Information Science in Latter-day Saint Theology


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Information Science in Latter-day Saint Theology

Carl Grafe

“A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge,” said Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Nauvoo, Illinois, 1842 (History of the Church 4.588). Nauvoo, which had been a swamp when the Latter-day Saints first arrived, soon became a large city, rivaling the population of Chicago at the time (Black 91-93). In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith instituted the use of local “recorders” to observe and document baptisms performed for members’ deceased ancestors, and he detailed how these records were to be collected and maintained (Doctrine and Covenants 128.1-5). This early exercise in record management eventually led to the creation of the Church-owned nonprofit FamilySearch, which currently adds over 1 million new genealogical records every day (“FamilySearch Hits 8 Billion Searchable Names in Historical Records” 2020). This is but one example of how a foundational emphasis on information acquisition and transmission has continued in the Church, and many early Church doctrines can accordingly be described using modern principles of information science. This essay explores several of these principles, from the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) pyramid to Friedman’s Fundamental Theorem of Biomedical Informatics to Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model to Shannon Entropy, and how they may help explain Latter-day Saints’ active involvement in science fiction.

Information science is a field of study devoted to “the effective communication of information and information objects, particularly knowledge records, among humans in the context of social, organizational, and individual need for and use of information” (Saracevic 2009). In a 1996 interview for the American news program 60 Minutes, then-Church president Gordon B. Hinckley faced the following comment by reporter Mike Wallace: “There are those who say that Mormonism began as a cult.” Hinckley responded that rather than being reclusive and ascetic, members of the Church can be found “in business institutions, high in educational circles, in politics, in government, in whatever.” The cult question is typical of the many perpetually controversial topics associated with the Church, including the teaching that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to a fourteen-year-old farm boy in New York state in 1820, the practice of polygamy in the Church until 1890, the ban on Black people holding the priesthood until 1978, the stringent health, financial, and social requirements of membership, and many other topics (Gospel Topics Essays 2021). Given all of this potentially faith-defying religious baggage, one might ask how the Church has continued to grow year-over-year, almost without exception, since it was first established in 1830, while counting prominent scientists, politicians, artists, and leaders of industry among its members. One possible answer has to do with the Church’s teachings about information accrual and ascertainment—in particular, that God can directly provide reliable information to individuals through prayer (“Praying to Our Heavenly Father” 2011). Hinckley implies that members of the Church are just ordinary people who happen to believe some extraordinary things, but in order for that juxtaposition to persist for so long, Latter-day Saints have had to learn how to effectively balance information they obtain from faith-based activities like prayer with information they obtain from more conventional sources.

In 2010, Charles Friedman formulated his Fundamental Theorem of Biomedical Informatics as follows: “A person working in partnership with an information source is ‘better’ than the same person unassisted” (Friedman 169-170). The image from Friedman’s paper frequently associated with this concept can be roughly summarized as: person + computer > person. If we consider the Latter-day Saint conception of God as an information source, Friedman’s concept has been embodied in the Church since the First Vision in 1820, when Joseph Smith reported that God directed him to join none of the churches on the Earth at that time (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History 1.17). Latter-day Saints view God as a reliable source of current information that may supersede knowledge they obtain from other sources. Thus a Latter-day Saint may treat a perceived answer from God with the same or greater heft as the observations they make in their professional work or other day-to-day activities.

Joseph Smith taught that knowledge might be considered nondenominational:

I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints … are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time. (History of the Church 5.215)

According to Shannon’s law of entropy in information science (Shannon 379-423), every piece of potential information inherently has uncertainty associated with it, and the more unlikely that information is, the more uncertainty there is. But once information is obtained and identified, the uncertainty is reduced. Thus, in a universe that originated and is populated by highly unlikely chance occurrences, the amount of knowable information must of necessity be low. But in the Latter-day Saint conception of a universe created and maintained by an all-knowing God, where future events occur with perfect certainty, Shannon’s law would dictate that all information is inherently knowable.

