In celebration of the new year, here's a look at the top five Mormon science and technology events from 2008. Happy new year!
I recently came across a document by Margaret A Somerville, which presents "The Case Against 'Same-Sex Marriage'". This is, to date, the best argument I've read from opponents of gay marriage. It accounts for the importance of religious perspectives, but does not argue from them, and instead appeals to secular ethics. Somerville's summary of her argument follows:
First, I attended a session with PJ Manney on empathy and technology. The session began by focusing primarily on how to promote empathy through video games, by encouraging persons to take on roles that require action other than violence. Then we discussed differences between how film and books promote empathy; the lack of differing details (internal dialog for film or visual stimuli for film) results in differing pathways to empathy. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make any comments, but had hoped to discuss the importance of creating pathways for empathy. Many of us find it easy to have empathy for experiences that can be viewed, but find ideological empathy much more difficult. Because of that, it is important that those of us who understand competing ideologies work to formulate syncretizations which enable persons of the two sides to empathize with each other.
Second, I attended a session entitled "winning the meme wars", anticipating an attack on religion. As it turned out, although some participants implied attacks on religion, we instead turned the focus to winning by not fighting. This meant different things to different persons. Some took the perspective that we should avoid telling the general population about advances in tech. While that may be appropriate in some cases, I think the more practical path is to seek to create mutual understanding and emphasis of shared values. Divisions lead to disputes, which can become wars, or worse: in a world with increasingly empowered individuals, each one of us could become significant variables in the effort to avoid global catastrophe. We must educate and promote growth and communal respect. The alternatives appear deadly.
After the second session, I ran to the taxi, and I'm now sitting in the San Jose airport finishing up this post. Before closing, I'll add that I had an opportunity to share a hotel room with John Grigg, an MTA member, during my stay in San Jose. I learned a lot about his background, and found yet again a kindred spirit with deep love for life and an optimisitic attitude toward our shared future. It's a pleasure to work with persons like John to advocate for a positive and mutually beneficial relation between religion, science, spirituality and technology.
One of the panel members observed that genetic engineering is almost as accessible as computer programming in the early 80s, when teenagers were able to become involved inexpensively. Another panel member responded skeptically that there are serious risks associated with synthetic life, particularly when introduced to natural environments, and more evidence should be gathered in favor of benefits before proceeding further. On the subject of benefits, other panelists agreed there are risks, but that risk management techniques will come with time. The most immediate benefit of synthetic life will probably be biofuels. Benefits for cardiovascular health, alzheimers and diabetes may arise from products entering human trials soon. The panelists debated the degree of risk associated with use of artificially selected insects, and emphasized the importance of rigorous research and precaution.
The panelists were asked whether persons from non-biology backgrounds could make a difference in the biotech industry. They agreed that there are an increasing number of opportunities for engineers and infotech experts to become involved. However, the field is not yet ready for most persons that require education on the basics of biochemistry. As things become more automated, the wet lab may become less necessary, and access will expand to persons of more diverse backgrounds.
This is an area where I have a lot to learn. Thanks to good teachers, some of my favorite subjects in school were chemistry and biology. I enjoyed the lab experiments, unit conversion exercises and the artificial selection of fruit flies. However, the fields are broad and complex, presenting mind-boggling opportunity and risk.
He began by distinguishing between futurists and forecasters, defining the former as active advocates and the latter as passive observors. He observed that persons looking to the future have a tendency to compress all the exciting things together, but history illustrates that times tend to produce long stretches of dullness. He encouraged questioning of all assumptions. For example, is tech actually converging, or rather is it diverging and producing greater complexity and diversity? Things may turn out other than we think.
He brought up the idea that change trends occur in S curves. There are persons who are surprised by the initial upward inflection point, and there are persons who are surprised by the downward inflection point on the other end of rapid change. He urged cherishing failure. Repeatedly failures may be the flat part of the S curve leading up to the inflection. He also recommended looking back twice as far as we want to predict forward. Rear view mirrors are great forecasting tools if we use them right. Don't look at specifics. Look for patterns. As examples, he pointed to S curves of processing in 80s (personal computers), connectivity through lasers in 90s (world wide wed and dvds), and a presently emerging revolution in sensors (cameras and others coming together to enable robotic automation).
To conclude, he commented that they who think the longest win. He asked the audience whether they took pride in thinking ahead much further than most persons. Many persons raised their hands. In response, he claimed this audience would be wrong to think ourselves the best long term thinkers. Then, in what turned out to be a controversial matter, he claimed that religious fundamentalists are the best long term thinkers. The race today is among those who would think farthest. Religious fundamentalists are winning the race. Persons like Jesus and Buddha set in motion long term sustainable changes. Of course, the non-religious in the audience didn't like this idea.
First, I attended a session on balancing spirituality with technology. It had a lot of potential and several interesting persons attended, but the discussion was turned too often to the discussion leader's marketing of a device intended to stimulate meditative states. One interesting matter I'll note was one person's suggestion that we need not attempt to persuade each other to various spiritual perspectives. I disagrred with him, and expained that our individual spiritual perspectives have far reaching effects in our community and environment. Many of the challenges faced in the world today have arisen from lack of attention to the practical consequence of spiritual and religious world views.
Second, I attended a session on an open source artificial intelligence project: opencog (a google search will probably bring up the project web site). The discussion leader, Ben G, stated that the project is not making an attempt to reproduce human intelligence. Yet, of course, we're not able to make much sense of AI without constant reference to human intelligence. It is revealing that Ben off-handedly described AI as human equivalent or greater intelligence. I see no justification for such a linear perspective on intelligence, and suspect Ben doesn't necessarily subscribe to it when speaking more carefully. Toward the end of the session, Ben demonstrated the code in action, hooked up to a virtual dog learning to fetch and dance in Second Life.
Third, I attended a session with James Hughes and Mike Latorra on the subject of ideas related to their Cyborg Buddha project. They discussed a hypothetical future in which labor is not required as widely as today, and individuals would have they opportunity to dedcidate more time and resources to spiritual pursuits. Attendees made interesting comments about esthetic choices and hedonism. One of the thought provoking questions came from George Dvorsky, who asked why we should not pursue perfect hedonism through neurotech. The problem, in my estimation, is defining hedonism and assessing the extent to which any person will ever be capable of pursuing desire fulfillment without allotting significant time and resources to risk mitigation.
While waiting for the session to begin, I had a conversation with Peter Milford of Parallel Rules. He told me that his interests are in practical near-term applications of the ideas on which the conference is focusing. When he learned that my interests are in the intersection of technology and spirituality, he kindly expressed his disinterest -- and probably assumed I'm nutty. In time, perhaps he'll begin to recognize the practical near-term consequences of the intersection between tech and spirituality. To the extent that he and others do not recognize the practical importance of these matters, we're in for far more division and turmoil than necessary. Cool gadgets will not suffice to fill the spiritual heart of humanity.
