Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mormonism and Transhumanism

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
Genesis 3:4-5

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, Romans 1:22

Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation

1. We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.
2. 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.
3. We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.

Mormon Transhumanism: "Eternal Progression towards becoming like God" is the title of an interview between Hank Hyena of H+ Magazine and Lincoln Cannon, co-founder, director, and president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, published August 22, 2010. According to Mr. Cannon,

Today, the Mormon Transhumanist Association consists of 116 members, with approximately 41% living in Utah and 90% living in the United States. The purpose of the Mormon Transhumanist Association is to promote the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.

Interesting excerpts from the interview include the following:

H+: Is the Mormons religion compatible with transhumanism?

LC: Most Mormon Transhumanists consider our religion to be remarkably compatible with transhumanism. We consider Mormonism to be a religious transhumanism. Eternal progression is a central doctrine of Mormonism. Basically, the idea is that we have all existed in some form or another into the indefinite past, that we have been and are progressing toward becoming like God in a creative and benevolent capacity, and that we should each help others do the same into the indefinite future. Mormon scripture asserts the work of God to be that of bringing about immortality and eternal life, and invites us all to participate in that work...

... H+: Are their passages in the Book of Mormon that are ‘transhumanist’?

LC: Sure. Here are a few of my favorites:
2 Nephi 9: 10-13 teaches that death is an "awful monster"
Alma 11: 44-45 teaches that immortals are embodied
Alma 60: 20-23 teaches that God will not deliver us from death unless we use the means provided
3 Nephi 28: 1-12 teaches that, all else being equal, those who desire not to die are "more blessed" than those who desire to die

Other Mormon scripture, particularly the "Doctrine and Covenants," is more heavily transhumanist. And there are speeches from prominent Mormon authorities, such as Joseph Smith, that are also more heavily transhumanist.

H+: If you could create a Mormon futuristic transhuman utopia, what would it look like?

LC: Mormon cosmology, as articulated in Mormon scripture, includes the idea that God, in whom we should all participate, creates worlds without end, heavens and glories without end, each according to the desires of its inhabitants, according to that which they are willing to receive. While I do not subscribe to mere moral relativism, I do value this idea of an indefinitely broad and deep cosmos, organized and reorganized in a perpetual work to fulfill desires, wills and laws, overcome conflicts and tensions, and provide time and space enough to explore ourselves and each other, and experience a full measure of our creative capacities. Something like that, in my estimation, is godhood, so far as I can imagine it.

In a not so distant time and place, and more importantly for now, we have actual lives, communities and environments to improve. We need more and better food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, education and healthcare; and it must come in sustainable ways. Technology is our power to do this, if we’ll use it wisely, ethically, charitably. I hope Mormon Transhumanism will help motivate such behavior.

H+: Do Mormon Transhumanists have different ethics than other transhumanists? What is your position on stem cell research? Gay marriage? Smart Drugs? In-vitro babies? Euthanasia?

LC: The ethic of Mormon Transhumanism is best described in the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation which may be compatible with the ethics of many forms of secular transhumanism. The MTA has no position on stem cell research. The LDS Church likewise explicitly has no position on stem cell research. Mormon politicians tend to support legislation on behalf of stem cell research. The MTA has no position on gay marriage. While most Mormons are antagonistic to gay marriage, Mormon Transhumanists tend to have more favorable perspectives toward homosexuals. For example, 50% of the members of the MTA strongly or somewhat disagree with the statement that "marriage should only be between a man and a woman." 56% of MTA members strongly or somewhat disagree with the statement that "Mormon doctrine cannot accommodate homosexuality". The MTA has no position on smart drugs. Mormons tend to embrace the ethical use of traditional non-recreational drugs — and medical science generally. Because of Mormon interest in education and personal improvement, I imagine smart drugs will be used by many Mormons if and when they become commonplace.

The MTA has no position on in-vitro babies. 98% of Mormon Transhumanists somewhat or strongly agree that "people should have a right to use technology to extend their . . . reproductive . . . capacities . . ." I personally know many Mormons that have benefitted from in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies. Mormons like to make babies, and most of us seem to have nothing against using technology to help out. The MTA has no position on euthanasia. Personally, I agree with the notion that life is sacred, and that we should be doing all we can ethically to extend and enhance life; however, I acknowledge there are horrible situations that may justify assisted suicide.

H+'s Ben Goertzel interviewed Mr. Cannon, published May 9, 2011 under the title Mormonism: The Most Transhumanist Religion?. Among the more interesting comments (all by Mr. Cannon unless indicated otherwise):

From some perspectives, aspects of Mormonism are indeed absurd. To paraphrase one prominent atheist, Mormonism is just Christianity plus some other crazy stuff. However, these perspectives overlook or ignore how the other crazy stuff modifies the Christianity! It does so to such an extent that characterizing Mormonism as a mere extension of other modern Christian ideologies is inaccurate. Mormonism is to modern Christianity as ancient Christianity was to Judaism. It is a different religion.

