Mormon Bodies and Mind Uploading
21 July 2015
Mormonism is relatively unique among world religions in its regard for bodies. Where most major religions consider bodies to be temporary or inhibitive, Mormonism considers bodies to be eternal and empowering, and potentially divine. This provides strong common ground with physicalist philosophies generally, and particularly with Transhumanism. Even the radical Transhumanist aspiration of mind uploading is compatible with Mormonism, although the idea is easy to misinterpret in ways that would be neither consistent with physicalism nor compatible with Mormonism.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of bodies in Mormon theology and cosmology, as presented in Mormon scripture. 2 Nephi 9: 4-12 decries death of the body (in combination with spiritual misery) as an “awful monster” to be overcome in resurrection that reunites spirit with body. And D&C 45: 17 characterizes the separation of spirit from body as “bondage.” Distinguishing between primitive spirits and robust spiritual bodies, D&C 88: 27-33 describes different kinds of spiritual bodies as glorified natural bodies, while D&C 93: 7-8 maintains that all spirit is matter, even when separated from that which we might ordinarily think of as bodies. D&C 84: 33 describes sanctification of priests to be “unto the renewing of their bodies.” And 3 Nephi 28: 36-40 constructs immortality in terms of progressive changes to the body. This leads to what D&C 129: 1-2 describes as “resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bone,” and what D&C 88: 67 describes as “whole bodies filled with light” that “comprehendeth all things.” Even God has a body as tangible as ours, according to D&C 130: 22. And D&C 88: 14-20 prophecies that Earth will be glorified with the presence of “God the Father; that bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever.”
Given the significance of embodiment in Mormonism, some have supposed it to be incompatible with mind uploading. Mind uploading is the Transhumanist idea that minds may be substrate independent, or transferable from one substrate to another, such as from a biological brain to an artificial brain. In other words, minds may be like software, which we can transfer from one kind of computer to another. The supposition of incompatibility between Mormonism and mind uploading arises, I believe, mostly from a misinterpretation of the phrase “mind uploading,” which may incorrectly suggest to some an aspiration to a sort of immateriality or disembodiment.
There’s an important difference between notions of immateriality or disembodiment on the one hand, and substrate independence on the other hand. Consider information generally. Information is substrate independent, but it is neither immaterial nor disembodied. While information is separable to various extents from any specific instance of embodiment, it is inseparably connected with embodiment generally. For example, while we can separate software from a particular computer, we cannot separate it from hardware generally, whether it be another computer or a storage device. We can remove software from hardware generally, but then it is no longer software in any practical sense. Likewise, information is no longer information in any practical sense if removed from all substrates. Information and substrate are inseparably connected.
In fact, there is no bright line of distinction between information and embodiment. As the concepts actually attain in objective observation, information and embodiment perpetually impinge within and upon each other in a feedback loop. The simple dichotomy between hardware and software in contemporary computers is an intentional abstraction for practical purposes, but it can become blurry on close investigation. Go looking for the software, and you’ll find it ultimately indistinguishable from the physical state of the hardware itself. Go looking for information, and you’ll find embodiment.
Implicit in the notion of substrate independent minds is the notion that minds are information. Accordingly, in at least some cases, information must be able to experience itself as consciousness. In other words, consciousness must be something like information experiencing itself from the inside. Although contemporary science has not provided anything close to a sufficient account of consciousness, it has clearly established correlations between reportable changes in consciousness and observable changes in brains.
While substrate independent minds imply that minds are information, they do not necessarily imply that minds are limited to brains. Maybe minds are limited to complex patterns in brains. But maybe minds extend into complex patterns beyond brains, in communities or environments. Either way, complex patterns are information. And information is substrate independent, whether or not its transfer from a given brain would constitute a complete transfer or only a partial transfer of the substrate for an associated mind.
