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Building the Tower of Babel
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I spent this past weekend visiting some old friends. One of my friends is a Dominican Friar who was gracious enough to allow me to stay in one of the guest rooms at his Priory. One night while I was there he invited me to sit down with the other friars during their social hour. I think mostly he just wanted me to meet them, but as I was sitting there they ended up on the subject of what level of human technological enhancement was appropriate. Obviously this is a somewhat fraught issue for most religions, and definitely all of the traditional religions. I don’t want to misconstrue what my hosts said, nor do I claim any great insight into Catholic doctrine on this matter, so I won’t attempt to reconstruct the discussion. But it led to a conversation with my friend afterwards where I mentioned the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I’ve always felt that the MTA seemed to have missed the point of the story of the Tower of Babel, and my friend the Dominican (without any prodding from me) jumped to an identical conclusion. It was nice to have the support of someone else on this point and additionally it reminded me that I had wanted to write a post examining just this question. That is, does the story of the Tower of Babel speak to the goals religious transhumanism?
To conduct the examination we need to answer two questions: First is the story of the Tower of Babel a caution about using technology in an attempt to become like God? Second is using technology to become like God one of the primary goals of the MTA? The second question is easier to answer than the first so we’ll begin there.
It is always dangerous to speak for a group you do not belong to, particularly when you are a critic of the group. I could point out that my criticism is meant in the most constructive and friendly way possible. But, even so, as a reader you would have every right to question my objectivity on this point. If you have any worries on this point I would urge you to follow all the links and educate yourself by reading what the MTA says about itself. That said I am not trying to be unfair or prejudiced, and in that spirit here is my best summary of what the MTA believes: All of the promises made by Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, (resurrection, immortality, the creation of worlds, etc) are going to be accomplished through human ingenuity, in the form of technology. As I said you should follow the links to their website, but I think point four of the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation says much the same thing:
We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.
Perhaps, this, by itself, is already enough, and, from the standpoint of religion, you can already easily see why the Tower of Babel story is applicable. But for those that are not convinced or would like more evidence, let me break it down. First the principles I’ve already pointed out are just the Mormon veneer on top of main body of transhumanism. The MTA is not merely espousing a particular Mormon take on transhumanism they fully endorse the goals of the broader transhumanist movement. This is made clear when they explain what it takes to join the MTA:
The association requires that all members support the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.
The Transhumanist Declaration gives one the impression that the sky's the limit with respect to technological enhancement. For example let's look at points 1 and 8 of the declaration (the first and last points):
Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.
If you’re still not convinced let me close this section by providing a few examples of things transhumanists and the MTA in particular are definitely in favor of:
Cryonics: That is freezing or otherwise preserving someone when they die with a view towards bringing them back from the dead at some future point.
Genetic Modification: Obviously genetic modification can take many forms, but under the heading of human modification and enhancement the MTA is in favor of using it to the maximum extent possible as a means of increasing intelligence and of course, eventually providing immortality. If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca that’s probably a pretty fair representation.
Cybernetic enhancements: This category might cover getting rid of perfectly functional eyes and replacing them with more advanced robotic eyes, or some sort of direct connection between your brain and a computer (think the headjack from the Matrix.)
Mind uploading: The most radical idea of all would be the ability to copy your mind and then upload it to some sort of computer, allowing you to live on as a virtual being. This enhancement encompasses the benefits of all the previous enhancements, but is also probably the most difficult technically.
As I said I’m reluctant to speak for a group I’m critical of, and if you have doubts as to whether I’m accurately portraying the principles espoused by the MTA then you should definitely follow the links and read things for yourself, but from where I stand there can be very little doubt that the answer to my second question is: yes, one of the MTA’s primary goals is to become like God through the use of technology. With that, hopefully, out of the way let’s turn to the first and more important question. For the religious, is the Tower of Babel story a caution against efforts like this? Or more broadly what is the official LDS stance on achieving divinity through technology?
There will of course be people who think this sort of technological enhancement is a good idea regardless of what I say about the Tower of Babel or anything else. And there will be people who think it’s a bad idea, also regardless of what I say, but for those in the middle the Tower of Babel is a good place to start. Particularly if you’re Mormon. (Though as I pointed out even my very Catholic friend immediately made reference to the story of Babel.)
