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A View From Inside the MTA Conference
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Last Saturday I attended the annual Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured at a minimum I could get a blog post out of it. There was a lot going on, if you include the two keynote speakers, there were 17 speakers in total, talking about everything from brain uploading to crucifixion. And I know that, at this point, you may be sick of me talking about the MTA, and I wouldn’t blame you if you are, but I think there were some themes in the conference which will be of interest to even those who feel that they’ve had enough of the MTA for awhile. But the MTA is still going to feature prominently in this post, so if you want to skip it that’s also a totally valid option as well..
To begin with they started 35 minutes late. Anyone who knows me knows that that’s a quick way to get on my bad side. As a note to future MTA Conference organizers if you say that something starts at 9:00, that shouldn’t be when the first speaker takes the podium, that should be when registration opens. Also if your goal is to become gods through the use of technology it looks bad when you can’t even keep a conference running on time through the use of technology…
Okay, I admit, that was a little snarky. I’ll try to be nicer going forward, though no promises...
And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;
He then said “Or…” and proceeded to read Isaiah 11:6-9:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
It was obvious that he was trying to draw a contrast between two visions for the future. Either we are doomed to bloodshed and disaster or we are blessed with peace and knowledge. Of course my immediate retort is why couldn’t both be true? Nevertheless it was interesting that he used the scripture from the D&C, as I mentioned that scripture featured very prominently in one of my posts. And it was interesting that he talked about two possibilities for the future, since that was the way I introduced things in my very first post. I know that some members of the MTA are familiar with my blog and have read some or even most of the posts, and it’s interesting to speculate whether I might have influenced them. Ultimately pointless, but interesting nonetheless.
Having drawn out these two visions of the future he came down on the side of Isaiah. (And I’m still unclear why it can’t be both) In support of his more optimistic view of the future he listed all of the cool things that are happening. Included in the list was:
The Mars Rover
The Higgs Boson
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
Advances in robotics
These are all very exciting technologies, but, for me, the list only reinforces my central criticism of the MTA. That for all of their talk of being Mormons and Disciples of Christ, and the assertion that their unreserved embrace of technology just makes them better disciples of Christ, that instead what they really are is just your garden variety tech enthusiasts. How does being Mormon inform their engagement with technology? Are there any technologies they’re not a fan of because of their religion? If the MTA made a list of technological advances over the last 10 years they considered important, would I be able to distinguish that list from a list I might find in a mainstream media outlet or in a magazine like Popular Science?
The speaker went on to say that going forward they wanted to focus more on the T (transhumanism) and less on the M (Mormon). But from what I could tell there wasn’t much “M” to begin with, and certainly very little of it at the conference. I’m honestly not sure that there’s any practical difference between a Mormon transhumanist and a regular transhumanist. I imagine that they have very different reasoning, but I think that reasoning ends up with both of them arriving in exactly the same place.
The question, as always comes back to how do we know whether to expect the D&C future or the Isaiah future (though, again, I’m not sure why it can’t be both). Does the existence of YouTube really make the Isaiah future more likely? I personally don’t think the list he made establishes a prima facie case for the Isaiah future. But for the moment, let’s assume that it does. Would a similar list compiled in support of the D&C future be more or less convincing? Let’s give it a shot:
Well? What do you think? Which list is the more compelling? Even if you decide that the Isaiah list is more compelling. (I certainly admit that it’s more pleasant.) In the end, it matters less than you think, for two reasons. First, in order for the MTA’s vision of things to work out. Ethics has to progress at the same rate as technology, otherwise you end up possessing godlike power without the wisdom or morality to use those powers righteously. Take another look at that first list, is there anything in it that points to an increase in morality and ethics? While all the items from the second list point to exactly the opposite happening.
Secondly, neither the MTA nor I knows for sure what will happen in the future. In fact neither of us even knows for sure what the two scriptures are foretelling, and even if we did, they definitely don’t come with dates attached. As I said in a previous post I really hope the MTA is right, and that I’m wrong, but who suffers the most if they’re wrong? If we end up in the D&C future and we didn’t prepare for it, that’s a lot worse than if we end up in the Isaiah future without preparation.
This represents one of the big problems I have with the MTA, There’s too little focus on the potential downsides. Within the transhumanist declaration there is a point about reducing existential risk, but there was very little said on that subject at the Conference. (Perhaps that’s how you can tell the difference between a Mormon Transhumanist and a normal transhumanist, the Mormon is more optimistic.) To be fair, while there wasn’t much said, that doesn’t mean nothing was said. In fact there was another speaker later on who was even more explicit in describing the two potential futures, calling our efforts a race between innovation and catastrophe. Again, it’s probable that this gentleman came up with the idea on his own, but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his presentation and my first blog post.
