Mormon Transhumanists, so Close, but yet so Far
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
I’m always looking for a way to take a break, and by that I mean, engage in some activity which recharges my batteries a little bit, but which simultaneously doesn’t derail me or take up a huge amount of time. As it turns out this combination is difficult to achieve, and by any objective standard it’s one I’ve largely failed at. My breaks either end up taking too long, or completely derailing me from being productive, or draining my energy rather than replenishing it, and most of the time, all three.
One of the few effective ways I’ve discovered to take a break is reading a webcomic. Doing so takes almost no time (unless Randall goes crazy on XKCD), recharges my batteries (particularly on the all important scale of energy per unit of time) and mostly doesn’t derail me. (Though I’m still kind of working on that part.)
All of this is a prelude to talking about a specific webcomic: Existential Comics and I bring it up to illustrate my experience at the Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) this last Saturday. The choice of this comic works on several levels. First the topic of existential despair came up several times. Second Existential Comics is all about philosophy, a subject which dominated the conference. Finally ,and most importantly, the most recent comic (at least at the time of the conference) seemed to really nail my relationship with the MTA.
The comic features Buddha and David Hume discussing philosophy in a bar. They quickly discover that they both agree that there is no “self”. No transcendental being separate from what’s experienced. After realizing this Buddha asks Hume what should be done as a consequence of this realization. Hume is sure, after being so in sync thus far, that their answers will be the same, and proposes that they respond simultaneously. And, on the count of three, Buddha responds, “Turn away from sensual pleasure and earthly passions into contemplation.” At the same time as Hume says, “Pursue only your sensual pleasure and passions over your reason!”
As it turns out, from the same premise Buddha and Hume reached exactly the opposite conclusion. This is kind of how I feel about the MTA. We both agree that technology has created an entirely new landscape, particularly with respect to religion, but they think it’s revealed how humans can assist in far greater measure with the project of salvation than was previously thought possible. While I think technology has gotten to the point where we can finally understand how truly impossible it is to assist with salvation, and more specifically our progress has revealed to a greater degree, that the limiting factor has always been our morality, not our abilities.
I should mention, at this point, before going any further, that I did enjoy the conference, perhaps because, as opposed to last year, there was more focus on the premise, where we are both in agreement, than on their conclusion, which is where we differ. But it’s also possible I enjoyed it more because I was presenting, which not only led to more interaction, but a greater feeling of control with the whole thing. I should also mention that no one brought up any of my previous criticisms. (I’m still not sure if they ever made the connection.) And everyone was kind and welcoming. And better than all that my presentation was very well received, which covers any number of other issues. (Here it is if you want to view it.) All of this is not to say that I’m going to join the MTA, or that I don’t think they’re making some fairly serious mistakes in their interpretation of LDS Theology, but I came away from this conference more aware of where we agreed, and more convinced that they are aware of some of the issues with their conclusion. I’m sure there are also issues with my conclusion. Finally, if any MTA members read this and feel that I’ve misrepresented them, they should definitely point that out. Since the remainder of this post will be commentary on the conference. I’ve made no secret of the fact that one of the big reasons I attend the MTA Conference is to get material for my blog, and I should use that material while it’s fresh.
(For those uninterested in Mormonism in general and the MTA in particular, I will return with something of more general interest next week.)
The first two presentations of the day actually made me think that I should have waited until after the conference before posting last week’s entry, since both downplayed the importance of immortality, which I had made a major point of. That said, it is in their affirmation, and later presentations (including a keynote from the CEO of a longevity company) convinced me I wasn’t that far off. But, in any event, both of the initial presentations contributed to the positive feelings I mentioned above.
Turning our focus to just the first presentation, the speaker made the point that there is a danger in a purely technological approach to the world. That technology has a tendency to reduce everything down to a tool, and that it kills society and by extension humanity through this dissection. He mentioned the idea of turning humans into instruments and then referenced Robin Hanson’s keynote from last year’s conference where Hanson discussed his book the Age of Em. I suppose this is another illustration of humility, that you would use a presentation from last year as your prime example of what you don’t want to happen. And this is another thing I agree on, the world described in the Age of Em sounds kind of awful. But it does represent one of the potential logical end point of this instrumentalization he was talking about. Having said that what’s the solution?
The speaker’s solution was to complement technology with religion or at least a religious approach. Which is essentially another way of stating the philosophy and ideology the MTA and I both share. In other words, I couldn’t agree more, and, once again, this illustrates why I decided to engage with the MTA and even present.
Moving on, the first presentation was good, but it was really the second presentation that made me question whether I was misrepresenting the MTA in the post I had just published the very morning of the conference. The second presentation started out with the inevitability of death, and more than that, the presenter made precisely the point I made. That ethics and immortality were incompatible. That you can’t test something if the test never ends. And then to take it to the next level she illustrated this point with a clip from the Good Place. For those of you familiar with the show it was a clip from Season 2 where Chidi induces existential despair in Michael (Ted Danson) by finally bringing home the possibility of death. Which is what starts Michael on the path to understanding morality and ethics.
