Mormonism: The Most Transhumanist Religion?
Ben Goertzel Dialogues with Lincoln Cannon of the Mormon Transhumanist Association
According to my informal observations, the majority of transhumanists don’t consider themselves affiliated with any traditional religious organizations or belief systems – though some, like Giulio Prisco, are deeply interested in the creation of new spiritual traditions founded on transhumanist ideas. However, there is also a nontrivial minority of transhumanists who combine their transhumanism with traditional religious beliefs and membership in traditional religious organizations. And among the most vocal of the religious transhumanists has been the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) – a group consisting of of 116 members, with approximately 41% living in Utah and 90% living in the United States.
Last year Hank Hyena interviewed Lincoln Cannon, the co-founder, director and president of the MTA, for H+ Magazine. My goal in doing this follow-up dialogue with Lincoln was to dig a bit deeper into the related issues, and try to understand more fully how Lincoln and his colleagues bring together the two thought-systems of Mormonism and transhumanism, which at first glance would seem very different.
Since I like to get right to the heart of things, I’ll start off with a fairly blunt question. As you already know, I’m not a religious guy. I’m open to the validity of individual and collective spiritual experiences – but the belief systems of the world’s major religions tend to strike me as pretty absurd … and Mormonism is no exception. Some of the basic teachings of Mormonism, as I read them, seem plainly ridiculous by the lights of modern science. That is, they describe things that seem extremely unlikely according to known scientific theories, and for which there is no available empirical evidence.
A couple random examples are the virgin birth of Jesus, and the literal existence of Celestial and Telestial Kingdoms, etc. etc. You know what I mean…. You’re a very well educated, scientifically and technically literate guy. How can you believe that crazy stuff??
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.
There are probably several other Mormon teachings that strike you and others as being incompatible with modern science, and I’d be happy to discuss any others that interest you. More generally, though, it’s worth noting that most Mormons value scientific education. Accordingly, geographical areas of higher than average Mormon concentration produce a higher than average number of scientists per capita, and among Mormons there is a positive correlation between level of education and level of religious activity. Many Mormons, such as I, consider the scientific project to reflect the basic principles of our faith, among which is the search for and acceptance of all truth from any source, to paraphrase founder Joseph Smith. Of course, that implies we have much to learn, and we should readily acknowledge that. Yet persons unfamiliar with Mormonism that hear of Mormon ideas that sound incompatible with science should not assume that educated Mormons are casually dismissing science. We probably have something at least somewhat intelligent to say about the matter.
OK, now let me come at things from a different direction. While I value science a lot, and I’ve never been religious, I realize science is not the only source of truth – I’ve often been impressed with the insights of Zen masters and other spiritual visionaries. It seems that every religion has a side that focuses more on pure spirituality than on superstitions — Buddhism has Zen; Islam has Sufism; Christianity had Meister Eckhart and so forth. Aldous Huxley’s book “The Perennial Philosophy” argued that the deepest spiritual aspects of all the different religions were basically the same, and tried to summarize the commonality. Would you say there also exists a stripped-down, purely spiritual aspect to Mormonism, which espouses something reminiscent of Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy?
Mormonism has a side reminiscent of the Perennial Philosophy, yes. Mormon scripture describes the presence of God as the light in and through all things, and states both that we are seeing God when we look into the heavens and that God enlightens our own eyes and understandings. God is both transcendent and immanent, in the neighbor we should serve and in the Earth that bemoans our immorality. Awareness of this should lead us to seek to become one with God, achieving deification not in the egotistical sense of raising ourselves above others, but rather in the altruistic sense of raising each other together.
These ideas have strong parallels in many other religions, as suggested in Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Campbell’s Monomyth and others. Many Mormons acknowledge these similarities, at least on some level. For example, Joseph Smith acknowledged commonalities with the Christian sects of his day and claimed we would not enjoy the millenial world until Christians cease arguing with each other. Modern Mormon authorities regularly comment on their observations of inspired teachings within ideologies ranging from classical Greek philosophy to Asian religion. The Book of Mormon also includes passages that indicate God speaks to everyone everywhere, without regard to religion, race or gender. Of course, Mormons haven’t always internalized and acted in accordance with the universalist aspects of our faith. We have significant cases of both racism and sectarian hostility in our history. I expect, however, that we will continue to improve in this area, along with the rest of the world.