Indirectly, Jeremy Brett explored the concept of an all-encompassing information source in SFRA Review vol. 50, pointing out how the “trope of the limitless library or archive” in science fiction often fails to offer more than a cursory overview of how the information in these resources is curated (Brett 2020). Modern religions often adopt a similarly ambiguous view of God as a source of knowledge, enabling fictional archives such as Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica to fill a similar or even superior role to a deity, perhaps presenting a conceptual threat to religious faith in some readers. But Latter-day Saints make the mechanisms and documentation of information obtained from God topics of special study (e.g., the Come Follow Me program, a weekly curriculum for Latter-day Saints, has devoted much of its 2021 course of study to the process of seeking and receiving revelation). This is a topic of great personal importance to Latter-day Saints that is seldom visited in fiction. It may follow then, that rather than conflicting with their religious faith, the often underdeveloped archives in fiction may instead inspire Latter-day Saint writers to do a more thorough treatment of such resources, based in part on their detailed understanding of what they believe to be the ultimate source of knowledge in the real world. The Mind Game computer program in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game may be a pertinent example. Rather than a mere plot device to provide information to the characters, the program is almost a character in itself, interacting intimately with the other characters, analyzing them as individuals, and using its seemingly unlimited knowledge to push them—often brutally—to their absolute limits. Rather than as replacements for God, such information sources may instead serve as opportunities for Latter-day Saint writers to explore godlike attributes. 

At the same time, this belief in a source of unlimited knowledge might also encourage suspension of disbelief. Michael Collings pointedly argued that Latter-day Saints’ belief in revelation prevents the “cognitive estrangement” necessary to appreciate science fiction (Collings 116). But Latter-day Saint theology conflicts with this generalization. While Latter-day Saints believe that all knowledge is available, they simultaneously recognize the limitations of mortal humanity. In the Book of Mormon, a statement of Jesus Christ to the ancient inhabitants of America shortly after his resurrection rephrased his New Testament quotation from “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (King James Version, Matthew 5.48) to “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 12.48, emphasis added), suggesting that his claimed perfection was attained only after his mortal life had concluded. Thus Latter-day Saints believe that godlike attributes such as omniscience are not routinely available to humans during their mortal lives. With this understanding comes an increased reliance on the omniscience of God. This is especially true when teachings purportedly from God run contrary to public opinion. Rather than trusting in the wisdom of humanity in aggregate, Latter-day Saints turn to scriptures that teach that, despite our limited perspective, God is just (see Doctrine and Covenants 127.3), and that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 4.9). They have to constantly pivot between the worldly information and requirements of daily living and the often completely incompatible tenets of their faith, ever trusting that the omniscience in the latter will eventually compensate for the dissonance of the former. This certainly requires a high level of cognitive estrangement—consistently applied over a lifetime. Thus Latter-day Saints, well-practiced in setting aside inconvenient contradictions, might—contrary to Collings’ contention—be expected to have an increase in ability to accept speculative elements in fiction, rather than a deficit. It is little wonder then that Latter-day Saints might be overrepresented in a field like science fiction (Winston 2017), where suspension of disbelief is among the principal requirements.

In keeping with this conception of God as a source of knowledge that can enhance one’s own capacity, Latter-day Saints have long embraced the practice of incremental knowledge accretion. From the Book of Mormon:

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 28.30)

Not only does this passage relate to the Church’s emphasis on accruing knowledge through continuing education, but it also suggests an underlying hierarchy of knowledge. A fundamental concept in information science is the DIKW pyramid, wherein data is converted into information, knowledge, and wisdom by adding additional structure and context to each stratum. For example, in information technology this might be accomplished by assigning tags and definitions to convert raw binary data into structured information, conducting statistical analyses to convert the structured information into actionable knowledge, and accruing experience over time to convert that collected digital knowledge into more nuanced practical wisdom.

