Mormon on "Don't Die, by Zero" AKA Bryan Johnson
3 October 2023
I just finished and enjoyed reading Don’t Die, by Zero, a novel by Bryan Johnson. Currently, Bryan is probably the most (in)famous biohacker in the world. He’s a tech entrepreneur, and the founder of Braintree Financial and Kernel. And I have the good fortune to count him among old friends, since the time that we lived next door to each other two decades ago.
In my observation, Bryan has always been exceptionally audacious and tenacious. He dreams big. He works hard. The most obvious consequence of this has been Bryan’s achievement of financial goals that most of us can only imagine, despite serious challenges that many of us know all too well, such as crushing depression.
Bryan has, in recent years, directed his audacity toward saving humanity from our greatest threats – extinction level risks such as climate change and artificial intelligence. And he’s been doing that with characteristic tenacity, iterating over and again on ideas, proposals, and plans. I’ve commented before on early versions of his vision for future intelligence. And I’ve offered criticisms.
Clearly, Bryan still isn’t satisfied. He continues to iterate on plans to save humanity. And even more saliently, he is now cultivating social movement around such efforts. That leads us to his new book, which you can download for free.
Don’t Die, by Zero is an invitation, to you and me and humanity. It’s an invitation to participate, however we can, in formulating and pursuing plans to save humanity. But it’s not just a general vague invitation. It proposes a specific approach that, if successful, could have considerable benefits for you personally, in addition to those for humanity at large.
Undoubtedly, many will chime in with their perspectives on the book. Some will praise it. Some will ridicule it. It’s provocative that way, intentionally so.
My own contribution will be to share a perspective that overlaps with and diverges from Bryan’s in two important ways. First, like Bryan, I was raised and educated in Mormon culture, became disillusioned with religion as a young adult, and then found new inspiration in technological evolution. Second, unlike Bryan, the new inspiration eventually rekindled my religiosity and renewed my enthusiasm for Mormonism. So, while we have in common a high esteem for technological evolution, we approach it differently.
Before I continue, you should know that Don’t Die, by Zero is a fictional story with twists that I’m going to spoil. If you want to experience those twists first hand, which I do recommend, then please stop here and come back after you’ve read the book. But if you’ve already read the book or don’t care about spoilers, let’s continue.
Chapter 1 introduces the narrator, Scribe, as he reflects on humanity’s past achievements and contemplates the potential for future technological advancements. On his last day on Earth, Scribe hopes that his notes will inspire solutions to global challenges. He discusses humanity’s future evolution and the need for swift adaptation. The chapter concludes with Scribe assembling a group of friends to plan for the future as his time wanes.
In chapter 2, a diverse group of friends begin to gather at Scribe’s home for a weekend reunion, each displaying unique quirks. Farm Boy arrives early, Self Critical and Game Play arrive together, and Seeks Authority and Self Harm join late. Model Builder secures the best room, Cognitive Bias appears unwell, Relentless rushes in to the bathroom, Dark Humor arrives with a sardonic comment, and Blueprint, a newer friend, has unusual needs. This chapter establishes the backdrop of the reunion, emphasizing the friends’ distinct personalities and hinting at brewing tension.
Chapter 3 reunites the friends, including a belated introduction to Devil May Care, who expresses desire for a new adventure. Dark Humor hints at Scribe’s impending death without direct discussion, while Blueprint focuses on measuring UV levels. Game Play delves into the philosophy of life, death, and games. The chapter explores themes of mortality, purpose, and dynamics among friends, culminating in an important meeting hinted by Scribe.
In chapter 4, Scribe gathers the friends, and asks what they would do if today were their last day. After individual reflections, a discussion with Seeks Authority about control and decision-making ensues. Seeks Authority shares his choice to place his conscious mind in “purgatory.” The chapter ends with a solemn reunion, exploring themes of mortality, control, and the conscious mind’s role in decision-making, with mentions of Mormon theology.
Chapter 5 features ongoing group discussion about their responses to the question of what they would do if they were dying, exploring various perspectives on self-harm for survival. The group debates the ethics of sacrificing for a greater goal, delving into the value of life and differing priorities. They recognize the urgency of addressing global challenges and discuss the importance of diverse perspectives in finding innovative solutions. The chapter ends with the group contemplating collaboration and innovative problem-solving for pressing global issues.