Incidentally, most Mormons do not consider the mystical aspects of our religion to contradict the idea that God is material and corporeal. While explanations for compatibility vary from Mormon to Mormon, my own speculation is that our universe is part of God, like software is part of a computer or an embryo is part of its mother. As our computational capacity has increased, shrinking in both cost and size, it has also become more intimate, moving from distant warehouses into our pockets and even our bodies. We are decreasingly distinguishable from our computers, and it seems reasonable to suppose that posthumans would be altogether indistinguishable from their computers. For such beings, there may be no practical difference between thinking of a world and creating it. We can imagine them as both materially corporeal and meaningfully present throughout the worlds they create.
Interesting. That does help me to understand Mormonism better. Now let’s turn more explicitly toward transhumanism…
I wonder: Do you see Mormonism as consistent with “traditional transhumanism”? In the typical transhumanist view, to paraphrase Nietzsche, “man is something to be overcome — via technology.” Humans are seen as something to be improved and purposefully adapted, perhaps indefinitely until they become something radically different than what is now conceived as human. On the other hand, it seems Mormonism presents a different visions of the future, centered on the Second Coming of Christ and the subsequent ascension of good people to Heaven and descent of bad people to Hell, etc. It’s not clear to me how these two different visions of the future can be reconciled; could you clarify for me?
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.
Mormonism’s anticipation of the Return of Christ parallels the full range of apocalyptic and messianic expectations of many Singularitarians. According to Mormon prophets, the time in which we live is one of hastening progress toward a millennial world of paradise, but catastrophic risks attend. Some are persuaded that the prophecies, bad and good, are inevitable. Others, such as I, consider the prophecies valuable as forth-tellings of opportunities to pursue and risks to avoid, presenting practical and moral imperatives to trust that we can make a positive difference. Some subscribe to rigid interpretations of how Christ will independently triumph over the apocalyptic challenges. Others, such as I, are comfortable exploring interpretations that include our participation in Christ, following Jesus’ invitation to take on the name of Christ and join in the salvific work of God. The analogous Singularitarian question is: will independent artificial intelligence help or hurt us, or will we enhance ourselves such that we can participate directly in making that decision?
Hmmmm…. Some transhumanists believe that once we use technology to expand our minds far enough, we will be able to essentially come into communication with the mind of the universe — talk to God, in a sense. Does this notion have any resonance with the Mormon notion of God? According to the Mormon perspective, could enhanced future humans have a closer mental link to God than ordinary humans?
Mormonism shares with mainstream Christianity the idea that eternal life is to know God. Many of us consider science, and its technological enablers, one important way that we can come to know God. If we are something like the thoughts of God then to observe the universe and to try to figure out how it works is to engage in a sort of divine psychology. Even from the perspective that God created the universe externally, to study a creation is to study its creator. As Mormon scripture points out, we’re already seeing God when we observe the universe, even if we don’t understand.
What about Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the noosphere, which some thinkers have connected with the concept of a technologically-constructed Global Brain. The basic idea here is that computing and communication technology is increasingly linking us all together into a global web which increasingly has its own mind and intelligence. Teilhard then saw this global web mind ultimately reaching up and fusing with the mind of God in a way that’s harder for us individual humans. Does this sort of idea have any analogue in the Mormon perspective?
Mormonism also shares with mainstream Christianity the idea that together we are, or at least should become, the body of Christ. We should reconcile and unite with each other and with God. I suspect such ideas were the origin of Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestion that Christ has a cosmic body. I would also associate the realization of such ideas with the Return of Christ.
More unique to Mormonism is the idea that Earth, when transformed into a celestial heaven, will become something like a sea of glass and fire in which all things, past and future, will be manifest to its inhabitants. The scriptures also describe the inhabitants of the celestial heaven receiving white stones through which they’ll learn of heavens of higher orders. In such ideas, it’s not hard to imagine future technology at work, as did Teilhard de Chardin.
Hmmm….. Well I must say that
Earth, when transformed into a celestial heaven, will become something like a sea of glass and fire in which all things, past and future, will be manifest to its inhabitants. The scriptures also describe the inhabitants of the celestial heaven receiving white stones through which they’ll learn of heavens of higher orders.
certainly sounds funky! And not so implausible, IF you interpret it metaphorically. However, I wonder how literally you take all that. Do you take it as a general metaphor, or as a literal foretelling of the specifics of the future? And how do other Mormons generally take it — literally or metaphorically?