From this example she made the point that most of the time we are in either one of these two states. Either we’re like Michael at the end of the clip and we’re completely overwhelmed with how short and pointless life appears to be, or we’re like Michael at the beginning, where we care very little about morality because we think we’re going to live forever. Into this later category she places some members of the Church. Contending that sometimes we don’t care enough about mortal suffering because we think that in the end, it will turn out okay. That when someone is suffering, say from a bad home environment or just from living in a less-developed country, that the average LDS response might be that their suffering will all eventually be to their benefit. Her main example was a gentleman who recently caught on fire while barbecuing, and died after several days of agony, but, she contended, the average Mormon might respond, “it’s fine he’s going to be resurrected.”
Her contention is that these things are not fine, and that transhumanism is a virtuous middle ground between the two extremes. That it is better at solving existential despair than straight humanism and traditional technology and that it’s better at solving the actual suffering encountered in this life than straight religion.
I think this is an interesting argument in favor of transhumanism, but I’m not sure how far I buy it. If someone told me that certain Mormons are too blase about suffering, I wouldn’t argue with them. But I can’t imagine anyone, after being told the story of the man who burned to death, shrugging and saying “it’s fine he’s going to be resurrected.” I can imagine them drawing comfort in the midst of their despair and sadness from their hope that he will be resurrected, but I can’t imagine them declaring that sadness is inappropriate.
Now one could certainly imagine that Mormons might be slightly less inclined to spend resources to minimize harm in this life. Particularly as you get to the further ends of the spectrum, that is large amounts of resources for increasingly smaller harms. For example if we ever conquer aging, such that people are immortal, but can still get into accidents, then you could imagine those immortals becoming increasingly concerned with even the rarest kinds of accidents, and you could further imagine religious people, who believe in an afterlife, not, for example, wanting to spend billions of dollars and millions of man-hours to take the chances of an airplane crashing from 1 in 20 million to 1 in 21 million. Particularly if there are other places to spend that money and time.
All of which is to say that, as with so many things, there are trade-offs, which the presenter does a good job of pointing out, but as I have argued from the beginning, they frequently point out the pros of this tradeoff without giving much thought to the cons. If I may be so bold, I think one of the MTA’s arguments is that they can spend all this time focusing on the technology side of things (the T in the MTA) and be just as good a Mormon as everyone else, if not better (the M in the MTA). And my argument has always been that at a minimum there may be sacrifices they’re unaware of, and that, very likely, this focus creates a warping of the central Mormon Theology into something different. Which takes us to the third presentation.
The title of the third presentation was “Being Christ in Name and Power” and it was largely about how the presenter viewed the role of Jesus. And it was a great example of the ideological warping that, in my opinion, comes from too much focus on the T part of the MTA. The first part of the presentation was dedicated to showing that the title of “christ” was used a lot more broadly than just to refer to Jesus. That since “christ” basically means “one who is anointed” that historically Jewish kings and Jewish priests and even Cyrus the Great all got the title of “christ”. From this he basically comes to the conclusion that Jesus was just one of many “christs”, and that we should aspire to be one of the “christs” in the same way that the ancient kings and priests and even Cyrus the Great were.
Leaving aside, for the moment, whether this is an accurate reflection of the gospel, let’s examine why the presenter might have come to this conclusion. Transhumanism involves taking a lot of the things that most Mormons (and for that matter most Christians) expect to be done by God and Jesus and instead doing them ourselves. If these things are reserved to God and Jesus than taking them on is, at best, misguided at best and, at worst, heretical. On the other hand, if we’re all supposed to be “christs”, if we’re all anointed to take on the work of salvation, up to and including, figuring out how to resurrect people( and possibly even beyond that) then taking on all of the transhumanist projects is enlightened and orthodox, more orthodox even than the main body of the church.
When speaking of the presenter’s ideas, it’s possible that his very broad reading of who could be a “christ” came first, and that his interest in transhumanism came second, but I suspect it’s the reverse. That he started with the transhumanism and then broadened his interpretation of LDS scripture looking for ways to justify the things he was already inclined to do. I suspect it’s this way because it’s a very rare human who doesn’t work this way. For my own part, I come to this discussion with a more pessimistic view and the way I read the scriptures is going to be similarly biased by that. And you, dear reader, are going to have to account for my declared bias and the presenter’s suspected bias, and decide for yourself which interpretation makes sense.
With that out of the way we’re finally prepared to examine the merits of his argument. Which, as I said, begins with a broadening of the definition of “christ” and from there proceeds to the conclusion that we should be a “christ”. He suggests that we should do this in two different ways: that we should be Christ in name and that we should be Christ in power. He then gives several examples of being Christ in name which I mostly have no objection to. And then he gives several examples of being Christ in power. He says we need to love, console, forgive, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and raise the dead. This is an excellent list, and, really, I think the only aspect I disagree with, is how much of a role technology should play. But let’s start by looking at where we agree.
