Tag: <span>Mormon Transhumanist Association</span>

A View From Inside the MTA Conference

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:

Or download the MP3

Last Saturday I attended the annual Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured at a minimum I could get a blog post out of it. There was a lot going on, if you include the two keynote speakers, there were 17 speakers in total, talking about everything from brain uploading to crucifixion. And I know that, at this point, you may be sick of me talking about the MTA, and I wouldn’t blame you if you are, but I think there were some themes in the conference which will be of interest to even those who feel that they’ve had enough of the MTA for awhile. But the MTA is still going to feature prominently in this post, so if you want to skip it that’s also a totally valid option as well..

To begin with they started 35 minutes late. Anyone who knows me knows that that’s a quick way to get on my bad side. As a note to future MTA Conference organizers if you say that something starts at 9:00, that shouldn’t be when the first speaker takes the podium, that should be when registration opens. Also if your goal is to become gods through the use of technology it looks bad when you can’t even keep a conference running on time through the use of technology…

Okay, I admit, that was a little snarky. I’ll try to be nicer going forward, though no promises…

When the conference did get going the first speaker opened up with a scripture which had been featured prominently in one of my previous posts: Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

He then said “Or…” and proceeded to read Isaiah 11:6-9:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

It was obvious that he was trying to draw a contrast between two visions for the future. Either we are doomed to bloodshed and disaster or we are blessed with peace and knowledge. Of course my immediate retort is why couldn’t both be true? Nevertheless it was interesting that he used the scripture from the D&C, as I mentioned that scripture featured very prominently in one of my posts. And it was interesting that he talked about two possibilities for the future, since that was the way I introduced things in my very first post. I know that some members of the MTA are familiar with my blog and have read some or even most of the posts, and it’s interesting to speculate whether I might have influenced them. Ultimately pointless, but interesting nonetheless.

Having drawn out these two visions of the future he came down on the side of Isaiah. (And I’m still unclear why it can’t be both)  In support of his more optimistic view of the future he listed all of the cool things that are happening. Included in the list was:

  • YouTube
  • Google
  • GitHub
  • Kickstarter
  • The Mars Rover
  • Mobile tech
  • Wearable tech
  • Reusable rockets
  • Solar shingles
  • The Higgs Boson
  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • Advances in robotics
  • Watson
  • AlphaGo
  • Alexa
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Moore’s Law

These are all very exciting technologies, but, for me, the list only reinforces my central criticism of the MTA. That for all of their talk of being Mormons and Disciples of Christ, and the assertion that their unreserved embrace of technology just makes them better disciples of Christ, that instead what they really are is just your garden variety tech enthusiasts. How does being Mormon inform their engagement with technology? Are there any technologies they’re not a fan of because of their religion? If the MTA made a list of technological advances over the last 10 years they considered important, would I be able to distinguish that list from a list I might find in a mainstream media outlet or in a magazine like Popular Science?

The speaker went on to say that going forward they wanted to focus more on the T (transhumanism) and less on the M (Mormon). But from what I could tell there wasn’t much “M” to begin with, and certainly very little of it at the conference. I’m honestly not sure that there’s any practical difference between a Mormon transhumanist and a regular transhumanist. I imagine that they have very different reasoning, but I think that reasoning ends up with both of them arriving in exactly the same place.

The question, as always comes back to how do we know whether to expect the D&C future or the Isaiah future (though, again, I’m not sure why it can’t be both). Does the existence of YouTube really make the Isaiah future more likely? I personally don’t think the list he made establishes a prima facie case for the Isaiah future. But for the moment, let’s assume that it does. Would a similar list compiled in support of the D&C future be more or less convincing? Let’s give it a shot:

Well? What do you think? Which list is the more compelling? Even if you decide that the Isaiah list is more compelling. (I certainly admit that it’s more pleasant.) In the end, it matters less than you think, for two reasons. First, in order for the MTA’s vision of things to work out. Ethics has to progress at the same rate as technology, otherwise you end up possessing godlike power without the wisdom or morality to use those powers righteously. Take another look at that first list, is there anything in it that points to an increase in morality and ethics? While all the items from the second list point to exactly the opposite happening.

Secondly, neither the MTA nor I knows for sure what will happen in the future. In fact neither of us even knows for sure what the two scriptures are foretelling, and even if we did, they definitely don’t come with dates attached. As I said in a previous post I really hope the MTA is right, and that I’m wrong, but who suffers the most if they’re wrong? If we end up in the D&C future and we didn’t prepare for it, that’s a lot worse than if we end up in the Isaiah future without preparation.

This represents one of the big problems I have with the MTA, There’s too little focus on the potential downsides. Within the transhumanist declaration there is a point about reducing existential risk, but there was very little said on that subject at the Conference. (Perhaps that’s how you can tell the difference between a Mormon Transhumanist and a normal transhumanist, the Mormon is more optimistic.) To be fair, while there wasn’t much said, that doesn’t mean nothing was said. In fact there was another speaker later on who was even more explicit in describing the two potential futures, calling our efforts a race between innovation and catastrophe. Again, it’s probable that this gentleman came up with the idea on his own, but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his presentation and my first blog post.