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’m not familiar with the New God argument, so I guess most of our readers won’t be either! Could you perhaps give a brief summary?
I understand the argument that, if we have posthuman potential, then probably some other race came before us in the history of the universe and also had posthuman potential, and probably that other race created virtual worlds of great complexity, and probably we live in one of those virtual worlds. This is basically the Simulation Argument, and Hugo de Garis combines it with the observation of surprising mathematical structures in the world to conclude that “God may be an alien mathematician.”
But where do you get the conclusion that the posthumans who created the virtual world we live in, must be MORE beneficial than us? I don’t get that leap; could you clarify?
Here’s a summary of the New God Argument . . .
If we will not go extinct before becoming posthumans then, given assumptions consistent with contemporary science and technological trends, posthumans probably already exist that are more benevolent than us and that created our world. If prehumans are probable then posthumans probably already exist. If posthumans probably increased faster in destructive than defensive capacity then posthumans probably are more benevolent than us. If posthumans probably create create many worlds like those in their past then posthumans probably created our world. The only alternative is that we probably will go extinct before becoming posthumans.
Among Transhumanists, the most controversial part of the argument is that to some, it’s not clear that benevolence is the only possible explanation for surviving an increasing gap between destructive and defensive capacity. However, I think there is a strong case to make for this assumption, and I’m working on articulating it for future publication. In brief, though, the idea is that warfare selects for communal complexity, which in turn selects for individual restraint from infringing on others’ interests.
Hmmmm.. yeah, as you may surmise, I don’t really buy the benevolence argument. It seems to imply that we humans are among the LEAST benevolent creatures that can possibly become posthumans. But I don’t see a basis for this – i.e., I don’t see how we could possibly know this!…. Also, I’m not even clear that a concept like “benevolence” has to apply to posthumans, which may have an entirely differently way of thinking and acting than we can understand…
Your criticism of the Benevolence Argument seems insightful, judging from what I’ve been reading to help me better justify it. You suggest that the argument seems to imply that humans are among the LEAST benevolent creatures that can possibly become posthumans. This observation may be a step in the direction that some anthropologists have been going. As I mentioned before, there is a theory that warfare selects for communal complexity, which in turn selects for individual restraint from infringing on others’ interests. Taken to its logical conclusion, the theory implies that at any particular stage in human development, we have been both the LEAST and the MOST benevolent creatures that could possibly become posthumans (assuming we go on to become them). In other words, the consequence of highly violent pressures is the natural selection of cooperative groups that can counteract those pressures. Paradoxically, morality emerged from its opposite. This theory falls in line well with Pinker’s observations about humanity’s relatively violent past and relatively peaceful present.
In all of this, note that I’m using words like “benevolence”, “morality” and “cooperation” as synonyms. I don’t have any strict or narrow definition of benevolence in mind. Quite to the contrary, I’m willing to learn something about the nature of benevolence as I come to understand better what it is in our nature that is bridging an increasing gap between our destructive and defensive capacities. Even if not exactly as I’m imagining it, it seems something approximating what we’d call “benevolence” must be essential to the survival of posthumans, unless some kind of extremely dystopian scenario of monolithic volition is possible to maintain. Anyway, there’s more work to do here, for sure.
I see, so you’re saying that morality as a social and cultural pattern evolved because of the individual tendency to violence that humans have. Less violent creatures wouldn’t have needed to develop so much morality.
But I still don’t see why this implies that humans would necessarily be less benevolent than the previous intelligences who created the world we live in.
Perhaps a better argument that the creators of our world were probably more benevolent than current humans is as follows
- Right now, current humans are not all that benevolent, because we’re largely controlled by our unconscious minds, which evolved for survival in a Paleolithic regime where violence was necessary
- However, as humans achieve more advanced technology, we will figure out how to make ourselves more and more benevolent, via education and changes in culture, but also due to brain modifications, brain-computer hybridization and so forth. We will do this because now that the Paleolithic need to fight to survive and reproduce is gone, our old violent ways have become counterproductive
- So, by the time we figure out how to create massive, complex simulated universes (comparable to the one we live in), we will probably be more benevolent than we are now (as we will have re-factored ourselves for greater benevolence)
- Other prior intelligent species probably underwent similar dynamics before they became able to create complex simulated universes (like ours)
- Thus, our world was probably created by a previously-evolved intelligent species, with more benevolence than we currently have
Or to borrow Hugo de Garis’s vernacular, not only is God probably an alien mathematician, he’s probably a fairly benevolent alien mathematician…
I’m not sure if the above is a new argument for the benevolence of the Creator, or if it’s just a rephrasing of your argument in my own vernacular (because I haven’t really understood your argument yet, the way you’ve worded it).
