What If It All Works Out?
15 September 2020
What if the best prophecies are fulfilled? What if the worst are avoided? What if, by the grace of God, we make heaven on Earth? What will that look like?
Such questions come from one of my favorite professional anthropologists, Jon Bialecki. He has been studying and writing about Mormon Transhumanism. In fact, he has a book on the subject that’s currently in peer review. And I’m looking forward to reading it.
Jon is the kind of anthropologist who embeds himself within the culture he’s studying. So he’s been involved in events of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. That has included speaking at our conferences. And, most recently, he led a discussion at an association meetup.
The subject of discussion was speculation about the future in Mormonism, both broadly and in Mormon Transhumanism specifically. He wanted to explore how speculation about the future affects our intellectual, religious, and spiritual lives. And we ended up discussing some of the social and political aspects of speculation among Mormons.
Importance of Speculation
Because Mormon Transhumanists are opinionated, the discussion never advanced beyond Jon’s first question. He asked:
“How important is speculation about the future to you? Before joining the MTA? As an MTA member? In your daily life?”
One of the most memorable ideas that my parents taught me as a child was the doctrine of theosis. It’s the idea that humanity can and should become God. In the Christian interpretation, it’s not about replacing God but rather about joining God. And it’s not merely about individuals, but also about how communities can join with God together.
This idea had abiding impact on me from childhood to the present. Even when I lost my faith in God during young adulthood, inspiration from the doctrine of theosis persisted with me. I doubted that God existed. But I trusted that humanity could and should still work to embody the characteristics and capacities that we attribute to God, particularly as exemplified by Jesus Christ.
Because of that abiding and forward-looking inspiration, I frequently imagined how we might realize such hope. And I was never satisfied with passive possibilities of God doing all the work. Maybe God would. But to the extent that we don’t know, shouldn’t we be wondering how to proceed with whatever knowledge, abilities, and tools that we have available to us?
To the extent God exists, we should discover and join God. To the extent God doesn’t exist, we should create and become God. Both require work. And work begins with speculation, before proceeding to experimentation and application.
For various emotional and rational reasons, I eventually regained my faith in God. But inspiration from the doctrine of theosis hasn’t changed. And the accompanying motivation to speculate hasn’t changed. If anything, my inclination to speculation has only increased as my sense of the practicality of the hope has increased.
Confidence in Speculation
Out of curiosity, I asked Jon to share the questions that we didn’t have time to discuss. He kindly did that. They’re presented below, along with my answers.
“How certain are you about your vision of the future? What is the ‘range of variance’ about the future, for lack of a better word?”
I’m not certain. I’m a philosopher. “Certainty” is kind of a bad word.
Sure. Like everyone else, except on reflection, I dogmatize like an infallible pope. So sometimes I may sound or even feel certain. But when I’m being careful, I can deconstruct anything.
That doesn’t mean I should. Unfortunately or otherwise, I learned this from difficult personal experience. The only end to the path of deconstruction is the one that ends our ability to deconstruct. At some point, to persist, we must turn around, trust something even if only provisionally, and build from there.
Don’t, however, confuse my rejection of certainty for a lack of confidence. In many contexts, I probably have more than my fair share of confidence. And I unabashedly advocate for unmitigated confidence in some contexts.
That’s because there’s an important kind of truth that depends on us for its creation. And there’s an important kind of created truth that depends on our confidence for its initiation and perpetuation. Some of these confidence-dependent created truths are among the most important truths. I’ll give you a couple examples.
First, imagine that you’re being chased by a bear. There’s a cliff ahead. But there’s another ledge fifteen feet beyond. There’s no other way.
What do you do? Unless you’re more confident that you can win a fight with the bear, I recommend that you run as fast and jump as hard as you can. And I recommend that you avoid, as much as possible, doubting your ability to make the jump. Sometimes life cannot wait for doubt.
Second, consider the future of humanity. Will it be beautiful or ugly? Will it be thriving or oppressed? Will we soon become extinct?