In chapter 6, the group discuss automation’s impact on free will, led by Blueprint’s vision of enhancing the human body and mind with automation. They explore the Autonomous Body concept, aiming for improved health through data-driven enhancements. The group debates the alignment problem and parallels in automation fields, envisioning a future where automation optimizes humanity and our environment at a global scale. The chapter closes with the group preparing for lunch and Blueprint’s unique dietary preferences.
In chapter 7, the group shares a unique meal experience based on the “Blueprint protocol.” As they debate surrendering dietary control to an optimizing algorithm, various perspectives emerge. Devil May Care presents a hunger paradox, Model Builder expresses concerns about AI decisions, Cognitive Bias questions health and virtue, and Farm Boy challenges prevailing belief about the end of exploration. The chapter delves into philosophical and ethical questions around autonomy, control, and health.
Chapter 8 explores a philosophical debate on human consciousness. Blueprint argues for demoting human cognition in favor of automation, while Cognitive Bias advocates for promoting the conscious mind. The discussion raises questions about the limits of human cognition and the future of exploration beyond the visible world, emphasizing the importance of knowledge. The characters delve into the complexities of the human mind and the role of consciousness in shaping experience.
Chapter 9 engages a philosophical debate about demoting the conscious mind in favor of biometrics influencing decision-making. Blueprint argues for deferring to physiological rhythms in various decisions, drawing analogies from literature and psychology. The discussion delves into questions of agency, moral responsibility, and making self-agreements for the timing of decision-making. Blueprint suggests recognizing cognitive peaks and troughs throughout the day for a more fulfilling life.
Chapter 10 features a philosophical discussion about the possible end of the world and the consequences of automating decision-making and demoting the conscious mind. The group explores differing views on the severity of extinction scenarios, with some characters expressing optimism in human innovation and others harboring a more pessimistic outlook. The chapter concludes on a humorous note as Zero unexpectedly joins the discussion without introduction.
In chapter 11, Blueprint presents a thought experiment of time travel to the future as means of understanding humanity’s challenges. He emphasizes the need to act now for the greater good of the future and challenges perceptions of irreversible biological aging. The chapter explores philosophical concepts regarding time, human behavior, and the implications of Blueprint’s thought experiment. Additionally, it introduces an unexpected guest, Depression, who surprises the characters upon their return to the house.
Chapter 12 tells of Depression’s unexpected return, sparking varied reactions among the friends. Dark Humor adds levity to the tense situation with humor. The group discusses depression’s potential evolutionary role, with Blueprint suggesting it fosters group cohesion, while Zero likens it to a necessary component in the balance of personality traits. The chapter ends with Zero inquiring about the characters’ ages, exploring depression’s intricate connection to human behavior and group dynamics.
Chapter 13 delves into Blueprint’s exploration of age reversal and programmable biology. He connects depression’s impact on aging and envisions a future where humans control their bodies and minds through advanced technology. The chapter speculates on the transformative possibilities of printing proteins and manipulating biology. The group debates potential commodification of age, echoing themes from the film “In Time,” while contemplating the philosophical and ethical implications of future human existence.
In chapter 14, Blueprint explores the role of suffering and its potential for personal growth. He recounts his shift away from a religious worldview and how it reshaped his outlook. Blueprint also discusses his pursuit of anti-aging and health solutions, initially dismissed as improbable. Half the group follows Depression, leaving to pursue separate activities. Overall, the chapter emphasizes themes of transformation, truth-seeking, and the myriad perspectives and possibilities in life.
Chapter 15 presents the remaining group engaging in a philosophical discussion about humanity’s future and challenges. Model Builder questions Blueprint’s theory and whether it demotes or promotes the conscious mind. Zero offers insights into Blueprint’s theory and emphasizes solving humanity’s problems through advanced intelligence. The chapter ends with a commitment to write a “Plan for Humanity,” driven by the importance of collective action and addressing global challenges.