The virgin birth is an interesting case in point. On the one hand, because Mormonism rejects the mainstream Christian notion of original sin, the virgin birth has somewhat less theological significance. All children are sinless, and none sins until capable of moral reasoning, so Mormons have no need of explaining how Jesus could be born sinless. On the other hand, the virgin birth still has some theological significance for Mormons that use it to explain how Jesus could continue to live sinlessly even after maturing to an age capable of moral reasoning. From their perspective, Jesus gained a special moral capacity because of his unique conception. Personally, I esteem Jesus as a principal model of morality simply by definition, rather than because of any special conception that enabled him to measure up to an external model of morality. As I see it, the virgin birth is primarily a reflection of ancient symbolism that would direct our human idealizations to and beyond the resolution of moral conflict.

What of the literality of the virgin birth? Is it compatible with modern science? Mormons are philosophical materialists, with scriptures teaching that all spirit is matter, and God has a material body. Accordingly, some prominent early Mormons (notably Brigham Young) speculated that God and Mary conceived Jesus through natural means. That idea bothers some people, including many modern Mormons, some of whom prefer mainstream Christian perspectives on mechanisms for the virgin birth. Others have speculated that God could have used artificial insemination. Personally, while I find the question of the literality of the virgin birth interesting, I also consider it trivial, particularly as a factor in my esteem for Jesus. Perhaps the virgin birth is exclusively symbolic; perhaps the matrix architect, so to speak, intervened. Emotionally, I’m indifferent, except that I recognize moral and practical reasons to embrace symbols while also rejecting supernatural (empirically inaccessible) explanations in all matters.

How about the varying degrees of heavenly glory described in Mormon scripture and ritual? Are they, literally interpreted, compatible with modern science? That depends on how one understands their literal interpretation, which is complicated by their overtly symbolic and esoteric descriptions. Here’s an interpretation that I consider both literal and symbolic. Presently, we live in one of innumerable telestial heavens. Eventually, if all goes well, our heaven will become a terrestrial heaven (also described as a millenial world), wherein present notions of death and poverty will no longer apply. Subsequently, again if all goes well, our terrestrial heaven will become a celestial heaven, whose inhabitants become capable of creating new heavens, repeating the cycle. Each transition depends both on the context of opportunity provided by the grace of God, and on our own work to learn of and adhere to principles whose contextual consequences are increased flourishing and eventual deification, both individually and communally, as well as environmentally. Some Mormons hold that these changes are inevitable at the communal and environmental levels, whereas there is real risk only for individuals. Others, such as I, interpret scriptures that suggest inevitability as psychological motivators rather than absolute foretellings, and recognize real communal and environmental risks. All of this should sound vaguely familiar to transhumanists, most of whom hold to notions of human flourishing through various stages (perhaps articulated in terms of the Kardeshev scale), many of whom imagine we’ll eventually prove capable of computing new worlds as detailed as our own (thereby implying we are almost certainly living in a computed world ourselves), and some of whom engage in disagreement over how best to consider and articulate the evitability of these changes...

... Mormonism has many parallels with traditional Transhumanism. In Mormonism, natural humanity is something to overcome as we learn to become more like God. God graciously provides means (technological and otherwise) for us to progress, and we must use these means instead of merely supposing God will save us without any effort on our part. As we become more like God, we will change both spiritually and physically, taking on the virtues and attributes of God, including both creative and benevolent capacities. As described in Mormon scripture, future physical changes will include transfiguration of the living and resurrection of the dead to immortality in material bodies, varying in glory according to the desires and works of each individual. The mainstream Christian notion of a simple dichotomy between heaven and hell is not part of Mormonism. Instead, heaven and hell are states of being, categorized into degrees of glory, such as the terrestrial and celestial glories discussed previously...

... Mormon interpretations of scripture range broadly from the highly literal to the highly symbolic; however, most Mormons do not strictly subscribe to scriptural inerrancy, infallibility or literalism. Personally, I am most concerned with interpreting scripture non-dogmatically and pragmatically, in ways that are inspiring and helpful to the best of my ability to judge rationally and emotionally.

Accordingly, I don’t insist on literal interpretations of scriptural descriptions of the heavens. Indeed, Mormon prophets and the scriptures themselves encourage loose interpretations. For example, one of the more lengthy scriptural descriptions of the heavens includes this revelatory question, "Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?" Implicit in this question is the indication that we would not understand a more literal description. Similarly, Joseph Smith once commented that a person would learn more about heaven by observing it for five minutes than by reading everything ever written on the subject.

