Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 2


For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the second post of a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.


Class Summary and Personal Commentary


Required Reading
The Immortality Upgrade by The New Yorker
Transfigurism.org by The Mormon Transhumanist Association


The Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) is a “nonprofit organization that syncretizes Mormonism and transhumanism. MTA sees parallels between transhumanist ideas, such as the technological singularity, and Mormon teachings. The majority of members are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), but the LDS Church is not directly affiliated with the MTA. MTA is affiliated with the world wide Humanity+ transhumanist organization.” (Wikipedia) Members of the MTA agree to both the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation and the Transhumanist Declaration.

Mormon Transhumanism takes the Mormon idea that humans should become gods, and the Transhumanist idea that we should use science and technology in ethical ways to improve our condition until we attain posthumanity, and suggests that these are related, if not identical tasks. That is, we should ethically use our resources including religion, science, and technology to improve ourselves and our world until we become Gods ourselves.

While reading What is Mormon Transhumanism?, by Lincoln Cannon, which I have read multiple times over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that much of the profoundness of his work is found in esthetics. While many views of the singularity, transhumanism, and posthumanism seem steeped in pessimism and dystopian depictions, Cannon offers a perspective that it optimistic, not with blind accretions built upon escapism, but rather trajectories worth aspiring to that are founded upon the resiliency and resourcefulness of the human spirit.  While risks should certainly be discussed, addressed, and mitigated, dystopian views without discussion of how to improve circumstances borderline as nihilistic.

Cannon comments, “Esthetics shape and move us, and at their strongest, they provoke us as a community to a strenuous mood.” This is quite true. We are literally shaping the reality of our existence and much of that motivation is found in esthetics. Our projections are forth-telling. Cannon shares an esthetic that is an all-encompassing trajectory for humanity not only in transhumanist terms, but also religious terms. While current projections of Gods in Christianity are overwhelmingly dominated by a singular male esthetic, Cannon’s New God Argument provides a plural God and a communal transcendence that is just as much Mormon, and even Christian, as it is Transhuman. Cannon may or may not realize how profound his statement concerning esthetics is for women, the queer community, people of color, the economically disadvantage or anyone who has experienced systemic institutionalized marginalization and oppression. Perhaps, if he does realize the broader ramifications of his statement I’d like to think it has been, in part, to me helping him realize it over the years. Maybe, maybe not. In either case, Lincoln has been one of the most influential philosophers in shaping my perceptions of both Mormon theology and Transhumanism, and is a dear friend.

I have contemplated expanding further on the broader implications of the New God Argument. I have put off writing The New God Argument: A Feminist’s Perspective for far too long. Some of the genius of Cannon’s work has still gone underdeveloped or at least unwritten.


Class Responses to Mormon Transhumanism


Many dystopian views of the singularity, transhumanism, and posthumanism are often predicated, not simply about technological limitations, but human limitations. Mainly, humanity’s capacity for radical love and compassion. The concerns I’m hearing most among peers are those related to social issues and oppression. There seems to be a tone of pessimism toward the potential of human progress, and what progress for the human species actually looks like. Progress is not just the enhancement and development of technologies, but also improving the self. Optimism seems lost in the conversation though. My generation, if my anecdotal observations are of any value, seems highly skeptical of optimism itself, especially if in relation to religion.

(1) The majority of the class identified as active LDS, and even more were familiar with Mormonism.

(2) Some seemed to hold to the idea that God should be responsible for making immortality a reality, and that being changed “in the twinkling of an eye” does not include technology. There seems to be some hesitance in accepting that technology is spiritual—which is somewhat silly considering Mormonism’s unique and quirky relationship with spiritual technologies (i.e seer stones, the Urim and Thummin, Liahona, the Brother of Jared and glowing stones, tools to build Noah’s ark, golden plates, brass plates, temple clothing, broadcasting general conference). I’d go as far to say that Mormonism doesn’t exist without technology.

(3) There seemed to be some confusion about representation. I had to clarify we, the MTA, are not directly affiliated with the LDS Church. In fact, I had to clarify to the class that there was a difference between Mormonism and the LDS Church, including a brief rundown of Mormonism’s history of other Mormon sects not affiliated with the LDS Church (i.e. AUB, The Kingston Group, FLDS, Community of Christ, formerly RLDS). By the end of my response I think it was clear that Mormonism is bigger than the LDS Church.

(4) Students seemed to be interested in who the Association was led by. It was important to some students that the Association was led my self-identified Mormons. Several questions were asked about my specific affiliation with Mormonism and the LDS Church.

(5) There seemed to be some hesitation toward overstepping our bounds as followers of God. The word hubris wasn’t used, but the idea was hinted at. I had to remind the class that in Doctrine and Covenants that our participation is mandated in building the Celestial Kingdom and that the earth “may be prepared for the celestial glory…that bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever.” I also included a short commentary about “faith without works is dead.”

(6) Some students failed to recognize religion as distinct from theology, and institutions as distinct from religion. They are inter related, yes, but distinctly different. There was also a need to clarify that many other institutions and ideologies function as a pseudo-religion.

(7) There was a student that was skeptical of religion entirely and thought religion should have no place in Transhumanism. I introduced the idea of religion being a technology and that it is a powerful and effective process to mobilize large communities to accomplish great acts, both good and bad. Religion itself is neither good or bad, simply power. Plus fighting the human drive to be religious and create rituals is a fool’s errand. It’s far more effective to point that religious drive in the right direction than to try to rid people of it.

One thoughtful student of anthropology commented, “Mormon Transhumanism is fascinating. If there is any religion that is likely to survive into the future it would be them. A religion that cannot adapt will die.” I pointed her in the direction of the fine work of Jon Bialecki.

(8) Students were concerned about social issues and people having access to advance technologies. Some conflated religious moral codes with exclusivity. For example, if religion dominated transhumanism there could be a scenario where a homosexual would be denied immortality or aging treatments for being a “sinner.” Students were very much concerned with arbitrary religious moral codes taking over technological applications and accessibility. This is a legitimate concern—that’s one reason why we need more intersectionality and diversity in the Transhumanist movement.

(9) There seemed to be a divide between students who believed in agency and free will, and those that had a more deterministic view of humanity’s potential or demise, depending on the student’s utopian or dystopian view. Specifically, some seemed all too sure of a technological determinist dystopian future.

(10) Lastly, there was a tendency to conflate morality with moral codes. Class ended so I didn’t get a chance to clarify the differences. In short, moral codes are a set of rules people live by. Morality is the active process in which we reconcile diverse values and desires. The two are related, but not the same.
  

Key Terms Defined


Humanity+ (H+): is an international organization which advocates the ethical use of emerging technologies to enhance human capacities.

Technological Determinism: is the theory that a society's technology determines the development of its social structure and cultural values.

Utopia: an imaginary place or time when all things are in a state of perfection.

Dystopia: an imaginary place or time when all things are in an unpleasant or bad state.