Reflection on Agency
Don’t Die, by Zero is a thought-provoking exploration of what it might mean to navigate our imminent future, marked by monumental technological advancements. The characters personify not only aspects of Bryan’s own character and personal experience, but also our collective traits and tendencies. They offer diverse, and helpfully disagreeing, perspectives on critical issues such as mortality, autonomy, decision-making, and our shared potential. Repeatedly, after remarking a weakness in one character’s comments, I found myself pleasantly satisfied by reading criticism of that weakness from another character.
The debate about automation versus agency is particularly momentous. We are, indeed, rapidly increasing capacity to automate our lives, our bodies, and our world. And automation presents serious ethical questions related to agency, many of which the characters identify and explore. At the end of the book, the characters who haven’t given up discussion, seem to be generally inclined toward the notion that some amount of agency should be sacrificed for automation. But this topic merits more consideration and ongoing deliberation.
Zero should yet again up the group’s game, pointing out that agency need not be limited to what we now consciously experience. In the same way that we’re not forced to consider a tradeoff between agency and automation-as-we-now-know-it, we’re also not forced to consider a tradeoff between automation and agency-as-we-now-know-it. Cognitive technologies are poised to transform experience as profoundly as other aspects of our being. Why should we not wonder about and aim at the possibility of expanding agency while also expanding automation?
Of course there are and will be tasks that we don’t wish to perform consciously. Assuming any related ethical issues are sorted out to a reasonable degree, we should automate those tedious tasks to the extent possible. But to the extent that we wish more and greater conscious engagement, to the extent that we aspire to superintelligent agency, we will pursue it. And, making Cognitive Bias happy to some extent, we should.
Blueprint might argue against expanded consciousness and superintelligent agency, if that notion were presented and explored. He might claim that, due to bias, consciousness would still generally make worse decisions than automation even if expanded to have far greater capacity. But I doubt he would prove persuasive or even could prove logically coherent in any effort to substantiate such a claim. Bias simply is not inherently evil, or even inherently impractical or inefficient compared to automation.
Of course automation has and will yet provide many benefits. However, automation will only ever be as good as our best biases, which are our values. That’s because automation can only ever be meaningfully evaluated within the context of those values. It’s meaningless, conceptual gibberish, to imagine good or useful automation independent of values, labeled “good” or “useful,” as evaluated by evaluators.
Who should be the evaluator? The automation, insofar as it’s merely automation, cannot be the evaluator. And should there be just one evaluator? Or many?
I contend that positive futures for humanity require our evolution into a decentralized community of many superintelligent evaluators. Automation isn’t enough because it’s meaningless on its own. One evaluator is extremely dangerous, putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. We need evaluators, many of them, working together to share risk and reward in shaping our world, leveraging automation according to their desires and knowledge and capacity.
Seeks Authority may not be happy that there are, indeed, controls or permission structures within the context of which all agency operates – even when unaware. But someone should tell him that there are also permission structures within the context of which all automation operates – necessarily unaware, by definition. Permission structures are simply inescapable, except perhaps for a universal centralized singleton. And no one should trust a universal centralized singleton – not that “we” would have any choice.
Cognitive Bias may not be happy that, although permission structures are inescapable, we shouldn’t simply ignore them or avoid increasing our awareness of them. To the contrary, an important and empowering application of enhanced consciousness could be that of perpetually increasing awareness of our biases. For all the same reasons that we extrospectively evaluate automation best when our consciousness is working best, we also introspectively evaluate our consciousness best when it’s working best. And one of the ways that consciousness works better is when it knows itself, including its biases and permission structures, better.
Reflection on Mormonism
Before we can effectively explore agency further, we need to explore Mormonism. Although Bryan no longer identifies as a Mormon, he has felt the “depth of its claws into his psychology.” Those are Scribe’s words, at least, describing Game Play, who “had lasted the longest in Mormonism.”
“He didn’t announce that he was leaving the church until he was almost 40,” Scribe explains next. Notice the equivalence implied here. Lasting in Mormonism is equivalent to not leaving the church. By “church,” he’s undoubtedly referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is by far the largest Mormon denomination, the one in which I’m a member, and the one in which Bryan was a member.
