Monday, January 21, 2013


We produce signs (and especially symbols) in order to make the universe intelligible. Semiosis is the lifeblood of reason, one of two traits that “make us men” (the other is freedom, says the hymnist).  But the ability to use symbols is in turn dependent, in the first instance, on forming a primordial concept of the spatial Other. “The foundation of the identity of things is their spatial location,” observed René Thom, that remarkable mathematical prodigy-turned-philosopher, who attempted, late in his intellectual development, to bring a sort of proto-scientific rigor to semiotic philosophy. “All ontology, all semantics necessarily depends on a study of space,” Thom also noted, echoing a sentiment found in Spengler and elsewhere. By “space,” Thom meant both physical and conceptual space; the internal “semiotic space” which characterizes human thought is no less susceptible to topological analysis, he believed, than is the external space in which matter  and energy are suspended.

In formulating a hypothesis of Self during the earliest stages of cognitive development, the infant soul is crucially dependent on external sensory stimuli, which furnish evidence for the notion of a Self in which reactions to an outside Other can inhere. This Other, as non-Self, is of necessity removed in space, and hence is born the idea of extendedness. As Spengler pointed out long ago, the symbol representing spatial extension can take various forms, depending on the culture of origin. For the Western mind, space is regarded as infinite, for example, whereas for the “Magian” soul of the Arabian culture, it is bounded like a cosmic cavern. But whatever form it may take, the space-symbol requires extension, with its corollary assumption that space is populated by differentiable things that, in order to be distinct, must occupy different portions of space.

Note that this applies both to conceptual and to physical space: the distinction between a blue giant star and an emperor penguin resides in the first instance on their not being spatially coextensive, both externally and within the "universe of discourse," and all other distinguishing characteristics will flow from that first assumption.

What is, after all, this thing we characterize as [physical] “space”? If we blithely suppose it to be the nothingness in which matter and energy is to be found, then we contradict both the authority of the hymnist, who denies the existence of “pure space,” and the revelations of 20th century physics, which (thanks to the paradoxes of quantum physics) has found space to be suffused with virtual matter in addition to the more tangible stuff. As to the mysterious (and possibly misnamed) "dark matter" which only lately has been found to pervade the cosmos, we can venture no opinion other than the obvious inference: there appears to be no such thing as empty space on either a microcosmic or macrocosmic scale.
What, then, remains to answer the semantic requirements of space? The answer, it seems to me, can only be found in the realm of the symbolic: the space-symbol is that which affords any cognizing mind the possibility of differentiability and, hence, of cognition. Thus, while the Other may be ontologically prior to the Other-as-Symbol, the Symbol is in its turn prior to the notion of physical or corporeal space. That such a notion may appear to smack of mysticism is only because the assumption of spatiality so compenetrates our semiotic being.

It was Joseph Smith’s first great realization, that both God the Father and Jesus Christ are corporeal (i.e., spatial) beings, that forever revolutionized religion. The old notion that Divinity somehow transcends space and corporeality—that He is both everywhere and nowhere -- is one of the last refuges of primitive animism. Such a concept of God must yield in the end to the pantheism of the ancients, since, semiotically at least, if God is coextensive with the universe, he must be consubstantial as well. This we must admit if we acknowledge that any two signs, in order to be distinct, must also occupy “spatially disjoint domains” (per Thom).

But the boy Joseph learned in the Sacred Grove that God the Father is a “man like ourselves” – in terms of spatial extension, in any case. In later years, it was further revealed to Joseph and his associates how this Man’s influence spans the cosmos: it is through the instrumentality of light, which “fills the immensity of space” (NB: we need not assume that by “space” is meant here only the expanse inhabited by galaxies and cosmic radiation; instead, since “the light which shineth, which giveth you light … is the same light that quickeneth your understandings,” we may, in this context as in our previous musings, understand “space” to denote also the boundless realms of cognition).

As composite beings, we both think and (more importantly) act in space. Spatiality, a cardinal attribute of physical bodies both mortal and immortal, is thus indispensable to the exercise of agency – that is, to think and act for ourselves.

All reality, both cognitive and corporeal, has symbolic life, as Peirce perceived and as we have elsewhere noted. The universe itself is a grand symbol, and no symbol – owing to its indissoluble connection to purposeful thought, can be dissociated from the notion of purpose. But purpose in its turn requires a spatial Other unto which purpose can be directed, and thus are Symbol and Space (sensu lato) ontologically linked. Perhaps this is why “there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space.”

Monday, October 8, 2012


“What is time?” Augustine of Hippo once remarked. “If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not.” More than a millenium and a half after Augustine’s ponderings, science, technology, and, indeed, theology, have come little closer to answering this question, which – unlike so many of the compartmentalized issues that characterize modern learned discourse – touches every niche of human endeavor with impartial relevance. Who, from the most learned prelate or philosopher to the simplest child, has not pondered the meaning of time and its seemingly inexorable march towards – somewhen? Yet who among us could conceptualize time with any greater certitude than the august Augustine?

Our Latter-Day scriptures are replete with references – some of them appearing, perhaps, to be contradictory, at least upon casual inspection – to time and its role in the Great Plan. On the one hand, they seem to say, with Alma, speaking to his wayward son, that time is a mortal, not an eternal, concern (but mark it well: Alma is careful to say only that God does not measure time, at least in any sense comparable to earthly reckoning!). Yet elsewhere, the Prophet Joseph Smith answers in the affirmative to the question of whether “God’s time” (among other sorts of time) is reckoned according to the planet on which He (Deity) resides. One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, we are reliably informed – yet at the commencement of our own Millenium, the testimony of angels and mortal choristers alike will proclaim, incident to the binding of Satan, that “time is no longer.” And immediately following that proclamation by the seventh angel, the prophecy clarifies that “that old serpent ... shall not be loosed for the space of a thousand years”!

This question of time is of severest import. It lies very close to the question of what kind of universe we live in, both spiritually and physically. The physical part, at least, has drawn the attention of the world’s top scientific minds since the dawn of the modern era. One of science’s “best and brightest” accomplished the unthinkable, not so many years ago, when his book, purporting to be “a brief history of time,” rocketed to the top of bestseller lists and catapulted its author to lasting international celebrity. But in spite of the reverence with which Stephen Hawking’s musings on the subject were, and continue to be, received, the ultimate nature of time from a scientific standpoint is still very much in dispute.

It is not our purpose to dispense with such a topic in a single go. Like many of the most worthwhile objects of cognition, time is one of those things whose nature can be discerned only gradually, over many long years of contemplation. It is a topic I expect to revisit often.