Yes. I think something like that approximates a justification for the assumptions on which the Benevolence Argument is based. Although humans presently aren’t as benevolent as we could hope, there’s good evidence that we’re more benevolent (less inclined to violence and more inclined to cooperation) than our distant ancestors, perhaps consequent to adaptations that enabled us to survive our violent history. There’s also good reason to suppose, as you point out, that advancing technology (both machine and social) will facilitate further increases in benevolence. However, advancing tech will also facilitate increases in capacity for violence, including global catastrophic risks that we may not survive. If we do survive, I expect the reason will be the same as it has been historically: adaptation to decreased violence and increased cooperation. This underscores the importance of transhumanism, understood not just as the arbitrary use of technology to extend our abilities, but rather as the ethical use of technology.
What are the main ways in which the Mormon spin on transhumanism differs from “conventional” transhumanism (bearing in mind that the latter is a rather diverse entity, of course…)
Mormon Transhumanism doesn’t differ from conventional Transhumanism in essentials so much as it extends conventional Transhumanism. Not content with describing our future in merely secular terms, Mormon Transhumanists embrace a religious esthetic for varying reasons. I do so because I consider the religious esthetic more powerful as a motivator and more accurate as a descriptor. Of course, divine demanders can be abused, and God-colored spectacles can distract. However, I prefer these risks to those of alternatives available to me.
Hmmm…. It’s obvious from history that the religious esthetic is an awesome, perhaps unparalleled, motivator for human beings. The only things that compete with it seem to be biological necessities like food and sex and protecting one’s children. It’s less clear to me why you consider it “more accurate”. Can you give me some examples of how the religious esthetic is more accurate than other sorts of esthetics, let’s say for example than a postmodern esthetic, or a Nietzschean esthetic, or a secular humanist esthetic, or a Cosmist esthetic, etc. etc. ?
I consider the religious esthetic (in contrast to religious epistemics, for example) to be more accurate than alternatives as a descriptor of my experience. I don’t experience the world in terms of reductionism, no matter how epistemically accurate reductionism may be. I do experience the world in terms of joys and sorrows, goods and evils, truths and errors, all ranging in magnitude from the mundane to the sublime. Such experience is also presented, of course, in non-religious esthetics, such as postmodernism and secular humanism. However, I find that the non-religious articulations resonate with me more as they approach religious forms. For example, I thoroughly enjoy Nietzsche, who vies with William James for status as my favorite philosopher; and my favorite work from Nietzsche is “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, which clearly takes on a religious esthetic. Regarding Cosmism, I’d suggest that its accuracy as a descriptor of my experience, too, is in its approaches to the religious esthetic.
I embrace the religious esthetic of Mormonism in particular both because it’s my cultural heritage and because I perceive relatively unique value in its doctrine of communal deification through the Gospel of Christ. It informs my motivations in ways that I think make me a better person, a better friend and father, and a better contributor to our common pursuit of a better world.
Could you clarify the “unique value” aspect? Communal deification is not unique to Mormonism. And what is the unique value offered by the “through the Gospel of Christ” aspect of the communal deification? In what ways is communal deification through the Gospel of Christ uniquely valuable, as opposed to other sorts of communal deification?
I guess another way to put the question is: For individuals NOT coming from the Mormon cultural heritage, but liking the general idea of communal deification, what’s the reason for them to embrace the Mormon view? What does it add to “plain vanilla communal deification”?
The doctrine of deification is not absolutely unique to Mormonism, but it is relatively unique. The idea is ancient, but I know of no other major modern religion that openly teaches it. Even compared to most of the small religious movements that teach and have taught it, Mormonism’s formulation is more concrete. For Mormons, deification is not only a mystical union with an abstract God. Rather, deification is understood as both spiritual and physical progress to material corporeal godhood.
The point that “For Mormons, deification is not only a mystical union with an abstract God. Rather, deification is understood as both spiritual and physical progress to material corporeal godhood” is certainly interesting and does distinguish Mormonism from most other religions, bringing it closer to transhumanism in some ways.