Most members of the Church think about Mormonism that way. For them, the religious culture and the particular religious institution are pretty much the same thing. But the reality of Mormonism is more complex, also consisting of many much smaller denominations, as well as a few non-denominational Mormons, and many non-practicing Mormons.
Among Mormons, both within and beyond The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have a diversity of perspectives. Of course we have many things in common too. And it’s our commonalities that principally characterize us for external observers. But often the extent of those commonalities are over-estimated or exaggerated.
Scribe proceeds to observe that Game Play “misses it the most of all of us, I suspect, despite adamantly being the one to claim the loudest that he wishes he had left the church much sooner.” I know something about this feeling, missing Mormonism when I lost my faith. Disillusionment is complicated, emotionally and socially. But my reasons weren’t necessarily the same as Bryan’s.
Fortunately, we gain some insight into Bryan’s reasons when Scribe explains why Game Play misses the Church, or Mormonism or both, as the case may be. He says, “Life, work, and love — all of it — was so much easier when you got longevity points and there were a finite number of seats to work for and the strictures were clear about what is and isn’t allowed.” There’s a lot to parse in that sentence. Let’s see what we can do.
Game Play misses the Church because it made life easier. We know, of course, that this isn’t entirely true. While the Church made life easier in some ways, it clearly didn’t make life easier on the whole. Otherwise, Game Play wouldn’t have left the Church.
But Scribe does offer us three ways in which he thinks the Church made life easier. They are as follows:
- “you got longevity points”
- “there were a finite number of seats to work for”
- “the strictures were clear about what is and isn’t allowed”
Let’s look at each individually.
Mormonism and Games
“Longevity points” is not a phrase that most Mormons use. And it’s not a phrase that I was familiar with. But the book elaborates on the phrase in a couple other places.
First, Blueprint describes longevity points from a secular perspective:
“In the eighteenth century what counted as death was different than in the nineteenth, which was different than in the twentieth. Every decade seems to bring with it new advances that increase longevity. Let’s say that dying has units. Let’s just call them ‘longevity points’ for now since I know a few of you here are familiar with that language. Okay, so the question is: If longevity units are a kind of currency, can you apply economic forecasting models to the currency over time with concepts like inflation, leveraging, and the like? I think you can. And I believe that longevity points will be worth more the farther into the future we go because of both structural and natural inflation.”
From Blueprint, I get that longevity points are units of dying, which can function as a currency. I’m not sure why any healthy person would want units of dying. But maybe Blueprint means something like units of remaining life. To me, that would make sense in context of the remainder of his words, claiming that remaining life may become more valuable in the future as our capacity to do more with that life continues to increase.
Second, Game Play describes longevity points from his former Mormon perspective:
“To be told one’s entire childhood that life is eternal, but you have to earn points, if only you do this and that in the right order. And then told don’t do this and don’t do that or you’ll lose points and then to have that all stripped from you one day is … tough. Very tough. And then all those arcade ticket longevity points you earned for the afterlife, to trade in for eternity with your loved ones? Poof. Gone. It can mess with any mind.”
From Game Play, I get that we can accumulate longevity points based on our behavior and trade them in for eternal life with loved ones. I’m not sure whether he means that longevity points earn both “eternal life” and “with your loved ones,” or just “with your loved ones” because “eternal life” is already a given.
In any case, Mormon theology distinguishes between immortality and eternal life. Immortality describes quantity of life. Eternal life describes quality. And the goal of Mormonism, even characterized in Mormon scripture as the “work and glory” of God, is to help each other gain both immortality and eternal life.
Mormon theology also distinguishes between the accessibility of immortality and eternal life. On the one hand, our scriptures assert that almost everyone will ultimately become immortal, independent of whether we’re good or evil or whatever. Sometimes Mormons mistake this to mean that immortality requires no work, but that’s tangential here. On the other hand, our scriptures assert that few will access eternal life, which is the quality of life attributed to God – or Godhood as modeled on the courage, compassion, and creativity that the scriptures attribute to Jesus Christ.