If you can muster the confidence, I recommend that you trust in your ability to contribute to a beautiful and thriving future for humanity. Don’t ignore the probabilities of risks. Take them seriously. But no matter how bad they might be, cultivate confidence in yourself and others, that we might work together to beat whatever odds might be against us.
I’m not certain that humanity will become God. I’m not certain that we’ll avoid becoming extinct before evolving into superintelligent posthumanity. There are serious risks, as horrible as the opportunities are wonderful. But we have a practical and moral obligation to trust in and work toward the best possible outcomes, with a sober and sure confidence.
Longevity and Identity
Jon’s next question transitioned from the nature of speculation-in-general to particular speculations about individual longevity and resurrection. He asked:
“Will you be around in one hundred/thousand/million [years]? Will you be resurrected? If so, how many times?”
I hope so. I hope my identity persists so long as I desire it. Forever? Keep asking me.
Of course my identity will change, at least as much as it has changed since I was an embryo in my mother’s womb. Surely I’ll desire sabbaths, changes or breaks from previous living patterns. But at least for now, I hope my identity persists indefinitely.
Importantly, my identity is not something that I own exclusively. It’s as much a social construct as it is an individual construct. I can maintain my identity only to the extent that both my community and I recognize me.
For my identity to persist, we must categorize a loose set of phenomena as that which we presently call “Lincoln.” We must associate a loose set of memories of past phenomena with that category. And we must continue to associate a loose set of new experiences with that category.
Although not absolute or perfect, these categories and associations must be psycho-socially sufficient. They don’t have to account for all the tiny details. They can evolve. But they must be at least just enough to persuade me and my community to assert that I now exist as a practical continuation of a person that existed before.
We already do this from day to day. How do you know you’re still you when you wake up each morning? How do you know your friends are still your friends? Regardless of perpetual and pervasive change, there’s at least just enough to keep persuading you.
It becomes harder, but still readily possible, when we encounter each after long periods of separation. We might not immediately recognize old childhood friends. But give us a little time together. And we’ll usually consent to each other’s persistent identity.
One of the most important reasons why I hope still to be around in millions of years is a relational implication. If I’m still around, so are my friends! That’s one of ramifications of the shared ownership of identity. My identity requires them as much as it requires me.
Okay. Well, technically, it could just mean that my enemies are still around. But a psycho-socially sufficient context for recognizing me as me must still exist. Otherwise, I don’t exist in any meaningful way.
Assuming I still exist a million years from now, will I have been resurrected once or more times? I suspect so. I do hope to experience a time and place when it’s harder to stay dead than alive. But it’s awfully hard to stay alive right now.
With that in mind, I want to point out that the dead haven’t ceased to exist. There’s an important difference between being dead and not existing. The latter has lost its identity. The former just lacks a robust embodiment.
The identities of the dead aren’t even fully disembodied. They aren’t immaterial. They persist in the information patterns of other bodies and brains that still live and remember. And identities also persist in our non-living environment to some extent.
So the dead are still embodied. I call them “spirit bodies.” I trust that humanity (or our evolutionary descendents) will resurrect almost all spirit bodies, according to their desires. And I esteem this possibility to be an expression of grace from God (and our evolutionary ancestors).
If we exist for millions of years, you and I will almost certainly be among those spirit bodies that rely on others’ grace for resurrection from time to time. And even when we aren’t in need of resurrection, we’ll still continue to rely on each other’s grace for perpetuation of our identities. This is already true now. I don’t expect that to change.
Jon’s next questions targeted speculation about the Church. He asked:
“What will the Church look like in one hundred/thousand/million [years]? Healing? The Priesthood? Temples? Church governance (at whatever range you care - from the First Presidency to the wards/branches)? What will missionary work look like? Is this a church that you would want to join/leave?”
The Church will continue to evolve, at least as much as humans evolve. And I mean that both its institutional expression as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and our abstract conception of the universal Church of Christ will evolve. I trust the former will continue to become more like the latter, as the latter provokes and inspires us toward our potential. And eventually the latter should subsume the former in more sublime expressions, such as the “kingdom of heaven” in accordance with scriptural prophecies.