The AI panel began by introducing themselves. A prevailing theme in their self-intros was that we live in a special time. That should ring bells for Mormons. It always amuses me when non-religious persons are unaware of their own religiously-analgous (i.e., religious) thinking patterns.
The panelists discussed the question of whether AI tech will result in increased disparity of wealth. For the most part, they expressed a great deal of optimism regarding the opportunities that will present themselves, but were more mixed regarding anticipated actual outcomes.
Next, the panelists expressed their AI tech advice to President-elect Obama. Predictably, they thought the government has been misdirecting funds and efforts, and should work to re-establish leadership in research and development, and education. One panelist mentioned that he'd rather see the bailout trillions go into AI, nano and life extension tech research than to corrupt bankers and incompetent auto manufacturers. I understand the feeling, but I didn't see many economists in the room.
The audience asked panelists whether AIs will have to be empowered politically to bring about the change we suppose them capable of. They mentioned interest in relying on human values, but also talked further about non-human AI coming to power. These sorts of discussions seem always to tend toward professions of trust in the externalized AI messiah. As I wrote about in a recent blog post, I'd like to see more emphasis on an internalized AI messiah: human enhancement. At least we're not advocating a passive posture.
The audience next asked how best to deal with negative portrayals of AI in popular media. The panel mentioned that we should look to provide positive presentations in the media. We'll also continue to see positive applications of the tech, which more and more persons will use from day to day. As this trend proceeds, fears will decrease. I'll add that an extraordinarily important issue to deal with in this area is that of syncretizing principles of technological change into dominant world cultures and value systems. While some atheists take comfort in the increasing secularization of the world, they should note that religion is going to be quite alive and influential for yet a long time to come, and it should not be ignored or snubbed.
The final question led panelists to dicuss misconceptions related to AI. They focused on some persons' estimation that AI is not possible, and mentioned that this mental block is decreasing but yet encouraged by fear of what AI might mean for human nature.
Observing trends in information technology, some researchers conclude that artificial intelligence (AI) will eventually surpass the brightest human minds and take control of its own evolution. Assuming these researchers are correct, it is in our interest to ensure that we design AI to be friendly from the beginning.
Congratulations again to Barack Obama, who will be the next President of the United States of America. This is an historic moment, both for African Americans and all other Americans, in that it illustrates how far we have come as a people in overcoming the lingering influence of ancient racial biases. Not so long ago, no one could have reasonably imagined an African American winning a presidential election. However, our community has been nourishing respect for differences in and diversity of the human form. Times have changed for the better. May God continue to bless us with the wisdom and inspiration we need for the many challenges ahead.
Today, I came across a blog post at Mormon Matters, posing the question, "Is the Internet a Urim & Thummim?" This sounds strange to the point of near nonsense, I'm sure, to those of you who are not Mormon. But it does have meaning for Mormons, whose scriptures contain this prophecy from Joseph Smith:
I recently received a letter, written neatly by hand and sent through the post (yes, that still happens), from a kind friend with a question regarding the New God Argument. The question and answer are worth sharing here. So, with names removed to protect the innocent, here's the letter, with the question in bold:
Californians will soon be voting on proposition 8, which would amend their state constitution to define "marriage" as being between one man and one woman, exclusively. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by far the largest Mormon denomination and the church of which I am a member, is perhaps the foremost proponent of the proposition. The Church has encouraged members to donate time and money to the cause. From what I understand, members in California have been calling around and going door to door asking others to vote for the amendment. As documented by mormonsfor8.com members have also donated at least eight million dollars toward advertising in favor of the amendment; this represents nearly half of all money donated to the broader Protect Marriage campaign.
On my way out to a soccer game, my wife anxiously showed me some clips of Dieter Uchtdorf, in the First Presidency of the LDS Church, speaking to the Relief Society. He expressed some simple powerful ideas that merit regular emphasis:
Professionally, I'm a software engineering manager, and the area in which I've done the most work is systems integration, particularly between systems management platforms, which enable network administrators to monitor and control many computers without moving away from their desks. To integrate between systems management platforms, we write some software that knows how to talk with each of the platforms and enables them to exchange information. This is valuable because integrated platforms can thereafter leverage each other's strengths and thereby increase the overall value of owning both platforms. Without the integration software, the platforms must act independently, sometimes duplicating efforts, and often forcing administrators to waste their time doing unnecessary work.
1) Secular Philosophy
The new God described in Mohler's blog entry is not the God proposed by the New God Argument. Moreover, the New God Argument does not contend to propose a new God. Rather, it contends to be a new argument for a particular kind of God that is not new at all, but rather quite ancient. The new God described in Mohler's blog entry is the God of some liberal protestants. Although I may agree with some aspects of their perspective, as I may agree with some aspects of Mohler's perspective, the liberal protestant perspective is not one I would wholly defend. That aside, I do want to comment on each of the contrasts Mohler identified:
1) If the old God is the God preached by traditional Christianity then it is not only a biblical God, but also a secular philosophical God. Christian theology has been repeatedly reconciled with the popular secular philosophy of its day, beginning with neo-Platonism, through Scholastic Aristotelianism, and on to the various contemporary reconciliations. Mohler's own Southern Baptist Convention is not immune to the interplay between religious and secular philosophy, as evidenced by their basic statement on God: "The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being." While the Bible does teach of the unity of aspects of God, it does not explicitly teach that the aspects are without division in nature, essence or being. The Southern Baptist Convention can thank the Catholics, who in turn can thank Greek philosophy, for that extra-Biblical interpretation.
2) With Mohler, I see less value in an impersonal God. However, one need not look only to traditional or conservative Christianity to find faith in a personal God. For example, the God advocated in the New God Argument is a person -- or persons -- and not merely a principle. This God was perhaps once like you and me, and we may perhaps become like this God. As we get to know and become like this God, we may learn to love him. It doesn't get much more personal than that, but it is hardly a traditional or conservative perspective by contemporary measures.
3) I don't know anything about a supernatural God, and neither does anyone else except to the extent that they label as "supernatural" the God they experience and imagine naturally. The distinction between natural and supernatural seems to be largely nonsensical. If it can affect my experience, it's natural, so far as I'm concerned. I may not understand how it affects my experience, but that doesn't mean I should assume it is immaterial or causeless -- euphemisms for "beyond investigation". Such assumptions are lazy and dangerous, preventing us from growing in knowledge.
4) If rejection of supernaturalism and immaterialism is atheism then I and a whole lot of other Mormons are atheists, despite our professed faith in God. As presented in the New God Argument, a powerful benevolent creator can be quite natural and material. For those of us who are natural and material, and who express our worship through emulation, only such a God is worthy of worship.
