I recently read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, who I respect as an excellent (and, dare I say, inspiring) evolutionary biologist. Dawkins has become a prominent atheist in the popular media, selling over a million copies of his book and galvanizing an intellectual crusade against religion.
We live in remarkable times. Science is extending our understanding of the possible, while technology quickly advances its realization and practicality. I was reminded of this, today, when the local news brought to my attention a project to replace an old overpass in only a couple days using a self-propelled modular transporter.
In a blog entry entitled "Here Come the Warlocks", Wesley Smith suggests that "transhumanism would probably result in stultifying sameness rather than the wild differences for which most adherents yearn." I disagree with Wesley for two reasons.
First, I don't think it's obvious that most Transhumanists yearn for wild differences between persons. To the contrary, it seems to me that most Transhumanists are looking for balance between difference and similarity. We can only communicate and share to the extent that we have something in common, and we can only maintain identity to the extent that we are different. I value both sharing and identity, and am confident that I am far from alone in this.
Second, I disagree with the probability Wesley assigns to Transhumanism resulting in uniformity. I do acknowledge the risk of decreasing diversity. However, the simple fact that most of us do not desire complete uniformity seems to be reason enough to hope we'll generally and sufficiently embrace means for avoiding it. In other blog posts, Wesley has suggested that popular culture seems to be encouraging increased uniformity in appearance, and that combining Transhumanist technologies with that trend would result in the uniformity against which he warns. However, I think virtual worlds like Second Life provide adequate evidence that control over physical appearance would not result in the uniformity Wesley fears. He would argue that Second Life is just a game. I think our games enable us to manifest our deepest and most abiding desires, of the sort that shape the future.
Not speaking for all Transhumanists, I can yet state unequivocally that, as one Transhumanist, I look forward to a future of both diversity and commonality. Although it may not be intuitive, the one does not logically contradict the other. We can increase the set of common characteristics while simultaneously increasing the set of diverse characteristics.
Here are some scripture passages that illustrate a vision of our future bodies that inspires me:
1 Corinthians 15
39 All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.
40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
Doctrine and Covenants 88
27 For notwithstanding they die, they also shall rise again, a spiritual body.
28 They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened.
29 Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
30 And they who are quickened by a portion of the terrestrial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
31 And also they who are quickened by a portion of the telestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
32 And they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.
Doctrine and Covenants 76
96 And the glory of the celestial is one, even as the glory of the sun is one.
97 And the glory of the terrestrial is one, even as the glory of the moon is one.
98 And the glory of the telestial is one, even as the glory of the stars is one; for as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world;
During the LDS Church general conference last weekend, Elder Richard G Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a speech on "Truth: The Foundation of Correct Decisions". The focus of his speech was on two ways to find truth: the scientific method and inspiration, "both useful, provided we follow the laws upon which they are predicated". A transcript of the speech is available here, and a video is available here.
I enjoyed the speech, and was particularly happy to see a high authority in the LDS Church continue the long Mormon tradition of recognizing the importance of science and its compatibility with spiritual matters. There are some aspects of the speech with which I may disagree, depending on interpretation, such as Elder Scott's appeals to absolutes, which, so far as I am concerned, have place in Mormon theology only as ideal abstractions across eternities. The God in which I put my faith progresses in both knowledge and power forever, as perhaps you and I will.
Sam Harris, a well-known atheist (well, at least until now), recently spoke at an Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D C on "The Problem with Atheism". In summary, he argued that identifying one's self as "atheist" is counter-productive because it facilitates others' attempts at marginalization. Instead, he suggests, atheists should drop the label and simply become persons "who destroy bad ideas" by advocating reason and intellectual honesty. Furthermore, when such advocacy comes into conflict with religion, these previously-atheist persons should remember that the conflict is with a specific religious belief rather than religion in general.
Overall, I think this is a wise idea, and I recommend it to my atheist friends. Even as a person with faith in God, I regularly deal with an analogous situation because not everyone understands "God" as I do. To begin with, unlike most theists, I'm a Mormon and embrace Joseph Smith's teaching that God is a progressive community of exalted persons. Beyond that, I'm not even altogether traditional among contemporary Mormons. Yet, despite these differences, I have found a great deal of value in not making myself out to be an a-your-theist. Rather, reflecting the example of Ammon in the Book of Mormon, I would find common ground between our varying understandings of God (or even the lack thereof) and work on building together from there, while at times criticizing ideas associated with God that, to the best of my estimation, are of negative practical consequence.
To conclude, I'll point out one part of Harris' speech with which I disagree (predictably):
"Consider the unique features of Mormonism, which may have some relevance in the next Presidential election. Mormonism, it seems to me, is objectively just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas. For instance, the Mormons think Jesus is going to return to earth and administer his Thousand years of Peace, at least part of the time, from the state of Missouri. Why does this make Mormonism less likely to be true than Christianity? Because whatever probability you assign to Jesus’ coming back, you have to assign a lesser probability to his coming back and keeping a summer home in Jackson County, Missouri."
These statements are, to return Harris' blunt assessment, idiotic. However, I'll temper the return assessment by acknowledging that the statements reflect a superficial understanding of Mormonism; and, presumably, if Harris were better familiar with Mormonism then he would demonstrate as much intelligence in his critiques of Mormonism as he does in other areas.