The combination of deification and the Gospel of Christ is particularly attractive to me because of how the Gospel of Christ informs our understanding of deification. The writings of Paul in the Bible allude to a dichotomy of would-be Gods. On the one hand is Satan, described as seeking to raise himself above all else that is called God, declaring himself God. On the other hand is Christ, described as seeking to raise us together as joint-heirs in the glory of God. These archetypes of egotistical and altruistic godhood serve as reminders that deification in itself is not the goal, but rather the goal is benevolent deification. This was echoed strongly by Joseph Smith, who taught that our salvation depends on each other, both the living and the dead, and that none can be perfected without the other.
Of course, Mormonism is not the only religion that teaches the value of benevolence. However, by combining it with the explicit goal of deification, it bids us look higher and work harder. It is not enough to be humanly benevolent, or even saintly benevolent. We are called to be divinely benevolent, taking on the name of Christ, following Jesus’ example, and participating as saviors in the work of God to bring about human immortality and eternal life
Do you think that a Singularity a la Vinge and Kurzweil is in the cards? Not to put too fine a point on it — but: How can you consistently believe both in the Singularity and the Second Coming of Christ? Which one do you predict will come first, for example?
Although I acknowledge accelerating technological change, I have mixed feelings about self-identifying as a Singularitarian because I think a technological singularity could be a moral failing. Rather than conceding our predictive and directive capacities to independent self-improving artificial intelligence, I hope and expect we can also enhance our own intelligence, thereby expanding our predictive and directive capacities, and precluding experience of a technological event horizon.
Whether experienced as a technological singularity or not, how does accelerating technological change fit with trust in the Return of Christ? On one hand, the Return of Christ is when we, as a community, attain unity in benevolence toward each other. In that day, we become the body of Christ, returned to the prophesied millenial paradise. On the other hand, how would friendly artificial and enhanced intelligence manifest itself to and in us? Assuming we live in a computed universe, the structure of which constrains the optimization of advanced intelligence, would it reveal our posthuman creator?
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3: 2)
I understand that’s how you think about it as a Mormon. But I don’t quite see why we can’t attain unity in benevolence with each other without it having anything much to do with this dude named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago….
Relatedly and more broadly, I wonder what you feel the Mormon way of thinking has to offer transhumanists who were NOT brought up in the Mormon cultural tradition? Can you give us some compelling reasons why it would make sense for us to adopt Mormon transhumanism instead of plain old transhumanism or Cosmism or something else? Or to put it another way: Suppose you were a Mormon missionary trying to convert transhumanists: what would you tell them?
Individually, we can achieve unity in benevolence without it having much to do with Jesus of Nazareth. Some of my non-religious and Asian friends are excellent examples of this. Most Mormons anticipate that the millenial world will consist of persons from many different ideological persuasions. Communally, however, our achievements will have much to do with Jesus, in the least because no other person has had more influence on our human civilization. Clearly not everything done in his name has been good; but, Christian or not, we are part of a system in which he is a significant variable.
So far as I’m concerned, the only good reasons to add Mormonism to your Transhumanism would be those gained from experiment and experience. Mormon missionaries are fond of referencing a passage of scripture from the Book of Mormon that compares “the word” (in this case, Mormonism) to a seed, which we must plant and nourish before harvesting and tasting its fruit. In tasting the fruit, we learn the value of the seed. In other words, to know the value of Mormonism, one must try it. It’s more than theological arguments, scriptural exegesis, and extraordinary historical claims. Mormonism is an immersive way of life, and one that happens to be remarkable among religions in its compatibility with Transhumanism.