Rituals of healing will continue to become more dependable and powerful. Placebo will probably continue to matter. Authority will probably continue to mediate placebo. But the mechanics of our bodies and brains will be increasingly visible and available for intentional interactivity.
Our understanding of the Priesthood will continue to evolve. The practical value of authority will persist, so long as the Church community doesn’t collapse into a singleton. And I imagine that our attribution of authority will increasingly decentralize, as has already been the case for millennia. It was once a particular family, then a particular race, now a particular gender, and eventually the entire Body of Christ to which we attribute the Priesthood.
Temples will be the place that rituals become reality. Gradually, family history will become more detailed. Symbolic reminders of raising the dead will conjoin with practical procedures of raising the dead. But the practicality will never displace the need for meaning and purpose cultivated by ritual.
As our understanding of the Priesthood changes, Church governance changes. We’ve seen this already. We’ll see more of it. I hope formal decentralized councils, already nascent in the Church structure, will gain power as we mature into the Body of Christ.
Missionaries will always matter. There’s no end to the work of immortality and eternal life. And the Body of Christ invites everyone. So I trust there will never be a last missionary, whether they travel in covered wagons or generation starships.
Of course there are and will be serious risks along the way. Some prophecies are as horrible as others are beautiful. And I’m confident that no prophecy is inevitable. Our hope for the future of the Church depends on each of us to some extent.
My hope is that I will continue to desire to be a member of the Church, so long as it exists. I hope that I’ll continue to desire to invite my friends to participate in it with me. And I hope that both the Church, each member, and I will become something better together. Remember what I said about an important kind of truth that we create.
Mormon Transhumanist Association
And what about the Mormon Transhumanist Association? Jon asked:
“Will there be an MTA in one hundred/thousand/million [years]? Does the MTA need the M for it to exist?”
I imagine the role of the Mormon Transhumanist Association as that of a transition facilitator. And I’ve often described that role by way of a couple different analogies.
The first is the Jim Bridger analogy. Jim Bridger was an explorer of the American West. He mapped trails and advised pioneers. When social and political realities pressed Church leaders to go west, they relied in significant part on information either directly or indirectly from persons such as Jim Bridger to facilitate their trek.
Likewise, the Mormon Transhumanist Association explores the future of religion. We spend more time in and have become better at that exploration than most people. And because of that, we are developing the capacity to provide genuinely useful advice about how churches might go there in less destructive ways. When cultural and technological evolution press Church leaders to change, they may rely in significant part on information either directly or indirectly from persons such as Mormon Transhumanists.
The second is the Jewish Neoplatonist analogy. Jewish Neoplatonists are a hypothetical religious order. They integrated Judaism with Neoplatonism. And their work eventually facilitated the rise of Christianity.
Likewise, Mormon Transhumanists integrate Mormonism and Transhumanism. And we aspire to facilitating the rise of a new religious paradigm. We might imagine that change, as mentioned previously, along the lines of the scriptural prophecies that describe the kingdom of heaven subsuming the Church as we know it today.
To be clear, aspiration toward change isn’t necessarily the same as aspiration toward destruction. Jesus Christ exemplifies this in the Bible. He’s a Jew. And he positions his work with these words:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill them.”
This latter analogy also illuminates the importance of both the “M” and the “T” in Mormon Transhumanism. When we look back at the rise of Christianity, we can see clear influence from both Judaism and Neoplatonism. Judaism brought important esthetic ingredients. Neoplatonism brought important practical ingredients.
Neither Judaism on its own nor Neoplatonism on its own ever became anywhere near as prominent or influential as Christianity. More people have identified with Christianity than with any other ideology in human history. On a per capita basis, perhaps only Zoroastrianism at the time of the Persian empire competes with per capita Christianity in the modern world. But Christianity as we know it wouldn’t exist without both Judaism and Neoplatonism.
It may not end up working the same. But Mormonism and Transhumanism do at least complement each other, as realized already in many individual lives. Together, they do at least provoke reflection on the possibility of a new religious paradigm. And their combined vision may be foresightful enough that, like a lever, its efficacy may only become obvious far from the origin of its application.
