What follows is speculation about a different way of looking at the relationship between the physical and the spiritual than the Restoration faiths adopted in understanding their 19th Century unique scriptural experiences. (Forgive me, Lord, but You did make me a physicist as well as a believer, and You must have known I was going to keep picking at questions like this as long as You allowed me a mind to try to understand.)
Those 19th Century experiences were embedded in a cultural understanding of space and time appropriate to its age just as much as early Christianity and Judaism had embedded their experiences in an earth-centered cosmos and time. Some of the more interesting advances in the thinking of Joseph Smith are, for me, found in places like the Book of Moses or Doctrine and Covenants, where that thinking begins to contemplate — if, IMO, inadequately describe — a spiritual cosmology that is not earth-centered, but paints on a broader spiritual canvass.
That cosmology is still human-centered, particularly in the LDS version, with its notions that God is a perfected (exalted) Heavenly Father whose ideal and actual spiritual sons and daughters are purified Homo sapiens who are intended to become Heavenly Fathers and Heavenly Mothers in the future afterlife. (The Community of Christ canon is somewhat different, and more ambiguous, which permits a more comfortable fit with Protestant and Catholic notions of the afterlife even when the notion of multiple kingdoms of glory are considered.)
But, that cosmology is still time-centered. It has a well-defined future toward which the purposes of God are advancing. It also has (unlike the theology of conventional Christianity) a well-defined notion of the past. Our spirits were pre-existent and entered the physical realm at some point in our physical history after an eventful spiritual past. What those events were, especially at an individual level, are surrounded by the baggage of controversial folklore that has been offered as a justification for racism. And the definition of what the future is intended to hold has also been offered by some as a justification for sexism and homophobia that has had important consequences for the religion and for the larger society.
In effect, the cosmology pictures a spiritual and physical realm with histories running in a kind of parallelism. The spiritual and physical touch at particular points (which it is the function of religion to deepen and extend), but then separate and follow their own paths.
But something I have been interested in since some of my earliest blogging is what possibilities exist for faithfully (i.e., in harmony with the 19th Century canon, and without repudiating that canon) expelling justifications for racism, sexism, and homophobia simply by modernizing the cosmology and embedding it in 21st Century understandings of space and time.
This article, though built only on the Community of Christ canon, which increasingly diverges from the LDS canon after 1835, will focus particularly on the implications for understanding of the family lives we can expect in the “afterlife”. What I find surprising, and think will surprise both LDS and Community of Christ readers, is how much of the 19th Century LDS teachings can reemerge in a slightly different form as a prediction of combining modern cosmology with the general Christian assumption that humans have spirits.
So lets work up to this using some graphics, beginning with the figure at the start of the post. The “X” defines what’s called a “light-cone”; it exists for every event, and divides space and time into regions where events can or can not transmit any information to or about each other through physical space. Using the event at the central point of the “X” as an example, that event can potentially interact with — the more precise term is “can be causally connected with” — any event within the vertical sectors of the light-cone. It can not be causally connected with any event outside those sectors (i.e., separated too far in the horizontal, spatial direction). The lines of the light-cone separate at a rate of 1 light year in any spatial direction per 1 year forward or backward in time.
How big is the “X”? Well, most cosmologies predict it is infinite, or at least very much larger than anything our telescopes can ever see. General Relativity allows spacetime to be “flat”, as in the picture above, or to be closed in upon itself like a higher dimensional analog of a globe, or to be open like a higher dimensional analog of a potato chip shape. Observation with our best instruments says only that it is remarkably close to flat, while still being open, but there is still a slight chance of it being “slightly” closed.
And in an infinite physical universe, as I’ve tried to depict in the first figure above, exact duplicates of an event can recur elsewhere in space and time. So can arbitrarily close or divergent variations of the same event — even extraordinarily complicated physical events like the lives of you and me. Like Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, there can be many physical copies, and sometimes their plans differ significantly from each other.
Indeed, when we add in another pillar of modern cosmology, quantum mechanics, copies aren’t just permitted in an infinite physical universe, they are required! The core reason is that in quantum mechanics, the number of distinct states in any region of spacetime is finite (or at least belongs to a “smaller” class of infinity than does the spacetime infinity itself), if, quite literally, astronomical.
So, think of the first image above as symbolically representing copies and variations of the lives of one of us. They randomly pop up at various points widely separated in space and time, live and die, but have no interaction with us individually, because we’re too rare (because we’re complicated) to be close enough to be causally connected. Our doppelgangers, good or bad, exist, but never crash our party. From a God’s-eye view of all of space and time, there were always copies of us “from the beginning”; there will always be copies of us “yet to come”. And from that viewpoint, you can always build up a database of who has previously been “mighty in testimony” and who has not — but I would suggest that such a database will have nothing to do with skin color, nor will it allow one to infer previous faithfulness from one’s status in the present physical life. You can’t infer a rigged coin because a single toss comes up tails.
Every copy of “me” has equal right to (and will) perceive himself as the original, and will imagine “me” to be a copy of “him”. Indeed, I’ll have some close variants that never went into physics in their lives and won’t imagine my existence at all. But if they are close enough a variant to me to imagine me, they will certainly perceive themselves of having a spirit just as I do, and they will start asking themselves, “What is the relationship of my spirit to the spirits of my copies?”
