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Misapplied Charges of Hubris

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.



Satan



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.



Christ



Romans 8
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.


Philippians 2
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:


Colossians 1
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.

What if there is no (little green) extraterrestrial life?

Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom, in a recent Technology Review article entitled "Where Are They?", writes:

"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.

The Creation Argument



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.

Mormon Scholars Hold Conference Call on Engineering Parallels with Mormonism



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:

The Value of Respect for Diverse Views

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.

James Hughes on Millennial Tendencies in Responses to Apocalyptic Threats



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:

Reconciliation of 10 Differences between Brains and Computers

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.

10 Parallels Between Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision



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 and Your Evil Twin Brother

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.

Lincoln Cannon
Mormon Transhumanist Association
Christian Transhumanist Association
The New God Argument
Thrivous
Discerner
Lincoln Cannon LLC
Clarity Natural Nootropic Improve Memory and Cognition