Helen Whitney recently interviewed several leaders of the LDS Church for the PBS documentary on the Mormons. PBS posted transcripts of some of the interviews to their site. Recently, the LDS Church posted transcripts of a couple more interviews to their site, including the interview of Boyd Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I was intrigued by some thoughts President Packer shared at the end of his interview, presented below -- "HW" standing for Helen Whitney and "BKP" standing for Boyd Packer.
HW: There’s a hymn that you mentioned that you love when talking about the plan of salvation to somebody. Something about “hie to” — I’d like to hear that from you.
BKP: “If I could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye, and then continue onward with that same speed to fly, do you think that I could ever, through all eternity, find out the generations where Gods began to be?”
Then the other verse goes on, and you can read it: “There is no end to matter, there is no end to space; there is no end to wisdom; there is no end to race.” You’re testing an old man. That is a very profound song that you should read when you’re studying about what’s going on in the world today.
When you read that and talk and look into the eternities, you see the endlessness of it all — that’s caught up in the words of that song. President David O. McKay read that to one of the astronauts that came. There’s so many things that we don’t know, but it’s a wonderful world that we live in. There’s no end to what we can learn, but we only use about 15 percent of the room there. It’s a great, great revelation that came from William W. Phelps.
"If I could hie to Kolob” — now you have to know what Kolob is; the scriptures say it is the center place — “and then continue onward with that same speed to fly.”
I know a lot of hymns, and I know that one.
HW: But it does say something essential about Mormons.
BKP: It does; it shows a depth and a breadth and a power that is consistent with all that we know. All of the orbits of all the heavenly bodies follow that same thing — it’s an amazing world we live in. When you see color and life and all that life has to offer, we shouldn’t be bored.
HW: More than that. One last question. There’s a moment that comes — instead of inheriting the faith, they inhabit it. Was there such a moment for you?
BKP: I can’t look back and say, “Well that’s the day, that’s the moment I knew.” There were a number of them — I think I grew into it and tried to teach our family in such a way they’d grow into it. Finding that “pearl of great price” is just the beginning, not the end.
Someone said to Brigham Young, “The more I know, the more I learn, the less I know.” He said, “I wouldn’t say that. I would say the more I learn, the more I discern an eternity of knowledge.” Now that’s Brigham Young.
I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to learn that President Packer loves the hymn "If You Could Hie to Kolob". It is, in my estimation, among the most uniquely Mormon hymns, celebrating eternal progress of a plurality of gods in worlds without end. I also enjoyed President Packer's reference to Brigham Young's comment on knowledge -- why should we expect an end to learning? It's good to see evidence that these ideas continue to be cherished by the leaders of the LDS Church.
Michael Anissimov has put together descriptions of the top ten Transhumanist technologies. The article is a great overview of some Transhumanist ideas. Here are the items he includes in his list:
9) Virtual Reality
8) Gene Therapy / RNA Interference
7) Space Colonization
5) Autonomous Self-Replicating Robots
4) Molecular Manufacturing
3) Megascale Engineering
2) Mind Uploading
1) Artificial General Intelligence
See his site for more information on each of these topics.
In reaction to the blog post, a commenter mentioned hope that Transhumanism does not become a religion because it would then be relying on faith rather than science. This illustrates a misunderstanding of faith.
Transhumanism, although dependent on science, is also certainly dependent on faith. Transhumanism is not passive about the future. Unlike purely descriptive general science (if such an ideal is ever really attained), it is prescriptive. It actively promotes a particular kind of future, or at least a set of desirable futures. This promotion directs the sorts of hypotheses that Transhumanists would like to see fed into or kept from the scientific process. For example, it prescribes immortality (or hyper-longevity), and promotes competing hypotheses for furthering this end. It also prescribes mitigation of various existential risks, and promotes avoiding full testing of hypotheses for annihilating human civilization. These prescriptions are not proven. They are positions of faith.
On the other hand, although dependent on faith, Transhumanism is not yet bogged down in the dogmatism that plagues so many organized religions, including my own. I value my Mormon faith and being a member of an organized Mormon denomination (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), but have complemented them with Transhumanism. Each gives me something that the other does not.
A part of my Mormon faith that I value highly is reflected in these words from the Book of Mormon:
Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 29 7 Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? 8 Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.
I know and work regularly with Hindus living in India. When visiting them, they've explained to me aspects of their faith and escorted me through ceremonies in their temples. Like so many other religions in our world, Hinduism has much to offer that is beautiful and uplifting.
The future we work to create should protect religious (and non-religious) diversity. To the extent our faith is not oppressive, we should be free to worship (or not) as we desire. We should also be free to debate the benefits and detriments of competing faiths, without fear of death or imprisonment. I am confident that this will make us a more resilient civilization.
