Sunday, September 30, 2007

The "Mormon Transhumanist" Problem

There is a strange little group who call themselves Mormon Transhumanist Association that believe in the enhancement of humanity through technology. It isn't just increasing what we are able to do with technology, but changing the human body. One explanation of the movement from wikipedia is:

Transhumanism (sometimes symbolized by >H or H+) is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and ameliorate what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as stupidity, suffering, disease, aging and involuntary death. Transhumanist thinkers study the possibilities and consequences of developing and using human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Possible dangers, as well as benefits, of powerful new technologies that might radically change the conditions of human life are also of concern to the transhumanist movement.

Although the first known use of the term "transhumanism" dates from 1957, the contemporary meaning is a product of the 1980s, when a group of scientists, artists, and futurists based in the United States began to organize what has since grown into the transhumanist movement. Transhumanist thinkers postulate that human beings will eventually be transformed into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label "posthuman."


A small group of Mormons see this as compatible with the teachings and even mission of the LDS Church. They state as affirmaiton:

(1) We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.

(2) 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.

(3) We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.


Despite the good natured introduction of science and technology into Mormon theological understanding of salvation, the movement is flawed. They say they, "seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals," in hopes of enabling God's will. Transhumanism is seen as part of the means to achieve the, "transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end." All noble ideas, but lacking theological grounds.

From Joseph Smith Jr. to the current leadership of the Church, there has been only one way to exaltation and eternal life. It is through Faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Human technology cannot and never will achieve what this group has stated. It is a gross misunderstanding of the gospel.

From the Book of Mormon in Mormon chap. 9:12-13 we learn:

12 Behold, he created Adam, and by Adam came the fall of man. And because of the fall of man came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son; and because of Jesus Christ came the redemption of man.

13 And because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; yea, this is wherein all men are redeemed, because the death of Christ bringeth to pass the resurrection, which bringeth to pass a redemption from an endless sleep, from which sleep all men shall be awakened by the power of God when the trump shall sound; and they shall come forth, both small and great, and all shall stand before his bar, being redeemed and loosed from this eternal band of death, which death is a temporal death.


Nephi in Second Nephi chap. 25:20 is no less insistant:

20 And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err. And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them, and also gave him power that he should smite the rock and the water should come forth; yea, behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.


There is no mention of technology enhancements. In every instance the way to salvation is through Faith in Jesus Christ, and only through the Atonement. Interesting enough, there is no mention of this in any of the statements made by those who claim to be part of the Transhumanist movement. The Bible is, of course, just as specific on the topic. Paul states, in First Corinthians, as part of his sermon about the Resurrection:

49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all asleep, but we shall all be changed,

52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.


Again, there is no slow enhancement of the human body from biotechnological advances. In this description, it is almost an instant transformation at the time of the judgement. When Joseph Smith and others talk about, ". . . going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead . . . (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 346-347), it is a spiritual development. A person must change the inner, and not the outer, self in order to reach perfection. And that is only because of the Grace of God through the Atonement of Jesus Christ available to all.

None of this has questioned the moral implications of biotechnological enhancements. That is an open discussion at this point. Science can and does have a positive value in Mormon metaphysics, often with critics confusing it with materialism. Sadly, it would seem some Mormons are making that mistaken connection as well. The danger is in losing our humanity (the God-like attributes of love, charity, and faith) in the quest for a perfection reserved for the eternities after death. What such physical changes as proposed does to us as spiritual individuals is more important than what it does to our bodies. The resurrection will take care of that later. I am afraid that the Mormon Transhumanists are selling Salvation for bread and pottage of lentiles (Gen. 25: 34) made out of silicon.

20 comments:

Lincoln Cannon said...

Jettboy, I'm happy that you consider the intent of the Mormon Transhumanist Association to be noble, even though you have concerns with its theological grounds. I'll try to address the concerns you've mentioned here, and hope you'll express any others you may have, or that may arise from my response, so that we will improve understanding.

I agree, as you've stated, that faith in Christ is essential to the Mormon understanding of salvation. You rightly point out that Christ is at the center of the teachings of the Book of Mormon, and emphasis on Christ has redoubled in modern teachings of the LDS Church.

I'm sure you'll agree, however, that faith in Christ, for Mormons in particular, is not passive. Rather, faith in Christ, ideally, is active and practical. Mormons have long emphasized an understanding of faith exemplified by the teachings of James in the New Testament, wherein he argues that real faith is manifest in works. It is not helpful to tell the naked and hungry to be warmed and filled; rather, we must actually give them that which they need. It is not enough to speak the words of prophecy that all shall hear the gospel of Christ, and we do not wait for Jesus to fulfill the prophecy; rather, we go out into all the world to proclaim that gospel. Moreover, it is not enough to claim we are disciples of Christ; rather, as expressed by Elder Jeffrey R Holland in a recent LDS Church general conference, we should in as many ways as possible try to take on us the identity of Christ. You are called, as each of us are, to have Christ in you, as expressed by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. With Paul, we are called to fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in our flesh, that we may be joint heirs in the glory of God. In this calling, we are to become, as Joseph Smith taught, the saviors of men.

For members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, faith in Christ moves us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, share the Gospel, and engage in good causes without being commanded. It also moves us to seek to leverage all the means, including modern science and technology, with which God has inspired and endowed us to forward his work and glory.

You point out, accurately, that the scriptures don't mention modern technology when addressing topics such as transfiguration and resurrection. Instead, the scriptures generally address such topics in simple and almost magical terms. I value such passages of scripture for many reasons, not the least of which is their ability to inspire us and provide hope.

That said, we have substantial reason to believe that the scriptures are not the last word on the technicalities of transfiguration or resurrection. As they don't mention (at least not explicitly) future technologies related to transfiguration or resurrection, they likewise don't mention contemporary technologies (again, at least not explicitly) like airplanes or computers. However, they certainly do contain passages intended to prepare our minds for new knowledge and accompanying power in the future. For example, here is one of my favorite scripture passages, from Joseph Smith:

Doctrine and Covenants 121
26 God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;
27 Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;
28 A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.
29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
30 And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—
31 All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—
32 According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest.
33 How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.

Each time I read this passage, I feel the words like lightning running through my body. It's the sort of experience that moves us, in the Mormon tradition, to boldly proclaim of truth. Likewise, I feel that spirit as I read of other teachings from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, calling to mind processes by which our immortality can be realized:

"Now the doctrine of translation is a power which belongs to this Priesthood. There are many things which belong to the powers of the Priesthood and the keys thereof, that have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world; they are hid from the wise and prudent to be revealed in the last times. Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fullness, but his is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fullness as those who are resurrected from the dead." (Joseph Smith, Teachings 170)

"I have friends on the earth, for God would raise them up for me to do my work. That is not all; by and by the Lord will say to the sleeping dust, awake and come forth out of your graves. I am on hand; the Lord wakes me up or sends somebody to do it that possesses the keys of the resurrection. My dust is waked up; my spirit is re-united to it, and it is made a celestial body filled with immortality and eternal life." (Brigham Young, Addresses 2: 100)

At the end of your post, you mention two critiques that I would like to address. First, you state that the scriptures portray the enhancement of the human body as something instantaneous, in contrast to your view of slow biotechnological enhancement. Second, you state that Joseph Smith's teachings of eternal progression should be understood to be about inner spiritual development rather than outer physical development.

Regarding the first critique, I contend that the scriptures actually do portray enhancement of the human body as something progressive, although with moments of dramatic (but not necessarily final) change. For example, the Book of Mormon describes the transfiguration as a step between mortality and the kind of immortality attained in the resurrection. As another example, the Doctrine and Covenants describes persons alive during the Millennium as living to the age of a tree before being transfigured to immortality, while dead persons are progressively resurrected to immortality. Finally, Joseph describes even the recipients of immortality themselves as varying one from another in glory (which, as Joseph taught, is all in the elements) as the stars of the heavens differ in glory. As I consider the body of Mormon scripture and tradition, I see transfiguration and resurrection to immortality as a progressive process, with moments of dramatic change. This, in my estimation, is quite what we should expect to see as advancing biological, miniaturization and information technologies are applied to the human anatomy.

Regarding the second critique, I understand eternal progression to be something both physical and spiritual, the one exalting the other. The scriptures teach us that the fullness of joy is possible only with physical bodies, and that even God has a body. They likewise teach us that the glory of these bodies progresses, along with our spirits, as they are increasingly filled with light, to use the scriptural phrase. Indeed, the scriptures seem to suggest, as I read them, that there may be little to no distinction between the spirit and body, inseparably connected, of immortals.

I acknowledge that my responses to your critiques (as the critiques themselves) depend heavily on scriptural interpretation. You may well interpret the passages to which I allude in different ways, and we could perhaps long discuss the nuances of interpretation. There is, I feel, value in our mutual recognition of this.

I'll add, however, that this is also more than a matter of scriptural interpretation. It seems quite reasonable to suppose that there may be practical consequences to our decision to interpret the scriptures one way or another. Suppose, for example, that the only way to attain immortality actually is for us to learn how to do it ourselves; perhaps, as is readily demonstrated in other matters, God simply isn't going to do the work for us. If that is the case then we had better get to work. Unless we know otherwise, it seems prudent to suppose that we should use our God-given talents and means to pursue salvation in all ways, spiritual and physical. I've sometimes heard Mormons respond that we do know, from the scriptures, that God will give everyone immortality. That may be true (and my faith is such), but although the scriptures teach everyone will hear the gospel, we recognize that does not mean there is no work required -- work we must. Consequently, I value practical faith in immortality, as in all matters.

To end, I will again express my agreement that faith in Christ is central to the Mormon understanding of salvation. Without charity, we are nothing. Without hope, there is no purpose. Without faith, there is no power. Without atonement, of the sort in which we are each invited to participate, all is for naught. Recognition of and respect for these principles is why I am a member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. I am a Transhumanist. I am also a Christian and a Mormon.

Thank you, Jettboy, for calling attention to these increasingly important matters. I appreciate the time that you put into writing and making us aware of your thoughts.

cayblood said...

Another concept that is important to understand in Mormon theology is that there is no such thing as metaphysics--all spirit is matter, according to Joseph Smith, and all spiritual phenomena abide by natural law, although their full explanation may yet be beyond the ken of science.

Furthermore, all of God's miracles adhere to natural law, even though we may not yet understand how they work.

John A. Widtsoe said: "A miracle is an occurrence which, first, cannot be repeated at will by man, or, second, is not understood in its cause and effect relationship. History is filled with such miracles. What is more, the whole story of man’s progress is the conversion of "miracles" into controlled and understood events. The airplane and radio would have been miracles, yesterday." (Evidences and Reconciliations, 129)

According to this understanding, echoed by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and other influential prophets, the process used to resurrect humans and other species must adhere to natural law, though, once again, it is presently beyond our understanding.

I believe that it is therefore wrong for us to think of these miracles as "magic." To do so would be to downplay the real work involved and also to avoid preparing for an ordinance that, according to Brigham Young, it will be our duty to perform. We do not know to what extent we will participate in this ordinance, and how much of the ordinance will depend on our full understanding of the natural laws involved, but I believe we should at least be fully cognizant of its being in compliance with the laws of God and nature, and we should also actively pursue an understanding of the science that might be involved.

Eric Nielson said...

Thank you for this introduction to a controversial topic. It will take me a while to sort this out.

Anonymous said...

" Democracy does not function without enabling technology for the individual"
R. Buckmaster Fuller

" New technology is like a thin wedge in the door to open up a new way for people to be liberated."
Bil Becker

My own view on technology is that there is nothing under the sun that is discovered that did not already exist and it proves the existence of God as we rediscover his truths.
If we lived long enough eventually we would rediscover all truth but thanks to Christ that is not necessary. His atonement is only effective fully for those who repent but the resurrection is a free gift to all mortals because of charity. We know after Christ was resurrected there were many others who were resurrected also and I know that if I should die today yet in my flesh I shall see God thanks to Jesus Christ.
Yours in Christ,
Cresley Walker

Lincoln Cannon said...

Cresley, it may be that Jesus has no intention of doing all the resurrecting work for us, just as he is not doing all the genealogy work for us. As I understand the plan of salvation, it's purpose is to teach us how to be like God, and to take on the identity of Christ in every way possible, as expressed in a recent general conference by Elder Holland. I don't know what the future holds for us, but I intend to work toward our common salvation using and advocating use of all the means with which God has inspired and endowed us.

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Anonymous said...

Lincoln,

While I believe your application of moral value to the advancement of technology is noble and somewhat intellectually enticing. However this technologically enhanced or assisted approach to doing the work of the Lord offers little more than interesting fantasies and logical exercises (which by the way are very impressive).

Transfiguration and resurrection has been and will continue to take place without the assistance of scientific technology. It is done through the power of the priesthood. Yes, science is trying to discover and even counterfeit the works that have been done by the priesthood.

Speaking heart to heart, I just think you are barking up the wrong tree here. I'd focus on what can be done by commanding the elements to combine etc. through righteous exercising of the priesthood. We know that illness is eradicated, we know that people are brought back to life, we know that the earth was created by the power of the priesthood coupled with faith. If you want to explore some of the deepest mysteries focus your attention on the principles on which faith and personal revelation operate.

Again, It is these principles that make things occur. Science allows us to appreciate them all the more but focus on the basics. Priesthood power, faith and revelation.

I am afraid you might be looking beyond the mark on this one. Stick to what the living Prophets have asked us to do note the respective proportions by which they invite us to do so. Yes we need to continue our knowledge and learning but be careful of the spiritual death trap of those who think they are wise. Again, don't look beyond the mark.

Sincerely,

Your colleague in science.

Lincoln Cannon said...

Anonymous,

Are priesthood, faith and revelation sufficient for providing general conference to a worldwide church membership? Only if technology is considered a manifestation of priesthood, faith and revelation.

How about the missionary effort or work for the dead? We simply could not scale them as we presently do without the assistance of technology.

Do you carry a mobile phone? Is that compatible with relying on revelation? How about the use of the Internet? Why did you not merely pray that I would understand your differing perspective? Why did you leverage technology?

In the Bible, James clearly articulates the essential nature of the relation between spirituality and technology:

"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (James 2: 14-20)

"Works" encompasses technology. Although Mormons value faith healing, we do not reject medical technology because we understand them to be compatible. Although Mormons value revelation, we do not reject communications technology because we understand them to be compatible. As Mormons, we have a long and well substantiated history of embracing technology, as all works, to empower our vision of the future. We do this while simultaneously recognizing that all the works in the world will never be sufficient without the grace of God, yet the grace of God likewise depends on us doing what we can.

It is not looking beyond the mark to consider science as inspiration from God, or technology as an endowment from God. To the contrary, the expression "looking beyond the mark", comes from a passage of scripture that criticizes precisely the opposite of embracing science and technology. The expression is used in the Book of Mormon, Jacob 4: 14, as an assessment of religious persons who want mysteries rather than plainness. The passage says such persons will love plainness and receive that which they cannot understand, causing them to stumble in blindness according to their desires.

Lincoln Cannon said...

Correction: the passage says such persons will LOSE plainness and receive that which they cannot understand, causing them to stumble in blindness according to their desires.

Allen said...

Even though this is an old post, I thought I'd comment.

A previous commented pointed out that illness is eradicated though the Priesthood. I agree. It is also obvious that illness is eradicated through medical knowledge and technology. It's not a case of one or the other, as the original poster and those making comments seem to imply. It is a combination of the power of God and technology.

The mission statement of the MTA states that "We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation". The emphasis should be on the word "among". Let us not give narrow limitations on how God will use technology in furtherance of His work. Let us use the Priesthood, faith, and technology as we strive to follow Christ.

vblogger said...

This is now an ancient post, but I've posted a detailed discussion, which is full of linked references, to discuss the disconnect between Mormonism and Transhumanism on this blog: Mormon Transhumanist Response

I would appreciate specific, referenced, and respectful comments in response to this discussion.

Brad Carmack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Carmack said...

I appreciate the dialogue here.

Anonymous said...

This has got to be a joke. "Mormon Transhumanism" is an oxy-moron. Transhumanism is not meant to just be attached to the end of whatever religion you believe. The term in and of itself is blind to religion. In this case the the respective entities are grossly incompatible and disparate. I thank whoever made this post from the bottom of my heart.

I'm not sure if it's a feint of the Mormon church trying to look young and hip by catenating what they see is an ambiguous term or if it's merely a PR stunt to rid themselves of the "polygamist cult" idea that most people have of them.

Either way it's a disgusting ploy to look more favorable in the eyes of the public. If more transhumanist thinkers don't speak out against this kind of thing I fear the term and overall idea will be swallowed through the influence of religious groups such as this.

Lincoln Cannon said...

Hi Anonymous. Your opinion of the compatibility of Mormonism and Transhumanism is clearly not informed of the facts. You'll find some remarkable parallels if you investigate further.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln, my problem is not with the idea that mormonism is not compatible, it is with the idea that any type of religion is compatible with transhumanism. Transhumanism as an idea is discrepant of religion.

Unlike Jettboy, I do not consider the intent of the MTA as "noble". Nor do I believe you are all true transhumanists. You are merely using the word "transhumanist" in a moderate capacity, to try and stay "relevant" in a world that largely disregards you.

The very existence of such an "organization" (that is if it is not merely a front) offends the greater idea of transhumanism.

I fear that the "religionization" (I just made that up) of transhumanism will be it's downfall. And I believe it has started with this group.

All of this said, I wish no ill-will to any mormons, transhumanist-affiliated or not. I'm merely expressing my discontent with the situation.

Lincoln Cannon said...

Anonymous, we disagree on the value of religion generally, as well as the extent to which transhumanism is, in essence, a religious endeavor. I suspect much of our disagreement stems from different experiences with and understandings of religion; however, I suspect you would find that I empathize with many common concerns with religion -- its record clearly is not all good.

Jettboy said...

This is my most responded to post I have written. Hopefully you will take time to read other ones I have written and leave a comment.

As to the subject, I think Anonymous lets bias against religion overpower any actual understanding of religion. In fact, from what little I know of Transhumanism I think Anon oversteps its purpose and built in neutral philosophy and said as much, "The term in and of itself is blind to religion." Do I think its anti-religious? Hardly.

Religion in its purist form is the study of God and therefore everything under Creation. That includes every possibility and every fact. It is a science of another name. Can science and religion be incompatible? Yes. However, only so far as any ideas and philosophies can be incompatible with defenders and detractors.

My problem as expressed isn't with MTA's mixing of religion and technology. Mormonism has an inherent sub-doctrinal undercurrent that demands examination of the world around us, no matter what direction of inquiry. Understanding Science and Technology has been used by Mormons as a way to progress both spiritually and physically. Unlike what you see in the news with some small break off groups, there is no denial of worldly means, only the uses.

My problem is with the idea that Transhumanism has salvational purposes. That is incompatible to me with the spiritual salvation of the Atonement. To see this as a PR stunt or anything to do with polygamy is a disgraceful swipe no matter how much you feel no ill-will to Mormons. Obviously you do or you wouldn't have thrown out those overdone, unintelligible, ignorant, stereotype canards.

Janet said...

Just ran into this group last week, and haven't begun to read too much in-depth, but as I watched the "Eagle Eyes" short in between conference sessions, I couldn't help but think that is an example of technology and human intellect in harmony.

I'm looking forward to reading more.

Thanks,
Janet Wise

James Carroll said...

Fascinating discussion, well said all.

@Jettboy: you wrote: "My problem is with the idea that Transhumanism has salvational purposes. That is incompatible to me with the spiritual salvation of the Atonement."

I do not believe that this supposed inconsistency is as deep as you may think. We don't know how God's ability to change us into immortal beings works, so you could be right, or Lincoln could be. Who knows?

But, even if you are right, I still believe in pursuing technological transhumanism, even though I ultimately trust in Jesus' power to save me through His infinite and eternal atonement. While trusting in Him, I am doing my best to make both my mind, soul, and body as much "like Him" as I can. I trust that after I have done my best, He will make up the rest. That is what it means for God to save us "after all we can do."

To me this implies that even if our technological techniques for human enhancement are not the same as His techniques, we are required by our religious conviction to pursue them to the best of our abilities.