Returning to Scribe’s first reason for missing the Church, then, it seems he’s saying that it helped him feel like he was earning Godhood. Based on Game Play’s description of longevity points, Scribe might also be intending to say that the Church helped him feel like he was earning immortality in the quantitative sense. But that would be a mischaracterization of Mormon theology.
I’m sure Bryan is far from alone in feeling like eternal life, as presented by Mormon theology, requires that which can be essentially characterized as earning points. That characterization wouldn’t be far off from my own experience as a child and teenager. However, after my return to faith, that characterization feels somewhat alien compared to something more along the lines of eternal life requiring perpetual cultivation due to inevitable natural constraints on and within the possibility space of life-in-general.
I do, however, consider the game metaphor appropriate and even useful. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed and found myself motivated by games. Back in the day, Bryan and I and our spouses even competed against each other in the board game, Settlers of Catan. But my favorite games are less about points than creativity at scale, such as that expressed in 4X computer strategy games like Civilization or Stellaris, which have a lot in common with Mormon theology.
Mormonism and Finitude
Scribe’s second reason for missing the Church is that “there were a finite number of seats to work for.” I don’t know for sure what he intends by this. But, at face value, I must simply disagree with it. Mormon eschatology actually makes exactly the opposite claim, that there are, have been, and yet will be infinite seats to work for.
Mormon cosmology is as big as it gets – the ultimate infinite game. In heavens without end, Gods of Gods create worlds of worlds without end. Finding themselves in the midst of unorganized matter and minds, and seeing that they’re more intelligent, the Gods set about instituting laws to help others become Gods. None knows for sure when or even whether there was a beginning to this work, and all work against any possibility of an end.
Mormon theology rejects any finite limit on winners. If Game Play is missing the Church as Scribe supposes, because there was something finite about its game, then Game Play misremembers or misunderstood Mormon theology. Or maybe Scribe isn’t being clear. It’s hard to say.
Mormonism and Obedience
The third reason for missing the Church, that Scribe attributes to Game Play, is that “the strictures were clear about what is and isn’t allowed.” In other words, the Church is clear about what leads to Godhood and what leads away from it. Mormons do often characterize ethics in simple ways, with heavy emphasis on obedience to specific rules, which has practical value for many situations. And that’s about as deeply as some Church members and Mormons ever consider ethics.
But the scriptural basis for Mormon ethics is complex. And Mormon scholars approach ethics in different ways, beyond simplistic appeals to authority. Personally, I favor a desire-based account of ethics, both for philosophical and scriptural reasons. But I know intelligent and well-educated Mormons who (incorrectly!) disagree with me on that.
In any case, what most Mormons can agree on is that we trust in a God who is sublimely creative and compassionate toward all of humanity, whether or not we’re good or evil. Per scriptural eschatology, almost all of us will eventually become immortal. And almost all of us will eventually experience that immortality in some kind and degree of heavenly glory. Mormon theology is essentially universalist, with the only exception being for some vanishingly few persons who knowingly reject any heaven.
Returning to the book, in the next paragraph, Scribe elaborates on his projection of Game Play’s feelings while leaving Mormonism:
“Imagine going from a board game, where the rules are clear and comprehensible and the reward and success conditions are laid out, to the actual, real-world, clusterfuck of life, which has no meaning, purpose, or goals other than those we give it. Having to shake off the gameplay parts of a belief system was like throwing a member of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon into the heart of London. It’s chaos. It’s indiscernible.”
I empathize with these feelings. Mine were similar when I lost faith. And, although I gradually returned to faith over a period of time years later, that return didn’t restore any sense of peace in obedience to simple rules. Like for Game Play, for me, that appears to be gone forever.
But my existential crisis ended up resonating with Mormonism in new ways that I hadn’t anticipated. My situation, or rather my observation of my situation, had become more like that of the Gods and less like that of their creations. Finding myself in the midst of unorganized matter and minds, and seeing that I was intelligent enough to create purpose, I set about creating it for myself and helping others do the same. I realized that Mormon theology is fundamentally an existentialist theology, which powers the efficacy of its simpler obedience-based expressions.