5) I do not perceive the God presented by the Bible, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Convention or any other religion including my own, to be devoid of ambiguities, paradoxes and some outright contradictions. Despite the powerful inspirational power we find in scriptural texts and our exegesis of them, there is not so much precision as Mohler appears to suggest. If God intended the scriptures to be so precise, perhaps he would have written them in mathematics.
6) The scriptures are rich in symbolism, particularly when describing God. How does one decide where the symbol ends and the literal begins? If Mohler's concern is that some liberal theologians are making God wholly symbolic, I share his concern to the extent that we do not reify our symbols.
7) Today's traditional God is yesterday's popular God, and has been through the ages. Whether traditional or popular, God must be more than we have yet learned, or what's the bother? I don't intend to disregard the value of respect for tradition. To the extent tradition is not oppressive, we can all benefit from respecting it, and seeking to integrate its strengths into our learning process.
8) I agree with Mohler that a God that is merely a symbol is far less powerful than such reified into a personal being. Moreover, although Mohler certainly would not agree, an immaterial or supernatural person is far less powerful than a material natural person. The former is, so far as I can tell, indistinguishable from a symbol. Additionally, a God who would limit the education of his creatures to texts written millennia ago seems less powerful than one that would never cease educating.
While Mohler considers it perilous to make God plausible, I consider it perilous to make God implausible. Is it any wonder that religious adherence suffers when we hold dogmatically to ideas that clash with our experience, and our best efforts at rationality and science? Should we be surprised that the spirit of God fails us when we choose to disavow the ongoing flow of knowledge with which God would inspire us? If we seek to embrace all truth, regardless of its source, we probably will get more of it. We need not pretend to a final understanding of God to aspire to an understanding that is sufficiently plausible to help us take the next steps toward a better understanding.
Will works save you? Some Christians enjoy debating whether good works are necessary for salvation, with responses ranging from the extremes of Calvinism (we can make absolutely no effort, spiritual or physical, toward salvation) to the extremes of Pelagianism (salvation depends almost entirely on our efforts, spiritual and physical).
Congratulations, both to Barack Obama and to us collectively, for his nomination as the presidential candidate of the United States Democratic party. This is not an endorsement, either of the candidate or the party, but rather acknowledgement of the historical significance of his nomination, as a person of African ancestry. As implied in the Transhumanist Declaration and Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation, we value the diversity of individuals in our community and celebrate the increasing diversity that technology can enable, as we use it charitably with respect and concern for our plurality of wills, desires and laws.
On a personal note, I'll add that I've had the opportunity to interact with Dan on many occasions, and have been repeatedly impressed by his character. He has a big heart and a sharp mind -- an inspiring and inspired man. Thanks, Dan, and good luck with your new opportunity!
I am sometimes disturbed by the observation that our religious tradition, Mormonism, is not unified in faith that we can and should become God. Too many of us have capitulated to the violent dogmatism of traditional Christianity, particularly in its evangelical forms. Too many of us only hear whisperings of the doctrine. Too many of us, even, while giving lip service to this core idea on which Mormonism originally relied, yet only talk the talk without walking the walk. Many of us can still quote the prophets, affirming that as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become. But our faith so often appears to end in the verbal affirmation, or perhaps goes no further than imagining that the perpetuatuion of self-hypnosis toward greater compassion will, in itself, be sufficient to transform us into gods. Who is walking the walk? Who can see that our future depends not only on thoughts, but also on power and action? Where are the Gods in embryo? Who will rise together in the name of Christ as joint heirs in the glory of God? Who is Mormon enough to declare, without shame, that we have got to learn how to become gods, the same as all other gods before us?
At Sunstone today, one session asked: are we still gods in embryo? The presenter outlined the history of the doctrine of theosis in the LDS Church over the last couple centuries. The respondent, Mormon historian Michael Quinn, stated that if, in our shame and efforts to conform with mainstream Christianity, we give up our doctrine of theosis, we have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage. The audience applauded vigorously. I cheered, "Amen!" Yet I wonder, how many persons in the audience trust in theosis to the point of action? How many even have any idea how we might go about learning to create worlds? How many are content with appeals to magic? I wonder, even in the applause, how many of us are Mormon enough to make use of all the means with which God is now endowing us?
Abstract: If basic life forms are probable then we should trust that advanced civilizations are probable. If any advanced civilization probably has increased in destructive capacity faster than defensive capacity, and if any advanced civilization probably creates many worlds like those in its past, then we should trust that an advanced civilization more benevolent than us probably created our world. The alternative is that we probably will go extinct before becoming an advanced civilization.
We received the following email from a site visitor today:
"Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced." Soren Aabye Kierkegaard
The return address on the email did not work, so I'll respond here in my blog. While I agree heartily that life overall is not a problem and that it is a reality to be experienced, I imagine that the sender of the email doesn't think a Transhumanist could sincerely agree. Of course, I do see problems in life, both present and foreboding, as did Kierkegaard (illustrated by writing or speaking that sentence) and as does the sender of the email (illustrated in the act of emailing us). However, acknowledging problems in life and working to change them does not mean one must consider life itself a problem. So far as I am concerned, life (present, past and future) is not only worth experiencing, but also worth celebrating and experiencing ever more fully, which is a goal of both Mormonism and Transhumanism. So, please, keep observing the problems in life and sending us email that will help us solve them!
Recently, a Mormon blogger, R Gary, claimed that "Science [is] not always a good bet" when considering the feasibility of futures anticipated by prophetic vision. However, science does enable us to predict how futures similar to those he described may be possible, particularly given long-standing trends in technology.
Lambs and lions laying down together, if you want to interpret that literally, may be achieved through genetic manipulation of lambs and lions. Transformation of the Earth into something more like our imaginations of paradise may be the result of nanotechnological environmental interventions. Transcendence of natural laws happens all the time; there was a day when humans could not see so far, fly so high, or swim so deep as we now can, and science predicted such capacities prior to our technological implementation of such capacities. Even death, now, has come within the scope of engineering problems, as we quickly learn the causes of aging and work to counteract them. From there, I trust we'll engage in the work of learning, as all other gods before us, the detailed processes involved in resurrection, so that we may join Jesus as saviors on Mount Zion and continue forward with the glorious work of redeeming the dead.
Science is not a bad bet for any of these things. To the contrary, it is the best bet currently available to us for seeking after and understanding the details necessary for working actively toward fulfillment of futures foreseen in prophetic vision. Prophecy and science are in opposition only to the extent we so insist. We can, however, leverage science for what it is, inspired knowledge, and technology for what it is, endowed power, and work together in practical ways toward the better world long prophesied.
R Gary sees resurrection as a future altogether different in kind than one to which we might aspire through continued technological progress, and suggests that he and I are not talking about the same theology. I trust information persists in more ways than we can now imagine, and think it worth imagining how resurrection might be possible as a future that stems from our rapid technological progress, rather than only depending on magic beyond our means. If your theology is about supernaturalism or immaterialism then we're certainly not talking about the same theology. My faith is in a natural material God, like whom we may become through natural material processes.
