In this pamphlet (available at PG here), Orson Pratt claims to be more scientific, more philosophical, and more religious than the “atheistical idolators” who worship an “immaterial god” or “deified Nothing,” i. e., basically every non-Mormon Christian.
With that introductory sentence, perhaps now is a good time for a disclaimer–Orson Pratt was a brilliant intellectual, but also a doctrinal loose cannon. Brigham Young officially condemned some of his doctrine, including much of what he proposes in this pamphlet. So, this should all be taken with a hefty grain of salt.
This pamphlet was a refutation of “The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed,” which condemned the Church for its materialist belief. The relevant doctrine is stated in Doctrine and Covenants Section 131:7-8:
There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.
This is obviously conflicts with the typical view that God is a completely immaterial spiritual being without body, parts, or passions. It also seems to have some philosophical significance regarding the nature of reality. Spirits, since they are “material,” seem to be more similar to material human beings (bound by laws, composed of a more or less fixed set of components, characterized by layers of complexity) than to, say, platonic forms (ineffable, ideal philosophical concepts). This doctrine also seems to be relatively compatible with a worldview based in the scientific method and incompatible with a worldview based in Plato, the Nicene Creed, etc.
Orson Pratt is fun because he is completely unafraid of all this. He’s enthusiastic about how compatible his beliefs are with the science of his day and the best related philosophy, and he’s prepared to grapple with what it all means. For example, he considers what “no immaterial matter” means for the Holy Spirit:
All the innumerable phenomena of universal nature are produced in their origin by the actual presence of this intelligent all-wise and all-powerful material substance called the Holy Spirit. It is the most active matter in the universe, producing all its operations according to fixed and definite laws enacted by itself, in conjunction with the Father and the Son. What are called the laws of nature are nothing more nor less than the fixed method by which this spiritual matter operates. Each atom of the Holy Spirit is intelligent, and like other matter has solidity, form, and size, and occupies space. Two atoms of this spirit cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In all these respects it does not differ in the least from all other matter. Its distinguishing characteristics from other matter are its almighty powers and infinite wisdom, and many other glorious attributes which other materials do not possess.
Is this true? Who knows. Is it established doctrine? Obviously not. Should anyone ever publish anything remotely like this in a public or missionary setting? No. But it’s refreshing to see how Orson Pratt was unafraid to take the best science and philosophy of his day and let it strengthen and work with his faith. He was intellectually humble enough to accept knowledge from all quarters and curious enough to poke at the boundaries, and arguably began a tradition of scientific faith later continued by Talmage, Widtsoe, Henry Eyring, and others to the present day.
So, in summary, “Absurdities of Immaterialism” is significant because it’s part of the great tradition of reconciling Mormonism with science and philosophy, and it’s worth reading not so much to see what Orson Pratt thought as to see how he thought.