Tuesday, June 20, 2017

In a Dream

(Artist: Seb Janiak)

My closest friends know I dream. I dream a lot. 

I have dreams about fantasy worlds that don't exist, and dreams that are so closely aligned with memories that I question if they really happened. I have beautiful dreams, gruesome dreams, violent dreams, adventurous dreams, vivid dreams, abstract dreams, sexual dreams, and humorous dreams. I dream about loved ones from my past, and loved ones in the present. I dream about the future. I dream about time travel. I dream almost every night. Sometimes I write them in my journal.

Some mornings Drew will ask me, "What were you dreaming about last night? You were smiling in your sleep again." Other times I’ll wake up startled and sweating and he will ask, "Did you have another nightmare?" Sleeping in the same bed as me must be utterly exhausting. I don't know how he does it. I supposed he's gotten used to it over the years.

I had a dream I would like to share.

Women were ordained to the priesthood. It finally happened. Just prior to the public announcement, I was granted a private audience with the Q15, because in my dream why wouldn't I be granted a private audience with the men who run the Church? 

I walked into a spacious room where elderly white men sat in opulent, red velvet chairs behind an oversized dark, mahogany desk. I stood in the center of the room with a considerable distance separating me from them. I felt no need to step any closer, nor a desire to sit down. I was wearing my usual Sunday attire, while they were dressed in their usual dark suits. Some seemed happy, some seemed relieved, some seemed annoyed, and some seemed indifferent.

One of them said to me impatiently, "Well Blaire, are you happy now?"

I looked at him, a little confused of how to respond or how I even ended up in this room with them. I said, "Happy? Why would I be happy?"

Another one with a much kinder tone continued, "You're finally getting what you want, female ordination. Aren't you satisfied?"

I paused, gaining my composure before calmly answering, "No. I'm not satisfied."

Another looked confused and questioned, "Is this not what you wanted? You fought for it like you did."

I responded, "No. I care very little about my personal ordination. I suppose I'm happy for others that desire ordination, but my personal desires are almost irrelevant in this context."

Another one with an attractive accent said, "Are you still upset about our policies on homosexuality? We are planning on changing those as well. That will take more time."

I mildly chuckled and said, "I trust policy would change eventually. You've changed in the past, there's no doubt you're capable of doing it again. You change when the institution is threatened. I see how preserving the institution is of paramount importance. It's in atrophy.”

The one sitting at the center of the desk, the leader, firmly questioned, "Blaire, what do you want?"

I furrowed my brows while thoughtfully considering his question. I glanced to my left, out the elongated windows to see light breaking through dark clouds. The windows were the only source of light. Everything else seemed dim.

I smiled and turned my gaze back to the men before replying, "I don't know exactly what I want, but it's not here. To be sure, I want to be Mormon. I'll always be Mormon—it’s quite literally in my blood. I imagine I'll wear the label Mormon ‘til the day I die, hopefully longer. Mormon theology is my theology, but your institution is not my institution.

Everyone seems to be an expert on why Millennials are leaving religion. Yes, your policies and positions are outdated and unnecessarily exclusionary. Yes, it's disappointing it has taken you this long to ordain women to the priesthood. Yes, we are tired of gerontocracies. Yes, we are done being preached at from authoritarians who don’t encourage our autonomy, authenticity, and flourishing. Yes, we’re unimpressed with patronizing rhetoric. Yes, we are annoyed by literalistic interpretations of scripture that hinder the genuine pursuit of Truth. Whether or not a narrative is literal isn't where its power lies. The power lies in human potential, but you’re still in Plato’s Cave marveling at shadows on the walls unable or unwilling to remove the shackles of escapism and bask in the exposure of wonderment, curiosity, and humility. You can’t know God when you cling to the shadows that make you feel safe. God is a risk, not a security blanket.

I can't speak for other Millennials, but for me, I didn’t need the Church to be 'true' from a literal perspective. Honest, yes, but not true. We are shaping the reality of our existence through stories, narratives, ideas, art, theologies, and even dreams that inspire a belief in Godly potential. Religions are the communities that mobilize us to accomplish great acts, and God has always been the projection of human desire. The problem is you don't believe in my potential. You may say it, but you don’t encourage it. I sometimes wonder if you even believe in God. It’s clear you believe in maintaining the status quo, but God is not the status quo. What if Joseph Smith never reached out beyond the status quo? What if he had been content with the existing religions of his time? What if he let external authoritarians override personal revelation? God can only meaningfully reveal what we would meaningfully accept. You cannot put limits on God without limiting humanity, and ironically perpetuating asinine limitations on God is the sort of hubris the scriptures warned us of.