But for now, a summary of at least a few points worth considering, which will undoubtedly pose more questions than answers. Time in the physical universe was for two centuries treated as perfectly reversible, that is to say, bereft of any directional bias. The original laws of dynamics, set forth by Newton and elaborated by the likes of Laplace and many other first-rate mathematical minds, conceived of the physical universe in terms of objects following trajectories, for which the direction of time is irrelevant. Take any body and give it a position and a momentum, and it will trace the same path irrespective of the direction of time. In the purely dynamical universe, no arrow of time is needed, or so it seemed at first.

It was Laplace, that quintessential product of the Age of Reason, who postulated a hypothetical imp with a perfect knowledge of the position and momentum of every body and particle in the universe at a given snapshot in time (“Laplace’s Demon”). Such an omniscient being could then predict any future state of the universe or derive any past state. He would in effect be outside the perceptual cocoon of time, and the universe would be revealed as completely deterministic, surface appearances of randomness being merely the illusions of imperfect perceptual capacity.

The notion of time-reversibility, of course, doesn’t square with the observed universe. The discovery by Boltzman and Clausius of the operation of entropy – the tendency for “disorder” to increase (or, more precisely, for physical systems to approach a state of equilibrium over time) – imposed a clear directional bias for the passage of time, namely, that low entropy in the past tends towards high entropy in the future. The choice of verb – “tends” – is a critical point, for entropy is a notion dependent not upon the deterministic trajectory but on the probabilistic ensemble. Therefore, while the dynamic universe as conceived by Newton and his many epigones is deterministic and time-reversible, the thermodynamic universe – the universe of real-world experience – is non-deterministic and time-irreversible. In the former universe, time becomes a parameter on equal footing with the three spatial dimensions, while in the latter, it is altogether different from space.

And there are other phenomena that appear to be fundamentally time-irreversible. One of the most familiar is the propagation of waves, such as the radiating concentric rings of water that travel outwards from a splash; while in principle, they could travel inwards towards the point of disturbance, they never do in the real world. And, more mysteriously, the radiation of electromagnetic waves is similarly time-asymmetric (and in fact, radiation time-asymmetry was noticed first with electromagnetic phenomena, attesting to the all-too-typical removal of theoretical scientific discourse from the world of common experience!).

Now, as most of us know, Newtonian dynamics has been superseded by Einsteinian relativity on very large scales, and by quantum field theory on the very small. The view of time as invariant has not changed as a result of these more refined views of the physical universe, however. Space and time for cosmologists is now “spacetime,” in which time is a fourth coordinate alongside the three traditional spatial coordinates. In such a universe, the direction of time’s arrow is suppressed, and light cones are represented as bidirectional, in order to preserve temporal symmetry. From this, the “block universe” perspective, the totality of the universe is held to include time (instead of time being a background property in which the physical universe is immersed). Some cosmologists, like Hawking, have gone so far as to suggest that, in the very early, hot, dense universe, not only were mass and energy indistinguishable, but so too were space and time.

Such views are advanced in the name of so-called “eternalism,” the doctrine that past, present, and future are all equally real, and are best cognized from a temporally impartial frame of reference that Huw Price has described as “the view from Nowhen” (the notions of both [spatial] “here” and [temporal] “now” depending on the position of the observer). “On this view,” says Price, “there is no more an objective division of the world into the past, the present, and the future than there is an objective division of a region of space into here and there.”

The underlying assumption of this “Nowhen perspective” – that to frame a successful model, science must strive for absolute objectivity – is upheld with dogmatic consistency among most physicists and cosmologists. The vexing matter of entropy is dismissed by focusing on the physics of systems at or near equilibrium, which is held to be the default state of the universe.

But there’s a problem: the universe exists, and is populated with objects and systems – living organisms, for example – that are far too complex to be explained away, as they customarily are, as localized complexity brought about by the requirements of gravity (i.e., in the presence of a gravitational field, a cloud of gas and dust will tend to coalesce into stars and planets, such that, on a local scale at least, a gravitating universe is not homogeneous and isotropic, as the cosmologists insist it must be on a cosmic scale). And it turns out that living organisms aren’t the only examples of states of matter that possess the mysterious ability to maintain themselves far from states of thermodynamic equilibrium. The phenomenon of resonance is an example of a well-known dissipative physical process that engenders complexity in non-predictable ways, as is the famous Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, reproducible in any Petri dish. The relatively new field of chaos studies suggests that most of the real world behaves in this way, that is, in a non-deterministic, time-reversible fashion, wherein the future is not uniquely and ineluctably determined by present and past conditions. It is a universe in which spontaneity, chance (Peirce’s tychism), and free will all hold sway, and where determinism is confined to heuristic models. Indeed, as Prigogine has observed, the random changes associated with the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction look very much like some sort of primordial choice-making, almost as though what we call free will is a property manifest, in some more rudimentary form, in non-organic matter (or, otherwise put, that free will is a special, highly-refined case of some more fundamental property of matter arising from its essentially non-deterministic nature).

From a Gospel perspective, there can scarcely be any debate as to which of these two views is correct, at least concerning the universe that we know. Men are endowed with free choice, and the future is not graven in stone. King David did not have to fall from his exalted station; he chose to do so. Joseph Smith did not have to accept the mantle of his calling, which is why the Lord on at least one occasion indicated that, should he fall, another would be raised up in his stead. Therefore, our world is not deterministic, and there is at the core of every intelligent being a mysterious element that is absolutely and irreducibly free – an element that we must freely choose to subordinate to the divine will, if we are to qualify for exaltation.

As mortals, we experience the flow of time, and the asymmetry between past and future, because of the operation of the second law of thermodynamics – because of entropy. That is, every act of perception involves the burning of biochemical energy, and a corresponding increase of entropy as that energy is dissipated. This is at least partly why we perceive time to flow in the same direction as the arrow of entropy – why, for instance, we could not perceive the world like a film running in reverse, with broken plates jumping back on shelves to reassemble themselves.

Such arguments are frequently adduced by the eternalists to justify the view from Nowhen, and so we must pose a provocative question of our own which, as far as I know, has not been posed elsewhere. It is this: Given that time as we experience it is bound up with the increase of entropy, would it be possible to experience time in any other way? That is, can we conceptually dissociate time from entropy, and redefine the former as mere duration? And if so, would we then end up with the time-reversible universe the cosmologists enjoin on us? Or might there be something inherent in the notion of duration that guarantees irreversibility, even in the absence of the second law of thermodynamics?

This, I think, is the proper approach to the matter within the framework of the revealed Gospel. For while, as we have already seen, the scriptures seem to suggest that God experiences time as duration in some sense, it has a very different character than it does on earth.  Consider, for example, the revelation that the place where God (and also the angels) reside is a “globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.” Such a set of conditions is utterly inconceivable to the mortal, entropy-bound mind, as is the notion that “he [God] sitteth upon his throne ... in the bosom of eternity ... in the midst of all things.” That God possesses these traits appears to be bound up with his being filled with light and being able thereby to comprehend all things – even, we must suppose, the totality of Everywhen as well as Everything and Everywhere.