I don’t think anyone argues with the idea that we should become more Christ-like, that we should try to love as he loved, console as he would console, and forgive exactly as he would forgive. Further, everyone seems to agree that part of taking on his name consists of joining his Church, which carries his name, and which is where we are reminded of his commandments. Successfully doing all of these things comes from choosing a Christian morality and following a definite set of ethics. In short from choosing to be righteous.
In other words, being the kind of person who can be as forgiving as Jesus (which is super tough by the way) is, as far as I can tell, 100% about our morality and 0% about the technology we possess. Even healing the sick, if you believe at all in the power of prayer and priesthood blessings, comes about through the power of faith, with a definite dependence on our righteousness. It’s really only the last item on the list, raising the dead, where suddenly, at least according to the transhumanists, faith and morality aren’t enough, where you really want to bring technology into play. (I would contend that you can raise the dead with enough faith, merely that it requires a level of faith and righteousness which is exceedingly rare.)
To be fair, the presenter mentioned feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as examples of technology, but we don’t produce food because we intend to feed the hungry, we produce food to feed ourselves and make money (queue Adam Smith). It’s morality not technology that leads us to share it with the hungry. Meaning our list is all things we can accomplish almost entirely by just being more righteous, until we arrive at the last item. Where we transition from acts where morality is the critical component, to something where you don’t need much morality, but you need an awful lot of liquid nitrogen.
All of this stems from the idea that we are all christs of a sort, and to a certain extent, I, and most people in the church, I imagine, agree with this. But when that extends to ditching morality for (or even hitching morality to) technology, that’s where the disagreement starts. And my discomfort only increases when you combine all this with downplaying the role of Jesus. Which takes things even farther away from, what I believe to be, foundational LDS doctrine. As an example of what I mean consider this quote from Joseph Smith:
The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.
And there are hundreds of similar quotes from other LDS Church leaders. Including Jesus himself saying:
I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
I’m sure the MTA has a way of fitting all of this into their favored interpretation, but I think the plain reading (and coincidently, my presentation on AI) indicates that Jesus is critical to the entire thing, that his status as Christ is a difference not merely of degree, but also of kind from what we are being asked to do. Particularly when it comes to the atonement. The importance of which the presenter went out of his way to minimize as well. Mentioning, that it was only used in the New Testament once to refer to Jesus’ atonement and that every other time (69 in total) that it was talking about “other christs performing other atonements.”
There are people who believe that Jesus has done everything and that there is nothing left for us to do. People who believe that salvation is entirely through the grace of God, and that our works have nothing to do with it. I don’t claim to be any expert on this branch of Christianity (is it fair to classify everyone that’s in this category as a Calvinist?) But insofar as my assessment is correct (and I know there are nuances that mostly get missed) I certainly have my objections to this ideology, and if that’s the ideology the MTA was objecting to I’d be totally on board, but instead the MTA appears to want to take the opposite side of that dichotomy, and rather than the grace of God doing everything they want the technology of humans to do everything.
This is the spot where in previous discussions, someone from the MTA will show up and quote this part of their affirmation:
We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation… (emphasis mine)
And, yes to be fair, they probably don’t expect humans to do everything, but they certainly appear to want humanity to do more than any other christian religion, so maybe they’re not all the way to the edge, but they have claimed the territory which lies closest to it.
My original intention was to devote only part of this post to the conference, and here I am almost out of space and I’ve only covered the first three presentations. Accordingly I’ll skip to the end and briefly cover the last presentation because in some respects it illustrates the danger of the entire project and indeed of most such projects.
This final presentation was a criticism of the how God behaved historically, specifically in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. But also bringing in the Hindu gods and the Hellenic gods. From this, concluding that he wanted to “design” a “good” God. He contended that this design was particularly important because we definitely end up with gods one way or the other, and recently we have replaced the cruel and warlike gods of history with gods of distraction and consumerism.
The presentation called on people to worship better gods, gods who aren’t racist, gods who don’t “privilege male over female”, gods who have “compassion over bloodlust”. And I understand the appeal of this, and I have all the sympathy in the world for the presenter’s personal faith crisis which led him to this point, but either God exists or he doesn’t, and if he does we need to figure out what he wants from us, and do it. And any attempt (of which the final presentation is just the most blatant) to impose our own values on God is just delusional hubris.
I’m sure there’s some of that delusional hubris in me as well (and of course if there is no God the entire conference was delusional), and it’s certainly possible that I’m wrong about everything (and not merely in this post.) But I would end by urging everyone to focus more on righteousness than technology, and more on understanding what God wants of us than in making demands of him.
I never make demands, I prefer to cajole, wheedle and beg. Speaking of which, have you considered donating?