Marriage and Sealing
Next, Jon turned our attention to marriage. For people unfamiliar with Mormonism, this might sound like a strange topic to single out. But the reason is that Mormonism, among Christian religions, has a relatively unique relationship with marriage. Here’s how Jon asked the question:
“What will marriage look like in one hundred/thousand/million [years]?”
Some of the more controversial aspects of Mormon history are related to marriage. Notably, many nineteenth century Mormons practiced polygamy. A small number of Mormon fundamentalists still practice polygamy today. And although members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are excommunicated if they practice polygamy with multiple living persons, the Church continues to marry men to multiple women for eternity as long as only one of the women is alive at a time.
Why did the Church stop allowing members to practice polygamy with multiple living persons? Quite clearly the main driver for the change was pressure from the United States Government. It confiscated property from and imprisoned polygamists, including my ancestors. And it marched an army on Salt Lake City, threatening war.
Although we no longer give it a lot of attention, the doctrine of polygamy is still present in Mormon scripture. Some Mormons hate that. In their minds, polygamy is exclusively an oppressive form of marriage that favors men at the expense of women. And it surely has been practice that way to some extent.
However, there are important nuances to the doctrine and practice of polygamy that many Mormons overlook. For example, many Mormons aren’t aware that Joseph Smith practiced not only polygyny but also polyandry. He married women who were also married to other men. So there’s practical precedent for polygamy in Mormonism to be about more than polygyny.
In addition, Joseph Smith engaged in more forms of inter-personal sealing than only marriage. Most Mormons will think of sealing between parents and children, which we still practice today. But Joseph also appears to have advocated a form of sealing that was neither marriage nor that between parents and children. This other form was perhaps more like a sealing of friendship.
To the extent that marriage or any other form of inter-personal sealing is accompanied with oppression, I oppose it. That includes strictly-patriarchal polygamy. That includes marriage of persons who are contextually incapable of providing meaningful consent. And that includes unhealthy monogamous marriages.
However, I’m not inherently opposed to marriage among persons who are contextually capable of meaningful consent and genuinely love each other. In other words, I’m not inherently opposed to either polygamy or monogamy. I’m not inherently opposed to either gay or straight marriage. And I’m not inherently opposed to non-marriage sealings.
To the contrary, I favor all of these forms of sealing to the extent that they are prosocial. I favor them to the extent that they help us mitigate the social risks associated with promiscuity, infidelity, abuse, and neglect. And I favor them to the extent that they help us build stronger friendships, families, and communities.
When contemplating heavenly relationships, as described in scripture, I’m fascinated by the implied intimacy. God knows us better than we know ourselves, let alone our spouses or children or friends. And the celestial community is united as one body is united. Imagine experiencing the joy and sorrow, the pleasure and pain, of persons around you as if those feelings were your own direct experiences.
We might say that marriage will persist into the distant future. We might say that God, superintelligent posthumanity, engages in marriage. But I can only imagine that the intimacy of such marriages would make our marriages look almost like alienation in comparison. And I can only suppose that even the weakest of celestial relationships would make us all blush.
I want to be clear that I’m not advocating sexual promiscuity. I’m advocating the opposite. I also want to be clear that I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law. And I’m not encouraging anyone to break their covenants.
Neither the laws of the United States nor the policies of the Church are fully aligned with the future of marriage and sealing that I imagine. That doesn’t mean that those laws or policies are evil. Of course they’re not perfect in any final sense, as nothing is or can be. But we must always account for our limitations, our own specific time and place, in judging the morality of all laws and policies.
I do expect laws and policies to change over time. We’ve seen some of that. We’ll see more. Change isn’t inherently good or evil, so it behooves us to participate actively in the process to cultivate better changes.
Jon’s next question turned to non-religious matters. He asked:
“What will ‘secular’ government look like (if anything) in one hundred/thousand/million [years]?”
I have strong hopes and fears about the future of secular governance. As context, I don’t think secularism is the opposite of religiosity. Rather, I think of secularism as a relatively disinterested context that regulates competition between ideologies. Secularism is in the best position to ensure prosocial and constructive outcomes.