One of the more interesting and radical ideas to emerge from the transhumanist perspective is the "simulation argument" (as articulated for example by Nick Bostrom), which argues that it’s fairly likely our universe is actually part of a simulation purposefully created by alien intelligences in a civilization evolved previously to ours. What’s your reaction to this? Does it contradict Mormon teachings or can it somehow be made consistent with them? If so, how?

Mormon theology, as articulated by persons that Mormons typically recognize as prophets, resonates strongly with the Simulation Argument. Joseph Smith proclaimed that God was once as we are now, became exalted, and instituted laws whereby others could learn how to be gods, the same as all gods have done before. Wilford Woodruff taught that God is progressing in knowledge and power without end, and it is just so with us. Lorenzo Snow prophesied that children now at play making mud worlds will progress in knowledge and power over nature to organize worlds as gods. Accordingly, many Mormons, such as I, have faith in a natural God that became God through natural means, suggesting how we might do the same.

The New God Argument, which I formulated with Joseph West, leverages a generalization of the Simulation Argument, as well as the Great Filter argument and some other observations stemming from contemporary science and technological trends, to prove that if we trust in our own posthuman potential then we should also trust that posthumans more benevolent than us created our world. Because such posthumans may qualify as God in Mormonism, the argument suggests that trust in our posthuman potential should lead to faith in a particular kind of God.

It’s worth noting that Mormonism, because of its relatively unique theology of a progressing posthuman God, is often the target of hubris charges similar to those aimed at Transhumanism by adherents of religions with mainstream theologies. They consider Mormonism, like Transhumanism, to be committing the sin of Babel, as portrayed in the Bible. Some Mormon authorities have responded that the sin of Babel is not merely in the desire or attempt to become like God, but rather the sin is in allowing our technical achievements to outpace moral achievements, pursuing the desire foolishly or egotistically...

... I’d like to summarize for you some of the more significant parallels between Mormonism and Transhumanism. Perhaps this will help better communicate why I consider Mormonism be the strongest example of religious Transhumanism among major contemporary religions.

Mormonism posits that we are living in the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, when the work of God is hastening, inspiring and endowing us with unprecedented knowledge and power. This parallels the common Transhumanist position that we are experiencing accelerating technological change. So far as I know, no other major religion has a strong parallel to Transhumanism in this area. This is probably because of how recently Mormonism was founded compared to other major religions.

Mormonism expects the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times will culminate in the Return of Christ, along with attending risks and opportunities. This parallels the apocalyptic and millenarian expectations that Transhumanists commonly associate with the Technological Singularity. This parallel between Mormonism and Transhumanism is shared with other major Western religions.

Mormonism prophecies that the Return of Christ will transform the Earth into paradise during the Millennium, when there will be no poverty or death, the living will be transfigured, and the dead will be resurrected. This parallels the common Transhumanist position that the Technological Singularity may facilitate radical life extension, super abundance, and potentially even an engineered omega point. So far as I know, this parallel between Mormonism and Transhumanism is shared only to lesser extents with other major religions, which interpret transfiguration and resurrection in only spiritual terms rather than including the physical as does Mormonism.

Mormon vision culminates in a plurality of Gods, eternally progressing and creating worlds without end, both spiritually and physically. This parallels Transhumanists’ common expectation that we will prove capable of engineering intelligence and worlds, and reflects the logical ramifications of the Simulation Argument. It appears to me that most other major religions don’t share this parallel with Transhumanism at all, and Buddhism does only in a more abstract manner.

Mormon metaphysics shares the basic assumptions of science, including consistency, causality, uniformity, empiricism and materialism, such that even miracles, although marvelous in our eyes, do not contravene law. Likewise, Transhumanists hold to the basic metaphysical assumptions of science, while anticipating engineering marvels. I know of no other major religion that shares this parallel, particularly in the area of materialism.

Mormonism aims at nearly universal salvation, in physical and spiritual immortality and eternal life, enabled in part through genealogical and proxy work for the dead. Similarly, a relatively unique Transhumanist perspective is that we might re-engineer the dead by copying them to the future, perhaps via quantum archeology. I don’t think there is another major religion that shares the expectation that proxied information work can contribute to human salvation.

Mormon scripture champions glorified physical life in this world, denigrating death as an "awful monster" and declaring "more blessed" those who wish serve God in this world indefinitely without dying. In parallel, Transhumanists commonly promote radical life extension and the conquest of death in this world. Mormonism and Transhumanism together contrast with the relatively escapist advocations of other major religions that explain immortality and heaven in dualist other-worldly terms.

The comments of Mr. Cannon will come as a surprise to those who think that Mormonism is Christian. I appreciate the fact that he states--accurately--that Mormonism and Christianity are different religions. Cris Putnam of Logos Apologia conducted an online interview with Mr. Cannon on March 2, 2011, which is worth reading.

HT: Dracul Van Helsing

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the summary and comments. -MTA member