Mormonism and The Metaphysics of Eternal Life
My cousin Rodney recently sent me a link to this podcast:
Emerge: Making Sense of What's Next
Listen to Emerge: Making Sense of What's Next episodes free, on demand. A podcast based inquiry into the next phase of…
The guest, Zak Stein, talks about metaphysics. Basically, metaphysics means talking about things that are “real” but aren’t really real. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality.
So, you know, things like matter, spirit, consciousness, good, evil, etc.
Stein argues that if we ignore metaphysics, it gets created for us. For example, in America we have a metaphysics of capitalism/social media-ism with a veneer of scientism. That is, in school we learn that real means verified using the scientific method by some multi-billion dollar government-funded lab on some other continent; but what kids really learn is that real means something that gets them likes on instagram (or, you know, whatever the social media flavor of the day is); then after college, they have to get a job and learn that real is whatever brings home a paycheck.
Anyway, Zak Stein argues that the thing which is really, really real is Eros, which is kind of like love. But really, its more like the force that drives everyone to cooperate (and copulate). Unhappy people think science, money, and ‘likes’ are real. And Stein wants us to think that Love is real, too. More real than any of those other things.
Ok, so it is kind of easy to be snarky about something like that, but let me lay my cards on the table. I like metaphysics, too. And I am trying to figure out my own version of what is real that can survive in a world that is brutally, well…real. So where to begin?
I start with my Mormon heritage. For whatever faults it has, Mormonism comes out swinging with a very powerful metaphysics. What is real? Eternal life is real. Anyway, that is the essence of it to me. Mormonism provides concrete ways of ‘keeping score’ in terms of eternal progress, which in turn provides a powerful sense of direction and purpose. To do that successfully over the course of generations, it’s gotta be real.
I like the metaphysics of Eros, but I love the metaphysics of of Eternal Life. Eros is like one half of the coin, like Yin all by itself. It’s just not really true that “all we need is love.” We also need something that is theoretically sound, sustainable, theoretical, concrete, monetizeable even….in short, we need some Yang to go with our Yin.
‘Life’ is the present, the love, the mystery, the intuition, the thing we can’t quite put our finger on but is probably the result of millions of years of evolution so we better trust it. ‘Eternal’ is the rational, the abstract, the pure, the scientific, the thing that allows us to speculate a million years into the future and beyond. Together they make a great metaphysics. And that’s what Mormonism is really about. Mormonism provides a whole vocabulary to make Eternal Life real and to let you know whether you are getting there. And when you feel it, you know it’s real.
One of the interesting things that Stein talks about (and Mormonism too!) is that we should be experimental with our metaphysics. We try on an idea see if it really holds water. It’s the metaphysical method! Make some metaphysical hypothesis, act as if it’s real, and see if we can find some (probably intangible) evidence that it really is real. Yes, I know, it’s not very scientific. But after years of dismissing this kind of thing as wishful thinking, I believe I am starting to understand what it means. I just can’t really express it yet without a bit of sarcasm.
Okay, back to eternal life. You may or may not be familiar with the idea of mathematical induction. It basically means if you solve something for some initial condition, say n = 0, and then if you prove it works generically for n + 1, you have proven it for all n.
Induction is one of the ways we grasp eternity. If we can figure out how something works now, and then we figure out how it evolves, we know it forever. So I take an inductive approach to Eternal Life. What is the best way for a human being to live (i.e., n=0)? Once I figure that out, how do I propagate that to the next generation (i.e., my n+1)?
Then the analytical part of me takes over. I think the good life consists of having a few things financial security, emotional security, and status (not to mention having a sense of purpose). Acquiring these things isn’t easy, and passing them on requires a bit of estate planning and a lot of culture.
So these are the things that are ‘real’ to me. Do I have enough wealth to provide my family with financial security? Do I have the right kind of relationships to provide me (and my family) with emotional security? Do I have a community within which I can develop status? Is my community sufficiently like-minded to pass this culture on to subsequent generations? This is my my Eternal Life — where my metaphysics meets the road.