Many Millennials have lost interest in your institutions. We're moving on. If it’s any consolation it’s not entirely your fault. There is a global shift occurring bigger than you, me, the Book of Mormon, the Bible, Mormonism, Christianity, or any other religion. I'm not interested in tearing you or any other religion down—that will happen naturally if traditionally recognized religion fails to pass the gauntlet of natural selection. Even Mormonism, my beautiful home, isn’t immune. 

The failure to adapt will lead to extinction, and you're not adapting fast enough in our techno-progressive world. We’re the generation that grew up with cell phones and the internet. We fact-check you as you speak. We are part of an ever-expanding network of decentralized information and authority. You cannot control Truth. Radical technology has led to radical transparency, and it’s creating unprecedented accountability. I pray these turn of events will lead to radical compassion. However, I am only one small cell in the body of compassion, the body of Christ. I need grace, as do you.

I'm interested in the construction of something better. I’m interested in the transformation of the mind. Transforming policy is helpful, but insufficient. Gods evolve. Gods change. Even more importantly, our perceptions of God change. The death of a God will lead to the birth of a new God, a new myth, a new theology, predicated by our past. We’re storytellers and I pray the Gods made in our image might eventually lead us to Truth. I don’t know when or if that day will come, but I choose faith. Even if I am wrong and this is all a futile protest against meaninglessness, I will have died trying—facing the uncertainty of the unknown, head on without the allusion of a safety net that you so desperately cling to.

You would think I would be more upset at this moment, like a girl saying goodbye to a lover, but I'm not. I'm grateful. The institution has fulfilled the measure of its creation.  Something better is coming—a shift in cognition. This is grander than any of us. I don’t know what it is or what it will look like, but I want to be a part of it. Is this desire of my own volition, or am I a slave to my biological programming? I don’t know. I only know the reality of desire.

I imagine others will feel differently, and will continue to find value in your pews, but you’ll have to forgive me—I have found your pews wanting.

Thank you for your time. I’ll see myself out now.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

Let There Be Light

(Artist: Blaire Ostler)

For my final term project for Philosophy of Singularity I created an original piece of art, Let There Be Light. My position as CEO at the Mormon Transhuman Association directs my attention to the intersections of religion and Transhumanism, and while the class briefly touched on religious Transhumanism, I wanted to continue that thought here.

While the two, religion and Transhumanism, may seem like an odd pairing, they are not only compatible, but complimentary. Transhumansim itself functions as a theology of sorts, with both dystopian (hell) and utopian (heaven) narratives. In fact, it is arguable that the nature of Transhumanism and the optimization for human flourishing is a more robust and thoughtful theology, predicated on traditionally recognized religion. What is post humanity, if not another projection of God? What is a Singularitarian’s dystopia, if not hell? What it is an utopian earth, if not Heaven? We tell ourselves and each other stories, and those narratives function as trajectories, ones we should embrace and work towards, or ones we should resist and mitigate.

Transhumanism is the intellectual and philosophical movement that works towards the radical improvement of humanity. The trajectory is “post humanity”—beings so far evolved from our current state they would seem like Gods in comparison. This trajectory includes the robust expansion of our intellectual capacities.

The word “light” is used in the scriptures to convey more than one meaning. In the scriptures light can mean the actually light of the sun, a symbol of life, and a representation of increased intellect.

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

“Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.” (John 3:18–21)

“That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:24)

“The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God” (D&C 88:13)

“Whatsoever is truth is light” (D&C 84:45)

“Let your light so shine” (Matthew 5:16)

“I, the Lord, […] will be a light unto them forever” (2 Nephi 10:14)

“I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy” (D&C 11:13)

But what does “light” have to do with Transhumanism? Well, more than you might think.

I recently read an interesting article that thoughtfully articulated the interesting relationship between AI developers, many of whom consider themselves aggressively secular, yet their language and pursuits are dripping with religious language, projections, and basic human desires. Most avid believers in AI tend to recoil at the idea of incorporating religion into their creations without recognizing they already have.