How do we fulfill this responsibility? Today, several millions of Mormons are engaged in genealogical work and proxy religious ordinances for their ancestors, building an immense repository of information about our predecessors, while simultaneously reducing the emotional, psychological and spiritual barriers that have long stood between persons who have understood particular religious ordinances to be essential for salvation and persons who have not engaged in such ordinances. I trust that this is just the beginning of a far greater work: a time to come when we are inspired with knowledge and endowed with power sufficient to restore the dead to life. Although this may seem excessively fantastic to some, my trust is not an appeal to anything supernatural or superstitious. Rather, as I look back at historical trends in human power, and as I project those trends into the future, I cannot help but imagine that we've only begun to realize our potential. I cannot help but entertain the spiritual conviction, so often burning within me, that we can indeed fulfill our responsibility to seek after our dead.
The world tomorrow will not be exactly what we've imagined, but it will be shaped by our imagination and consequent work. The weak-minded and weak-willed among us appeal fearfully to absolute limitations, oppressive gods that would not have us attain our own divine potential, secular and religious dogmas, carefully concealed ignorance, and nihilism. All such creeds are an abomination, damning us from our potential -- lines drawn in the sand by our own hands to indicate how far we would go. I value being part of a community of persons who are willing to work together toward the best world we can imagine, with minds ever open to yet better worlds.
I recently came across an interesting blog post entitled "An Alien God", by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is a transhumanist AI researcher. In the post, Eliezer describes biological evolution and compares it to various ideas of God. In the end, he concludes that evolution is much more like Azathoth, a blind idiot God from H P Lovecraft's fiction, than like the traditional monotheistic God from Judeo-Christian theology. He notes, too, that Azathoth is quite alien in comparison to humans, whose foresight may enable them to outwit such a chaotic and unintentionally cruel creator.
I agree with Eliezer that if we're to identify God as that which created everything from scratch then we will not find the Judeo-Christian values manifest in our observation of that God. However, that's not the only place we can (or should) look for God. In contrast to the Greek philosophy that has increasingly permeated traditional Judeo-Christian theology, the Bible and particularly unique Mormon scriptures describe God more as an organizer than an absolute creator. Like a gardener, God sets out to produce fruit in a vineyard that already exists, using techniques adapted to the nature of vineyards. Like a mechanic or chemist, God combines existing materials, works on them, and watches as they react toward desired ends according to their natural properties. Like a parent, God seeks to persuade his children toward kindness, and weeps when observing their cruelty to each other. In these and the many other analogous descriptions of God from the scriptures, we read of a being who is working toward a goal within constraints of available resources and known processes. We read of a being who is quite like us, even if magnified to greater power and knowledge. In contrast with an alien God, the God of the scriptures resonates with our hearts and minds -- as illustrated even in its all-too-human Old Testament moments of intentional cruelty.
Perhaps the familiar God of the scriptures, imperfectly and incompletely described though it may be, is the seed of our future, which in turn may seed numerous similar futures, and thus imply that we ourselves are almost certainly the result of such seeding. If we are looking for God in the totality of a world that exhibits sometimes alien characteristics, we should not be surprised to find an alien God. Perhaps many of us are looking in the wrong places for a God worthy of emulation.
I often have the opportunity to present to groups interested in learning about parallels between Mormon and Transhumanist views of the future. Below is a summary of how I understand Mormon metaphysics, theodicy, eschatology and soteriology in relation to contemporary science and technology.
Mormon metaphysics (a description of the basis of reality) does not rely on the immaterial or supernatural. Spirit is fine matter or light. Miracles do not contravene law. God organized the world from matter according to law. Mormon metaphysics is fundamentally consistent with that of modern science. Like Mormons, although explicitly in deference to the scientific method, scientists generally reject or ignore appeals to the immaterial or supernatural. Even so, some computer scientists share Mormons' faith in a material spirit, although described in different terms as experimentation on the hypothesis of substrate independent consciousness, which they recognize as a basis for the feasibility of futures including mind uploading and computed worlds.
Mormon theodicy (an explanation for the mutual existence of God and evil) separates from theologies that postulate a monolithic God of absolute omnipotence. While God is powerful, the possible is limited. God did not create matter or law, but emerged within and sought to reorganize them to exalt other intelligences to godhood. Evil is not absolute, but arises from conflict between wills, desires and laws. To overcome evil, God calls us to be saviors, of whom Jesus Christ is the example, reconciling in atonement our wills, desires and laws. Similarly, evolutionary science holds that our pain and misery reflect limited fitness in relation to our environment, and may be overcome in time through adaptation. Moreover, an increasingly common evolutionary view, that technological adaptation eventually supersedes biological adaptation, corresponds with the Mormon view that each of us, including God, first passively emerges within an environment before actively working to reorganize it.
Mormon eschatology (a vision of the future) begins by identifying our time as one of wonderful progress and extraordinary challenges, and proceeds rapidly to a millennial paradise and beyond to yet greater challenges. Through ordinances, mortals will be transfigured and the dead resurrected to physical immortal bodies, differing among themselves as do the stars. Immortals inhabit worlds without end of diverse kinds and degrees, and some of their inhabitants become gods, with power to organize new worlds. Mormon eschatology clearly parallels a common a view of the future espoused by futurists examining trends in technological change. Both expect our acquisition of knowledge and power to continue accelerating, and that a time of dramatic change is imminent, with unprecedented risks, as well as opportunities for material abundance and indefinite life extension leading to transformative change. Some futurists argue that if we ever use advanced computing power to simulate a significant number of worlds indistinguishable from our own, we are almost certainly already living in a computed world, as are the neohumans computing our world, and so on in possibly infinite regression. Anyone trusting in the feasibility of such computing is, in different words, sharing the Mormon faith in eventual godhood in worlds without end.
Mormon soteriology (a description of salvation) focuses on happiness, individual and communal, spiritual and physical, attained through both grace and works, according to our wills, desires and laws. The grace of God provides opportunity, without which we would be less than dust. In this context of grace, we are saved through faith, not passively, but rather through action and power. Faith in Christ manifests as will to truth and friendship in eternal reconciliation with each other, extending love not only to the living, but also to persons past and future. In worlds without end, all enjoy that which they are willing to discover and create, with full happiness in eternal progression of physical and spiritual exaltation. Such pursuits will be increasingly facilitated by our emerging technological capacity for shaping better minds and bodies through mental and physical enhancement.
Thanks to David Frischknecht at LDS Media Talk, we have news that the next issue of the LDS Church magazine, "The Ensign", will feature on its cover an article entitled "Sharing the Gospel Using the Internet". It is an adaptation of a talk given by Elder M Russell Ballard, who has been encouraging Mormon involvement in Internet discussion and promotion of our religion. I'm excited to see the LDS Church focusing this level of attention on the use of technology as a means for pursuing a Mormon vision of the future. Assuming trends in computing, biotech and miniaturization technologies continue, it may not be so long as some suppose before we see an Ensign cover article entitled something like "Fullfilling Prophecies of Life Extension". Sound too strange? Consider how strange the current cover article would have sounded to Mormons even 20 years ago.