At this point I’ve spent over a third of my allotted space on just one presentation, so it’s obvious that I’m only going to be able to touch on a tiny amount of what took place at the conference. Though if you don’t mind podcasts, which you might, seeing as how you’re reading this rather than listening to it, I released a bonus podcast with some additional thoughts on the conference, specifically the keynote speakers. But as I said at the start rather than providing a blow-by-blow of each presentation, I’m more interested in tying together some of the broader themes. One theme that ran through all of the talks, and, in fact, runs through the entire MTA endeavor, is the idea of continually accelerating growth. One obvious question, you might be tempted to ask, is whether there is any limit to this growth, and on that count the vast majority of the people at the conference seem to agree that there isn’t.
This makes sense. If there isn’t any limit to growth than transhumanism is just a reflection of the way the world works, rather than a weird quasi religion. But I’m sure that any one of us can think of lots of reasons why growth might not continue, or why it might not carry everyone along with it.
This latter point is a problem for transhumanism, particularly the charitable Mormon variety. They can be absolutely right about the continual growth, but still wrong about it’s impact. There are numerous scenarios under which Silicon Valley billionaires have full access to the promises of transhumanism while poor people end up with a situation that’s actually worse than what they have currently.
During lunch I brought up this idea with one of the other conference attendees. Specifically the idea that as the slope of the growth curve gets steeper and steeper the cost of being even slightly behind someone else on that curve gets larger and larger. For example imagine you’re holding a car race and one car, say a Tesla in ludicrous mode, can accelerate at 1 meter/second/second and the other car, say a Tesla that only has insane mode, can accelerate at 0.99 meters/second/second, or 99% of the acceleration of the first car. In this example it takes less than 10 minutes for the two cars to be over a mile apart, and in an hour the faster car will be 40 miles ahead of the other car, even though the difference in acceleration is only 1%
Now you may retort that cars can’t accelerate forever. (You may also be upset that I switched between metric and imperial in the example.) And this is true, but if you’re a transhumanist then it’s an article of faith that society is different, it can accelerate forever. But even if this is true, if Silicon Valley billionaires are accelerating at ludicrous speed, it doesn’t matter if everyone else is accelerating at insane speed they’re still going to get left behind. You may have heard of the recent concerns over rising inequality, well as much of a problem as it is right now; transhumanism has the potential to make it a lot worse. This is what I pointed out to the gentleman I was talking to.
Of course, it’s difficult to engage in a meaningful dialogue under these circumstances, at least for me. You have a few minutes to cover a massively complicated subject in a way that someone, who’s already predisposed to disagree with you, will understand and assimilate, not assimilate in the sense of changing their mind, but assimilate in the sense that they understand what you’re saying well enough that when they fire off a retort they’re actually aiming in the right direction. Obviously this works both ways, I’m sure I only absorbed part of the point he was trying to get across.
With all of those caveats in place, he responded by pointing out that world population was about to peak, and that would solve the problem of ever accelerating growth. You can see here what I mean about firing in the right direction. I’m not sure that the problem of the billionaires leaving poor people behind is solved by having slightly fewer poor people. Still demography and falling birth rates are interesting topics, and I’ll have to return to them at some point in the future. In any case it was one of the many enjoyable conversations I had at the conference, and not only can I not do justice to all of the conversations, I can’t even do justice to this conversation.
The last topic I want to address involves a question that has haunted me since long before I was even aware of the existence of the MTA, though the MTA is precisely the sort of organization that makes me ask this question. And that is, where do you draw the line between a healthy discussion and an actual schism? To reframe the question with respect to the MTA. Is the MTA involved in a healthy discussion of the place of technology in religion or are they actually pushing for things contrary to the stated position of the church? I hoped that after attending the conference, I’d fall on the healthy discussion side of things, but if anything the conference left me leaning more towards the schismatic side.
Of course it is fair to ask whether it even matters what side of things the MTA falls on, particularly if you’re not especially religious. If you’re an atheist, the sectarian conflicts of the superstitious may be amusing, but they’re hardly consequential. In fact the only group for whom this question matters at all are members of the LDS Church, and going forward we’re going to be speaking from that frame of reference. In other words this discussion is going to assume you’re a Mormon and that you believe that the Mormon Church possesses some unique truths which are important for our salvation.
