Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mormon Transhumanism Conference--Paper Presented

At the recent Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference, I presented my paper: "How Amazing is Grace: The Role of Jesus Christ in Mormonism and Transhumanism.

There was actually very little time for question or discussion with any of the talks, but I was pleased and somewhat surprised by the general respect for my perspective and even several positive comments about my talk.  Even the guest keynote speaker, Giulio Prisco, former board member and director of the World Transhumanist Association, told me he really appreciated my remarks.

I thought that was a bit odd because of how generally critical I was of some aspects of transhumanism.

But then as the conference progressed and I experienced the incredible diversity of thought and ideas, I found myself in a culture of people who seemed to like different perspectives, who openly disagreed with each other without getting upset.  I wasn't the only speaker with criticism of transhumanist perspectives, yet all reasonable views were welcomed.

The topics were incredibly diverse:  Some I disagreed with strongly, others I thought were pointless philosophizing about things not scientifically measurable, and some I learned a lot from and took copious notes. 

The format of 10-minute presentations with 1-minute Q&A kept things moving pretty quickly from one idea to the next, but didn't allow for a lot of discussion. That's why I especially enjoyed visiting at lunch and dinner with some people who had some extremely diverse perspectives.

It seems to be a group of mostly techie-type people interested in philosophizing about possibilities, and exploring the merger between science and religion, but without much unified agreement on specifics of transhumanism.  Even among people who call themselves "transhumanists," they're mostly just interested in scientific discovery, not necessarily all promoting human solutions to the resurrection.  They loved to visit with each other and learn from each other, but aren't really unified enough to form any kind of significant movement.

I still struggle to see how transhumanism adds significant additional value to people who already openly embrace science as strongly as many, perhaps most, Mormons do, and I'm much more interested in the practical matters of science and technology solving current world problems than in philosophical discussions of what might happen many decades to come.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mormons and Revelation

In this commentary, Mormonism and Transhumanism, I found much to agree with, in its' critique of an apparently uninformed or largely mistaken commentary about Mormonism by a well-known literary critic.

Some of the comments drifted into the topic of revelation from God and following the prophet.

I feel these concerns can be relevant to the topic of religion and science because sometimes those who reject religion have a false idea of what religion and communication from God means even to those with a strong faith in God.

Here's one disgruntled Mormon commenter:
Mistakes by men can be excused but not while they claim to be the one and only mouthpiece of God on the earth. Mormons believe that their "Prophet" has a special room in the Temple where he speaks face to face with God, that he has meetings in the Temple with Jesus Christ sitting at the head of the table conducting the affairs of the church. They believe via scripture that the prophets and apostles are perfect in that they can not be deceived. How then is it that there are so many examples of them being so very incorrect?

And my thoughts:

I'm a practicing Mormon who have studied Church teachings for many years.  You have a very different understanding of Mormon beliefs about revelation and God's communication to us and to our prophets than I or my Mormon family and friends.

Prophets, anciently, or in recent history, have not claimed to be perfect, nor are they required to be perfect in order to accomplish God's work.  Biblical examples of this abound.  Remember Jonah?  Peter?  Their mistakes are even documented in scripture.

Here's one outline of eight ways God speaks to us, given by Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Church Apostles.

Another talk Gives quotes from several former Mormon prophets, including Joseph Smith, describing the most common ways they receive revelation from God:
"sudden strokes of ideas" --Joseph Smith
"a sudden thought that comes to your mind"  --Harold B. Lee
"These delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels more than one hears. . .
"The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all. …
“Occasionally it will press just firmly enough for us to pay heed. But most of the time, if we do not heed the gentle feeling, the Spirit will withdraw and wait until we come seeking and listening.”
            --Boyd K. Packer

So, even prophets primarily get their revelation very similar to the way the rest of us can--and they, including Joseph Smith, encourage us to get our own answers and revelations from God.  These answers can come through heavenly visitations, but those are extremely rare, even for prophets.