The point of illuminating the compatibility between religion and Transhumanism isn’t just some desperate attempt to hold tight to a cherished tradition and theology, or a misguided attempt to alleviate cognitive dissonance, it's about recognizing the potential of humanity as a story. Not only are we storytellers, but we're also story creators. Transhumanism is one more, or the next, story on the way to more light. Are our stories any more or less powerful because we have a more nuanced perspective? Perhaps it is through understanding our narratives more thoughtfully that we will come to appreciate and utilize them in a much more profound way, thus giving more power to our narratives, ideas, theologies, and beliefs.

Let There Be Light is a representation of all forms of light: secular, religious, intellectual, poetic, philosophical, and aesthetic. The narrative of how light is found, understood, used, and projected is open to innumerable interpretations, but light, in this sense, is at the core or our existence. It is light that gives us life. It is light that enables knowledge. It’s is light that we seek. In all things, let there be light.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 5

(Artist: National Geographic)

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the fifth post in 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
Year Million, by National Geographic
Singularity Is Near, by Ray Zurzweil
The Human Connectome Project, by humanconnectome.org

After watching Year Million, featured on National Geographic, a series of questions continually arose. How will humanity know when we’ve achieved posthuman status? What are the qualities of a posthuman? How would a posthuman know they are posthuman?

A posthuman is an existence, or entity, beyond the state of being human. A being so far evolved from our current state that they would warrant a new classification. Posthumans would seem like Gods in comparison to humans, but what does that look like?

One of the things that make us human is the ability to tell stories, dream, imagine the future, fantasize, ponder the infinite, and philosophize, but all of what we do is predicated on a single undeniable fact: death. The death drive makes us human, and in some ways weak. We limit ourselves necessarily, because we don’t have enough time. It’s fundamental to our nature and existence. If we were able to achieve immortality, and by that I mean end the aging and sickening of our bodies, we’re talking about a soul-rattling reevaluation of what it means to be human. Sure you could die in a tragic accident or at the hand of violence, but the potential of immortality would be a tangible reality. This would seem like one of the defining characteristics of a posthuman society. But how would that be achieved?

There are several potential technologies being developed that could aid this trajectory. Such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, personalized medicine, mind uploading, and cryonics. However, no matter how or if these technologies prove to be the means human achieve immortality, I can say with confidence that to defy death is an attribute of a posthuman civilization. Think about it, anything you’ve ever wanted to do, learn, or practice, would be within your grasp. Without death we would develop new skills, new ways of interacting, and new relationships. It would be the beginning of unlimited relationships, unprecedented intellectual enhancements, and immortal connections.

Critics contend without death we may not have purpose. There may be a point where prolonging life may not be worth prolonging. The concern is life will become stagnant and we may desire to die of sheer boredom. There is no doubt death gives a sense of urgency. However, we have doubled life expectancy over the last 100 years or so. Is life any more stagnant now as it was then? No. Have people stopped trying to prolonging their existence? No. Does humanity have less self-declared purpose now than before? No. We can conclude by the continuation of our species alone that humanity, despite having longer life-spans, is still interested in living. If we double the human life expectancy again, are we going to stop desiring to exist? I'm less inclined to think so. I'm betting people will still want to exist. Would this be different in 100, 200, or 300 years? It's hard to say.

I can’t speak for others. I can only speak for myself. I don’t know how much time is enough time to exist, and I can’t identify exactly what motivates me to keep living, growing, loving, and developing, but I do know that is my desire. I would like the option to determine when I am done living and not have it decided for me. Perhaps there will be a time when I’ve had enough of living and life is no longer worth prolonging, but today is not that day.

Key Technologies Defined

Nanotechnologies: are technologies with dimensions of 100 nanometers or less, on the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. According to Ray Kurzweil, “Nanotechnology promises the tools to rebuild the physical world—our bodies and brains included—molecular fragment by molecular fragment, potentially atom by atom.” (Singularity is Near, 226)

Genetic Engineering: is the use of technology to change the genetic makeup of cells and organisms. “An organism that is generated through genetic engineering is considered to be genetically modified (GM) and the resulting entity is a genetically modified organism (GMO).” (Wikipedia) Basically, genetic engineering is the altering of genetic code to make us live longer, healthier, more robust lives. However, there is a risk of losing nuerodiversity in the effort to alter genetics and other cognitive functions. Such risks should be mitigated to not lose what makes us diverse individuals.