The Book of Mormon contains an intriguing story about a man named Lehi, who in ancient times sought guidance from God while journeying in the desert with his family to find a new home. One morning, upon opening the door of his tent, he discovered on the ground a fine brass ball of "curious workmanship". On inspecting the ball, Lehi saw that it contained two spindles, and soon learned that one of the spindles would move to guide him through the more fertile parts of the desert. From time to time, messages also appeared on the ball, providing additional assistance during the journey. When Lehi and his family arrived at the sea, his son, Nephi, climbed a nearby mountain to seek further guidance from God. He was inspired to make tools and build an unusual ship, the likes of which he had never before seen. When completed, the ship served to carry them across the sea to their new home. For me, this story epitomizes the importance of education and technology in the Mormon worldview. Mormons do expect inspiration from God, but we do not expect God to do what we can do for ourselves. We can learn and we can build, and so we do.
Mormonism has long emphasized education, both religious and secular. Joseph Smith taught early Mormons that "the glory of God is intelligence", which later became the motto of Brigham Young University (BYU). Founded by Brigham Young in 1875, BYU now has campuses in Utah, Hawaii, Idaho and Israel, servicing upwards of 50,000 students. The Wall Street Journal ranks BYU #1 among regional graduate business schools, and US News ranks BYU #3 among undergraduate accounting programs. In the United States, BYU is the #1 producer of dental school-bound students, the #6 producer of law school-bound students, a top 10 producer of medical school-bound students, and the #10 producer of graduates who go on to earn PhDs. The LDS Church also operates a "Perpetual Education Fund" that provides student loans to members of the Church, generally in less-developed countries. Students are expected to repay the loans according to their abilities. Since its initiation in 2001, the fund has provided loans to 27,000 students in 39 countries. Some may wonder whether the Mormon emphasis on education is counter-productive to activity and retention in the LDS Church. As it turns out, there is a strong positive correlation between years of formal education and active participation among members of the LDS Church. Mormons also tend to be more highly educated than average among persons in their respective nations. For example, in the United States where 14% of the general population has less than a high school education, only 9% of Mormons have less than a high school education; and where 50% of the general population has some college education or more, 61% of Mormons have some college education or more.
Mormons are avid technological innovators and adopters. My own father, Layne Cannon, was one of the inventors of the word processor. Mormons invented the television, hearing aids, the transistor radio, video games, CD/DVD technology, the electric guitar, department stores, repeating rifles and automatic shotguns, the artificial heart and various bionic body parts, synthetic diamonds, and (for you full-body tanners) the photopermeable swimsuit. The creator of Battlestar Galactica, Glen Larson, and the author of Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, are both Mormon. You'll find Mormons all over the Internet. The Mormon blogging community, known as the Bloggernacle, consists of thousands of sites, of which one of the most popular is run by a group of women that call themselves the "Feminist Mormon Housewives". Mormons in Second Life are running a thriving community, consisting of at least 600 members and six islands with residences, gardens, chapels, temples, shopping centers and recreation areas. The Mormon Transhumanist Association recently established a conference center in the dome of a space station orbiting above the "Inspired Technologies" office tower on the main Mormon island of "Adam ondi Ahman". In addition, the LDS Church has a world-class online presence at lds.org and mormon.org. Behind that, the Church leverages technology all throughout its operations. For several decades, the Church has outfitted its chapels with satellite dishes, enabling members to participate in Church-wide conferences. Computers can be found throughout chapels and temples. The Church even uses technology as an enabler for some of its rituals. Massive genealogical databases store information regarding members' ancestors, for whom they perform religious ordinances by proxy. Consequently, the LDS Church is the largest provider of genealogical information on the Internet at familysearch.org.
Mormons also tend to maintain moderate stances in bioethics. For example, while the LDS Church explicitly takes no position on stem cell research, one of the political champions for stem cell research in the United States has been the Utah senator, Orrin Hatch, who is a Mormon. The LDS Church's position on abortion is somewhat unusual for a Christian church in the United States, in that it opposes abortion for personal or social convenience, but it explicitly recognizes the practical benefit of abortion in some cases and so implicitly supports its legality. The LDS Church explicitly takes no position on capital punishment, endorses reasonable means for extending human life, and opposes euthanasia except as the result of removing artificial life support. These and other LDS Church public policy statements can be viewed at newsroom.lds.org.
On the Mormon blog, By Common Consent, in a post entitled "Towards a Mormon Darwinism", Steven P asked how readers reconcile evolution with various aspects of Mormonism, and wondered whether we could do so while preserving notions of God's creation, Adam's fall and Christ's atonement. Of course, I think we can, and that we should without appeals to anything supernatural. Below are my thoughts.
Adam and Eve are archetypes of humanity. This is clearly suggested by the wording of a passage from Joseph Smith's version of Genesis: "In the image of his own body, male and female, created he them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created and became living souls in the land upon the footstool of God." (Moses 6: 9) Adam left the garden when humanity emerged from innocence communally, attaining a degree of intelligence necessary to conceptualize pain and pleasure, joy and misery, and good and evil; and Adam continues to leave the garden as we individually emerge from innocence. The fall of Adam, then, is humanity's loss of innocence that accompanies its communal ascendance to complexity in ethics and esthetics.
Evil is incongruence between and among our anatomical desires, individual wills, communal laws and environmental laws. The atonement of Christ, to which we pledge our discipleship, is the eternal work of reconciling between and among conflicting anatomical desires, individual wills, communal laws and environmental laws. While our pre-human ancestors experienced pain, misery and death, they did not conceptualize them as we do. Their corresponding tragedies were realized more fully in our minds and in the minds of the gods.
Transfiguration or resurrection to immortality produces what the scriptures describe as a "spiritual body" (in contrast to a "spirit body"). Unlike a spirit body, the spiritual body maintains the magnitude of material organization attained by the physical body, although with greater reconciliation between spiritual will and physical desire than when in a mortal state, which forwards the work of atonement. An immortal being, such as a god, remains a natural physical being, but has become the result of both biological and technological evolution. God first found himself in the midst of eternal matter, and thereafter sought to reorganize it toward congruence with our desires. In other words, God first evolved passively and biologically before evolving actively and technologically.
God interacts selectively with his creation, leveraging the natural laws within which he found himself while attempting to expedite the organization of gods like himself for purposes beyond our current anatomical capacity to imagine. Thus, God is (among other things) an engineer: working within his knowledge of the possible (science) to discover and create a world more congruent with our desires.