We cannot, I repeat, comprehend how this could be so, except perhaps to posit that such a Being, being filled with light, is not subject to the dissipative effects of entropy, whereby heat and light are constantly lost and in need of active replenishment, as we mortals are. But from the divine perspective, at least, the block universe view appears to be vindicated by Section 88.

Even with God, we suppose, there must be duration in some form, which, in the absence of more precise terminology, we must style time. Were it otherwise, thought, planning, and action, all of which are cardinal attributes of Deity as well as of his mortal offspring, would be nullities. But we suggest that he may not experience duration (and neither, by this line of reasoning, could any other immortal or premortal being) as a result of entropic processes. In this way, the thermodynamic trappings of time (or, we might say, the temporality of duration) can be conceptually stripped away.

What are we left with? Duration, or sequentiality, as a representational phenomenon. That is, any conceivable intelligence – mortal or immortal, material or immaterial, angel, man, or “Boltzmann brain” – will experience sequential duration, and, hence, a past-future asymmetry, because of the way in which thought is representative. It is, after all, the aim of every act of full-fledged cognition to reduce to conceptual unity some array of perceptions. They are at first disparate, until the mind draws them into a meaningful relationship of some kind. This unity, of course, has the character of a symbol, and that symbol becomes the basis for another, and so forth. The semiotic progression that is thought must entail a dialogic splitting of the self, whereby the present self represents something to the past self; beyond this present-past threshold lies the yet-uncognized, the future to be determined by thought and action. And each of these three categories, present, past, and future, as we have noted elsewhere, is the correlate, in the context of cognitive sequentiality, of the three universal Peircean categories, Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.

Thus we cannot conceive of a state of being without these three correlates, because conception itself is unavoidably conditioned by them. And because intelligence is a property of the universe as well, we cannot find any rational basis (pace the unceasing labors of the physicists to somehow eliminate the role of the observer and invalidate the Copenhagen Interpretation!) for attempting to conceptualize a universe devoid of observers, or Observer. Truly, as Peirce insisted, there is no reality that has not the life of a sign, and that extends to time, or duration, or whatever we ultimately choose to call it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with Charles Sanders Peirce, to whose ideas we often have recourse, here is a brief overview of his most important idea, the one that undergirds his entire "architectonic" and his theory of signification. At the beginning of his intellectual development, Peirce wrote a brief and rather dense paper, "On a New List of Categories," which was an attempt to furnish the simplest and most general system of classification of phenomena, and which became the basis for nearly everything he wrote thereafter.

Classification has been in vogue since the dawn of science. All things contemplated by human knowledge are subject to classification, and the best schemes -- the Linnaean system, the Indo-European family of languages, and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, for example -- have great utility because they appear to correspond to a natural ordering of things. We thus classify a horsefly as a fly of the family Tabanidae, which belongs to the order Diptera that encompasses similar creatures we style "flies." Fliies in turn are a type of insect, a creature with six legs and segmented body, and insects in turn are grouped with other entries in the phylum Arthropoda, all of which have segmented bodies, jointed legs, and exoskeletons. Arthropods are part of a grand "kingdom" of life forms that are mobile and multi-celled, features they share with creatures as disparate as birds, fish, nematodes, comb jellies, and human beings. And animals are but one of several types of living things.

But we can go further still. Living things are but a subset of the totality of tangible physical objects in the universe, a grouping that includes galaxies and stars as well as subatomic particles.

Beyond this, we enter the realm of phenomena, which embrace not only physical existents but ideas, laws, and concepts as well. And here is where Peirce steps in. How can we classify phenomena?

The answer Peirce hit upon in his seminal paper, and which he subsequently expanded and refined, was that the universe, both physical and ideal, is composed of but three fundamental and irreducible categories, which he came to call Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. Firstness, in its most general possible expression, is that which is, irrespective of anything else. Secondness is that which is in respect to some Other (or First). Thirdness is that which is as an intermediate between two things (a First and a Second). All other conceivable categories of being can be shown to be composites of these three.

Firstness embraces (but is not confined to) such self-existent, immediate phenomena as qualities, feelings, and emotions. It thus has psychical as well as physical correlates; the same can be said of the other two Categories as well. Its temporal manifestation is the immediate present.

Secondness includes such notions as reaction, resistance, opposition, tangibility, and permanence, both in their physical and cognitive aspects. The past time is a Secondness, inasmuch as it resists any attempt to modify it.

Thirdness is the category of law, purpose, and meaning. Late in his intellectual development Peirce identified Thirdness no longer as "mediation" but as "representation," since he had come to believe, as do we, that all operations of Thirdness have the character of a symbol, and thus involve representation in its purest essence.

These Categories cannot be grasped all at once, as Peirce repeatedly warned. They must instead grow in the mind like living organisms, until it is clearly understood that they are universal and all-encompassing. All other categories and modes of thought may be derived from them; they are one of the grand Keys to comprehending the eternal unity of truth.

Their validity is already hinted at by our racial obsession with threes, but we can easily make our meaning clearer with a few examples. The Holy Trinity is a perfect example; the Holy Ghost, which operates as a feeling to direct the senses to eternal truths, is the ultimate Firstness. The Son, who was made flesh (i.e., tangible), and who suffered and died to atone for sin, is Secondness. And the Father, the grand director and source of law and light, is Thirdness.

We have already alluded to the present as Firstness and the past as Secondness. In like manner, the future, whose contours have yet to be determined by the operation of both law and choice (cardinal Thirdnesses), is Thirdness in its temporal instantiation.

Reality is thus triadic at its root, not dyadic, as Western thought has so often assumed. Some of the consequences that flow from this scheme of categories are well-nigh heretical to mainstream science -- for instance, that the continuum, not the discrete body, is fundamental (this doctrine Peirce styled "synechism," and a proper accounting of it would see the point, the particle, and the integer lose their privileged status!).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I just read an interesting article on Nicola Tesla, the great inventor who gave us the "electrical age" (and, according to some, many other technological marvels that were suppressed by sinister forces). I'm not competent to agree or disagree with those who believe the Federal Government managed to gain exclusive control over Tesla-inspired technologies that have been withheld from the rest of us, but I was struck by the fact that this extraordinary man, so very far ahead of his time in his vision of wireless communications, among many other things, died penniless. The very phrase "ahead of his time" does not seem to pay him adequate tribute; "ahead of his dispensation," a choice of words Latter-Day Saints will appreciate, seems closer to the mark.