Genetic engineering will likely be the future of procreation. Most parents want the very best for their offspring. This is why parents take prenatal vitamins, vaccinate their children, lather their skin with sunscreen, send them to school for cognitive enhancements, and brush their teeth. Genetic engineering may simply be the next step in providing our children with the best chances of survival.

Personalized Medicine: is “a medical procedure that separates patients into different groups—with medical decisions, practices, interventions and/or products being tailored to the individual patient based on their predicted response or risk of disease.” (Wikipedia) With personalized medicine could come the potential to indefinitely repair and replace the effects of aging and illness, like a tune-up, but meant specifically for your biology and anatomy.

Mind Uploading: is the hypothetical process of transferring or copying a mental state, or “the self” into a non-brain computer substrate. A computer could then run a simulation which models all other functions that respond in the same ways a brain would to produce consciousness. The simulated mind would live in a virtual word. (Wikipedia)

Some contend that this could be a state of immorality and a human could live forever as a non-biological machine. Some hypothesize that we already live within a sophisticated computer simulation and function on our biological substrates. Many Futurists and Transhumanists see mind uploading as an import part of radical life extension. Such people have already begun the endeavor of mapping the human brain. The Human Connectome Project is uncovering the neural pathways of the human brain to better understand brain function and behavior. (Human Connectome Project)

Cryonics: is “the low-temperature preservation of people who cannot be sustained by contemporary medicine, with the hope that resuscitation and restoration to full health may be possible in the far future.” (Wikipedia)

The issue is it's expensive and we don’t know if it works. There would also be risks to be addressed when a person “wakes up” in an environment that is radically different than when they were preserved. Such acclimation processes would need to be developed if the technology proves to be viable. Many who chose to be cryonically preserved do so as a last resort to defy death. For example, a young girl dying of cancer recently commented, “I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo‐preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time.” (CNN) Who can blame her for wanting one more shot of life? Sure, it may be a pipe dream, but it’s like playing the lottery, if she wins the benefits could be huge.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 4

(Artist: Lets Get To It)

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the fourth post in 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
From Mind Loading to Mind Cloning by Martine Rothblatt

This week we had a guest lecture by Mark Olsen on consciousness. Defining consciousness itself can be difficult even without trying to determine if another agent is conscious. Loosely defined, consciousness is the state of being aware of one’s surroundings. However, I’d take it one step further to say it’s an awareness of not only one’s surroundings, but also to know what it’s like to be something. If that’s confusing, good, it’s supposed to be. To understand what it is like to be something is a subjective experience, or qualia.

However, the question posed by the instructor is not what is consciousness? But rather, how can you tell if another entity is conscious or not? Is the entity a philosophical zombie or conscious being?

The question isn’t as straight forward as you may think. Can you know with certainty that I am conscious? I know I’m conscious, or at least I think I know. Thomas Nagel calls this “the subjective character of experience.” I have a subjective experience that is unique to me and it consists of internal and external factors of my existence, but how can you know that? Can you know objectively my subjective experience?

Some of the things that make us human are the ability to tell stories, dream, imagine the future, fantasize, ponder the infinite, and philosophize. However, it is also possible to create a computational robot programmed by a human to describe or mimic these subjective experiences without having actually had the subjective experience. An entity, such as robust AI, could be programmed to use subjective language to give the allusion of consciousness without having a subjective experience. Could I be any different? Could I be a biological robot that experiences nothing? I am pretty certain I’m not, as I do experience the qualia of subjective experience, but how can I know that about another agent?

For example, I could take a trip to Italy and describe in detail the experience to a friend. The friend might be able to describe it to another friend or describe the experience back to me with impeccable detail, but still not have the subjective experience of going to Italy. The friend could even tell me they went on a trip to Italy without ever having been to Italy. It’s not a perfect analogy, but you can see the point.

Martin Bothblatt, author and entrepreneur, comments on nature of consciousness in relation to mind cloning, “Let’s start with the term mind cloning. It means copying the essence of a person’s consciousness. We need the wiggle room of ‘essence’ for two reasons. First, there is no such thing as a perfect copy of anything. At least at the subatomic level, things change too quickly to permit any kind of perfect copy. […] The second reason we need the wiggle room of essence is that consciousness is not an objective quality…Consciousness is subjective, or personal, to its processor. This means there is only one of each consciousness, by definition of it being a subjective quantity. However, a person who had all of another’s mannerisms, personality traits, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and values would surely be the essence of the other’s consciousness. The mind clone would know they were the same as, but also different from, the original—in much the same way we realize that we are the same as, but different from, the person we were ten years ago.”