At this point I’ve spent over a third of my allotted space on just one presentation, so it’s obvious that I’m only going to be able to touch on a tiny amount of what took place at the conference. Though if you don’t mind podcasts, which you might, seeing as how you’re reading this rather than listening to it, I released a bonus podcast with some additional thoughts on the conference, specifically the keynote speakers. But as I said at the start rather than providing a blow-by-blow of each presentation, I’m more interested in tying together some of the broader themes. One theme that ran through all of the talks, and, in fact, runs through the entire MTA endeavor, is the idea of continually accelerating growth. One obvious question, you might be tempted to ask, is whether there is any limit to this growth, and on that count the vast majority of the people at the conference seem to agree that there isn’t.

This makes sense. If there isn’t any limit to growth than transhumanism is just a reflection of the way the world works, rather than a weird quasi religion. But I’m sure that any one of us can think of lots of reasons why growth might not continue, or why it might not carry everyone along with it.

This latter point is a problem for transhumanism, particularly the charitable Mormon variety. They can be absolutely right about the continual growth, but still wrong about it’s impact. There are numerous scenarios under which Silicon Valley billionaires have full access to the promises of transhumanism while poor people end up with a situation that’s actually worse than what they have currently.

During lunch I brought up this idea with one of the other conference attendees. Specifically the idea that as the slope of the growth curve gets steeper and steeper the cost of being even slightly behind someone else on that curve gets larger and larger. For example imagine you’re holding a car race and one car, say a Tesla in ludicrous mode, can accelerate at 1 meter/second/second and the other car, say a Tesla that only has insane mode, can accelerate at 0.99 meters/second/second, or 99% of the acceleration of the first car. In this example it takes less than 10 minutes for the two cars to be over a mile apart, and in an hour the faster car will be 40 miles ahead of the other car, even though the difference in acceleration is only 1%

Now you may retort that cars can’t accelerate forever. (You may also be upset that I switched between metric and imperial in the example.) And this is true, but if you’re a transhumanist then it’s an article of faith that society is different, it can accelerate forever. But even if this is true, if Silicon Valley billionaires are accelerating at ludicrous speed, it doesn’t matter if everyone else is accelerating at insane speed they’re still going to get left behind. You may have heard of the recent concerns over rising inequality, well as much of a problem as it is right now; transhumanism has the potential to make it a lot worse. This is what I pointed out to the gentleman I was talking to.

Of course, it’s difficult to engage in a meaningful dialogue under these circumstances, at least for me. You have a few minutes to cover a massively complicated subject in a way that someone, who’s already predisposed to disagree with you, will understand and assimilate, not assimilate in the sense of changing their mind, but assimilate in the sense that they understand what you’re saying well enough that when they fire off a retort they’re actually aiming in the right direction. Obviously this works both ways, I’m sure I only absorbed part of the point he was trying to get across.

With all of those caveats in place, he responded by pointing out that world population was about to peak, and that would solve the problem of ever accelerating growth. You can see here what I mean about firing in the right direction. I’m not sure that the problem of the billionaires leaving poor people behind is solved by having slightly fewer poor people. Still demography and falling birth rates are interesting topics, and I’ll have to return to them at some point in the future. In any case it was one of the many enjoyable conversations I had at the conference, and not only can I not do justice to all of the conversations, I can’t even do justice to this conversation.

The last topic I want to address involves a question that has haunted me since long before I was even aware of the existence of the MTA, though the MTA is precisely the sort of organization that makes me ask this question. And that is, where do you draw the line between a healthy discussion and an actual schism? To reframe the question with respect to the MTA. Is the MTA involved in a healthy discussion of the place of technology in religion or are they actually pushing for things contrary to the stated position of the church? I hoped that after attending the conference, I’d fall on the healthy discussion side of things, but if anything the conference left me leaning more towards the schismatic side.

Of course it is fair to ask whether it even matters what side of things the MTA falls on, particularly if you’re not especially religious. If you’re an atheist, the sectarian conflicts of the superstitious may be amusing, but they’re hardly consequential. In fact the only group for whom this question matters at all are members of the LDS Church, and going forward we’re going to be speaking from that frame of reference. In other words this discussion is going to assume you’re a Mormon and that you believe that the Mormon Church possesses some unique truths which are important for our salvation.

Certainly the Church operates under this assumption. We send out missionaries to preach these truths. We do work for the dead, partially as a way of transmitting those truths beyond the Veil And the most fundamental truths, like faith, repentance and baptism are hammered over and over again in General Conference. Less visibly there’s the Church’s efforts to correlate everything, from Sunday School lessons to the doctrine taught by the missionaries. And, of course, the church also puts out Handbooks of Instruction. In other words it’s clear that the leadership of the Church has decided that it’s very important for everyone to be on the same page, which makes sense if people’s salvation is at stake.