And Tesla was not the only man who was "ahead of his dispensation," not by a long shot. Roger Bacon, John Duns Scotus, Thomas Jefferson (and a number of other Founding Fathers), and Charles Sanders Peirce all merit such a characterization. So does the founding "Mormon" prophet Joseph Smith.

There are, after all, geniuses aplenty for whom the world is essentially ready and on whom are showered all the plaudits and honors the world can give. Such were the great "Renaissance men" - Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and their ilk -- and the great physicists -- Planck, Einstein, Dirac, Pauli, and all the rest -- of the 20th Century. So too were many of the great inventors -- Bell, Edison, and Ford -- and the great entrepreneurs -- Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, Steve Jobs, and so on -- who gave the consuming masses things they wanted. Such are the Nobel Laureates, the glitterati, and the overachieving politicians of every age: men and women doing not only what they were born to do but, still more importantly, what their times demanded. Most of these died as they lived, reaping graveside encomia and commemorated in print and song.

But there have been others who gave every appearance of having been born out of time. While some of us know their names, they were less appreciated than admired by their contemporaries. Bacon, one of the first modern scientific minds, lived in the 13th Century, hundreds of years before Newton, Copernicus, Pascal, and the rest of the early modern parade of savants who ushered in the scientific age. Though a devout Franciscan and greatly admired for his learning, he was apparently persecuted for his precocity, and suffered arrest and imprisonment in his later years. Duns Scotus was he who gave the "Dunce cap" its name, yet in his time (he was a rough contemporary of Bacon) was nicknamed "Doctor Subtilis," "the subtle doctor," for his extraordinarily penetrating philosophical insights. After his death, his ideas were brushed aside by followers of William of Occam (he of "Occam's Razor," less a logical than a methodological principle), and the European academy was "cleansed" of his realist heterodoxies.

Thomas Jefferson, the most brilliant and idealistic of all the Founding Fathers, needs no introduction to most Americans; but how many are aware that he died deep in debt, and that most of his property had to be sold off to satisfy his creditors?

Charles Sanders Peirce, the greatest mind ever to be nurtured on American soil, never succeeded in finding a professorial post, although he had substantial connections at the likes of Harvard and Johns Hopkins. So prolific was he as a thinker that the Peirce Edition Project at the University of Indiana has published less than one third of his entire oeuvre, much of which has yet to be sorted and annotated -- yet Peirce never wrote a single book. He died in relative obscurity and virtually penniless in his modest house in northeastern Pennsylvania almost 100 years ago, but it was decades before "mainstream" scholarship discovered him.

Tesla, too, died penniless, with none of the popular recognition of celebrity inventor Edison.

As for Joseph Smith, he not only died deep in debt, he met his end at the hands (or rather, the muzzles) of a lynch-mob, the culminating episode -- when he "sealed his testimony with his own blood" -- of a life that included numerous lynchings, beatings, frivolous lawsuits, and profound betrayals by erstwhile friends and boon companions. Many of the things he taught continue to cause profound discomfort and even embarassment among some modern Latter-Day Saints, who are prone to dismiss some of his musings as products of a "magical world-view" (whatever that might mean!) typical of the early 19th Century American frontier.

To be ahead of one's time is one thing, but to be ahead of one's dispensation is quite another. I happen to believe that Charles Sanders Peirce will be to the science of a dispensation not yet fully gestated, let alone birthed, what Aristotle and Pythagoras are to ours. His ideas now are much in vogue, but only selectively; our age is not ready for post-Cartesian reasoning, it would seem.

In a similar vein, the Founding Fathers, however unwittingly, bequeathed on their posterity the perfect system of Terrestrial (in the LDS sense of the term!) government; small wonder that succeeding generations, in a Telestial age, have managed to apostatize almost completely from the principles they articulated and the documents they produced. No one of any education, not even the rankest of the so-called "liberals," could straight-facedly claim that we enjoy limited Constitutional government anymore, yet very few, aside from a vociferous ten percent or so of "right-wing extremists," seem to mind in the least. And why is this so? Because the Constitution and the American government in their pristine forms (bereft of a few anachronisms, like chattel slavery) are inadequate to the needs of the venal majority, who militantly uphold the workings of Telestial government: government by compulsion.

There are, of course, a few who embrace the vision of the Founding Fathers, and, with the exception of Ron Paul, they are marginalized, reviled, ignored, caricatured, slandered, and systematically excluded from the machinations of the wealthy, powerful, and connected. They are not, and never will be (so long as the present order persists) the Establishment.

So it is too in the academy, where Peirce and his epigones are acknowledged but infrequently recognized. The discipline founded by Peirce, semiotics (to which we have made frequent allusion in this blog) is nowhere in North America offered as an academic major or subject for a postgraduate degree. You cannot get a PhD in semiotics, except in a couple of European universities. There are no job openings for a semiotician; most such must camouflage themselves philosophers, sociologists, or (ahem!) linguists.  In spite of admirable work on the subject done by people at the University of Indiana and the University of Toronto, there are no departments of semiotics. Few if any courses are taught, at least on this side of the pond, on Peirce.

Nor is this all. We once had, at our own venerable LDS university in Provo, an extraordinary man, Dr. John Robertson, under whom it was my profound privilege to study linguistics years ago. It was Robertson who introduced me to Peirce, but I suspect I am one of his few students who really "got" Peirce, albeit in a superficial, preliminary way. John holds a Harvard PhD but, unlike some of our LDS celebrity intellectuals, has never sought the admiration of the masses of Latter-Day Saints. His insights -- on language, meaning, semiotics, and many other things -- would make fascinating and edifying reading (every whit the equal of anything Nibley ever wrote, I might add), but, unless John somehow ceases to be the private, unassuming person he has always been, they are never likely to be published. John Robertson, like Peirce, is intellectually a man ahead of his dispensation.

It's hard to see why the Teslas, the Bacons, the Jeffersons, and the Peirces were ordained to traverse this mortal coil when they did, so far before ages that could truly appreciate them. Perhaps what we LDS call the "Elias" principle -- the need for a spiritual forerunner or enunciator, like John the Baptist -- is operative also in the secular world.

As for Joseph Smith, his enormous revelatory output has "withstood the test of time," as we are apt to say. But because he was a man born so far before his dispensation (despite standing at the spiritual head of ours), it will also -- far more importantly -- withstand the test of eternity.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Musings on Section 93

Doctrine and Covenants 93:23: “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” This might seem to some a curious definition, since most of us, if asked to define “truth,” would probably say something like, “things as they really are, etc.” The inclusion of the word “knowledge” is key, because it signifies that truth – the “sum of existence” – is in fact not “stuff” per se, but “stuff as we know it.” “But,” says the materialist-nominalist, “'stuff' is what exists, independent of ourselves and whatever we may think about it. It is not subordinate to human knowledge or perception!” The Lord, however, knows better; the revealed Gospel teaches what Peirce, apparently alone among modern secular philosophers, was able to discern, namely, that “there can be no reality which has not the life of a symbol.”