Certainly the Church operates under this assumption. We send out missionaries to preach these truths. We do work for the dead, partially as a way of transmitting those truths beyond the Veil And the most fundamental truths, like faith, repentance and baptism are hammered over and over again in General Conference. Less visibly there’s the Church’s efforts to correlate everything, from Sunday School lessons to the doctrine taught by the missionaries. And, of course, the church also puts out Handbooks of Instruction. In other words it’s clear that the leadership of the Church has decided that it’s very important for everyone to be on the same page, which makes sense if people’s salvation is at stake.
Framed in this way it’s easy to spot people who are doing their best to be “on the same page”. And one way of examining this question is just to say that people who are trying their best in this fashion are on the healthy discussion side of things, while those who aren’t are schismatic to one degree or another. I think this is the position I default to, but of course I can already predict that there will be people who object to me saying that it’s easy to distinguish between those who are doing their best versus those who aren’t. I will continue to maintain that it is, but I can see where a more specific definition of things might be in order.
The idea of being on the same page assumes a fairly hierarchical structure. In short, someone has to decide what the page says before anyone can “be on it”. As members we believe this someone is the President of the Church, currently Thomas S. Monson, and we say that he is the only one who can exercise all the keys of the priesthood. Of course he can’t do everything, and so much of what’s “on the page” gets determined by the general authorities, who are sometimes just referred to as “the brethren”.
Thus a more specific definition of whether someone is doing their best can be reframed as a question of whether they support the brethren. This doesn’t mean that they consider the brethren to be perfect, rather the question of support hinges on whether they give the brethren the benefit of the doubt. But support also takes the form of acknowledging their leadership, and not directly contradicting them.
Having said all this let me reiterate that the foregoing is how I draw the line. You may draw the line in a different fashion. Also I haven’t said anything about how we should treat people who fall on the schismatic side of the line, because that’s not the point of the post. But, hopefully it goes without saying that we should treat them with love and compassion.
Having arrived, somewhat tortuously, at the standard of support, how did the MTA fare? Well there were three presentations (at least) which I felt were very clearly on the unsupportive side of the line.
The first of them dealt with the idea of prophets, and it began promisingly enough by arguing that we needed prophets now more than ever, but then it used that as a jumping off point to argue that 15 prophets (the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) is too few. That prophecy had become institutionalized. That true prophets don’t wear suits and work 9-5 jobs. True prophets are iconoclasts, who may appear to actually betray their religion and culture. In support of this he mentioned Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite. That’s an interesting point, but without offering up his candidates for modern day Abinadis and Samuels he’s mostly just saying that the brethren are uncool and stuffy.
The second presentation which I felt crossed the line was titled “Post-genderism”, and it was pretty much as you’d expect from the title, with the presenter going so far as to say that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing, and further that the future will essentially be genderless. I understand that this is a ridiculously complicated topic, one which I am almost certainly not qualified to comment on, but it’s one thing to acknowledge that complexity and quite another to declare that you’ve figured it out, to the point where you’re deciding that certain words mean the opposite of what everyone (including the brethren) think they mean. Also lest you think this is a minority opinion among members of the MTA the presenter in this instance was the MTA’s president.
The final presentation in the line-crossing category was titled the “Mystical Core of Mormonism”. I initially assumed that the high point of the presentation was going to be when he compared Joseph Smith’s First Vision to the experience of ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms. That was until he produced his own seer stone, which he not only claimed to be using in a fashion similar to Joseph Smith, but which he had also named...
Hearing the summary of these three presentations you may disagree with me, and that is as it should be. if you wish to watch the presentations for yourself they should eventually appear on this page (currently they don’t appear to have cut up the videos into separate presentations.) I think everyone needs to decide for themselves where to draw the line between discussion and schism. As I said in the beginning it’s a question that’s haunted me for a long time. And it’s obvious that it’s only going to get worse.
That’s the end of my partial recap of the MTA Conference. If you want more of my impressions (and really who wouldn’t?) you can check out the bonus podcast I already mentioned. As my final thought, I’ll try to make up for some of my harshness by recommending a book to the MTA. As I mentioned in my review of it, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, might as well be titled “We Are Saved” and thus contains a lot of support for the fundamental ideology of the MTA. If you’re an MTA member you should definitely read it. And with that I promise to leave the MTA alone for at least a couple of months.
If you like overly detailed posts about small, unusual religious groups, the consider donating, since that’s most of what I’ve been doing. And if you don’t like these sorts of posts, also consider donating so I have the resources to cover larger more mainstream groups.