But is mapping events in space and time the best way to get a handle on questions like this? Or is this type of map any more “real” than another kind of map might be in describing spiritual phenomenon? Notes on a page and a frequency transform in an electronic device are both ways of mapping a musical experience so that others can hear it, but neither one is the “real” music, and each has its uses in describing what is a single, inseparable experience. I would suggest that in Mormon cosmology, the physical and spiritual are a single experience, but we do need to transform between two different maps to highlight the physical or spiritual aspects. Let me try to start drawing the second, “spiritual map” by turning space and time “inside out” as in the adjacent figure. Note that I’ve eliminated certain types of events that were present in the previous figure, but only to minimize visual clutter, so think of them as still being present if not drawn.
In principle, I can be as fine-grained in differentiating events as I wish. In fact, I can decide “similarity” on multiple degrees of freedom (spatial dimensions) at once, using color, shape, intensity of glory, or anything else to define the coordinates of the new space.
In the new mapping, events widely separated in space and time become a single location in the spatial dimension. Causal relationships between them are not determined by any consideration of the light-cone. But we’ve neither gained or lost any information that was present, so we should expect the translated mapping to be as phenomena-rich as the original. It is just that the laws that describe the original phenomena won’t necessarily seem either simple or useful in the new mapping, while in the new mapping, phenomena that seemed too complex or random to notice before would leap out at us, demanding attention.
Now, nothing I’ve done here is mathematically illegitimate. I’ve simply created what a physicist calls a “dual” description of nature, and duality pops up in nature all the time. The question of whether this particular description is useful, however, and, more specifically, whether it is useful as a faithful framework or theory to explain and interpret the 19th Century Restoration canon is another matter. To consider a theory, you examine its predictions, compare them to the predictions of alternative frameworks in light of observations, and make your choice.
So let’s examine ideas about the eternal family in that light. First, we’d better look at what corresponds to “time” in the new mapping.
In physical spacetime, the difference of a time-like direction from a space-like direction (which is closely tied to causality) is that in the former there exist “records”; some events only exist if certain other events are within their past light cones. (I apologize for being so vague, but the vagueness is attributable to the fact that the nature of physical time is poorly understood and still highly debated in science. We may well need 22nd Century cosmology to better understand why time seems to have a direction at all.) Let me give an example chosen with devious intent:
A particular copy of me may have a brother, or two brothers, or three sisters. Or it may be that there are copies of my parents that have all of those earthly families, with the single exception that in the lives of those copies, the telephone rang at the wrong time, the mood passed, and they ended up with an entirely different child with a birthdate one month later than mine. All of those possibilities — and many, many more — occur with some probability, and they can all be plotted along the information similarity axis in the new mapping. In fact, as we look at those “me’s” with ever finer resolution, we see ever more variations of me, and it becomes necessary to invoke ever more spatial dimensions to explain the variations we see. (This is not a bug, but a feature of the description; the same thing is known to occur with physical space, which turns into something like a quantum foam at the smallest possible scales.)
However, to invoke a truism, there is zero possibility that a copy of me will have children if my parents didn’t have any. My existence is a “record” of my parents’ existence, and my parents’ and my existence can only be plotted in respect to each other on a time-like axis. Similarly, the plotting is one way; there is no way that I can marry any woman on the planet and produce either my father or my mother as offspring of our union. Even in physical space, that requires time-travel (cue the TARDIS brake sound effect!). Indeed, in information similarity space, my mother is free to marry any man she wishes, and she will often do so if for no other reason than that my father is inaccessible in her world, but any resulting offspring won’t be a copy of me. They’ll be at least as different from me as any half-brother or half sister.
So “ancestry” becomes a pretty good proxy for tracking a time-like dimension in this description, and gets better and better the more generations the trail of ancestry continues, simply because you can’t alter the identity of any generation much without shifting the information similarity coordinates of the variation by a lot (i.e., perpendicular to the ancestry dimension coordinate). The result is an “eternal family”, but it is very different than the ones most of us live in, or idealize, or theologize about (at least in Western civilizations). It is more like a vast web, reaching both forward and backward over cosmic scales, connecting to variants of more and more of us as individuals — and even to past and future ancestral and descendant species of humanity.
The web does not favor one sex over another. On average, any sample of the web will have as many patriarchs as matriarchs. Spouses will be of various races, so children will be of various races. Some threads of the web will terminate in childlessness (including same-sex spouses, since even the most heterosexual of us are likely to have LGBT variants), or veer wildly horizontally into adoption. Some of our variants will choose to remain single and form closer bonds with friends or brothers and sisters than they would with spouses. Similarly, all of us will have both heterosexual and LGBT children in our eternal families; deal with it! We will have no family members in heaven with whom our variants repeatedly destroy our relationships on earth.
The description that emphasizes the collective ensemble of what happens to our (and other entities) recurring copies and variants in the past, present, and future of space and time is the best description we can yet give of the spiritual realm, IMO. But the physical and the spiritual remain merely one inseparable reality that can be described in two surprisingly different ways.