Thanks to a post from Michael Anissimov, today I came across an interesting article by Michael Berger on the Nanowerk web site that proposes some definitions for and distinctions among forms of nanotechnology. Although the entire article is worth reading, the part that intrigued me most was its explanation of the difference between two forms of bottom-up nanotechnology: self-assembly and molecular assembly. Self-assembly is the practice of arranging molecules into patterns that will subsequently result in desired forms and functions based on our knowledge of naturally occurring molecular interactions. Molecular assembly, on the other hand, is the theoretical practice of creating molecules atom by atom as if in a very small factory.
Although I'm not an expert in nanotechnology, I'll dare say that I don't see a hard distinction between self-assembly and molecular assembly in forms my imagination leads me to consider feasible. As presented by Berger, molecular assembly sounds like the attempt to force atoms into forms and functions against their will, so to speak. It seems that, even if we could do that, the resulting molecules would be unstable, at best. Thus, if atomically-precise fabrication of stable molecules is possible, it seems reasonable to suppose that it would be so only within the constraints of forms and functions that are congruent with atomic tendencies. I wager that expert advocates of molecular assembly recognize this, despite what I understood as Berger's suggestions to the contrary.
At the end of the article, Berger writes the following:
"Here is some food for thought: if nature can grow and operate incredibly complex systems such as humans, maybe our technological future is 'wet' – where factories seem like archaic, crude flintstone-like tools, 'machines' are really more like organisms, and we 'grow' everything we need. That would be 'green' and environmentally compatible technology in the truest sense. And nobody will talk about 'nanotechnology' anymore."
. . . food for thought, indeed. This seems like a good step toward reconciling the differences that Berger originally outlined between self-assembly and molecular assembly. In the same way that self-assembly relies on the natural tendencies of molecules, molecular assembly would rely on the natural tendencies of atoms. Perhaps I'm missing something here, and would like to be corrected if any reader understands these concepts better than I.
Finally, I'd like to point out an interesting analogy between Mormon ethics and the feasible forms of nanotechnology described in the article. Mormon scripture and tradition hold that enduring power results from persuasion rather than force, and that this limitation applies to God quite as much as it applies to us. Joseph Smith described God as an emergent being that found himself within a chaos of spirit matter, and thereafter sought to institute laws to organize the spirit matter to become more like himself. He further claimed that the creative acts of God are accomplished through organization and persuasion, allowing spirit matter to act according to its agency within provided environments, rather than seeking to remove its agency. Mormons anticipate that the give and take between individual agency and divinely-instituted environment will tend to develop us into beings like God. This sounds to me a lot like the idea of working to leverage, rather than work against, the natural tendencies of atoms and molecules to achieve the forms and functions we desire (and they "desire", by implication).
My oldest son recently won the science fair with his project on Moore's Law and accelerating technological change. He and I spent a lot of time collecting price and performance information about historic computers, discussing how we can try to predict the future based on projections of historic trends, and talking about differences between linear and exponential trends and their appearances in graphs. I enjoyed watching him present everything he learned to his class. Take a look!
The World Informer blog characterizes Transhumanism as "The Last Temptation of Mankind". The appeal, of course, is to hubris in the Transhumanist will to continue using technology to extend human capabilities. To say the least, there is a great deal of irony in these sorts of attacks on Transhumanism.
To begin with, the blogger is advocating his perspective via blogging software on the Internet, which empowers him to reach many orders of magnitude more persons with his message than he would otherwise be capable of reaching through his unenhanced capabilities.
Beyond that, he claims to be worshiping a God that behaves exactly as he characterizes Satan: challenging authority over others' creations. And he characterizes Satan as offering others authority over their respective creations, exactly as Christ is portrayed in the Bible. It appears to me that he has his understandings of Christ and Satan mixed up.
2 Thessalonians 2
3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
26 Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:
27 To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:
The charge of hubris is appropriately applied to the person that seeks to raise himself exclusively. It is not appropriately applied to the person that seeks to raise us together. Perhaps both the first and the last temptation of mankind is to confuse Christ with Satan.
"I hope that our Mars probes discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit."
His reasoning is based on two extrapolations from objective observation. First, there are probably many billions of Earth-like planets in the universe. This assumption is an extrapolation from peer-reviewed observation of many billions of galaxies in our universe, many billions of star systems in our galaxy, and many large planets in star systems near us. Second, there are probably no advanced civilizations in the universe. This assumption is an extrapolation from peer-reviewed observation of a decades-long lack of phenomena, such as signals or spacecrafts, associated with advanced civilizations. I'll call these "Fermi assumptions".
Given the Fermi assumptions, Bostrom points out that there must be a reason (or set of reasons) for which the many billions of Earth-like planets have produced no advanced civilizations. He labels that reason the "Great Filter", and notes that it may be behind or ahead of us in the timeline of human civilization. Candidates for filters behind us would be extremely low probability events in our past development (maybe the emergence of basic life, its formation into prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, or their organization into multi-celled organisms -- subsequent events in our development are relatively probable). Candidates for filters ahead of us would be extremely high probability events in our future development (maybe technology-enabled destruction through war or environmental disaster).
From there, Bostrom reasons, if we begin to find independent sources of life simpler than our own then the Great Filter is almost certainly ahead of us because such discoveries would substantially increase the probability of human-like civilizations without substantially increasing the probability of advanced civilizations. Thus, finding simple life on Mars would be horrible news for the future of human civilization.
If the Great Filter is still ahead of us then "Great Wall" is almost certainly a more appropriate label, given the Fermi assumptions. Without a filter behind us, many billions of other Earth-like planets probably have been home to human-like civilizations, yet none has become an advanced civilization. Given many billions of successes at or near our present degree of civilization and no successes among billions of attempts beyond our present degree of civilization, why should we suppose that we'll become the first advanced civilization?
Further consistent extrapolation from the Fermi assumptions implies that if the Great Filter isn't already behind us then the Great Wall, not only practically inevitable, may be near at hand. Our civilization already produces phenomena that other human-like civilizations could observe, and we've been doing this for at least several decades. Yet we observe a decades-long lack of such phenomena coming from star systems within several decades' reach. Thus, there must be a reason (or set of reasons) for which any Earth-like planets within this reach have produced no human-like civilizations -- let alone advanced civilizations. As the reach of our phenomena broadens, the number of Earth-like planets within reach increases, and eventually the sample of Earth-like planets within reach of phenomena from human-like civilizations is large enough to assume that either the Great Filter is almost certainly behind us or the Great Wall is almost certainly upon us. While the probability of Earth-like planets is not yet determined, if it is sufficiently high then finding simple life on Mars would be horrible news for the present human civilization -- let alone its future.