Mormonism is not Christianity plus some additional ideas. To begin with, Mormonism is a form of Christianity that rejects some traditional ideas and embraces others, while contending that it is a continuation of early (pre-Catholic) Christianity. Beyond that, and more importantly for the questions at hand, Mormonism advocates a religious view of the world and the future that can be (although is not always in practice) fully compatible with reason, intellectual honesty, and the scientific project.
Gordon Hinckley, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, today announced the appointment of Henry B Eyring to the First Presidency of the LDS Church. Henry B Eyring has been an Apostle of the LDS Church since 1995, and previously served as the LDS Church Commissioner of Education. He has degrees in physics and business administration.
Transhumanists may like to know that Henry B Eyring is the son of scientist Henry Eyring, an LDS Church leader, influential theoretical chemist, and prolific author on scientific subjects. In one of his books, Henry Eyring remarked, "Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men" (Reflections of a Scientist 2). An Internet mailing list, Eyring-L, devoted to the discussion of Mormonism and science is named after Henry Eyring.
This morning I watched the clip below from MSNBC, in which Keith Olberman discusses the Simulation Argument. During the clip, my sons came over to the computer and listened. At the end, they asked a few questions about the clip, and I summarized my answers by saying, "God may have created the world with a computer." My oldest son immediately replied, "That makes sense." Yeah. It does.
Today I attended the funeral of a friend's father: a kind and hard-working man, now dead from heart problems at age 57. Family members expressed their feelings in words and music. I was particularly moved when the grandchildren sang "Families Can Be Together Forever", while they cried freely. One of the grandchildren, the son of my friend, is a close friend to my own son. Because my son could not be there, he asked that my wife and I give his friend a hug. After the funeral, we did that. I also mentioned to my son's friend that they would "see each other soon", intending him to understand that my son looked forward to seeing him. He responded, "I believe that." I think he meant that he believed he would see his grandfather again soon. Well, I believe that, too.
I've felt renewed, today, in determination to combat an awful monster. It's a monster that ravaged my own father at age 48. It devours over 100,000 of us each day, and has probably clawed its way into your life. This monster, like a dragon-tyrant, has defeated great warriors and discouraged most of us into appeasing it with sacrifices, but has yet to face fully our greatest warrior:
"O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit. And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave. And this death of which I have spoken, which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead; which spiritual death is hell; wherefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel. O how great the plan of our God! For on the other hand, the paradise of God must deliver up the spirits of the righteous, and the grave deliver up the body of the righteous; and the spirit and the body is restored to itself again, and all men become incorruptible, and immortal, and they are living souls, having a perfect knowledge like unto us in the flesh, save it be that our knowledge shall be perfect." (The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 9: 10-13)
Who will conquer that awful monster, death and hell? Who is the greatest of our warriors? As expressed in the Book of Mormon, reflecting the Bible, that warrior is Christ. However, lest we think Christ is exclusive to Jesus, we are reminded by the apostle Paul, "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" (The Bible, 2 Corinthians 13: 5) Indeed, as taught by Jesus, "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do" (John 14: 12).
Together in Christ, with faith in a better world and compassion for all, we may become the greatest warrior to combat the awful monster. We live in an epoch of unprecedented knowledge and power. The means for dramatically longer and healthier lives are within our reach. What shall we do? I can almost hear the words of the warrior
"Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor, while your enemies are spreading the work of death around you? Yea, while they are murdering thousands of your brethren . . . And now, my beloved brethren—for ye ought to be beloved; yea, and ye ought to have stirred yourselves more diligently for the welfare and the freedom of this people; but behold, ye have neglected them insomuch that the blood of thousands shall come upon your heads for vengeance; yea, for known unto God were all their cries, and all their sufferings . . . Behold, could ye suppose that ye could sit upon your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God ye could do nothing and he would deliver you? Behold, if ye have supposed this ye have supposed in vain. . . . Have ye forgotten the commandments of the Lord your God? Yea, have ye forgotten the captivity of our fathers? Have ye forgotten the many times we have been delivered out of the hands of our enemies? Or do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us? Yea, will ye sit in idleness while ye are surrounded with thousands of those, yea, and tens of thousands, who do also sit in idleness, while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things? Behold I say unto you, Nay." (The Book of Mormon, Alma 60: 7, 10, 11, 20-23)
What can we do? Here are some excellent ideas from philosopher Nick Bostrom:
1. Spread the word. If you have a website or a blog, please consider linking to this page. Share your thoughts with friends and colleagues. Write letters to editors to comment on newspaper coverage of prolongevity. Challenge snide and shortsighted remarks about aging when appropriate. Make some noise.
2. Organize. If you are active in some organization (e.g. a political party, a religious community, a professional society), consider if there is any way that you could build support within that organization for extended healthy lifespan and the research needed to achieve it.
3. Give. Consider donating to the Methuselah Mouse Prize. This is a prize for extending the remaining lifespan of middle-aged mice. Science prizes have a strong track record of stimulating achievement. A clear success in mouse would pave the way for a larger program to translate the methods for human use.
4. Take responsibility. If you are a major philanthropist, you have the opportunity to make a big difference. Likewise, if you are e.g. a journalist, an opinion leader, a government official, a scientific authority, or on the board of a major research foundation, you have special opportunities to exert influence, and, consequently, a special responsibility to show some initiative.
5. Think creatively. Use your own your own brain to think about what would be the best way for you to contribute.
I invite you to join with the Mormon Transhumanist Association in the fight against aging. Let's vanquish the beast!