Secularism is like the rules and referee at a sporting event. Ideologies are like the teams and players. Sports draw huge crowds and generate enormous incomes because of the regulation. Without the regulation, the event would turn into a street fight that far fewer people care to engage with.
We may have already reached or passed the peak expression of liberal democracy on Earth. This form of governance has done beautiful things for humanity. We’re far better off because of it than we were before. But it seems to me that we cannot expect humanity to do much better without additional innovation in governance.
As we innovate, I fear that many will gravitate toward one of two kinds of singletons – highly centralized and authoritarian governments. One is commonly described as the “police state.” And the other is commonly described as the “nanny state.” Both present a mix of obvious and subtle detriments that are beyond the scope of this article.
I hope, in contrast, that more of us will gravitate toward formal decentralized governance. This wouldn’t be traditional libertarianism, which I consider to be too informal and weak. But it would perhaps be rightly characterized as a new form of libertarian socialism. It would avoid authoritarianism while still pursuing communitarian goals.
This hypothetical form of governance isn’t even possible right now. We don’t have the tools necessary to establish and perpetuate it. The closest thing that we have to it is blockchain technology. But that isn’t yet mature enough to enable a new governance paradigm.
Present feasibility aside, a positive future for humanity may ultimately depend on a robust decentralized government, far more than most of us have imagined. And the reason for this comes from a surprising place: artificial intelligence research. The basic idea is that intelligence is most predictable and most inclined toward cooperation when it’s required to cooperate. And it’s only required to cooperate in contexts where power is decentralized.
As human and machine intelligence continue to increase, we’ll probably encounter new threats that make nuclear weapons look quaint by comparison. Current forms of governance almost certainly could not manage such risk effectively. A temptation will be to form a singleton. But that just punts the problem by hoping the singleton doesn’t itself become corrupt.
The only truly dependable solution seems to be a formal decentralized government with real power that no particular authority (human or machine or otherwise) can wield disproportionately. Otherwise, so far as I can tell, all bets are off. If we want to ensure the highest probabilities of a thriving future for humanity, we need a formal decentralized government. Let’s work to make that possible.
Finally, Jon asked about the Millennium:
“Will there ever be a time when we could say, either metaphorically or literally, that the millennium has started?”
Yes. The Millennium has started. It isn’t finished. But I’m partial to the idea, expressed by Brigham Young, that the Millennium began quietly a couple centuries ago.
I’m also partial to the idea, expressed in the Bible, that the return of Christ will be like the sun rising in the east. It begins quietly. But soon it becomes obvious.
Mormons often talk about our day as the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times. According to our scriptures, this is an epoch during which God pours down knowledge and revelation on humanity in preparation for the Millennium. And we often assume that the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times must end before the Millennium can begin.
But we might approach the relation between these epochs differently. Perhaps the former epoch gradually become the latter epoch. Maybe there’s no specific demarcation in time between the two.
Some imagine the return of Christ as the demarcation. But that doesn’t necessarily make sense of the scriptural prophecies. In particular, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him.” To me, that sounds more like the culmination of the Millennium than the beginning.
Consider also, yet again, the scriptural prophecies about the kingdom of heaven. Here’s how the Doctrine and Covenants puts it:
“Wherefore, may the kingdom of God go forth, that the kingdom of heaven may come, that thou, O God, mayest be glorified in heaven so on earth …”
Instead of waiting for Jesus to come and solve our problems for us, we should be working to solve those problems ourselves. None of us is sufficient in ourselves. But we can each contribute to the extent we’re able. And we can each make an effort to use the tools that the grace of God has already provided.
Jesus invites us to console the sad, heal the sick, and raise the dead. He invites us to love each other, to reconcile with each other, and to practice atonement. He invites us to take on the name of Christ with him, do the works he does, and even greater works. Maybe we should take him more seriously.
In the scriptures, the Millennium and the return of Christ are inextricably related. And in practice, that makes all the sense in the world. To the extent that we live up to our calling to become one in Christ with Jesus, the Millennium has started. But of course we still have much work to do.