Here's Brigham Young's advice on following the prophet:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” (In Journal of Discourses, 9:150.)
Having had some experience with the way the Church makes decisions about practical and structural matters for church organization, I know that scientific research, statistical analysis, pilot testing, and various other methods are often used.  I believe these "scientific methods" are one of the ways of finding truth and sometimes the revelation might just be the "sudden strokes of ideas" of how to property design the pilot project or the statistical survey analysis to obtain the proper answers about truth.  

And I'm fine with calling even that scientific discovery and practical experimentation process being a part of revelation from God.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mormons Embrace Artificial Intelligence, Science

I haven't posted much to this blog anymore, mostly because I feel like I've already covered the key issues,and don't have much more to add.

However, on occasion, something crops up that seems to relate to this discussion.

One concept that transhumanists like is the idea that computers will develop human-like capabilities.

Recently, at LDS Church-funded and owned Brigham Young University, came this article: Student turning computers into composers.  We're still a ways off of a computer Beethoven in terms of the quality and creativity, but it's still pretty interesting for artificial intelligence.

Also, BYU students beat teams from Harvard and Duke to advance to world finals at the U.S. International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Regional Jamboree sponsored by MIT.  In this competition:
"Teams participating in iGEM are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. Then they use those and new parts that they design themselves to build biological systems and operate them in living cells."

Other BYU scientific research awards include an electric vehicle land speed record, and an award for computer hacking.

These efforts are not just created by people who happen to be members of the Church, they are officially funded by LDS Church tithing dollars, then promoted as public examples of excellent work.

When I read things like this, I struggle to see any elements of Church culture or practices that oppose the development and adoption of new technologies.  Yet, encouragement to embrace technology seems to underscore the need for "Mormon Transhumanism."

Mormons already love and proactively support technology, biotech, artificial intelligence, curing  disease, etc.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cultural Divergences and Learning from Others

Christopher and others made some more excellent comments to my last post.

Christopher suggests:
I agree that Mormonism's doctrine embraces and promotes scientific and technological discovery. But we struggle with this culturally, and I think there is some cross-over in the sense that the cultural struggle is too often mistaken within Mormonism for doctrine. In other words, many Mormons mistakenly think that Mormonism's doctrine cannot be reconciled with science and technology. . .
Finally, I agree that there is a risk that some transhumanist ideas, accepted without question, may erode some core Mormon principles. However, as Paul says, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." The same may be said of nearly anything. 
Here, Christopher makes two excellent points:  1) Mormon culture and doctrine don't always match  2) We can learn much from other teachings, but should study them out carefully and "prove all things."

It seems we agree there are differences between transhumanism and Mormonism.  That's basically all I'm trying to point out in this blog.  I can also agree there are also points of overlap between the two.

Now, to discuss Christopher's other issues:

1) Culture not matching doctrine

Yes, in the Mormon Church we have a plenty of challenges with cultural divergences from doctrine, or perhaps too strict or limiting interpretations of doctrine.

However, in terms of cultural practices that don't match doctrine, embracing science and technology seem to be pretty low on the list.  A large portion of our Quorum of the Twelve hold PhDs, a significant portion are professional scientists, as are numerous members of the Seventy.  The Church directly funds at least tens of millions of dollars a year in scientific research at Brigham Young University, including physics, genetics, cancer, engineering, computer science, all the social sciences, and BYU requires a course on evolutionary biology for many science majors and teaches evolution as part of the required Biology general education class.  

The Church directly owns and operates hundreds of Internet URLs, and officially and proactively encourages members and wards to use the Internet, phones, and computers for numerous purposes: distributing general conference, ward websites and directories, family history, blogs, missionary work, managing finances, etc.  The Church was one of the first organizations to use radio and TV, and TV was invented by a Mormon--Philo T. Farnsworth.  Brigham Young sent workers from the Salt Lake Temple to help build the railroad, which was completed in Ogden, Utah.