However, while I'm inclined to accept the first of the Fermi assumptions, I'm not persuaded that the second of the Fermi assumptions is true. We know too little to entertain confidence in our ability to discern advanced civilizations. Moreover, while I do not think we have sufficient evidence for any objective statement regarding advanced civilizations, it is not merely the recent UFO claims that contend for recognition as subjective experience of advanced civilizations, but rather the ancient and persistent weight of religious tradition, and its purported interactions between the human and the divine, that contends. While some find many religious claims shockingly absurd, appeals to absurdity and weak creative thinking skills are not evidence to the contrary of the religious hypothesis. If advanced civilizations exist, why should we suppose they would interact with us in ways that are only slightly more advanced than our current capacities? Why not suppose that their interactions with us would be, at least for now, indiscernible from magic? Why should we suppose that we would have the anatomical capacity to figure out and comprehend their motives? Why not suppose that their capacities so far exceed ours that they actually are communicating with us in ways we cannot yet understand fully? I'm not suggesting an absolutely omnipotent God or infallible prophets, but I am suggesting that which humans might interpret as an absolutely omnipotent God or infallible prophets.
If the second Fermi assumption is not true then any filters behind or ahead of us are not so great as we must otherwise consider them to be. That would not mean we should assume away or attempt to otherwise diminish the seriousness of future risks. It would mean only that we can have reasonable hope in our ability to manage those risks.
So long as we have objectively observed neither advanced civilizations nor simple life originating from another planet, there are two rational and practical perspectives:
1) We almost certainly are not unique and there almost certainly is no Great Filter (although there may be many serious filters ahead of us).
2) We almost certainly are unique and the Great Filter almost certainly is behind us (although there may be many serious filters ahead of us).
However, if ever we objectively observe simple life originating from another planet, there will be only one rational and practical perspective, #1 modified to reflect the new observation:
1) We are not unique, but there almost certainly is no Great Filter (although there may be many serious filters ahead of us).
That's not because the following perspective would not be rational:
3) We are not unique, and there almost certainly is a Great Wall.
#3 is no less rational than #1, but it is far less practical than #1. Given objective observation of simple life originating from multiple planets, and assuming we do not desire the end of human civilization, we should doubt the Fermi assumptions. An important class of truths depend on us for their actualization, and the future of our civilization may be one of those truths. If we generally assume we're doomed, we'll generally behave accordingly. If we generally assume we can manage the risks, serious though they may be, we'll likewise generally behave accordingly. Our behavior, in the end, may make the difference.
Whether or not the Mars probe discovers something, I intend to continue to doubt the second Fermi assumption. If the Mars probe discovers something, I wager Bostrom will begin to doubt the second Fermi assumption. Maybe we are not so unique. Maybe we are not so alone. Maybe they are out there, even around us, and we simply have not yet understood.
Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 88
45 The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.
46 Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?
47 Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
48 I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended.
49 The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; nevertheless, the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him.
50 Then shall ye know that ye have seen me, that I am, and that I am the true light that is in you, and that you are in me; otherwise ye could not abound.
I've blogged time and again about the Simulation Argument, formulated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. Basically, the argument holds that either (a) we're almost certainly living in an ancestor simulation or (b) we'll almost certainly never create many ancestor simulations. The first half, "a", of the disjunct (we're almost certainly living in an ancestor simulation) is the Simulation Hypothesis. The Simulation Argument can be generalized. Its form remains valid regardless of the particular technology to which it is applied, although the feasibility of the first half of the disjunct may vary.
I participated today in a conference call among several Mormon scholars on the subject of parallels between Mormon thought and engineering vision. As mentioned previously, the call was organized by Scott Howe, of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on behalf of Richard Bushman, who is the Claremont Colleges Howard W Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies. Here is a list of the persons who participated in the call:
I'd like to echo a sentiment expressed today in a press release from the LDS Church. Mormonism, at its best, respects the diversity of views, both religious and non-religious, held by good persons throughout the world. We are together working for a better world, and bitter sectarian division is counter-productive to such ends.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, on several occasions expressed his respect for the diverse religious influences near him in his day. As recorded in Mormon scripture, Joseph wrote, "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." Joseph stated, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true 'Mormons'" (History of the Church 5:517). He also stated, "The inquiry is frequently made of me, 'Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?' In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may" (History of the Church 5:499).
Some antagonists of Mormonism have focused on Joseph's attacks on the Christian creeds, and interpreted those attacks as disdain for other religions. However, Joseph's attacks on the creeds were not aimed at other faiths so much as at the dogmatism inherent in creeds. Clarifying this perspective, he stated, "I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth; I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, 'Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;' which I cannot subscribe to" (History of the Church 6:57). Of course, there is some irony in this, as Mormons often attach to Joseph's words with degrees of dogmatism similar to those with which other religions attach to their creeds. I like to imagine that Joseph would be disappointed with such behavior, particularly when Mormons engage in it. Closed minds and arrogant certainty, although often manifest among us, are entirely inconsistent with Mormonism, which emphasizes faith in ongoing revelation, adapted to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Here is a portion of the LDS Church press release:
"The spiritual and physical needs of the world require goodwill and cooperation among different faiths. Each of them makes a valuable contribution to the larger community of believers. In the words of early Church apostle Orson F. Whitney, 'God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of his great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people.' Thus, members of the Church do not view fellow believers around the world as adversaries or competitors, but as partners in the many causes for good in the world."
I count Transhumanists among the valuable contributors to the work of God. Although most of them do not share my faith in God, let alone my unusual Mormon perspective on God, I value our relationships, the many aspirations we share, the ways they've contributed toward improving my knowledge, and the work they do to advocate awareness of the risks and opportunities associated with the rapid technological change we're now experiencing. The Mormon Transhumanist Association is honored to be affiliated with the World Transhumanist Association, which has, through our affiliation, made an admirable statement about the value of respecting diverse views.
I just came across an excellent article written by James Hughes, who is a director of the World Transhumanist Association. The article is entitled "Millennial Tendencies in Responses to Apocalyptic Threats". Here is the abstract:
Clark Goble, at his Mormon Metaphysics blog (which I highly recommend), recently posted on the question, "Brains like Computers?" In his post, he references an article written some time ago by Chris Chatham, at Developing Intelligence, on "10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers". In this post, I'll share my thoughts in response to the interesting differences pointed out by Chris.
Difference #1: Brains are analogue; computers are digital
Brains are analog to the extent of our ability to observe, but they (along with all things) may exist in a universally digital substrate. Such speculation aside, even if brains are absolutely analog, digital systems can simulate analog systems. It may prove possible for digital simulations of the brain, as they become more complex, to simulate well beyond whatever degree of minute detail is pertinent to proper functioning of an analog brain. Even if an infinite regress of analog detail is pertinent to proper functioning, a brain simulator itself would have to be built within the context of such a regress, would therefore share analog properties with the analog brain, and need only simulate details above their shared substrate.