A symbol or representamen, properly understood, is something (the symbol itself) that stands for some other thing (its object) by means of a second symbol triggered in some cognizing intelligence (the interpretant [symbol]). The process by which a symbol triggers its interpretant is the primordial form of action at a distance, that is to say, non-efficient causation. It will easily be comprehended that all action, at some ultimate level, depends on this process. Imagine, if you will, that the four fundamental forces in the physical universe are mediated – as the physicists claim – by the exchange of vector particles. But even at this fundamental level, we still must suppose a non-material medium in which these particles move, and some kind of non-material action at a distance to explain their movement. And this action at a distance is akin to that mysterious action (semiosis) that takes place with the production of symbols.

Not only that, no object can be cognized except in terms of qualities of one sort or another. But all such cognition is representation and involves the use of symbols. And symbols, as we have seen, beget more symbols, which tend always towards the realization of some new fact. For example, if I, walking down a street, hear an angry barking behind me, I will interpret those sounds and form a cognition that may lead to my turning around to see if there is a dog pursuing me, or to my simply running for it. No matter what choices I make, I cannot help the fact that the sounding of barking will trigger in me a series of cognitions (which are mental symbols) and consequent actions, even if those actions are merely thoughts. This is a pretty crude example, but it serves to illustrate why Peirce would make the following claim (ignored, alas, even by some semioticians, who fail to fully grasp the all-inclusiveness of symbols):

“That the object has at all a character can only consist in a representation that it has so, a representation having power to live down all opposition.... The very entelechy of being lies in being representable. A sign cannot even be false without being a sign and so far as it is a sign it must be true. A symbol is an embryonic reality endowed with power of growth into the very truth, the very entelechy of reality.”

Thus our scripture appears to mean something like this: truth is symbolic (which includes, but is not confined to, cognitive) representation of all things, past, present, and future. And inasmuch as all reality has life only qua symbols, we cannot cognize or represent reality except as something which is both cognizable and representable. This is why truth is knowledge.

Doctrine and Covenants 93: 29: “....Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” Light is elsewhere (Section 88) defined as “the law by which all things are governed.” This definition has reference to the particular sort of light that “proceeds forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space.” As a general notion, we may say that light is (eternal) law. But what is law, if not a manifestation of Thirdness, the third (and most generally overlooked) of the three grand general phenomena of which all reality is constituted. In the physical universe, we see Thirdness manifest as physical laws, whereas in the mental universe (which our science of Time erroneously prescinds from the physical), it is manifest as habit, motive, and the like. In essence, Thirdness is akin to final causation. In any case, we might read our definition of intelligence as “the law/mental habit associated with truth,” or, even more precisely, per Peirce, “the Thirdness of truth.”

“Intelligence” in LDS scripture is often roughly synonymous with “consciousness,” that ultimate spark of being that permits cognition, and which is characteristic of sentient life. Abraham was shown in vision “the intelligences that were organized before the world was” (NB: not “created”!), as well as the hierarchy of understanding and enlightenment among them. But he might have referred instead to the “Thirdnesses of truth that were organized before the world was.” These, we suppose, were our primordial selves; by “organized,” perhaps Abraham has reference to the raising of them from mere primal awareness to clothe them with personalities and other individuating attributes. Regardless, it is profitable to ask what these “intelligences” were in the beginning, and by what principle they existed at all. We have already seen that they were not created or made, and that such is impossible, even for God. Every Self (and therefore every discrete intelligence) is a Symbol, and withal one with the full-fledged capability of representing itself, not merely to some external Other, but to itself as an Other. It is in this that the so-called “stream of consciousness” consists – the present Self representing itself to the past Self for the sake of the future Self.  This process, which we might style “autosemiosis,” actually confers on the Self a composite nature; it gives the so-called individual a double identity. A Self may be regarded as the most fully-reified type of Symbol, because, like all symbols (and no other category of existent thing), it possesses the power of self-replication (all symbols, recall, produce interpretant symbols, which are replicas, albeit imperfect ones). But a Self-symbol is capable of doing it purposefully. The most enlightened intelligences/Selves are capable of the most extended, refined, and complex purposeful representation/action. So it would seem that, in some mysterious way, God took certain eternal intelligences and endued them with greater capacity to act purposefully, which capacity may have been bound up with giving them finite contours in the form of spiritual bodies.

Before this took place, they (we!) were primordial intelligences – symbols capable of self-representation. And they existed in the first place because truth needs both to represent and to be represented; otherwise, growth, and (as we shall see below), existence in any form is impossible.

The ancient Hebrews must have understood this principle – I mean the principle that a Self is not a static entity but a symbol constantly representing itself to itself and to some Other. This is why the Savior characterized himself, not as “the great I,” but as “the great I Am,” those two words -- "I Am" -- signifying the primordial act of self-representation.

Many years ago I passed out in a doctor’s office. It was not like falling asleep; it was like being extinguished. When the first glimmerings of consciousness returned, my initial impression was that I was an existent being, but who, what, or where I could not tell. From that followed a rapid-fire chain of inferences culminating in the memory of my name and circumstances, including, finally, the embarassing realization of lying supine on the floor of the doctor's office. We all, I suppose, had something similar happen sometime in the remote past when we became self-aware, or, in other words, when we had perceived enough about the external Other to frame a hypothesis of a Self in which those perceptions and sensations could inhere. And Christ, who was Jehovah, the Firstborn, was the first and greatest “I Am,” the Self-symbol to which all other Self-symbols must be subordinate.

All of this might smack of mystical gibberish, because so few of us learn to reason about symbols, in spite of the fact that symbols are such an essential part of who and what we are. This, thanks to the labors of Peirce building on foundations laid by Scotus, is apodictic reasoning of a different sort than has been in vogue since the age of Descartes (and, Peirce would say, of William of Occam). It cannot be apprehended all at once, this logic of signs (which Peirce called the logic of relatives), but has to grow inside. I happen to think it is worth sharing with the Saints, as inadequate as my understanding of such matters is, because I believe that it is the best way to arrive at an understanding of such doctrines as are to be found in Section 93 (which are typically glozed over in our Sunday School classes). But the Lord would not have instructed his servants to reveal such things if he did not intend for us to try to comprehend them. After all, we must come to know God, and that means, among other things, comprehending his attributes, among which light, intelligence, and truth figure very prominently.