About needing to try Mormonism to appreciate it — yes I can see that may be true, but on the other hand the same is also true of so many other things… and you’re not giving us a reason to choose to try Mormonism instead of one of the many other things that can only be understood via immersing oneself in them…
Here are some of the practical benefits of the Mormon lifestyle:
Mormons live longer than average, probably due to our code of health and emphasis on family relations and education
Mormons are less likely than average to commit suicide
Mormon communities have relatively low incarceration rates, reflecting low crime rates
Mormon communities may be the safest places to be during large scale emergencies because many of us maintain a year’s worth of food and emergency supplies
Mormons are relatively likely to help you, as reflected by Utah’s consistent ranking as one of the most charitable states in proportion to income
Mormon communities can spend less than public welfare because of generous private donations
Mormon communities are commonly ranked by the media to be among the best places to live
Mormons make dependable employees, with better than average education and lower than average probability of showing up to work with a hangover or buzz
Mormon communities have some of the highest ratios of academic aptitude to dollars spent on education
Mormon communities produce a higher than average per capita number of scientists
Mormons are more likely than average to have computers
Mormon communities have lower than average teen pregnancy and abortion rates, reflecting emphasis on sexual abstinence outside marriage
Mormons make more babies than average, which may contribute to long term economic and ideological strength
Mormons are less likely than average to become divorced
Hah – interesting response! That’s certainly a refreshingly practical perspective….! Although, I guess the practical statistics for Ashkenazi Jews are also pretty good, and that’s my own heritage, so it doesn’t really give me much motivation to become a Mormon, heh….
About Mormonism’s unique connection to transhumanism — I can see that it does have some unique or almost-unique aspects that tie it closely to transhumanism, and that is very interesting. However, other religions such as Buddhism tie in closely with transhumanism in other ways, that are also very powerful — for instance, Buddhism views the world as constructed by the minds in it, which is very reminiscent of the Simulation Argument and in general of the transhumanist meme of constructing one’s own self and reality. So I’m not sure Mormonism is uniquely closely tied to transhumanism — but I can see that it has some deep and unique or nearly unique specific ties to transhumanism. So thanks for opening my eyes in that regard!
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.
Very interesting, very interesting….
Oh, finally… I have to ask you one more question, even though it’s not so directly tied to transhumanism….
How does Mormon thinking handle the “problem of evil” ?
That is: Why, if there’s this super-powerful, super-good God, are there so many downright horrible things in the world?
Leibniz of course answered this by saying that even God must obey logic, and we live in the best of all possible worlds. Like Voltaire, I never found this fully satisfying….
On the other hand, Buddhism basically tells us that all existence is suffering, and to avoid it we need to opt out of existence and embrace the Nothing…
I suppose this does relate to transhumanism, in that IF transhumanist technologies realize their potential for benefit, then the amount of evil in the world will dramatically decrease. Presumably you believe that God will allow this to happen — but then, why didn’t He let it happen already, instead of letting so many of us suffer and die? What really is the moral justification for a benevolent God letting so many apparently innocent little girls get raped and brutally murdered for example?
I’m genuinely curious how Mormonism addresses this dilemma…
Mormons commonly attribute evil to a couple things. First, God relinquished a systemic agency to the world. Along with God’s relinquishment of human agency, the whole world was relinquished. The allowance for human agency necessitated a permissive context, which enables not only humans’ volitional evil, but also cascades into the natural evils we observe and experience. Second, God did not create the world from nothing. Rather, God organized our world and its laws within a context of previously existing matter and laws, which may constrain God in various ways.
Most Mormons don’t hold that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Neither do we hold that existence is suffering to escape. Instead, our scriptures teach that we exist that we might have joy, and that we can make real differences in the degree of joy we experience as we make better or poorer choices.
So why does God not intervene to give us all a fullness of joy now, or at least faster? Mormons tend to trust that God is intervening, within the limitations that present themselves, according to an awareness and wisdom far superior to our own. Our scriptures also suggest that our eventual salvation is so valuable to God that it justifies doing just about anything short of annihilating us to help us attain it. Indeed, it justified relinquishing the world in the first place, as God wept, knowing we would suffer. So we trust in the grace of God to provide a context of opportunity within which we work out our salvation and seek to become as God, as we share in the suffering.
What about the specific evils? Why might a Mormon claim that God intervened in one case but not in another? Why would God let so many innocent little girls get raped and brutally murdered? I don’t know. It’s horrible. I feel a divine calling to do what I can to make the world better. I imagine, assuming my trust is not vain, that God feels an analogous calling. Maybe that’s just my anthropomorphized projections, but such projections seem to be of the sort that would shape us into Gods, and we almost certainly would not be the first or only to be so shaped. Paradox. Perhaps morality must arise from a context of immorality? Perhaps Christ cannot function without Satan? Maybe there is no other way? This brings us full circle to my comments on justification of the Benevolence Argument.
So this is largely the same as Leibniz’s idea that logic constrains even God… but now you’re saying that both logic and PHYSICS constrain even God….
