Posted by: Loran Blood | February 6, 2013

Philosophical Implications of the Doctrine of Preexistence

What are the philosophical and doctrinal implications of the concept of the preexistence of individual spirits as taught in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ? As a foundational concept within the Gospel, and relating as it does to the deeper questions regarding the ultimate origin of the individual as a sentient, self aware being (including unique attributes of personality, conscious differentiation from other similar beings and one’s environment, general self awareness (awareness that one is a self, or awareness of one’s self awareness etc.) and this individual’s relationship to those agencies and principles by and through which he has acquired the attributes of consciousness, sentience, unique personality characteristics, and various perceptual abilities, the question naturally arises when attempting to persuade others who do not share such a concept, or who, coming from another religious tradition (which, throughout the Christian world generally, will mean in the vast majority of cases a belief that the “soul” of man was created “out of nothing”, a deeply abstract metaphysical concept we will deal with at length below) as to just what reasons we might give for our conviction that

 1.  We lived as individual spirit persons with God before we came to this earth to live as mortal beings.

 2.  The fundamental essence that is each, or forms the nucleus of each individual’s conscious, perceiving self, or the self aware individual entity that is addressed whenever we say “I,” is uncreated, self existent, and eternal.

   We have, of course, only cryptic and ambiguous references to this doctrine in the Bible, and if one does not as yet accept the possibility of new scripture, continuing revelation, and the existence of modern prophets, and does not recognize any such idea in the Biblical texts as we have them and as they are normatively understood by traditional Christians generally, then one might began thinking deeply about just what it means to make the claims that we do about the origin or the individual and the nature of existence as it relates to God and his creative activity in the universe.  Is existence purely a function of God’s creative activity, i.e., is there a pure, metaphysical nothingness or absolute void (the conceptual difficulties we will deal with in due course) preceding existence (by which I here mean not just the property of existing as such for any specific object or phenomena, but whether or not there is any such category at all coextensive or coexistent with God.  Or, put another way, “existence” is defined not only as the property of any specific existing thing, but as a fundamental ontological axiom.  In other words, “existence” qua existence is an eternal, essential, and inherent quality that transcends any particular form existence may take.

    It’s easy to make the claim that we all existed before our birth into this mortal world. The question that arises is, of course, why should anyone entertain such an idea or take it as a serious possibility?  Within the context of religion, we may ask the same question about any ultimately fundamental religious truth claim. Why should I believe, or what reason is there to consider the idea that I did not exist at all in an ultimate, absolute ontological sense, before my existence in this world? Is the concept of a preexistence, as over against creation of the soul ex nihilo, a more reasonable or more agreeable belief than its alternative, and why?

    What are the religious and philosophical implications of accepting the one or the other, especially relative to other beliefs or assumptions about God, his relationship to us, and the nature of what it actually means to us as intelligent, self aware beings – to exist?

    Perhaps the primary argument I wish to make here is that our existence now is the best evidence we have that we have always existed. The crux of this proposition is that it is logically and conceptually impossible for anything, in some form or at some level of phenominal manifestation, ever to have not existed. At the root of this claim is the observation that the concept of “nothing” is itself a positive conceptual category about which distinct claims of existence are made.  When we say “there is nothing” we have made a positive claim about the existence of a specific condition or phenomena. We have said that a certain condition exists in the universe, a primary attribute of which is the absence of something or some set of phenomena we otherwise would expect or assume to have been there.  Nothingness is the absence of coherent or recognizable phenomena.  Nothingness, therefore, is itself an existing, definable condition within the universe that one can make positive claims about.  We may say “There is nothing there” or, “I see nothing”, but in doing so we are making positive statements about an actually existing state of affairs: the absence of some phenomena or set of phenomena that otherwise might “exist” within the region of “nothing”.  “Nothingness”, therefore, is a relative perception, and outside of the rarefied philosophical abstractions of Neo-Platonic metaphysical speculation, it can only tell us what is perceptually absent; what is missing relative to what might or should be there and relative to the other phenomena around it only in relation to which the missing phenomena or thing could have any perceptual reference.