Doctrine and Covenants 93: 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.” This verse is a death knell for the dogma of determinism that has informed science since the Greeks first postulated atoms. The pre-eminence of Laplace's Demon, in its many guises, has gone essentially unchallenged among men of science until the late 20th Century (and even the philosophers, in the main, embraced the notion that matter behaves ultimately as deterministic and time-neutral cosmic machinery, the Universe-as-Automaton). Lately, however, certain enlightened souls, like the late Prigogine, have noticed that matter, in real-life, complex, far-from equilibrium contexts (so-called "dissipative structures"), behaves probabilistically, and that such behavior is irreducible, even in theory, to the crude determinism of trajectories (and, more recently, quantum waves) of classical physics. To insist upon determinism is to deny the elements their agency and, in the end, their very existence. As Vladimir Nabokov put it, "What can be controlled is never completely real; what is real can never be completely controlled."

Truth and intelligence(s) are symbols; as such they have the power of representation, which is action (Peirce’s “entelechy of being”). More than this, they MUST represent, and that eternally, inasmuch as one symbol begets another ad infinitum.

This, then, is existence: to act as a symbol, and especially, to represent oneself to some Other. And, we would venture to add, there is no other form of being than this (existence), since even pure Nothingness cannot be conceived of; Nothingness, in affording space for representation, as Peirce observed, is therefore itself a species of symbol, albeit a wholly vague one. This is perhaps why the Spirit whispered to the hymnist that “no man hath seen pure space.” Absolute, asemiotic nothingness is impossible. The existent universe is thus pervaded with light (i.e., law, or Thirdness) and populated with an infinity of intelligences, not all of which possess the same degree of sentience, but all of which are essentially semiotic progressions working out their respective lives without end.

Monday, August 13, 2012


With all of the publicity surrounding the latest NASA lander to arrive on the surface of Mars, America is once again in the thrall of our so-called “best and brightest” – the physicists and engineers who have managed to conjure up yet another high-tech miracle. As an amateur aficionado of both astronomy and physics (and who in bygone undergraduate days came within a few courses of achieving a minor in physics), I confess to being as enamored as the next nerd of the high-resolution images now effusing from Mars’ Gale Crater. The possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life – if not on Mars, then perhaps on one of our solar system’s many quirky moons, like Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus – is exhilarating to me, while the romance of someday launching interstellar probes and starships is intoxicating stuff. Since boyhood, I’ve been waiting for the staples of 20th Century science fiction to arrive on the scene. Space stations are here, but manned interplanetary travel is not. Video telephoning, aka Skype and its imitators, has come of age, but flying cars have not. Computers, though still lacking the precocity of Hal, are ubiquitous, but domestic robots, alas, are not.

In some regards, technology has failed to live up to its promise of a half century ago. When I was born, passenger jets, flying with the same approximate speed as those that still ply the skies, were already in use. Present-day automobiles, while more fuel-efficient and gizmo-laden, are not extraordinarily different from cars in the 60s. And while medical science has certainly advanced, there have been no dramatic advances in the never-ending drive to stave off, or even reverse, aging.

Regardless, modern man’s love affair with technology has been intensifying for more than four hundred years. Because of technology’s undeniable successes, man, or at any event Western man, has adopted a technocentric worldview, according to which the universe is merely a great Machine, and all phenomena therein its myriad moving parts. This accounts for the primacy of physics, which, from a science with the legitimate aim of describing the physical universe, has morphed into a sort of scientific materialist creed.

The other day, I was watching, as I am wont to do, a youtube video of a certain celebrated physicist lecturing to a Caltech audience on the virtues of the late Richard Feynman, generally regarded as one of the greatest physicists who ever lived. It was Feynman who gave physics the theory of quantum chromodynamics and who contributed so many crucial elements to the piecing together of quantum field theory. Like most physicists, Feynman saw his chosen field as the central human intellectual endeavor and its apostles as the world’s deepest thinkers. According to the Caltech lecturer, who had been a colleague and close friend of Feynman, the two of them once met with and debated a couple of philosophers interested in the problem of consciousness. Of them the man of science spoke with undisguised derision. “They [the philosophers] tried to philosophize when they should have been ‘scientifizing’”, he said, calling their discussion of notions like monism “baloney” and “pretension.” While admitting that he could not understand what the philosophers were talking about, the physicist went on to laud Feynman, who reportedly demolished their feeble arguments with pointed and relentless scientific logic.

This tendency to pooh-pooh all domains of thought not encompassed by a differential equation is by no means confined to Sheldon Cooper-esque self-parodies like this particular scientist; it is endemic in the scientific community. “It is we who have built humanity’s great machines – who have conquered flight, split the atom, and peered into the remotest reaches of interstellar space,” say the men of science. “We possess, therefore, the only True Creed, of which all other thought and belief systems are but pallid derivatives.”

A generation or two ago, it was tough to argue with such men and their Universe-as-Machine dogma. After all, had not the twin triumphs of early 20th Century physicists, quantum mechanics and general relativity, given rise to a cornucopia of technological achievements, from silicon chips to moon landings? Thirty years ago, it seemed, the relentless logic of field theoreticians, combined with ever-more-powerful atom smashers and telescopes, would give us a Grand Unified Theory of physics (and therefore a Theory of Everything, or TOE, as many scientists preferred to style it) within a few more years.

Yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st Century, and the pretentiously-named Theory of Everything is proving as elusive as ever. There is, to be sure, a new generation of physicists laboring away on several popular fronts, still looking for this “Holy Grail of physics.” Many of them, the so-called “string theorists,” have created a theory so elaborately complex and counterintuitive that no one – not even other theoretical physicists – outside their arcane subdiscipline can understand it (or at least, the mathematics of it). String theory is impossible to verify experimentally, since it would require levels of energy impossible to create in any earthly laboratory. String theory, in other words, is pure mysticism – a term “hard scientists” routinely invoke to belittle philosophers, psychologists, and intellects of every stripe who do not necessarily subscribe to the Gospel of Scientific Materialism. The protestations of Ed Witten and other celebrated string theorists to the contrary, even many eminent physicists, like Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, who hail from the not-long-ago day when cutting-edge physics had an empirical component, do not see the point of string theory.

Meanwhile, in the heady province of cosmology, scientists like the celebrated Stephen Hawking regularly hold court for the media, expostulating on mini-black holes and inflationary universes, which non-physicists are not in a position to challenge because the language of mathematical physics requires years of postgraduate training to master. Again, no one has ever seen a mini black hole, much less witnessed the alleged inflationary phase in the very early universe, and such are unlikely ever to be recreated in the laboratory. Yet the men of science – Hawking, Weinberg, Dawkins, Sagan, Gould, and many others – are routinely accorded the status of universal sages, entitled to make grand pronunciamentos on theology, moral philosophy, and all of the “great questions.” And, not surprisingly, almost to a man, they have concluded that God does not exist, that human beings are highly evolved, soulless meat machines, and that the great religions of the world are but futile graspings of a remnant of superstitious knuckle-draggers (the revered Feynman at least had the humility to admit not being able to see the point of religious faith, while refraining from deriding those who did not share his views).

But the proponents of cutting-edge science, especially theoretical physics, have grown more and more strident even as the science they venerate has managed to emancipate itself from the fetters of empiricism. With such unreasoning dogma it is impossible to argue, but we must note that the arid and often self-referential equations of string theorists and cosmologists smack every bit of the same pretension and exclusionism that thinkers outside the province of hard science so often use to camouflage shoddy reasoning.

Consider what revealed religion (admittedly, dogma of another flavor, but withal one that does not aspire to replace science) has to say about the universe we live in. We are reliably informed (there can be no voice more authoritative than authentic revelation!) that the universe is composed of both matter and spirit, whereof the latter is a refined version of the former. They both are suffused with a mysterious property, intelligence, which permits them to act with a degree of autonomy in the spheres of existence where they are placed. God the Father and Jesus Christ are literal and tangible beings of flesh and bone, of the same species as us, albeit in immortal form. They, and all who enjoy their level of glory (which we call exaltation or eternal life), can span the cosmos in an instant, in mind or in person, without the aid of starships or satellite phones. They can assemble giant fusion reactors – the stars – without the aid of tokamaks. They extol immaterial things like charity, forgiveness, and faith, while condemning hatred, sloth, and the like. It would seem that, contra the scientific materialists, we live in a moral, spiritual, and intellectual universe, where a particular race more advanced than us has no need of the machines we idolize. Despite what von Daniken, Dione and so many others now seem to believe, God does not drive a flying saucer.

Now here are a few things that modern materialistic science, its many extraordinary achievements notwithstanding, is not capable of explaining: consciousness, loyalty, love, semiosis, near-death experiences, final causation, empathy, aesthetics. We have accorded primacy to the sciences that have given us our machines and the other works of our own hands we so fervently worship – the Science of Time. But there must be another science, far beyond our own – the Science of Eternity -- where the entirety of phenomena, including the universe of consciousness, is taken into account, and where the barriers of physical space-time – the speed of light, the strength of gravity, and the tyranny of distance, among others – are apparently irrelevant.

Friday, July 27, 2012


The news has been full of portentous events from the war-riven West African nation of Mali in recent weeks. Mali, a predominantly Muslim country bridging the Sahara and the Sahel, has been torn in two by a violent uprising of Tuareg rebels combined with a force of Islamist fanatics armed to the teeth with heavy weapons from Gaddafi’s fallen regime. The Islamists, acting with the irrational ardor of fundamentalists of every creed, have descended on the ancient (“fabled” sounds even more clichéd!) city of Timbuktu, and are proceeding to cleanse it of all iniquity – destroying, for example, the mausoleums of Muslim saints, monuments said to contradict the commandment against the worship of manmade objects. Timbuktu’s greatest treasures, however, are arguably not its medieval stone buildings and saints’ graves; they are the vast troves of centuries-old Arabic texts squirreled away in a welter of dusty, ill-kept libraries, most of them in private hands, which scholars have barely begun to sift through. Islamic scholars outside Mali are understandably worried that the Timbuktu texts could be obliterated, just as Afghanistan’s massive Buddha statues carved out of cliff faces at Bamiyan were ruthlessly reduced to rubble by the Taliban not many months before they were driven from power by Western invaders. This is, after all, one of the touchstones of fundamentalism: the utter denial of the intractable Other, whether manifest in rock strata, starlight, archaeological ruins, or the written word.

It is this last that is, perhaps, the most intractable of all, the archives of texts that are mankind’s most enduring temporal legacy, from Ashoka’s engraved pillars and the Rosetta Stone to the vast repositories of literature that have effused from Western Civilization since the late centuries of the First Millenium. The impulse to write is, apparently, nearly as old as urban civilization itself – older, if we accept the Mosaic version of events in the Pearl of Great Price. Though we have no contemporary record of it, Adam was given a written language in which to record the events of his primordial age, a language that was “pure and undefiled,” which he then transmitted to his children. We may suppose that even the fallen portion of his posterity – the descendants of Cain, with their peculiar technological inventiveness -- must also have possessed some means to record their doings. And while the “Adamic language” has not come down to us – except, perhaps, fragmentarily in some of the world’s subtlest and most ancient languages, like Sanskrit and Hebrew – we are reassured that the full history of the antediluvian patriarchs has been written down and is somewhere replicated in the archives of heaven, to be conferred on Adam’s posterity at some future date.

It is writing, more than agriculture, urban planning, or even temple cults, that defines civilization. Without it, laws and contracts cannot be framed, poetry and literature cannot accrue, and science cannot advance. Illiteracy and organized religion go ill together, especially religion of the sacerdotal variety. And history, beyond the stylized and often highly mythologized oral histories that adorn pre- or proto-literate societies, will not be set down, absent writing. Not to disparage oral literature; some of the world’s finest literary specimens – the Vedas and the Homeric epics, for example – began life as such. But history in any permanent, non-mythic sense is written history. Although Schliemann found lost Troy, Homer is not history – but Thucydides is. The Mahabharata, composed in the preliterate epic Sanskrit period, is not history, but the Mahavamsa – the “Great Chronicle” of ancient India and Sri Lanka, written down in Pāli by literate Buddhist monks – is.

With enlightenment comes literacy. The Greeks, as Ventris proved, had writing of a sort during the Bronze Age, but, as far as we can tell, it was used purely to record warehouse transactions (proto-cuneiform functioned similarly, as Jerrold Cooper and others have shown, while such as we can discern of proto-Elamite, Englund tells us, amounts to a truncated system for noting amounts and numbers on mercantile records).

After the fall of Mycenae, the Greeks vanish from history, and do not reappear for a millenium, with Herodotus and his entertaining mix of history and fable. Historical writing was further refined by Thucydides and Livy, sacralized by the chroniclers of Byzantium and medieval western Europe, and modernized by the copious scholarship (however presumptuous) of Gibbon, Bury, Toynbee, Haskins, and a host of others. This is the pedigree of Western historiography, and with it, of classical and Western literature in all its forms, down to the lowliest ship’s log, personal diary, or family genealogy. These are the most enduring monuments of our civilization, and by them we shall one day be judged.

The 29th chapter of 2 Nephi attracts attention mostly for its indictment of those who cling to the Bible alone while persecuting the Jews who produced it. But there are other things in that chapter, which reads so much like a long aside in the larger context of Nephi’s description of the destiny of the Gentiles and his own descendants. “Know ye not,” he proclaims, “that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea?” (surprisingly cosmopolitan sentiments from the leader of a tiny monoethnic remnant of Israelites in a remote wilderness!). And then, a few verses later, the true breadth of Nephi’s sentiment becomes apparent: The Lord, he tells us, commands “all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I [the Lord] shall speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.” The production of texts – history and sacred writ, especially – is not the exclusive province of the Lord’s Chosen People, although subsequent verses focus on them. The Lord has a hand in the writings of all literate peoples; their histories, their literature, their moral and religious musings – all these belong properly to the great repository of inspired writings that shall one day form the basis for the judgment of nations.