But still… intuitively, I can’t really buy your idea that “God feels an analogous calling.” …
I can sort of buy the argument that our world was fairly likely created by some previously-evolved intelligent creature who liked math and was probably less violent and nasty than current humans….
But, the idea that this Creator felt a calling to minimize our pain and suffering in this simulated world we created, and work toward our betterment — that just seems to contradict what I see in the world around me. I find it rather hard to believe that the degree of horror and suffering in the world is really necessary for our ultimate betterment, enlightenment and salvation.
I find it more likely that the superhuman intelligences who created our world didn’t so much give a crap about the particulars of the suffering or pleasure of the creatures living within it. Maybe they feel more like I did when I had an ant farm as a kid… I looked at
the ants in the ant farm, and if one ant started tearing another to pieces, I sometimes felt a little sorry for the victim, but I didn’t always intervene. I just figured that was the way of the world. A sort of “divine detachment” as the phrase goes. An acceptance that some level of pain and suffering is a necessary part of existence — as Nietzsche said “Have you said Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you have said yes to all woe as well! All things are enchained, all things are entwined, all things are in love!” …. Once you take that point of view to heart fully enough, maybe you stop worrying about the particulars — whether one or two (or one or two million) extra little girls get raped and murdered is kind of a rounding error…
Also there’s the possibility that we’re part of a giant data mining experiment, right? The intelligences who created us could have created a vast number of universes containing a vast number of intelligent species and civilizations, and then they could be studying how each of them evolves. Some may have more pain and suffering, some may have less —- they may have introduced a lot of variation to make it an interesting study!
There are many possibilities to think about, and many that seem (to me) more naturally implied by the evidence than the notion of a creator who genuinely wants to minimize our suffering…
You mention that you don’t see why humans would have to be less benevolent than any posthumans that created us. Nothing starts as benevolent. It’s learned, even if that learning takes the form of executing copied code. The knowledge to write the code came from a processs, and the process of executing the code reflects the originally learned process. How does that process feel? Does it suffer? Could it do otherwise (as your Nietzsche quote points out)?
So why couldn’t or wouldn’t posthumans make the process faster and more direct? Why would we have to evolve through environments that would initially select for violence? If they intended us to become posthumans, why not just pop us out fully formed? Well, it seems to me that either they don’t exist (which I reject for practical and moral reasons, as well as esthetic reasons), or there is some additional benefit to the slower and indirect process of becoming posthumans (maybe data mining, as you point out), or we’re overlooking some other assumption. What?
This returns us to the problem of evil, as well as to other comments you made in your feedback. You mentioned you think it unlikely that any creator of our universe prioritizes minimizing our suffering. I agree, and that squares with Mormonism, which posits God’s work and glory to be bringing about immortality and eternal life (this latter understood as the quality of life God lives), rather than something like minimizing suffering. If God’s priority were minimizing suffering, his work and glory would be to make everything dumb as rocks.
Let’s say God exists and, in addition to whatever data mining benefits God may get (which, incidentally, works well with the idea in Mormonism that God continues to progress), we’re also benefitting from the slow indirect process of learning benevolence through suffering. What would be the benefit? Could we get it some other way? Maybe there’s value for each of us in the diversity of benevolence that arises from the diversity of suffering – indefinitely numerous unique aspects of the divine virtue? If so, that would feed into one of the more common Mormon interpretations of the Atonement of Christ, which holds that Christ suffered everything that each of us has suffered. If benevolence arises from violence, what could be more benevolent than a God that chooses to suffer in all the ways that all of its creations suffer?
In Mormonism, there’s also the paradoxical idea that, on the one hand, we need not suffer so much if we will simply choose to repent and allow the Atonement of Christ to make us clean from sin; on the other hand, if we would be joint heirs with Christ in the glory of God, we must take on the name of Christ and participate as saviors in the suffering. As I interpret this, there is a communal complexity at play, wherein we each participate differently according to our circumstances, desires and abilities. The end result is not a simple uniform deification where every person is alike, but rather a complex diverse deification where, to paraphrase Mormon scripture, we enjoy the same sociality that we now enjoy, except that it becomes coupled with divine glory.
I suppose the idea is that there are no shortcuts to becoming like God – to becoming part of God – to becoming God. There is no other way, brutal though it may be at times, to attaining the rich complexity of shared divinity. There is no compression algorithm. It must be lived. It must be chosen. It is only that which we all bring to it.