The Mormon Scholars Testify site now has 276 testimonies of Mormon academics, and the Church's Brigham Young University is 7th in the nation for the number of alumni who earned PhDs in the past 5 years.

Where's the cultural problem here?

In my personal experience among Mormons, I see a very open cultural embracing of technology and scientific development.  Perhaps my Mormon world is more surrounded by tech or science professionals than yours.  I don't recall in recent memory meeting a Mormon who shunned technological development or scientific research.

I have encountered a variety of thoughts about the merging of creation and evolution, but it seems to me Mormons are much more open to scientific insight on this issue than are other highly religious Christians.

In my experience, there many other higher-priority areas in which our culture tends to separate from our doctrine.  Sometime it might would be interesting to make a list and contrast our experiences.  Most of these areas, though, it seems to me that our Church leaders at the highest levels are regularly trying counteract this culture with our actual doctrine.

In most cultural problem areas I can think of, we'd probably be just as well off studying scriptures and the guidance and personal examples of Church leaders as we would promoting our own ideas.  Science and technology is definitely one of those areas in which the Church and its' leaders are excellent examples, as I've shared above.

2)  Learning from others

On the issue of learning from others, I question the value of creating a new group for all of these  issues in which culture is not aligned with doctrine as well as it should be.  For example, I believe we can learn much about Biblical study, grace, enthusiastic and joyful worship, and missionary work from evangelical Christians.  Should we start an "Mormons Embracing Evangelical Christianity" group?

I feel we can learn much about meditation and spirituality from Buddhism, we can gain an improved understanding of modesty, obedience, and respect for family life from Islam, we can learn respect for ancestors, eternal progression, and positive sensuality from Taoism.  I have read and love the Hindu Baghavad-Gita for its' inspiration about life principles.

We already seem to openly embrace C.S. Lewis and his insights--which I love, but one of my favorites for philosophical insights and understanding of life in general is Mark Twain.  Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are full of both wit and wisdom.

Does that mean the best solution is to create new joint groups to discuss and celebrate these additional learning opportunities?  The Mormon Taoist Society?  The Mormon Islamic Association?  The Mormon Huck Finn Fan Club?

Once you start merging the word, "Mormon" with another group's name or message, whether intentionally or not, you give the impression that there is full overlap between the ideas of the two groups.

As a result, the areas in which you differ need to be clearly and openly delineated, or you just create more confusion.  Still, in spite of your best efforts to communicate the differences, the mere joint name makes communicating those differences very difficult.

Hence this blog.  I'm trying to highlight the differences I see.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Resurrection Technology, Morals, and God's Order

In response to my last post, I received several very helpful and insightful comments.  I genuinely appreciate and have learned from them.  Thank you for sharing.  I especially appreciated how many of these comments included affirmations of faith.

As I understand it, here are the key themes from these comments.

  • God generally respects our agency and allows us to learn for ourselves.
  • God uses natural law to accomplish His purposes, including creation, resurrection and other miracles--and the scriptures don't explain how he did this--just that He did it.   
  • This use and understanding of natural law--ancient or modern--could be called "technology"
  • God wants us to do things--to use our talents and abilities to become like Him, not wait around for Him to do it for us.

I actually agree with all of these ideas.   Lincoln Cannon also responded with a new post that was insightful and helpful.

I believe in a God who has tremendous respect for our agency.  Just as a parent or a soccer coach cannot help a child learn something by doing it for them, perhaps God wants us to learn how to figure things out, including resurrection, on our own? 

I support that basic concept. In fact one of my frustrations with working with parents of youth is that they try to do too many things for their youth and that stunts their children's growth.

I believe that God uses and fully understands natural law and uses it to make things happen. I certainly won't claim an understanding of the methods or "technologies" he used to accomplish the resurrection or other miracles. 