The rules of language as well as the conceptual categories within which and in reference to which we are able to make sense of our world and speculate upon things beyond the normal range of sense perception both force us inexorably toward the same conclusion. “Nothing” is something.  Even to say “There is nothing” is to make a positive claim about the existence of something; that is, the existence of the condition or state of nothingness.  To say “I was created out of nothing”, or “The universe was created out of nothing” is simply to say that our ‘”souls” or the universe were created or brought out of an already existing condition or state.  We cannot so much as talk about the concept “nothing” without making positive statements about its existence. “Nothing” is a perceptual reference frame used to differentiate between coherent, understandable phenomena and their absence.  “Nothing” cannot exist as an absolute, ontological category for the simple reason that for “nothing” to be conceived in this way, it must also exist.  “Nothing” is an actually existing state of affairs in comparison and contrast to which other things are classified or referenced..  In all these senses, the doctrine of creation out of nothing becomes creation out of something; out of an existing state or condition of relative relations between matter, energy, and consciousness.

    Something could not have come out of nothing if by nothing we mean the absolute and utter metaphysical absence of anything.  I think we’ve gone far enough thus far to understand that such a concept is both logically self defeating and conceptually unworkable.  Nothing can only be understood in positive terms as an actual condition to which other conditions and phenomena are related.

This is why I say that our existence now (and our conscious awareness of it) is the best evidence we have that we (consciousness or intelligence in some form) have always existed.  Existence and only existence is the fundamental attribute of reality.  Reality is existence, not just what actually happens within it.  We need not specify the existence of what, only that everything that ever existed, now exists, or ever will, has always, in some manifestation, stage of development, or emergent potential, always existed.  This is key, because if anything had never not existed at all in any absolute, transcendent sense, it never could have.

Why this is so is clear from the explicit logical implications of the above discussion.  The concept of transcendent, ontological nothingness is self negating; something could never come out of nothing because nothingness itself is part of the fundamental substrate or fabric of the universe.  Therefore, nothing, being something. is simply another aspect of existence, an aspect out of which other, more coherent, organized, higher order phenomena are derived.   Only existence is real.  Absolute, ontological nonexistence cannot exist, since if it did exist, it would exist, and its existence would negate its own nonexistence.

    What the teachings of the Restored Gospel tell us about the individual self as a child of a Heavenly Father that was begotten (not created de novo without already existing constituents) as an “intelligence” (a spirit body of form and substance eternally connected to a self; an eternal, uncreated, self existent intelligence, or mind, that, even in its most basic, fundamental state, was capable of development, progression, and perfection) perhaps eons ago in the celestial realms where God lives, and that we developed there for an extended period of time until ready to enter the next phase of our existence (mortal life), is that we have always existed (as we logically and conceptually must have) throughout all eternity, albeit not as organized personalities.  This is a central doctrine of the Restored Gospel and essential to understanding both our own ultimate nature and our relationship to our Father in Heaven.  We are all literal sons and daughters of God, but we also all simple are.  This is as true of each of us as it is of God, and this, as much as perhaps any other doctrine of the Church, makes a clean and unequivocal break with the rest of the Christian world.

    If each of us are now, always will be, and always have been existent entities in some form, then each of us have eternal, ineffable and deeply unique core attributes that when fused with and developed through the mediation of a physical form and the conscious awareness of being an individuated self separate from other selves and having the power of organized, complex thought, the ability to experience deep emotions and feelings, and the knowledge and capacity to make choices when presented moral and conceptual alternatives, are capable of allowing us, each in our own way, following our own unique path of development, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and by obedience to his commandments, to become as he is.

    The primary alternative is to believe that at one time, you did not exist at all in an absolute, consummate, metaphysically fundamental way.  Your very being did not exist.  Everything, every aspect of consciousness, perception, sentience, and potential that is you was absolutely and utterly without reality or being.  You then came into existence, that is; the very essence that is the conscious, self  aware, thinking, feeling perceiving, experiencing being that is you came into reality, or existence, in a moment from an illimitable metaphysical void.  This is the standard Christian conception, for all intents and purposes.

    Its interesting to point out that in traditional Christianity, while man is an infinite being (having a definite absolute beginning but going on forever into the future), in the Restored Gospel, man is an eternal being (having no beginning and no end to his existence).  Here we have yet another way in which we are all made in the image of God: we are all eternal, self existent beings, even though unimaginably distant from God as to our relative levels of development as individual beings.  It is nonetheless one of the most deeply profound insights found in the Restored Gospel that each of us may say with our Father in Heaven and his Son, Jesus Christ, as he himself said when he was known as Jehovah in the Old Testament, I am that I am.  We are now.  Therefore, we have always been.  Was this not the case, we could never be.

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