintain that while these characteristics, attributes, and conditions are eternal, they essentially came together for each individual at the spirit birth. The question of whether prespirit intelligence had individual identity and consciousness remains unanswered. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith gave this caution in 1936: Some of our writers have endeavored to explain what an intelligence is, but to do so is futile, for we have never been given any insight into this matter beyond what the Lord has fragmentarily revealed. We know, however, that there is something called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which was not created or made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual [p. 10].

https://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Intelligences

While the merits of this theology are a separate conversation, the parallels between Joseph Smith’s conceptualization of “intelligence” and the proto-consciousness of all things as posited by panpsychism are intriguing. According to Terryl Givens, Joseph Smith was a “monist” who rejected traditional dualism (that spirit and body are qualitatively and infinitely different). This is supported by D&C 131:

7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;

8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.

D&C 131:7-8

Thus, Joseph believed that “spirit” (in the traditional Christian sense) is itself comprised of some type of material matter. He also believed some version of the idea that spirit, which is conscious and self-aware (D&C 93), is material at the most fundamental level (D&C 131). This is not too different from the idea of panpsychism now being discussed by mainstream physicists and philosophers.

PROFOUND QUESTIONS:

  • Does the theory of panpsychism give us any leverage in solving any perennial questions in Christian and/or Mormon theology? If so, where/how?
  • Does Joseph Smith’s theology of “intelligence” give us any leverage in addressing perennial questions in Christian and/or Mormon theology?
  • From a theological perspective, if panpsychism is true does that imply that non-human consciousnesses could make choices? Could these intelligences sin and need forgiveness?
  • Is panpsychism compatible with Mormon and/or Christian theologies of that emphasize “nature spirituality“?

Discuss.

Benjamin Knoll

Benjamin Knoll is a political science professor at a liberal arts college in central Kentucky. He is a seventh-generation Mormon (on his mother's side) who finds meaningful religious and spiritual expression in a variety of traditions, practices, and contexts. He's a married father of three girls.

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