Mormon scripture lends itself to interpretations consistent with the notion that mind is information. D&C 84: 45-46 intentionally equivocates between “spirit,” “light,” and “truth,” suggesting that which discerns (spirit/mind), the means by which it discerns (light/body), and that which it discerns (truth/information) are interchangeable – feedback loops of introspection. D&C 93: 29-30 extends the intentional equivocation between “light” and “truth” to “intelligence,” and states that primal intelligence cannot be created from nothing (even by God) but can be “placed.” That is echoed in Abraham 3: 21-22, which describes intelligences “organized” by God, perhaps reminiscent of human work to develop artificial intelligence. D&C 130: 18-19 associates “intelligence” with “knowledge,” and admonishes increases in both. That leads to Abraham 3: 19, which describes spirits in a spectrum of intelligence. In turn, that culminates in D&C 93: 36, which goes all the way to applying the intentional equivocation of “light” and “truth” to the intelligence of God: “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.”
The Mormon narrative also relies implicitly on something like the idea of substrate independent minds. Your mind has always existed and has always been embodied, at least in the most primitive sense. Your mind has already transferred via birth from a premortal spirit embodiment to the more robust mortal embodiment you now know. Your mind may yet transfer via death from mortal embodiment to a more primitive postmortal spirit embodiment like that before birth. Either way, your mind will eventually transfer via transfiguration or resurrection to a yet more robust immortal embodiment – a “spiritual body” in contrast to a “spirit body.” Each part of this narrative entails transfer of mind from one embodiment to another, or from one substrate to another. And none of this is possible unless mind actually is substrate independent.
Mormon authorities have even occasionally expressed an idea that sounds a bit like mind uploading. The idea stems from their attempt to reconcile Biblical descriptions of resurrection. On the one hand, 1 Corinthians 15: 35-53 describes resurrected (and transfigured) bodies as being “spiritual” without “flesh and blood.” On the other hand, Job 19: 26 describes resurrection as being in the flesh, Matt 27: 52 describes resurrection as embodied, and Luke 24: 36 describes Jesus’ resurrection in “flesh and bones.” Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, commented on the apparent contradiction:
“As concerning the resurrection, I will merely say that all men will come from the grave as they lie down, whether old or young; there will not be ‘added unto their stature one cubit,’ neither taken from it; all will be raised by the power of God, having spirit in their bodies, and not blood.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 199)
The idea that spirit would replace blood in future bodies has been echoed by other Mormon authorities, including Brigham Young, who led the Mormon pioneers, and as recently as Howard Hunter, who was president of the LDS Church while I was a missionary.
“It will be so with every person who receives a resurrection; the blood will not be resurrected with the body, being designed only to sustain the life of the present organization. When that is dissolved, and we again obtain our bodies by the power of the resurrection, that which we now call the life of the body, and which is formed from the food we eat and the water we drink will be supplanted by another element; for flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Discourses of Brigham Young 374)
“There is a separation of the spirit and the body at the time of death. The resurrection will again unite the spirit with the body, and the body becomes a spiritual body, one of flesh and bones but quickened by the spirit instead of blood. Thus, our bodies after the resurrection, quickened by the spirit, shall become immortal and never die. This is the meaning of the statements of Paul that ‘there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body’ and ‘that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.’ The natural body is flesh and blood, but quickened by the spirit instead of blood, it can and will enter the kingdom.” (Teachings of Howard W Hunter 16)
According to these and other Mormon authorities, an important distinction between mortal and immortal bodies will be that mortal bodies have blood whereas immortal bodies have spirit. That could be dismissed as strange or ridiculous. But it could also be considered at least vaguely foresightful. If our minds are substrate independent, we will eventually have the option of transferring them to non-biological substrates: to emulated brains and bodies. To maintain continuity for our minds, emulated brains and bodies may need processes like emulated blood, at least at first. However, emulated blood would be a level of abstraction higher than the blood now coursing through our bodies, and might reasonably be characterized as “spirit” in comparison.
In any case, the Mormon emphasis on pervasive embodiment in diverse forms is entirely compatible with mind uploading, properly understood as maintaining embodiment. Assuming they’re possible, emulated brains and bodies could be far more robust than the bodies we now enjoy, and yet they would remain quite as embodied as we are now, if not more so. Perhaps climbing to levels of abstraction we cannot begin to imagine now, our emulated bodies would yet of necessity remain firmly founded in the most concrete aspects of reality.
“For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy.” (Joseph Smith)