Difference #2: The brain uses content-addressable memory
The brain uses content-addressable memory when we observe it systematically at a particular magnitude. Likewise, as the author points out, computers use content-addressable memory when we observe them systematically at the magnitude of the Internet. We've begun to see advances toward a semantic web, in which content is labeled or otherwise identified in ways that increasingly enable computers to recall data like our brains do.
Difference #3: The brain is a massively parallel machine; computers are modular and serial
Parallel computing is advancing exponentially. This trend has long manifest itself in the growth of networks, and is now manifesting itself in processor architecture. In 2006, Intel had dual-core processors on the consumer market. More recently, Intel put quad-core and dual quad-core processors on the consumer market. They've also announced plans for 80-core processors by 2011, as would be predicted by an exponential trend. Assuming this trend continues, it will not be long (only decades) before computers are far more massively parallel, both in networking and processor architecture, than human brains.
Difference #4: Processing speed is not fixed in the brain; there is no system clock
Different components of a computer have different clock speeds, and so, in the aggregate, a computer does not have a fixed processing speed. In recent years, we've begun adding more special-purpose processors to the composition of computers, which makes overall processing speed increasingly complex. Moreover, at a higher magnitude of computing complexity, such as a network or the Internet, it may prove more useful to model processing speed in analog terms than in digital terms.
Difference #5: Short-term memory is not like RAM
If beneficial, the architecture of RAM could be modified to reflect that which permits short-term memory in the human brain. However, RAM architecture could prove superior in efficiency while yet enabling all the functions associated with short-term memory in the human brain. Decreasing costs and advances in computer memory may, at least to the extent desired, increasingly dissolve distinctions between short- and long-term memory.
Difference #6: No hardware/software distinction can be made with respect to the brain or mind
Software does not exist independent of hardware. Software is a pattern across a hardware substrate. The software pattern is material and observable, of course, which allows the hardware to interact with it (or, in other words, with itself). Likewise, the brain maintains material and observable patterns, which do not exist independent of the brain. A difference, at least for now, is that we cannot transfer with high fidelity the patterns in one brain to another (presumably, education does this with low fidelity), or to a non-biological equivalent. That may change in the future, as we improve our ability to scan and simulate brains at increasing magnitudes of detail.
Difference #7: Synapses are far more complex than electrical logic gates
Computers can use many electrical logic gates to emulate the function of a single synapse. As suggested above, it may prove possible for digital simulations of a synapse, as they become more complex, to simulate well beyond whatever degree of minute detail is pertinent to proper functioning of an analog synapse.
Difference #8: Unlike computers, processing and memory are performed by the same components in the brain
Computers can simulate computer processors in memory. They can, likewise, enable the simulation to modify itself. Indeed, some computer components have already been designed in this manner, modifying themselves toward improved congruence with environmental factors based on a genetic algorithm. Such flexibility, when coupled with the processing speed of computers, can enable rapid technological evolution.
Difference #9: The brain is a self-organizing system
Computers are becoming increasingly self-organizing systems. Genetic algorithms combined with environmental inputs result in complex behavior that is in many areas quickly approaching levels commonly associated with intelligence.
Difference #10: Brains have bodies
Computers also have bodies, and they always have since the time of their mechanical ancestors. Commonly today, their observations are attained from their keyboard and mouse body parts, and their actions are expressed in their monitor body parts. Yet they are becoming increasingly complex. They have eyes in the form of cameras and ears in the form of speakers. They've been connected to wheels and other forms of locomotion, to the point even of proving capable of walking up and down stairs on two legs. Perhaps most promising at this time, they've been given virtual bodies in virtual worlds, where they can intereact with diverse inputs, including human avatars, and modify their behavior accordingly.
Bonus Difference: The brain is much, much bigger than any [current] computer
The "[current]" should be emphasized, as should the fact that we've observed exponential advance in computing power for a long time. Assuming this trend continues, and there are good reasons to suppose that it may even accelerate, a single $1000 computer should have the computing capacity of a human brain around the year 2033, if not sooner. Around 2050, following the trend further, a single $1000 computer should have the computing capacity of all human brains combined. You can see, from this, that even if neurologists' liberal estimates of the computing power of the human brain are short of reality by an order or two of magnitude, a continuing exponential advance of computing power would attain that level within a short period of time.
Next week, I'll have the opportunity to meet with several Mormon scholars to discuss parallels between Mormon thought and engineering vision. The meeting has been organized by Scott Howe, of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on behalf of Richard Bushman, who is the Claremont Colleges Howard W Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies. Hopefully the discussion will lead to a workshop or conference on this subject sometime in the future at Claremont.
Clones are evil! At least, that's what we're often told. Popular media generally portrays clones in a negative light, such as the many copies of anthropomorphic human-hunting Cylons in Battlestar Galactica or the mindlessly obedient squadrons of emperial soldiers in Star Wars. In some academic circles, bioconservatives clamor about the immorality of cloning, appealing mostly to fear of the unknown correlated with (presumably temporary) technical limitations.
So far as I can tell, clones aren't necessarily so evil. In fact, I've known several clones, and they've all appeared to be quite as good as any other persons I've encountered. Technically, the clones to which I'm referring are more generally described as identical twins, and there are a few differences between them that I'd like to explore briefly here.
First, identical twins result from natural DNA duplication, whereas clones result from artificial DNA duplication. Cloning is currently accomplished via transfer of a donor cell nucleus to an egg that no longer contains its original nucleus.
Second, although both identical twins and clones are the result of DNA duplication, identical twins have MORE in common than do clones, given current cloning processes. While clones have duplicated DNA in common, identical twins also have the an egg and gestational environment in common. To whatever extent the egg and gestational environment affect development, identical twins should tend toward greater resemblance than should clones.
Third, current cloning processes tend to result in imperfections that generally manifest themselves negatively as clones mature.
I consider the first difference between identical twins and clones to have, in itself, no greater moral implication than the difference between natural conception and in vitro fertilization. I mention "in itself" because I can imagine many ways in which the components for the cloning process (such as the eggs) might be harvested in oppressive ways. However, whether the process is natural or artificial does not play into the morality of the process, so far as I am concerned -- and most persons living in the modern world would have a hard time disagreeing without hypocrisy.
The second difference indicates that there is no reason to fear that clones might somehow attain to something less than a unique identity. We should expect clones to be at least as unique as identical twins, who don't appear to be excessively concerned that they share duplicated DNA with another person. While I can imagine some twins wishing away their twinhood, no twin I've ever met has had anything less than positive to say about the value of her (or his) relationship with her (or his) twin.
Finally, regarding the third difference between identical twins and clones, I do see this as an ethical concern, although not an insurmountable one. Until cloning is demonstrated to pose no greater health risk than alternative conception processes, it should not be used to conceive humans.
In summary, while we should be concerned about the morality of the details of the cloning process, the general phenomenon should not be of so great concern as it appears to be for some persons. I suspect that, in time, the fear of clones will subside as the technical process improves, the unknowns dissipate, and the novelty wears away.