Now many scholars among the saints have tended to follow Nibley’s lead in focusing on the texts of the ancient Middle East and of the Classical world, while a cadre of others has poured commendable energy into Mesoamerican archaeology and epigraphy, supposing that these are a close approximation to Book of Mormon languages and culture. Beyond those particular horizons, though, there are other, even vaster troves of texts of immense value, whose surface has barely been scraped, by LDS scholarship or any other. Consider, for instance, the enormous body of preserved literature, Buddhist, Nestorian Christian, and Manichaean, that has been recovered from countless monasteries and ruined libraries in the arid wastes of the Tarim Basin and elsewhere along the Silk Road. To penetrate these, we need scholarship in exotica like Tocharian, Uighur, Sogdian, and Pahlavi. Now that the peerless Klimkeit is gone, however, we are hard-pressed to find others who can convey these writings into modern English and other languages of scholarship.

With the Indian Subcontinent we are further along, but only just. The great monuments of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist literature have been translated, but enormous troves of documents, mostly in Pāli, still languish unknown in monasteries and temples of Sri Lanka, Burma, and further east. And we have barely begun to familiarize ourselves with the ancient and copious literature of the Tamils, that ingenious people of torrid southern India to whom Thomas the Apostle once preached the gospel (and who, according to tradition, returned the favor by martyring him near modern-day Madras). India is a land of literature, boasting more written languages, ancient and modern, than any other single polity in world history, yet her treasures are known – and very imperfectly at that – only to a small community of fairly eccentric orientalists.

Ditto for the immense literature of Tibet, with her idiosyncratic blend of Buddhism and folk religion, whose language is akin to Mandarin and Burmese, but whose writing arose from the Subcontinent.
And how well acquainted are the scholars of Zion with the literature of the Turks (to whom a source as old as the Zend-Avesta makes reference), whose Seljuk and Ottoman dynasties once held the world in thrall? Or of the Chinese, who boast one of the world’s oldest and most copious continuous literary traditions, and whose inventions, from noodles to gunpowder, transformed our civilization? Beyond these are others, as disparate as Javanese, Armenian, Georgian and Amharic/Geez, where written records have been kept for centuries, even millenia, but which almost nobody not born to such tongues can penetrate. How many are aware that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and its Caucasian neighbor Georgia the second? Everyone knows about Constantine and the Milvan Bridge, but what of Tiridates the Great?

Nibley’s wistful longing for “another Vámbéry” notwithstanding, a comprehensive mastery of such materials is far beyond the abilities of even the most dedicated polymath, especially in an age that covets specialization. I myself have spent decades delving into several of the above-named tongues (while shunning Hebrew; who needs yet another LDS Semitic scholar?), but am still bidding fair merely to scratch the surface.

Still, to perceive the workings of the Spirit among some of those “in the East” that Nephi references, we need only consider the vast and aptly-named Subcontinent, home nowadays (and probably, in former days as well, thanks to its relative isolation from the broils of Central Asia and the Middle East) to roughly one fifth of the world’s population. Of India’s prehistory – prior to about 500 BC – we can learn little, except such as we choose to accept as history from her heavily embroidered twin national epics and from her mostly-devotional texts from the Vedic age. India, the “Island of the Rose-Apple Tree,” then as now, worshipped a plethora of gods, erected cities and temples, and anointed monarchs. But for millenia, she appears to have done this devoid of fully-developed writing. Then, in the middle of the first millenium BC (about the same time Homer was compiling his history), everything changed. A pair of unexampled sages arose and birthed a pair of new religions. One monarch, Ashoka, embraced one of these new religions (Buddhism) in a fit of contrition after carrying out genocide against the Kalingas, and voilà! Suddenly, we have a literate civilization. While Ashoka’s peculiar genius limited him to numerous self-serving pillar inscriptions in a brand-new script, his fellow Buddhists began writing down stories, sermons, and other suttas, and history was born. By the time of Christ, literacy was to be found everywhere in South Asia, in the immense Pāli Buddhist canon, in the poetry and epopees of the Tamils, in the chronicles of Lanka, in the Gandhara/Kharoshthi Buddhist texts of the northwest, which are only starting to come to light, and in numerous other Prakrits, as well as Sanskrit itself. And in the two millenia since, more than a dozen other literary languages, with their respective historiographies and devotional literatures, have emerged, from Canarese and Telugu in the south to Bengali and Punjabi in the north.

Meanwhile, ambitious Buddhist missionaries carried their creed – and their writing – to far-flung Tibet and Mongolia in the north, and to Burma and Thailand in the south, among many other spots -- and writing blossomed in those nations  as well.

All of these, if Nephi is to be believed, are part and parcel of the literature inspired by the workings of the Spirit of God. Not all, to be sure, are of equal worth, but the better portion, at least, surely should be embraced by the scholarship of Zion.

May I offer the reader one humble example? In the West, Abraham (next to the Savior himself) is held up as the embodiment of self-denial and unquestioning sacrifice. Among the Theravada Buddhists of southern Asia, Dhammasondaka (“He who is drunk with true doctine”) is a comparable figure. He is a king who, after a few months of monarchic opulence, develops an abiding desire to discover truth at any cost. He offers princely sums to his privy councilors and his subjects to anyone who can acquaint him with the truth. When no one can do so, he relinquishes kingdom and worldly goods and goes into the forest to seek truth by self-imposed austerities. So strong is his virtue that Sakka, the prince of the gods, becomes aware of his determination. He decides to test Dhammasondaka’s piety, and appears before him as a gigantic demon. Desperate for understanding, Dhammasondaka implores the demon to teach him true doctrine. The “demon” agrees – on condition that Dhammasondaka give himself to the monster to be devoured. Sakka conjures up a giant mountain, and instructs Dhammasondaka to hurl himself into the demon’s open maw, promising to teach him the truth as he falls. The former king unhesitatingly does the demon’s bidding, but instead of devouring him, Sakka transforms back into his divine form and carries Dhammasondaka up to heaven, to be honored by the gods. Echoes of Abrahamic abnegation and vindication indeed, though discerned through a Buddhist lens!

That such a worthy tale is only accessible to those who can read Pāli (at least until my translation of it sees light of day) is one of the myriad reasons that the work of bringing forth to Zion the best earthly texts is so far from complete. I look forward to the day when the mountain of the Lord’s house is overflowing with the texts from every kindred and clime, from every age and creed.