Here's a final thought from Joseph Smith:
"We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." (Eleventh Article of Faith)
“..so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” - committee advising Ferdinand and Isabella regarding Columbus’ proposal, 1486
“I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky” - Thomas Jefferson, 1807 on hearing an eyewitness report of falling meteorites.
“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” - Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” - Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria1873.
“Such startling announcements as these should be depreciated as being unworthy of science and mischievious to to its true progress” - Sir William Siemens, 1880, on Edison’s announcement of a successful light bulb.
“We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” - Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888
“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” - Thomas Edison, 1889
“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” - physicist Albert. A. Michelson, 1894
“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.” - Thomas Edison, 1895
“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.” - astronomer S. Newcomb, 1906
“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1911
“Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war” - Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanks in war.
“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” - David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
“All a trick.” “A Mere Mountebank.” “Absolute swindler.” “Doesn’t know what he’s about.” “What’s the good of it?” “What useful purpose will it serve?” - Members of Britain’s Royal Society, 1926, after a demonstration of television.
“This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists.” - A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926
“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” - Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.
“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” — Albert Einstein, 1932
“The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine” - Ernst Rutherford, 1933
“The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space] . . . presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.” Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator’s “Rockets in Space”, Nature, March 14, 1936
“Space travel is utter bilge!” -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley, astronomer
“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” - Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” - The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
“Space travel is bunk” -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik
“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.” -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961
“But what… is it good for?” - Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
Michael Anissimov recently posted these quotes to his blog. He received them from Eugen Leitl, who posted them to the WTA-talk list. I don't know who did the original work of gathering them, but they certainly merit greater circulation.
Philosophers have long recognized an ethical tension between individuals and communities. Some have suggested that one or the other should be given the greater weight. As I see it, the tension itself is valuable, and giving greater weight to one or the other leads to different forms of oppression. A living community consisting of living individuals may, indeed, require constant assessment and adjustment to ensure their healthy inter-relations.
My personal views aside, the point is that demonization of Transhumanists for being radical individualists or radical communalists is perhaps more of a reflection of the fears and prejudices of the person criticizing Transhumanism than it is of real-world Transhumanists, who undoubtedly represent the spectrum of thought regarding the relative ethical weighting of individuals and communities.
Frederick Meekins titled his article "Just because you don't understand doesn't mean it's not real." I'll add that just because you think you understand doesn't mean you're right.
I recently came across a document produced by a Christian group that takes on the admirable task of presenting "Everyday Theology". The document includes a chapter on Transhumanism. Unfortunately, however, it does not accurately characterize Transhumanists.
For example, it claims Transhumanists believe "whatever can be done scientifically and technologically should be done" and that "technology is inherently good". There may be a Transhumanist out there that thinks in such ways, but I don't know one that does. Most Transhumanists explicitly recognize risks, even existential risks, associated with technology. Transhumanists generally recognize that technology is power, and that power can be used both for good and evil. Transhumanists also generally believe that we can best avoid the evil possibilities by seeking after and embracing the good possibilities, rather than by ignoring or attempting to evade technology altogether.
The document entirely overlooks Transhumanists, such as those represented by the Mormon Transhumanist Association, that have a strong spiritual aspect to their beliefs. It claims that Transhumanists do not believe in the existence of greater beings or higher powers, yet some of us either fully embrace the existence of God or make allowances for such possibilities (reflecting the Simulation Hypothesis of the Simulation Argument).
The document claims that Transhumanists are individualists who believe that "one’s own needs, interests, and desires are more important than those of others or of any larger group or community." Certainly some Transhumanists are radical individualists, but some of us simply are not. For example, although I identify as a moderate Libertarian, I do not believe that individual desires and wills are more (or less) important than community laws, and feel that this perspective is entirely compatible with my Transhumanist views. Moreover, I would argue that radical individualism will exacerbate technological risks; working together in friendship, we are more likely to avoid disastrous or oppressive outcomes.
The document claims that Transhumanists believe the visible material world is all that exists. However, while Transhumanists are generally materialists (in the philosophic sense) and empiricists, that does not mean they think sight is the extent of experience or that they think we will not encounter new extraordinary experiences. Rather, many Transhumanists simply take on the practical perspective that whatever cannot be experienced cannot affect us, and so direct their attention to that which can be experienced.
On the other hand, the document does get some things right, such as characterizing Transhumanists as being optimistic about technology. We do see technological opportunities to live longer, smarter and stronger. We do intend to act on technological possibilities for renewing our environment and extending the scope of our habitable world. Indeed, many of us feel that a decision not to pursue these opportunities would be a moral failing.