Furthermore, this conception of higher levels of actionable knowledge that are only available to humanity through divine impartment aligns with James Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation (Reason 475-484). This model postulates that disasters occur due to individual human actions that are “necessary but singly insufficient to achieve the catastrophic outcome.” In the model, higher levels of intervention (represented by the additional slices of overlaid Swiss cheese) are necessary to prevent disasters from happening (i.e., by covering the holes in the lower layers). Once one accepts the possibility of divine consequences for individual actions as taught in the Church, higher orders of intervention become necessary in avoiding individual disaster. Thus for Latter-day Saints (and many other Christians), the need for divinely revealed teachings, an organizational structure or church of believers, and a messianic Savior are all accepted as necessary and natural scaffolds for preserving individual salvation. Rather than tools of cultish oppression, these additional protective layers of “cheese” might be viewed as evidence of responsible divine governance.

It already makes a certain sense that adherents of a religion      whose teachings support alternate sources of knowledge and the suspension of disbelief as detailed above might be predisposed to reading science fiction. And it logically follows that if members of that religion were overrepresented among readers of science fiction, then the subset of those readers that choose to write science fiction would be overrepresented as well. But the drive to create science fiction may run deeper than a mere increased interest in the genre. The detailed creation of secondary worlds (or speculative elements of our own world) is a recurrent component of Latter-day Saint theology. Whether in the world of pre-Columbian meso-American Christianity as described in the Book of Mormon or the multi-system cosmology of heaven described in the Church’s Doctrine and Covenants, detailed accounts of largely unsubstantiated alternate civilizations are among the first things taught to children and new converts. It seems reasonable that as Latter-day Saints mature they might try their own hand at such creations.

Latter-day Saint science fiction authors venture deep into the realms of creation and innovation, but they are often constrained by the self-imposition of order and structure on the created worlds—though some may consider these constraints to be what make their creations so compelling. Such constraints may be exemplified by Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic (Sanderson 2011) and Orson Scott Card’s foundational How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Card 1990), where universal rules are stated as indispensable even in something as inherently unregulatable as speculative fiction. This emphasis on structure illuminates the importance of rules and order in the Latter-day Saint understanding of worldbuilding. If a perfect repository of knowledge exists in a certain universe, then it stands to reason that every element of the universe may be perfectly understood in the full context of the physical laws, constants, and relationships that govern that universe. Exercises in building theorems to define these laws are certainly found in the fields of science, but the freedom to build these theorems at scale and without the constraints of mortal real-world limitations is certainly greater in science fiction.

Another aspect of Latter-day Saint theology has to do with the scientific method itself. Members of the Church have been commanded to “study it out in your mind” first before seeking revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 9.8), and one prophet in the Book of Mormon taught:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. (Alma 32.27-28)

A major problem with this type of “experiment” is that it is based on feelings, and thus inherently subjective. Without a concrete way to measure feelings of swelling or enlargement or enlightenment, it is impossible to scientifically verify such observations at a population level, regardless of the study design. But if we were to suspend that initial reason to disbelieve, we might consider that such lack of second-hand verification could be a feature of the doctrine, rather than an invalidator. Latter-day Saints believe that mortal life is a test, and that we—as God’s spirit children—have been sent to Earth to see if we will follow his commandments (“The Purpose of Earth Life” 2000). Much like a math student who has to write out a mathematical proof by hand on an exam, Latter-day Saints believe we each have to do the work and obtain the “proof” for ourselves. On an individual basis, this process is quite true to a traditional implementation of the scientific method, where “careful, systematic observations of high quality” are used to formulate and test hypotheses (Voit 1-3). The quality of the observations cannot be verified by secondary observers, but from the Latter-day Saint perspective, that just means they have to do the experiment themselves and verify the quality firsthand.

At the very end of the Book of Mormon, there is a related teaching from a prophet named Moroni, speaking to people who would later read his words:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10.4-5)

This isn’t truth that is intended only for descendants of early Church members, or only for Americans, or only for any other limited demographic or grouping of people. The implication is that anyone can repeat the experiment and receive the same information as anyone else from this purportedly absolute repository of knowledge. Indeed, Latter-day Saint theology is very much founded on this principle that individual observations can lead to generalizable knowledge. This foundational devotion to the core of the scientific method continues to underlie everything that is taught in the Church, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Latter-day Saints, with their belief that salvation depends on the attainment of such knowledge, would seek to make their experiments as widely replicable as possible, whether that be through science fiction or any other available means.


WORKS CITED

Black, Susan Easton. “How Large Was the Population of Nauvoo?” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 1995, pp. 91-3, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol35/iss2/7.

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Brett, Jeremy. “The Struggle over Information Curation in Fran Wilde’s The Fire Opal Mechanism.” SFRA Review, vol. 50, nos. 2-3, 2020, https://sfrareview.org/2020/09/04/50-2-a1brett/

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor Books, 1985.

—–. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Tor Books. 1990.

Collings, Michael R. “Refracted Visions and Future Worlds: Mormonism and Science Fiction,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 107-16, 1984.

Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Doctrine and Covenants 2021. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2021, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-individuals-and-families-doctrine-and-covenants-2021/title?lang=eng.

Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

“FamilySearch Hits 8 Billion Searchable Names in Historical Records”. FamilySearch News Releases. September 24, 2020, https://media.familysearch.org/familysearch-hits-8-billion-searchable-names-in-historical-records/.

Friedman, Charles P. “A ‘Fundamental Theorem’ of Biomedical Informatics.” Journal of the American Medical Information Association, vol. 16, no. 2, Mar-Apr 2009, pp. 169–70, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2649317/.

Gospel Topics Essays. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays?lang=eng.

Hinckley, Gordon B. “This Thing Was Not Done in a Corner.” Ensign, November 1996, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1996/10/this-thing-was-not-done-in-a-corner?lang=eng

History of the Church. “History of the Church” (manuscript), The Joseph Smith Papers, book C-1, p. 1316, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1-2-november-1838-31-july-1842/490

History of the Church. “History of the Church” (manuscript), The Joseph Smith Papers, book D-1, p. 1433, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-d-1-1-august-1842-1-july-1843/76

The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

“Praying to Our Heavenly Father.” Gospel Principles. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2011, https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-8-praying-to-our-heavenly-father?lang=eng.

“The Purpose of Earth Life.” Doctrines of the Gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2000, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/doctrines-of-the-gospel/chapter-10?lang=eng.

Reason, James. “The Contribution of Latent Human Failures to the Breakdown of Complex Systems.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, vol. 327, no. 1241, Apr. 12, 1990, pp. 475–84.

Rowley, Jennifer. “The Wisdom Hierarchy: Representations of the DIKW Hierarchy.” Journal of Information and Communication Science, vol. 33, iss. 2, pp. 163–180, 2007, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0165551506070706.

Sanderson, Brandon. “Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.” Stormlight Archive Wiki, 2011, https://stormlightarchive.fandom.com/wiki/Sanderson%27s_Laws_of_Magic.

Saracevic, Tefko. “Information science.” In M. J. Bates (Ed.), Encyclopedia of library and information sciences (3rd ed.), New York: Taylor and Francis, 2009, pp. 2570-2585.

Shannon, Claude E. (July 1948). “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379-423, http://people.math.harvard.edu/~ctm/home/text/others/shannon/entropy/entropy.pdf.

Voit, Eberhard O. “Perspective: Dimensions of the scientific method.” PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Sep, vol. 15, no. 9, p. e1007279, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6742218/.Winston, Kimberly. “Mormons in space: Sci-fi or no lie?” Religion News Service, July 2017, https://religionnews.com/2017/07/26/mormons-in-space-sci-fi-or-no-lie/

Carl Grafe is a data analyst in the Department of Data and Analysis Services and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Mathematics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, which serves approximately 50,000 students in Idaho and around the world. He received his doctoral degree in biomedical informatics from the University of Utah School of Medicine with an emphasis in public health informatics. His research has been published in Population Health Management, the American Journal of Infection Control, Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine, and elsewhere. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of his employer or other affiliations.


Published by

sfrarev

SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s