The reason it’s particularly good for Mormons is that it’s one of the few Old Testament stories to be mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And of those it’s definitely the most prominent. If we proceed from the assumption that everything in the Book of Mormon was put there for a reason why was it necessary to have a second telling of the story of the Tower of Babel? If you accept the idea that it’s a cautionary tale about using technology to achieve divinity in circumvention of God then the straightforward answer is that this is an issue modern saints would be grappling with and it was therefore helpful to have a reminder. I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, this connection, along with the underlying moral, make a lot of sense. And in fact I’m going to call this the traditional interpretation. However for the moment let’s assume that this is not the moral of the story of Babel. This is obviously the MTA’s position. And if it isn’t the moral why do we need a duplicate account? What is the alternative moral which is so important that the story needed to be repeated?
Lincoln Cannon is one of the founders of the MTA and a past president and therefore among its most vocal defenders. As you might imagine he has written an article explaining that the goals of the MTA are not the same thing we are being warned about in the story of Tower of Babel. This article is titled Ethical Progress is Not Babel, and I intend to deal with it in depth, but for the moment we’re just looking to see if he has an alternative moral for the story. I would say that he alludes to one. Drawing on a quote from Lorenzo Snow (which we’ll return to) Cannon writes:
Snow suggests that the builders' moral failing was in allowing technical achievements to outpace moral achievements. The technical achievements in themselves were not the problem, but rather the problem was the relative lack of virtue.
To begin with even if we grant this moral, which we’ll call the MTA interpretation, I’m not sure that our technical achievements haven’t outstripped our moral achievements. A subject I’ll be returning to. But, also, why would this moral be more likely than the more obvious moral. Or to put in other terms how can we go about deciding which moral is more likely to be correct? Of course as religious people we are entitled to receive revelation with something like this, but as that is largely a personal endeavor we’re going to leave it out. What methods can we turn to in the absence of revelation?
Well first, most of the lessons contained in the scriptures are pretty simple. We’re told to have faith, repent, get baptized, love God and each other. I’d be willing to grant that the traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story is not quite that simple, but it’s certainly more simple than the MTA interpretation.
Second, when the Lord does instruct us through the scriptures, the obvious explanation is almost always the correct one. (I understand saying “correct” is a loaded term, but I think you know what I mean.) This is not to say there aren’t layers of meaning to the scriptures. But that’s not what we’re seeing here, the MTA interpretation ends up in a place that’s almost the exact opposite of the obvious meaning. I definitely can’t think of any scripture where God commands people to, for example, tell the truth, and the correct interpretation ends up being that lying is the only way to be saved.
Finally most gospel principles are repeated multiple times, but I can’t think of another place where we’re urged to not let our technology outstrip our ethics. Or where we’re urged to pursue technology as the true source of all the long promised blessings. In other words what other scriptures support the MTA interpretation? On the other hand there are lots of examples of scriptures which support the traditional interpretation. To give just a few examples:
When the Children of Israel made the Golden Calf: This may not seem very high tech to you, but for the time it was. Also this is another example of finding salvation in something we’re able to build for ourselves while ignoring the plain commandments of God.
Another, similar example is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Once again we have someone using wealth, power and yes, technology to redirect legitimate worship away from God and to something constructed and conceived by humans. And once again the right course was to refuse to bow down, even if it meant being thrown into the fiery furnace.
Moving from the Old Testament to the New we have the story of Simon, who sought to buy God’s power. At first glance you may not immediately see a connection, but if we do manage to reverse aging or resurrect people, or upload their mind into a computer. It’s going to be far easier to access that technology with money than by living a good life.
Moving to the Book of Mormon, not only do we have a repeat of the story of Babel, but we also have the story of the Rameumptom. Again, it may not seem like technology, but it’s another example of people building something designed to act as a shortcut to salvation. It’s basically an exact mirror of the Tower of Babel story only on a smaller scale.
It’s possible that you don’t see the connection in one or more of the examples I just cited. But for the MTA interpretation to be the best interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, you have to:
Reject all the supporting examples for the traditional interpretation.
Find other scriptural examples which support the MTA interpretation.
Explain why the MTA interpretation is the more correct interpretation despite being more complicated.
Justify why an interpretation which is exactly the opposite of the obvious interpretation is nevertheless the correct one.
As I mentioned already, Cannon has an article explaining how the Tower of Babel doesn’t mean what I (or my friend the Catholic Priest) think it means, and it’s finally time to turn to that article and examine his argument. Though if you’re expecting him to cover all four of the points I just made (or actually any of the points I just made) you’re going to be disappointed. Still he brings in some interesting sources, so it’s worth taking a look at what he has to say.
The first quote, which I already alluded to, is from Lorenzo Snow:
We should strive earnestly to establish the principles of heaven within us, rather than trouble ourselves in fostering anxieties like the foolish people of the Tower of Babel, to reach its location before we are properly and lawfully prepared to become its inhabitants. Its advantages and blessings, in a measure, can be obtained in this probationary state by learning to live in conformity with its laws and the practice of its principles. To do this, there must be a feeling and determination to do God's will.