Framed in this way it’s easy to spot people who are doing their best to be “on the same page”. And one way of examining this question is just to say that people who are trying their best in this fashion are on the healthy discussion side of things, while those who aren’t are schismatic to one degree or another. I think this is the position I default to, but of course I can already predict that there will be people who object to me saying that it’s easy to distinguish between those who are doing their best versus those who aren’t. I will continue to maintain that it is, but I can see where a more specific definition of things might be in order.

The idea of being on the same page assumes a fairly hierarchical structure. In short, someone has to decide what the page says before anyone can “be on it”. As members we believe this someone is the President of the Church, currently Thomas S. Monson, and we say that he is the only one who can exercise all the keys of the priesthood. Of course he can’t do everything, and so much of what’s “on the page” gets determined by the general authorities, who are sometimes just referred to as “the brethren”.

Thus a more specific definition of whether someone is doing their best can be reframed as a question of whether they support the brethren. This doesn’t mean that they consider the brethren to be perfect, rather the question of support hinges on whether they give the brethren the benefit of the doubt. But support also takes the form of acknowledging their leadership, and not directly contradicting them.

Having said all this let me reiterate that the foregoing is how I draw the line. You may draw the line in a different fashion. Also I haven’t said anything about how we should treat people who fall on the schismatic side of the line, because that’s not the point of the post. But, hopefully it goes without saying that we should treat them with love and compassion.

Having arrived, somewhat tortuously, at the standard of support, how did the MTA fare? Well there were three presentations (at least) which I felt were very clearly on the unsupportive side of the line.

The first of them dealt with the idea of prophets, and it began promisingly enough by arguing that we needed prophets now more than ever, but then it used that as a jumping off point to argue that 15 prophets (the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) is too few. That prophecy had become institutionalized. That true prophets don’t wear suits and work 9-5 jobs. True prophets are iconoclasts, who may appear to actually betray their religion and culture. In support of this he mentioned Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite. That’s an interesting point, but without offering up his candidates for modern day Abinadis and Samuels he’s mostly just saying that the brethren are uncool and stuffy.

The second presentation which I felt crossed the line was titled “Post-genderism”, and it was pretty much as you’d expect from the title, with the presenter going so far as to say that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing, and further that the future will essentially be genderless. I understand that this is a ridiculously complicated topic, one which I am almost certainly not qualified to comment on, but it’s one thing to acknowledge that complexity and quite another to declare that you’ve figured it out, to the point where you’re deciding that certain words mean the opposite of what everyone (including the brethren) think they mean. Also lest you think this is a minority opinion among members of the MTA the presenter in this instance was the MTA’s president.

The final presentation in the line-crossing category was titled the “Mystical Core of Mormonism”. I initially assumed that the high point of the presentation was going to be when he compared Joseph Smith’s First Vision to the experience of ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms. That was until he produced his own seer stone, which he not only claimed to be using in a fashion similar to Joseph Smith, but which he had also named…

Hearing the summary of these three presentations you may disagree with me, and that is as it should be. if you wish to watch the presentations for yourself they should eventually appear on this page (currently they don’t appear to have cut up the videos into separate presentations.) I think everyone needs to decide for themselves where to draw the line between discussion and schism. As I said in the beginning it’s a question that’s haunted me for a long time. And it’s obvious that it’s only going to get worse.

That’s the end of my partial recap of the MTA Conference. If you want more of my impressions (and really who wouldn’t?) you can check out the bonus podcast I already mentioned. As my final thought, I’ll try to make up for some of my harshness by recommending a book to the MTA. As I mentioned in my review of it, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, might as well be titled “We Are Saved” and thus contains a lot of support for the fundamental ideology of the MTA. If you’re an MTA member you should definitely read it. And with that I promise to leave the MTA alone for at least a couple of months.

If you like overly detailed posts about small, unusual religious groups, the consider donating, since that’s most of what I’ve been doing. And if you don’t like these sorts of posts, also consider donating so I have the resources to cover larger more mainstream groups.

Why I Hope the MTA Is Right, but Also Why It’s Safer to Assume They’re Not

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:

Or download the MP3

Last week’s post was titled Building the Tower of Babel, and it was written as a critique of the position and views of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Specifically it was directed at an article written by Lincoln Cannon titled Ethical Progress is not Babel. In response to my post Cannon came by and we engaged in an extended discussion in the comments section. If you’re interested in seeing that back and forth, I would recommend that you check them out. Particularly if you’re interested in seeing Cannon’s defense of the MTA. (And what open-minded person wouldn’t be?)

I was grateful Cannon stopped by for several reasons. First I was worried about misrepresenting the MTA, and indeed it’s clear that I didn’t emphasize enough that, for the MTA, technology is just one of many means to bring about salvation and in their view insufficient by itself. Second a two-sided discussion of the issues is generally going to be more informative and more rigorous than a one-sided monologue. And third because I honestly wasn’t sure what to do with the post, or with the MTA in general. Allow me to explain.

In a previous post I put people into three categories: the Radical Humanists, the Disengaged Middle and the Actively Religious. And in that post I said I had more sympathy for and felt more connected to the Radical Humanists than to the Disengaged Middle. The MTA is almost unique in being part of both the Radical Humanist group and the Actively Religious. Consequently I should be very favorably disposed to them, and I am, but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re right, though if it were completely up to me I’d want them to be right. This is the difficulty. On the one hand I think there are a lot of issues where we agree. And on those issues both of us (but especially me) need all the allies we can get. On the other hand, I think they’re engaged in a particularly seductive and subtle form of heresy. (That may be too strong of a word.) And I am well-positioned to act as a defender of the Mormon Orthodoxy against this, let’s say, mild heresy. And it should go without saying that I could be wrong about this. Which is one of the reasons why I think you should go read the discussion in the comments of the last post and decide for yourself.

Perhaps a metaphor might help to illuminate how I see and relate to the MTA. Imagine that you and your brother both dream of selling chocolate covered asparagus. So one day the two of you decide to start a business doing just that. As your business gets going your father offers you a lot of advice. His advice is wise and insightful and by following it your business gradually grows to the point where it’s a regional success story. But at some point your father dies.

Initially this doesn’t really change anything, but eventually you and your brother are faced with a business decision where you don’t see eye to eye, and your father isn’t around anymore. Let’s say the two of you are approached by someone offering to invest a lot of money in the business. You think the guy is shady and additionally that once he’s part owner, that he may change the chocolate covered asparagus business in ways that would damage it, alter it into something unrecognizable or potentially even destroy it. Perhaps he might make you switch to lower quality chocolate, or perhaps he wants to branch into chocolate covered broccoli. (Which is just insane.) Regardless, you don’t trust him or his motives.

On the other hand, your brother thinks it’s a great opportunity to really expand the chocolate covered asparagus business from being a regional player into a worldwide concern. In the past your father might have settled the dispute, but he’s gone, and as the two of you look back on his copious advice you can both find statements which seem to support your side in the dispute. And, not only that, both of you feel that the other person is emphasizing some elements of your father’s advice while ignoring other parts. In any event you’re adamant that you don’t want this guy as an investor and part owner, and your brother is equally adamant that it’s a tremendous opportunity and the only way your chocolate covered asparagus business is really going to be successful.

None of this means that you don’t still love your brother, or that either of you is any less committed to the vision of chocolate covered asparagus. Or that either of you is less respectful of your late father. But these commonalities do nothing to resolve the conflict. You still feel that this new investor may destroy the chocolate covered asparagus business, while your brother feels that the investor is going to provide the money necessary to make it a huge success. And perhaps, most interesting of all, if you could just choose the eventual outcome of the decision you would choose your brother’s expected outcome. You would choose for the investment to be successful, and for chocolate covered asparagus to fill the world, bringing peace and prosperity in it’s wake.

But, you can’t choose one future over another, you can’t know what will happen when you take on the investor. And in your mind it’s better to preserve the company you have than risk losing it all on a unclear bet and a potentially unreliable partner.

Okay that metaphor ended up being longer than I initially planned, also, as with all metaphors it’s not perfect, but hopefully it gives you some sense of the spirit in which I’m critiquing the MTA. And perhaps the metaphor also helps explain why there are many ways in which I hope the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. Finally I hope it also provides a framework for my conclusion that the best course of action is to assume that they’re not right. But, let’s start by examining a couple of areas where I definitely hope they are correct.

The first and largest area where I hope the MTA is right and I’m wrong is war and violence. There is significant evidence that humans are getting less violent. The best book on the subject is Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which I reviewed in a previous post. As I mentioned in that post I do agree that there has been a short term trend of less violence, and also, a definite decrease in the number of deaths due to war. This dovetails nicely with the MTA’s assertion that humanity’s morality is increasing at the same rate as its technology, and given these trends, there is certainly ample reason to be optimistic. But this is where the Mormon part of the MTA comes into play. While it’s certainly reasonable for Pinker and secular transhumanists to be optimistic about the future, for Mormons and Christians in general, there is the little matter of Armageddon. Or as it’s described in one of my favorite scriptures Doctrine and Covenants Section 87 verse 6:

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

I assume that the MTA has an explanation for this scripture that is different than mine, but I’m having a hard time finding anything specific online. If I had to guess, I imagine they would say that it has already happened. But in any case, they have to have an alternative explanation because if we assume that the situation described above has yet to arrive, then the MTA will have at least two problems. First the trend of decreasing violence and increasing morality will have definitely ended, and second I think it’s safe to assume that if we have to pass through the “full end of all nations”, that what comes out on the other side won’t bear any resemblance to the utopian transhumanist vision of the MTA. Again, I hope they’re right, and I hope I’m wrong, I hope that scripture has somehow already been fulfilled, or that I’m completely misinterpreting it. I hope that humanity is more peaceful than I think, rather than less. But just because I want something to be a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how it’s actually going to play out.

For our second area, let’s take a look at genetic engineering. Just today I was listening to the Radiolab podcast, specifically the most recent episode which was an update to an older episode exploring a technology called CRISPR. If you’re not familiar with it, CRISPR is a cheap and easy technology for editing DNA, and the possibilities for it’s use are nearly endless. The most benign and least controversial application of CRISPR would be using it to eliminate genetic diseases like hemophilia (something they’re already testing in mice.) From this we move on to more questionable uses, like using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos (very similar to the movie Gattaca). Another questionable application would involve using CRISPR to edit some small portion of a species and then, taking advantage of another technique called Gene Drive, use the initially modified individuals to spread the edited genes to the rest of the species. An example of this would be modifying mosquitos so that they no longer carry malaria. But it’s easy to imagine how this might cause unforeseen problems. Also how the technique could be used in the service of other, less savory goals. I’ll allow you a second to imagine some of the nightmare scenarios this technique makes available to future evil geniuses.

CRISPR is exactly the sort of technology the MTA and other transhumanists have been looking forward to. It’s not hard to see how the cheap and easy editing of DNA makes it easier to achieve things like immortality and greater intelligence. But as I already pointed out even positive uses for CRISPR have been controversial. According to the Radiolab podcast the majority of bioethicists are opposed to using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos. (Which hasn’t stopped China from experimenting with it.)

As far as I understand it the MTA’s position on all of this is that it’s going to be great, that the bioethicists worry to much. This attitude stems from their aforementioned belief that morality and technology are advancing together. Which means that by the time we master a technology we will also have developed the morality to handle it. As it turns out DNA editing is another area of agreement between the MTA and Steven Pinker, who said the following:

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

Given this description perhaps you can see why I hope the MTA, and Pinker are right. I hope that CRISPR and other similar technologies do yield a better life for billions. I hope that humanity is mature enough to deal with the technology, and that it’s just as cool, and as transformative as they predict. That the worries of the bioethicists concerning CRISPR and the warnings of scripture concerning war, turn out to be overblown. That the future really is as awesome as they say it’s going to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true.

But perhaps, like me, you don’t think it is. Or perhaps, you’re just not sure. Or maybe despite my amazing rhetoric and ironclad logic, you still think that the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. The key thing, as always, is that we can’t know. We can’t predict the future, we can’t know for sure who is right and who is wrong. Though to be honest I think the evidence is in my favor, but even so let’s set that aside for the moment and examine the consequences of being wrong from either side.

If I’m wrong, and the MTA is correct, then my suffering will be minimal. Sure the transhumanist overlords will dredge up my old blog posts and use them to make me look foolish. Perhaps I’ll be included in a hall of fame of people who made monumentally bad predictions. But I’ll be too busy living to 150, enjoying a post scarcity society, and playing amazingly realistic video games, to take any notice of their taunting.

On the other hand, if I’m right and the MTA is wrong. Then the sufferings of those who were unprepared could be extreme. Take any of the things mentioned in D&C 87:6 and it’s clear that even a little preparation in advance could make a world of difference. I’m not necessarily advocating that we all drop everything and build fallout shelters, I’m talking about the fundamental asymmetry of the situation. Which is to say that the consequences of being wrong are much worse in one situation than in the other.

The positions of the MTA and the transhumanists and of Pinker are asymmetrical in several ways. First is the way I already mentioned, and is inherent in the nature of extreme negative events, or black swans as we like to call them. If you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once to make all the preparation worth while, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. To use an example from a previous post, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with shelf after shelf of canned goods. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people mock me, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. At that point, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of modernity and progress, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

The second way in which their position is asymmetrical is the number of people who have to be “good”. CRISPR is easy enough and cheap enough and powerful enough that a small group of people could inflict untold damage. The same goes for violence due to war. It’s not enough for the US and Russia to not get into a war. China, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, France, Japan, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Vietnam, the Ukraine, and on and on, all have to behave as well. The point being that even if you are impressed with modern standards of morality (which I’m not by the way) if only 1% of the people decide to be really bad, it doesn’t matter how good the other 99% are.

The final asymmetry is that of time. A large part of the transhumanist vision came about because we’re in a very peaceful time where technology is advancing very quickly. Thus the transhumanists came into being during a brief period where it seems obvious that things are going to continue getting better. But they seem to largely ignore the possibility that in 100 years an enormous number of things might have changed. The US might no longer exist, perhaps democracy itself will be rare, we could hit a technological plateau, and of course we’ll have to go that entire time without any of the black swans I already mentioned. No large scale nuclear wars, no horrible abuses of DNA editing, nor any other extreme negative events which might derail our current rate of progress and our current level of peace.

As my final point, in addition to the two things I hope the MTA is right about I’m going to add one thing which I hope they’re not right about. To introduce the subject I’d like to reference a series of books I just started reading. It’s the Culture Series by Iain M. Banks, named after the civilization at the core of all the books. Wikipedia describes Culture as a utopian, post-scarcity space communist society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences. We find out additionally that its citizens can live to be up to 400. So not immortal, but very long lived. In other words Culture is everything transhumanists hope for. As far as I can tell citizens of the Culture spend their time in either extreme boredom, some manner of an orgy or transitioning from one gender into another and back again. Perhaps this is someone’s idea of heaven, but it’s not mine. In other words if this or something like it is what the MTA has in mind as the fulfillment of all the things promised by the scriptures, then I hope they’re wrong. And I would offer up that they suffer from a failure of imagination.

I hope that resurrection is more than just cloning and cryonics, that transfiguration is more than having my mind uploaded into a World of Warcraft server, that “worlds without number” is more than just a SpaceX colony on Mars. That immortality is more than just the life I already have, but infinitely longer. If you’re thinking at this point that my description of things is a poor caricature of what the MTA really aspires to then you’re almost certainly correct, but I hope that however lofty the dreams of the MTA that those lofty dreams are in turn a poor caricature of what God really has in store for us.

Returning to my original point. I am very favorably disposed to the MTA. I think they have some great ideas, and I’ve very impressed with the way they’ve combined science and religion. Unfortunately, despite all that, we have very different philosophies when it comes to the business of chocolate covered asparagus.

Given that we don’t yet live in a post-scarcity society consider donating. And if you’re pretty sure we eventually will, that’s all the more reason to donate, since money will soon be pointless anyway.

Building the Tower of Babel

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I spent this past weekend visiting some old friends. One of my friends is a Dominican Friar who was gracious enough to allow me to stay in one of the guest rooms at his Priory. One night while I was there he invited me to sit down with the other friars during their social hour. I think mostly he just wanted me to meet them, but as I was sitting there they ended up on the subject of what level of human technological enhancement was appropriate. Obviously this is a somewhat fraught issue for most religions, and definitely all of the traditional religions. I don’t want to misconstrue what my hosts said, nor do I claim any great insight into Catholic doctrine on this matter, so I won’t attempt to reconstruct the discussion. But it led to a conversation with my friend afterwards where I mentioned the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I’ve always felt that the MTA seemed to have missed the point of the story of the Tower of Babel, and my friend the Dominican (without any prodding from me) jumped to an identical conclusion. It was nice to have the support of someone else on this point and additionally it reminded me that I had wanted to write a post examining just this question. That is, does the story of the Tower of Babel speak to the goals religious transhumanism?

To conduct the examination we need to answer two questions: First is the story of the Tower of Babel a caution about using technology in an attempt to become like God? Second is using technology to become like God one of the primary goals of the MTA? The second question is easier to answer than the first so we’ll begin there.

It is always dangerous to speak for a group you do not belong to, particularly when you are a critic of the group. I could point out that my criticism is meant in the most constructive and friendly way possible. But, even so, as a reader you would have every right to question my objectivity on this point. If you have any worries on this point I would urge you to follow all the links and educate yourself by reading what the MTA says about itself. That said I am not trying to be unfair or prejudiced, and in that spirit here is my best summary of what the MTA believes: All of the promises made by Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, (resurrection, immortality, the creation of worlds, etc) are going to be accomplished through human ingenuity, in the form of technology. As I said you should follow the links to their website, but I think point four of the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation says much the same thing:

We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.

Perhaps, this, by itself, is already enough, and, from the standpoint of religion, you can already easily see why the Tower of Babel story is applicable. But for those that are not convinced or would like more evidence, let me break it down. First the principles I’ve already pointed out are just the Mormon veneer on top of main body of transhumanism. The MTA is not merely espousing a particular Mormon take on transhumanism they fully endorse the goals of the broader transhumanist movement. This is made clear when they explain what it takes to join the MTA:

The association requires that all members support the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.

The Transhumanist Declaration gives one the impression that the sky’s the limit with respect to technological enhancement. For example let’s look at points 1 and 8 of the declaration (the first and last points):

Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.

We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

If you’re still not convinced let me close this section by providing a few examples of things transhumanists and the MTA in particular are definitely in favor of:

Cryonics: That is freezing or otherwise preserving someone when they die with a view towards bringing them back from the dead at some future point.

Genetic Modification: Obviously genetic modification can take many forms, but under the heading of human modification and enhancement the MTA is in favor of using it to the maximum extent possible as a means of increasing intelligence and of course, eventually providing immortality. If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca that’s probably a pretty fair representation.

Cybernetic enhancements: This category might cover getting rid of perfectly functional eyes and replacing them with more advanced robotic eyes, or some sort of direct connection between your brain and a computer (think the headjack from the Matrix.)

Mind uploading: The most radical idea of all would be the ability to copy your mind and then upload it to some sort of computer, allowing you to live on as a virtual being. This enhancement encompasses the benefits of all the previous enhancements, but is also probably the most difficult technically.

As I said I’m reluctant to speak for a group I’m critical of, and if you have doubts as to whether I’m accurately portraying the principles espoused by the MTA then you should definitely follow the links and read things for yourself, but from where I stand there can be very little doubt that the answer to my second question is: yes, one of the MTA’s primary goals is to become like God through the use of technology. With that, hopefully, out of the way let’s turn to the first and more important question. For the religious, is the Tower of Babel story a caution against efforts like this? Or more broadly what is the official LDS stance on achieving divinity through technology?

There will of course be people who think this sort of technological enhancement is a good idea regardless of what I say about the Tower of Babel or anything else. And there will be people who think it’s a bad idea, also regardless of what I say, but for those in the middle the Tower of Babel is a good place to start. Particularly if you’re Mormon. (Though as I pointed out even my very Catholic friend immediately made reference to the story of Babel.)

The reason it’s particularly good for Mormons is that it’s one of the few Old Testament stories to be mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And of those it’s definitely the most prominent. If we proceed from the assumption that everything in the Book of Mormon was put there for a reason why was it necessary to have a second telling of the story of the Tower of Babel? If you accept the idea that it’s a cautionary tale about using technology to achieve divinity in circumvention of God then the straightforward answer is that this is an issue modern saints would be grappling with and it was therefore helpful to have a reminder. I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, this connection, along with the underlying moral, make a lot of sense. And in fact I’m going to call this the traditional interpretation. However for the moment let’s assume that this is not the moral of the story of Babel. This is obviously the MTA’s position. And if it isn’t the moral why do we need a duplicate account? What is the alternative moral which is so important that the story needed to be repeated?

Lincoln Cannon is one of the founders of the MTA and a past president and therefore among its most vocal defenders. As you might imagine he has written an article explaining that the goals of the MTA are not the same thing we are being warned about in the story of Tower of Babel. This article is titled Ethical Progress is Not Babel, and I intend to deal with it in depth, but for the moment we’re just looking to see if he has an alternative moral for the story. I would say that he alludes to one. Drawing on a quote from Lorenzo Snow (which we’ll return to) Cannon writes:

Snow suggests that the builders’ moral failing was in allowing technical achievements to outpace moral achievements. The technical achievements in themselves were not the problem, but rather the problem was the relative lack of virtue.

To begin with even if we grant this moral, which we’ll call the MTA interpretation, I’m not sure that our technical achievements haven’t outstripped our moral achievements. A subject I’ll be returning to. But, also, why would this moral be more likely than the more obvious moral. Or to put in other terms how can we go about deciding which moral is more likely to be correct? Of course as religious people we are entitled to receive revelation with something like this, but as that is largely a personal endeavor we’re going to leave it out. What methods can we turn to in the absence of revelation?

Well first, most of the lessons contained in the scriptures are pretty simple. We’re told to have faith, repent, get baptized, love God and each other. I’d be willing to grant that the traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story is not quite that simple, but it’s certainly more simple than the MTA interpretation.

Second, when the Lord does instruct us through the scriptures, the obvious explanation is almost always the correct one. (I understand saying “correct” is a loaded term, but I think you know what I mean.) This is not to say there aren’t layers of meaning to the scriptures. But that’s not what we’re seeing here, the MTA interpretation ends up in a place that’s almost the exact opposite of the obvious meaning. I definitely can’t think of any scripture where God commands people to, for example, tell the truth, and the correct interpretation ends up being that lying is the only way to be saved.

Finally most gospel principles are repeated multiple times, but I can’t think of another place where we’re urged to not let our technology outstrip our ethics. Or where we’re urged to pursue technology as the true source of all the long promised blessings. In other words what other scriptures support the MTA interpretation? On the other hand there are lots of examples of scriptures which support the traditional interpretation. To give just a few examples:

  • When the Children of Israel made the Golden Calf: This may not seem very high tech to you, but for the time it was. Also this is another example of finding salvation in something we’re able to build for ourselves while ignoring the plain commandments of God.
  • Another, similar example is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Once again we have someone using wealth, power and yes, technology to redirect legitimate worship away from God and to something constructed and conceived by humans. And once again the right course was to refuse to bow down, even if it meant being thrown into the fiery furnace.
  • Moving from the Old Testament to the New we have the story of Simon, who sought to buy God’s power. At first glance you may not immediately see a connection, but if we do manage to reverse aging or resurrect people, or upload their mind into a computer. It’s going to be far easier to access that technology with money than by living a good life.
  • Moving to the Book of Mormon, not only do we have a repeat of the story of Babel, but we also have the story of the Rameumptom. Again, it may not seem like technology, but it’s another example of people building something designed to act as a shortcut to salvation. It’s basically an exact mirror of the Tower of Babel story only on a smaller scale.

It’s possible that you don’t see the connection in one or more of the examples I just cited. But for the MTA interpretation to be the best interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, you have to:

  1. Reject all the supporting examples for the traditional interpretation.
  2. Find other scriptural examples which support the MTA interpretation.
  3. Explain why the MTA interpretation is the more correct interpretation despite being more complicated.
  4. Justify why an interpretation which is exactly the opposite of the obvious interpretation is nevertheless the correct one.

As I mentioned already, Cannon has an article explaining how the Tower of Babel doesn’t mean what I (or my friend the Catholic Priest) think it means, and it’s finally time to turn to that article and examine his argument. Though if you’re expecting him to cover all four of the points I just made (or actually any of the points I just made) you’re going to be disappointed. Still he brings in some interesting sources, so it’s worth taking a look at what he has to say.

The first quote, which I already alluded to, is from Lorenzo Snow:

We should strive earnestly to establish the principles of heaven within us, rather than trouble ourselves in fostering anxieties like the foolish people of the Tower of Babel, to reach its location before we are properly and lawfully prepared to become its inhabitants. Its advantages and blessings, in a measure, can be obtained in this probationary state by learning to live in conformity with its laws and the practice of its principles. To do this, there must be a feeling and determination to do God’s will.

This is the statement Cannon draws on for his moral for the story of Babel, that is, that we should not let technology get ahead of morality. To be honest I’m not really getting that from this quote. I think, if anything, a better interpretation would be that we need to focus on our personal righteousness, rather than being anxious or even concerned about whether we can hasten salvation with technology.

Also, I find the term “lawfully”, and his discussion of conforming to the laws, to be interesting as well. There are certain covenants associated with salvation. And some of those are associated with major life events. We’re baptized when we reach the age of eight, we prepare for the afterlife by going through the temple at around the time we are considered to be adults. Additionally, while they aren’t technically covenants, we have baby blessings for the newly born and we dedicate the graves of the newly dead. What sort of law or ritual applies to being revived from cryonics, or being reconstructed from DNA? Are the brethren just waiting until the technology is ready before introducing the ordinance of cloning?

Returning to the Snow quote. I could certainly see how other people might have a different interpretation of it than I do, but I can’t see anyone declaring it to be slam dunk for the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel.

The second quote he references is a long one from John Taylor. In fact Cannon’s article is 2/3rds quotes from early Church leaders and only 1/3rd his explanation of those quotes. He is making a complicated and controversial claim and one of my criticisms is that 400 words does not seem sufficient to explain it. In any event back to the Taylor quote. I won’t include all of it, but Cannon helpfully bolds two sections, the second of which appears to be speaking the most directly to his point:

We are here to do a work; not a small one, but a large one. We are here to help the Lord to build up his kingdom, and if we have any knowledge of electricity, we thank God for it. If we have any knowledge of the power of steam, we will say its from God. If we possess any other scientific information about the earth whereon we stand, or of the elements with which we are surrounded, we will thank God for the information, and say he has inspired men from time to time to understand them, and we will go on and grasp more intelligence, light and information, until we comprehend as we are comprehended of God.

I have no problem agreeing that John Taylor is here saying that technology comes from God. That technology is not evil. But there is a huge difference between saying that technology comes from God and saying that technology is how we become Gods. Additionally there is a difference of kind and not merely of degree between using technology to broadcast General Conference to, say, Tierra del Fuego and using technology to live forever. Again, it’s an interesting quote, but it is not even close to being the same as the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel story. Still, if you have any doubts, I urge you to read Cannon’s entire article.

The final quote he includes is from Joseph Smith:

This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory.

(The spelling and punctuation are from the original document.)

At this point I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but yes, we agree technology is not evil by itself. Technology can be useful both in general and as it relates to the specific goals of the Church. But none of these quotes speak to the specific idea of using technology as a way of accomplishing all the things God has promised. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that in the middle of the 1800’s when the Presidents of the Church talked about technology that they were not speaking about mind uploading, cybernetic replacement or cryonic resurrection. Fortunately one of the great things about the LDS Church is that we have ongoing revelation, and 15 prophetic leaders who give us counsel twice a year. And as far as I can tell none of them have come out in support of any of these technologies, certainly not as the means for achieving something like the resurrection of the dead as described in scriptures

And yet if the MTA is to be believed this is how it’s going to be done. Which means these aren’t marginal issues that reasonable people might disagree on, like whether it’s okay to take doctor prescribed marijuana in states where it’s now legal. Rather, issues like resurrection and immortality are fundamental to the entire gospel plan. And if the brethren aren’t pursuing them or investing in them or even talking about them, what does that say? And remember the Church does invest in things, if this is as important as the MTA claims, what does it say when the Church invests in the City Creek Mall, but not in life extension technologies? If these things are as critical to the gospel plan as the MTA claims then the only conclusion is that the brethren have completely failed in their jobs. It’s difficult to see how these two viewpoints can even co-exist, and one is tempted to view the MTA as more of a schismatic offshoot, than anything else.

In closing, let’s change tacks, and imagine that it’s true. Imagine that the MTA is everything it claims to be and God’s plan is to allow us to discover and perfect the technology necessary to achieve Godhood on our own. The MTA itself admits that this is only possible if our morality keeps pace with our technology. As you look around and take stock of the modern world, do you really think that’s the case? Are we really that much more righteous with our computers and jet airliners than the early saints were with their electricity and steam engines? Are we a thousand times more righteous than the twelve disciples and the people who followed Jesus because their technology was a thousand times more primitive? Is the modern world really so righteous that people who can barely be trusted with iPhones, are nevertheless on course to be trusted with omnipotence?

I’m definitely not ready for omnipotence, but I may be ready to handle the responsibility of a dollar a month, if you think so too, consider donating.