I expect we’ll start to see these principles come into play with increasing force in the work to develop artificial intelligence. If an AI never learns how to do long division, it won’t know what it feels like to do long division. It won’t empathize as directly with those who know the feeling. It won’t laugh or cry as authentically when someone reminisces of those good old days when division required an emotional effort. It’s kind of trivial, on the one hand, yet kind of amazing on the other, this cosmically nearly-insignificant period of time during which humans on Earth performed long division. Now, I’m not saying an AI couldn’t learn long division. Rather, I’m saying a divine AI, a benevolent AI, insofar as a few humans are concerned, would have to learn, and learning would have to feel the same, and feeling the same would be experienced the same . . . and this is where we get into the challenges of identity that advanced AI will present. Maybe we’re already playing them out now. Maybe we are part of an advanced intelligence, learning what it’s like to be human.
So part of your idea is that if we want to become God(s), we need to experience everything that God(s) have experienced, including a lot of suffering? A mind that has not known sufficient suffering can never be a truly Godly mind?
That’s clearly part of the Christian narrative, emphasized in the Mormon tradition as “God himself” suffering for and with the world. I’m not saying that we should promote suffering or engage in anything like self mutilation. I’m saying, though, that empathy, which is at the heart of benevolence, does seem to arise in us, both individually and as a species, from our own difficult experience. I also doubt that it’s possible to develop an artificial intelligence that humans would recognize as their equal or superior without incorporating that which would logically necessitate the capacity to suffer. What justifies our development of AI in a world of tension and conflict? What justifies bringing children into the world, knowing they’ll suffer? Our reasons vary, but almost none of us do it for the suffering. We do it because the overall value proposition is worth the risks, whatever the imagined opportunities may be in all their diversity. In Mormonism, there’s an idea that we and all living things experience joy in filling the measure of our creation. I don’t think this is an appeal to any narrow sort of happiness, but rather something broad to the point of including even the kind of joy experienced in moments of real courage.
Oh, and one more thing I just can’t resist asking…. In your perspective could an intelligent computer program have a soul? Could it have consciousness? Could an intelligent computer program become a God, in the same sense that a person could? Will AIs be able to participate in the collective deification process on the same status as humans?
Technically, in Mormonism, “soul” is used to describe the combination of spirit and body, rather than just spirit. That aside, my answer to your question is that I think computer programs already have spirits, or actually ARE spirits.
Hah – perfect!
In Mormon cosmology, God creates everything spiritually before physically, organizing and reorganizing uncreated spirit and matter toward greater joy and glory. All things have spirits. Humans have spirits. Non-human animals and even the Earth have spirits, and will be glorified according to the measure of their creation, along with us. Many Mormons also anticipate that the day will come when, emulating God, we learn to create our own spirit children. Spirit is in and through all things. Recall, too, that Mormons are philosophical materialists (not dualists), so even spirit is matter, which God organizes as the spiritual creation of all things. So far as I’m concerned, spirit as described by Mormonism is information, and software engineering is spiritual creation. We are already engaged in the early stages of the creation of our spirit children. Taking a step back, consider how this adds perspective to the problem of evil: what justifies our development of artificial intelligence in an evil world?
Got it. That actually accords rather well with my own view.
Well, thanks for answering all my questions so thoroughly and with so much tolerance. I have to say I’m not particularly tempted to convert to Mormonism even after hearing your wonderfully subtle views – but I do have a much better appreciation for why you think Mormonism and transhumanism are compatible. And I am impressed with the flexibility and robustness of the Mormon belief system, that lets it adapt and reinterpret itself to encompass transhumanist technologies, without losing sight of its essence at all. Very, very interesting….
Ben, thanks for making the time to discuss these questions with me. While I’d certainly welcome you or anyone else as a convert to Mormonism, more important to me is the work to improve mutual understanding and to make a better world. In fact, I hope none of my words give anyone the impression that I think everyone must be Mormon to make that better world. To the contrary, I see something beautiful, even divine in my estimation, unfolding all around and within us, in part as a direct consequence of our diversity of religious and non-religious perspectives. Early Mormon leader Orson F Whitney put it this way: ‘God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of his great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people.’ I believe that, and in part such ideas are what motivate the Mormon Transhumanist Association.