This is the statement Cannon draws on for his moral for the story of Babel, that is, that we should not let technology get ahead of morality. To be honest I’m not really getting that from this quote. I think, if anything, a better interpretation would be that we need to focus on our personal righteousness, rather than being anxious or even concerned about whether we can hasten salvation with technology.
Also, I find the term “lawfully”, and his discussion of conforming to the laws, to be interesting as well. There are certain covenants associated with salvation. And some of those are associated with major life events. We’re baptized when we reach the age of eight, we prepare for the afterlife by going through the temple at around the time we are considered to be adults. Additionally, while they aren’t technically covenants, we have baby blessings for the newly born and we dedicate the graves of the newly dead. What sort of law or ritual applies to being revived from cryonics, or being reconstructed from DNA? Are the brethren just waiting until the technology is ready before introducing the ordinance of cloning?
Returning to the Snow quote. I could certainly see how other people might have a different interpretation of it than I do, but I can’t see anyone declaring it to be slam dunk for the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel.
The second quote he references is a long one from John Taylor. In fact Cannon’s article is 2/3rds quotes from early Church leaders and only 1/3rd his explanation of those quotes. He is making a complicated and controversial claim and one of my criticisms is that 400 words does not seem sufficient to explain it. In any event back to the Taylor quote. I won’t include all of it, but Cannon helpfully bolds two sections, the second of which appears to be speaking the most directly to his point:
We are here to do a work; not a small one, but a large one. We are here to help the Lord to build up his kingdom, and if we have any knowledge of electricity, we thank God for it. If we have any knowledge of the power of steam, we will say its from God. If we possess any other scientific information about the earth whereon we stand, or of the elements with which we are surrounded, we will thank God for the information, and say he has inspired men from time to time to understand them, and we will go on and grasp more intelligence, light and information, until we comprehend as we are comprehended of God.
I have no problem agreeing that John Taylor is here saying that technology comes from God. That technology is not evil. But there is a huge difference between saying that technology comes from God and saying that technology is how we become Gods. Additionally there is a difference of kind and not merely of degree between using technology to broadcast General Conference to, say, Tierra del Fuego and using technology to live forever. Again, it’s an interesting quote, but it is not even close to being the same as the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel story. Still, if you have any doubts, I urge you to read Cannon’s entire article.
The final quote he includes is from Joseph Smith:
This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory.
(The spelling and punctuation are from the original document.)
At this point I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but yes, we agree technology is not evil by itself. Technology can be useful both in general and as it relates to the specific goals of the Church. But none of these quotes speak to the specific idea of using technology as a way of accomplishing all the things God has promised. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that in the middle of the 1800’s when the Presidents of the Church talked about technology that they were not speaking about mind uploading, cybernetic replacement or cryonic resurrection. Fortunately one of the great things about the LDS Church is that we have ongoing revelation, and 15 prophetic leaders who give us counsel twice a year. And as far as I can tell none of them have come out in support of any of these technologies, certainly not as the means for achieving something like the resurrection of the dead as described in scriptures
And yet if the MTA is to be believed this is how it’s going to be done. Which means these aren’t marginal issues that reasonable people might disagree on, like whether it’s okay to take doctor prescribed marijuana in states where it’s now legal. Rather, issues like resurrection and immortality are fundamental to the entire gospel plan. And if the brethren aren’t pursuing them or investing in them or even talking about them, what does that say? And remember the Church does invest in things, if this is as important as the MTA claims, what does it say when the Church invests in the City Creek Mall, but not in life extension technologies? If these things are as critical to the gospel plan as the MTA claims then the only conclusion is that the brethren have completely failed in their jobs. It’s difficult to see how these two viewpoints can even co-exist, and one is tempted to view the MTA as more of a schismatic offshoot, than anything else.
In closing, let’s change tacks, and imagine that it’s true. Imagine that the MTA is everything it claims to be and God’s plan is to allow us to discover and perfect the technology necessary to achieve Godhood on our own. The MTA itself admits that this is only possible if our morality keeps pace with our technology. As you look around and take stock of the modern world, do you really think that’s the case? Are we really that much more righteous with our computers and jet airliners than the early saints were with their electricity and steam engines? Are we a thousand times more righteous than the twelve disciples and the people who followed Jesus because their technology was a thousand times more primitive? Is the modern world really so righteous that people who can barely be trusted with iPhones, are nevertheless on course to be trusted with omnipotence?
I’m definitely not ready for omnipotence, but I may be ready to handle the responsibility of a dollar a month, if you think so too, consider donating.