This puts into perspective how a subjective consciousness is also a changing consciousness, and therefore we must ask, is the self an allusion?

Due to the nature of a subjective consciousness there seems to be no evident way of objectively knowing if another agent is conscious or not. Perhaps, the only way to determine if an entity is conscious is to create consciousness, and in the process of creation, the mysteries of consciousness will unfold.

Key Terms Defined

Qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Essentially, what is it like to experience a particular state of experience?

Philosophical Zombie: a hypothetical being that from the outside is indistinguishable from a normal human being but lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.

Mind Cloning: is the hypothetical process of scanning the mental state of a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computer. The computer could then run a simulation model of the brain's information processing, such that it responds in essentially the same way as the original brain and experiences having a conscious mind.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ask a Mormon Sex Therapist Podcast

(Artist: Anna Sastre)

A podcast in which the brilliant Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Brian Dillman, Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong, and I discuss pornography, value diversity, moral reconciliation, and inter-personal relationships. You can listen to the podcast at Rational Faiths: 92: Ask a Mormon Sex Therapist Part 20.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Philosophy of Singularity: Week 3

(Artist: Ian Harrison)

For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the third post in 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
In Defense of Posthuman Dignity by Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom stated in his essay that one of the reasons posthumanity is feared because “the state of being posthuman might in itself be degrading, so that by becoming posthuman we might harm ourselves.” Likewise, one of the concerns towards transhumanism is the idea of losing humanity, dignity, or dehumanizing ourselves. However, there is no reason to believe that posthumans, though no longer human, cannot possess dignity. Dehumanizing is an interesting word. I suspect some who uses it mean to convey subhumanization, treating a person as less than human (see Merriam-Webster definitions below). For instance, slavery, indentured servitude, gender supremacy, extreme racism, or other forms of oppression constitute as subhumanization. I would consider subhumanization a negative form of dehumanization.

On the other hand, if being susceptible to polio is a quality of the human condition, then please dehumanize me. Vaccinate me and deprive me of that human quality and limitation, but dehumanizing isn’t often used with a positive connotation. When a parent puts sunscreen on their child’s back we don’t say, “Look at that thoughtful parent dehumanizing their child, because being susceptible to UV rays isn’t a necessary part of the human condition.” Definitionally, dehumanizing ourselves and each other is something we do every day. There are aspects of being human that aren’t desirable: disease, aging, cognitive limitations, physical limitations, etc. and to transform ourselves to be resistant to those aspects is also what makes us human. This is why we brush our teeth, take vitamins, and get vaccinations—we are compensating for or transcending unwanted aspects of the human condition.

For example, poor eyesight is part of the human condition. To overcome this human aspect, we have glasses, contact lenses, and Lasik eye surgery. Many people don’t have a concern about people with Lasik eye surgery having any less human dignity. So why is it a concern if we invent eye surgery to enhance a person with already functional eyesight? I suspect it has to do with the fact that we have a hard time articulating what it means to be human. What are we so afraid to leave behind? It isn’t poor eyesight.

The challenge is what exactly about our existence makes us human? What does it mean to be human? If we are concerned about dehumanizing ourselves, then why do we do it? We have been using technology since we first picked up a stick, controlled fire, or fashioned a wheel. We have been picking lice off each other’s backs since the dawn of our species. We use technology and tools to accomplish all kinds of goals. We work to cure disease—to heal and comfort. We find ways to increase educational opportunities. We stand against oppression and injustices. It seems as though compassion and ridding ourselves of our limitations is at the essence of what it means to be human.

In class, I had a conversation with a gentleman limited to a wheelchair due to a stroke. He said to me, “A physician friend of mine told me about a future where they could put a chip in my brain to compensate for the damage done by the stroke. If that were now, I would take it in a second.”

I asked, “Would this make you any less human?”

He responded, “I don’t think so.”

Perhaps to be human is to be Transhuman.

Key Terms Defined

Humanity: all human beings collectively, the quality or condition of being human, human nature; the quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence.

Dehumanize: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit

Subhumanize: describing and treating certain individuals as less than human

Dignity: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed