Mormon Transhumanists

A standard trope of science fiction has religious groups using violence to stop a new technology. Perhaps because of this, many are surprised by the existence of religious transhumanists. Saturday I gave a keynote talk on Age of Em at the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) annual conference, and had a chance to study such folks in more detail. And I should say right off the top that this MTA audience, compared to other audiences, had notably fewer morality or religious related objections to my em scenario.

I’m not surprised by the existence of religious tech futurists. Overall, the major world religions have been quite successful in adapting to the many social changes since most of them first appeared many millennia ago. Also, the main predictor of interest in tech futurism and science fiction is an interest in science and technology, and religious folks are not underrepresented there. Even so, you might ask what your favorite theories of religion predict about how MTA folk would differ from other transhumanists.

The most obvious difference I saw is that MTA does community very well, with good organization, little shirking, and lots of polite, respectful, and friendly interaction. This makes sense. Mormons in general have strong community norms, and one of the main functions of religion is to build strong communities. Mormonism is a relatively high commitment religion, and those tend to promote stronger bonds.

Though I did not anticipate it, a predictable consequence of this is that MTA is more of a transhuman take on Mormonism than a Mormon take on transhumanism. On reflection, this reveals an interesting way that long-lived groups with dogmas retain and co-op smart intellectuals. Let me explain.

One standard sales technique is to try to get your mark to spend lots of time considering your product. This is a reason why salespeople often seem so slow and chatty. The more time you spend considering their product, the longer that you will estimate it will take to consider other products, and the more likely you are to quit searching and take their product.

Similarly, religions often expose children to a mass of details, as in religious stories. Smart children can be especially engaged by these details because they like to show off their ability to remember and understand detail. Later on, such people can show off their ability to interpret these details in many ways, and to identify awkward and conflicting elements.

Even if the conflicts they find are so severe as to reasonably call into question the entire thing, by that time such people have invested so much in learning details of their religion that they’d lose a lot of ability to show off if they just left and never talked about it again. Some become vocally against their old religion, which lets them keep talking and showing off about it. But even in opposition, they are still then mostly defined by that religion.

I didn’t meet any MTA who took Mormon claims on miraculous historical events literally. They seemed well informed on science and tech and willing to apply typical engineering and science standards to such things. Even so, MTA folks are so focused on their own Mormon world that they tend to be less interested in asking how Mormons could anticipate and prepare for future changes, and more interested in how future/sci/tech themes could reframe and interpret key Mormon theological debates and claims. In practice their strong desire to remain Mormons in good standing means that they mostly accept practical church authority, including the many ways that the church hides the awkward and conflicting elements of its religions stories and dogma.

For example, MTA folks exploring a “new god argument” seek scenarios wherein we might live in a simulation that resonate with Mormon claims of a universe full of life and gods. While these folks aren’t indifferent to the relative plausibility of hypotheses, this sort of exercise is quite different from just asking what sort of simulations would be most likely if we in fact did live in a simulation.

I’ve said that we today live in an unprecedented dreamtime of unadaptive behavior, a dream from which some will eventually awake. Religious folks in general tend to be better positioned to awake sooner, as they have stronger communities, more self-control, and higher fertility. But even if the trope applies far more in fiction than in reality, it remains possible that Mormon religious orthodoxy could interfere with Mormons adapting to the future.

MTA could help to deal with such problems by becoming trusted guides to the future for other Mormons. To fill that role, they would of course need to show enough interest in Mormon theology to convince the others that they are good Mormons. But they would also need to pay more attention to just studying the future regardless of its relevance to Mormon theology. Look at what is possible, what is likely, and the consequences of various actions. For their sakes, I hope that they can make this adjustment.

By the way, we can talk similarly about libertarians who focus on criticizing government regulation and redistribution. The more one studies the details of government actions, showing off via knowing more such detail, then even if one mostly criticizes such actions, still one’s thinking becomes mostly defined by government. To avoid this outcome, focus more on thinking about what non-government organizations should do and how. It isn’t enough to say “without government, the market will do it.” Become part of a market that does things.

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  • akarlin

    I think there are many Mormon transhumanists for the same reason that there are many Mormon sci-fi writers: Mormon cosmology pretty much *is* sci-fi.

    For instance, this whole idea that after after death you become the god-emperor of your own little world/universe ties in well with things like the simulation hypothesis.

    I once raised this issue in a discussion with Brandon Sanderson. Although he is a fantasy writer, he takes pains to make sure his metaphysics is internally consistent in a very sci-fi’ish way: “My own question was possibly (hopefully) one Sanderson doesn’t get asked too often. I had noticed that his concept of the cosmere – the general idea of there being multiple connected worlds, and virtuous men and women becoming Gods in those various worlds and universes – seems remarkably similar to Mormon eschatology. So I asked to what extent Mormonism influenced his worldbuilding. The answer was fairly predictable and reasonable: He said that while he did not consciously borrow from Mormonism, obviously its core ideas and concepts were rather intrinsic to his identity and worldview, so it was inevitable that it would seep through to some extent into his creative work.”

    • Albionic American

      You can tell that Mormonism originated in the era of early modern astronomy, and after the Enlightenment, because of its view of cosmology. Matthew Stewart, the historian of philosophy, recounts in his book Nature’s God the unexpectable fact that many people influenced by the literature of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century believed in a plurality of inhabited worlds, when they had no empirical reason to hold such a belief. Voltaire even wrote a story using this idea.

  • Lincoln Cannon

    Robin, thank you for your thought-provoking presentation on Age of EM, and for your observations and recommendations.

  • Albionic American

    Transhumanists who try to marry transhumanism to their pet religions haven’t thought seriously what “living forever” would have to mean. What if radical life extension means that you as an individual live to witness something like a new Axial Age in a few centuries, where the current religions decline and disappear, like the probable extinction of Zoroastrianism in our century, and new forms of spiritual thinking and practice emerge to take their place? The dominant religion in the part of the universe humans (however defined) live in, say, 10,000 years from now, might not even have started yet.

  • Blaire Ostler

    I really enjoyed this review, Robin. Thanks for coming out!

  • crabshrapnel

    Judaism seems pretty transhumanist. The explanation I’ve seen for circumcision is the idea that God wanted people to rise to become co-creators with him, and therefore deliberately left a small bit of the man unfinished. That principle seems like it would extend to any self-enhancements we as a species manage to invent.

  • kurt9

    Mormonism is more amenable to tranahumanist ideas that most other forms of Christianity because it places more emphasis on the values of pioneering and productive accomplishment than most other forms of Christianity.

    • Stephen Diamond

      But Mormonism also evinces a spectacular unscientific gullibility. From Wikipedia:

      Joseph Smith claimed The Book of Mormon was translated from writing on golden plates in a reformed Egyptian language, translated with the assistance of the Urim and Thummim and seer stones. Both the special spectacles and the seer stone were at times referred to as the “Urim and Thummim”.[9][10] He said an angel first showed him the location of the plates in 1823, buried in a nearby hill, but he was not allowed to take the plates until 1827. Smith began dictating the text of The Book of Mormon around the fall of 1827 until the summer of 1828 when 116 pages were lost. Translation began again in April 1829 and finished in June 1829,[11] saying that he translated it “by the gift and power of God”.[12] After the translation was completed, Smith said the plates were returned to the angel. During Smith’s supposed possession, very few people were allowed to “witness” the plates.

      What do transhumanist Mormons say about this sort of stuff?

      • Lincoln Cannon

        Hi Stephen.

        Mormon Transhumanist views on such matters will vary. On the one hand, objects and behaviors like these may serve to promote focus and creativity and even ecstatic experiences, particularly if the person using them believes they will. On the other hand, if we live in a computed world, its creator could inject intervention (subtle or otherwise) toward desired ends through our chosen tools and behaviors.

        Personally, I don’t think an objective case can be made for Book of Mormon historicity. But I do think Joseph’s account of the book and its origins was generally sincere. Wikipedia can’t do justice to the origins of the book. If the subject interests you, I recommend “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Are you saying Joseph was delusional? (Nonhistorical yet sincere account of personal experience.)

      • Lincoln Cannon

        I think that’s possible, but it’s not the explanation that I personally find most fair or satisfying. There are many ways in which you and I interpret our experience, based on the categories of thought we’ve inherited and the educations we’ve received and whatever might be our unique personal dispositions, that persons in a few decades or centuries (or simply from very different backgrounds) would be tempted to describe as simply “delusional”. But, in at least some cases, those “delusions” would probably be better described as our reasonable best efforts to interpret our experiences within the context in which we actually find ourselves. This may become particularly relevant when dealing with unusual experiences, such as those claimed by Joseph.

        Of course, superficially, it seems easy and not unreasonable to conclude that Joseph lied about having the experiences. And Joseph commented on at least one occasion that he wouldn’t believe some of his claims had he not experienced them himself. But, for what it’s worth, as someone who has extensively researched and read Joseph’s writings and diverse accounts from first-hand witnesses of his words and actions, I do think the the strongest case is in favor of his general sincerity, whatever the case may ultimately be about the extent to which his interpretations of his experience end up matching our judgment of their congruence with reality.