I actually love and embrace the development of new technologies and find it "miraculous" that we can now quite easily restore sight to many people, eradicate certain diseases, communicate instantaneously, and many other things.  I also believe we can learn much about accomplishing the things God does through diligent research and experimentation.

My primary worry about transhumanism as a means to resurrection is that a belief that we can figure it out on our own tends to take Christ out of the picture. 

If we can figure it out ourselves using only the scientific method, why do we need Christ? Where is the need for faith? What about grace? How about an order and type of resurrected body based on God-like righteousness and moral action?

The scientific method doesn't require Christ, faith, grace, or righteous and moral action. It makes no distinction among the moral values of the experimenter.  Pure scientific experimentation allows Kim Jung Il to develop a nuclear weapon, just as easily as it does the U.S.   It allows Saddam Hussein to develop the same biological weapons that we can develop.

Yet, the scriptures are clear that the resurrection will be ordered based on the moral behavior of the people being resurrected.  Yes, everyone will be resurrected--but not all in the same order, and not to the same level of perfection.  

How does a process based entirely on the scientific method ensure that kind of order?  Who or what ensures that order is based on moral judgements?  

I fully support agency, technology, and the use of natural law to accomplish God's purposes.  However, I worry that suggesting we can resurrect ourselves tends to decrease our faith in Christ as the one who broke the bands of death, and who will do it in the future.  I also feel more comfortable with Him being the judge as to who gets resurrected first and to what degree of perfection, and not some scientific committee of peers.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ancient Technologies: Resurrection and Immortality

Some of the most cutting-edge goals of modern science are actually extremely old technologies.  For example, the ability to live forever and the ability to bring back people from the dead is almost 2,000 years old.

Perhaps God will choose to use modern science and technology, like DNA sequencing or other tools, as one of the means to assist in resurrection, but He certainly does not need to, and has not used them in the past.  

In this post, below, I've compiled a few references about Jesus Christ's resurrection, which is the center point of Christianity, including the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints.  None of these references suggest or hint at them being a parable or analogy as an inspiration for later science.   Numerous early Christians were tortured, beaten, then continued preaching this same message--that Jesus came, died, and was resurrected.  Those are hardly actions of people defending something that was nothing more than a symbolic myth or parable.

Of course, these references are in the realm of faith, not science, so they are not provable using the scientific method--although we do have plenty of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence.   But, I struggle to see how you can believe in the resurrection of Christ 2000 years ago and also subscribe to the transhumanist idea that we will eventually use technology improvements to accomplish the same thing.

Matt. 28:6 (See also Luke 24:6),  Mark 16:9

  • 5And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.
     6He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
     7And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.
     8And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.
     9¶And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.
     10Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.He is not here: for he is risen," 
  • 36  And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
     37But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.
     38And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why dothoughts arise in your hearts?
     39Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
     40And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands andhis feet.
     41And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?
     42And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb.
     43And he took it, and did eat before them.
  •  John 20:20, 27-28
  •  20And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.
  • 27Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
     28And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
  • Acts 1:3   
  • 3To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:
  • 3 Nephi 11:13-16
13And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto them saying:
14Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.
15And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come.
16And when they had all gone forth and had witnessed for themselves, they did cry out with one accord, saying:
17Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him.
Many other people were also resurrected:

Matthew 27:52

52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
 53And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

 3 Nephi 23:9

9Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them. And he said unto them: Was it not so?
 10And his disciples answered him and said: Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled.
 11And Jesus said unto them: How be it that ye have not writtenthis thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?
 12And it came to pass that Nephi remembered that this thing had not been written.
 13And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should bewritten; therefore it was written according as he commanded.

Finally, He promised three of the Nephite apostles they would never die:

7Therefore, more blessed are ye, for ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven.
8And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father.
The ancient resurrection is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity and the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If the resurrection happened, how does God still need us to gradually use scientific means to eventually enable us to accomplish the same thing he's already done "many" times nearly 2,000 years ago?