Mormonism and Agency
Now we’re better equipped to return to our exploration of agency. And we’re ready to look at the most extended reference to Mormonism in Don’t Die, by Zero. That mention comes in chapter 4. Seeks Authority surprises Scribe by commenting, “Recently, I entirely stopped listening to my conscious mind.” Then he explains, with help from Mormonism:
“I became a Mormon Lucifer. … We both grew up in a small, rural town in Utah … what was it, 99.9 percent Mormon? Out of thirty thousand? That’s a lot of town-wide alignment. Mormonism was the only reality I knew existed, and in that belief system nothing exceeds the conscious mind in importance. Free will is the single vector to recognize truth and the path to eternal salvation. It is everywhere in the foundational elements of Mormon mythology. All non-Mormons, I was taught, were wrong in thought and belief and needed to be converted in order to be saved.
In Mormon mythology, Lucifer is a child of God, like Jesus and all of us. And, in a grand heavenly council before the creation of our world, Lucifer proposes a plan. Seeks Authority returns to this later. And I will too.
As Seeks Authority points out, Utah is relatively homogenous. I don’t know for sure just how Mormon Bryan’s home town actually was when he was a child. But 99% might not be an exaggeration. My understanding is that Utah Valley is still above 70% Mormon today, with a population nearing 700,000.
But Seeks Authority does exaggerate the primacy of free will in Mormon thought, now and historically. In practical fact, quite a few things exceed the importance of agency. Jesus Christ and his gospel are most notable among them. But free will, or more accurately “agency,” does still play an important role in our theology.
The role of agency isn’t typically associated with recognizing truth, despite Seeks Authority’s claim. For recognizing truth, Mormons usually recommend a combination of contemplative study and feeling the spirit (an esthetic experience). And we can elaborate on that approach to reach robust epistemologies.
But Seeks Authority is correct that Mormons generally consider agency to play an important role in the path to eternal salvation – to eternal life or Godhood. The basic idea is that Godhood cannot and should not be compelled. It must be chosen, as reflected in our actions. Anything else would be ineffective and immoral.
The ineffectiveness of compelled Godhood, or even passively gifted Godhood, becomes more clear when we consider the principal characteristics of Godhood in Mormon theology. We’re not talking about becoming someone like Allah, commanding the universe unilaterally, or someone like Zeus, shooting down enemies with lightning bolts. We’re talking about becoming God as exemplified by Jesus, emphasizing virtues like courage, compassion, and creativity. And such virtues cannot even exist in any meaningful way outside a conceptual space that includes agency, and a practical space that empowers it.
For such reasons, agency is indeed everywhere in the foundational elements of Mormon mythology, as Seeks Authority points out. With it, we have a real opportunity to develop into genuine creators, rather than mere prosthetic extensions of some other creator. Without it, no matter how “happy” we might appear to others with sufficient agency to evaluate such matters, we’re just cogs in a machine.
Somewhat tangentially, as if it’s a passing expression of frustration, Seeks Authority comments that he was taught that all non-Mormons would need to convert in order to be saved. Unfortunately, this isn’t an entirely helpful characterization of Mormon soteriology, for those who truly wish to understand our vision of salvation.
As I’ve mentioned before, Mormons generally envision almost everyone going to some kind and degree of heaven. And our scriptures describe only one kind of heaven, the celestial glory associated with Godhood, as having something like a Church conversion requirement. Moreover, according to Mormonism, no one goes to hell forever. Even the vanishingly few persons who knowingly reject any heaven can, simply and mercifully, cease to exist.
Let’s return to Seeks Authority’s account of Mormon agency:
“And what’s the myth? The story Mormons tell everyone from before they can even babble? That one day, God decided to test his children to determine their eternal salvation by championing a plan where each of us humans would be endowed with free will, a physical body, and seventy-ish years of dreary life on Earth. And in that life, we could either choose to accept or reject his commandments — using, of course, just a bunch of arbitrary sets of emotions, sensors, cognitive biases, and social rules that he himself also gave us, probably as a kind of handicap — that would give some entry into eternal salvation.
As promised, we now return to Mormon mythology about the heavenly council before creation of our world. Seeks Authority leaves out some relevant details. I’ll fill them in.
God didn’t merely decide one day to create a world to test us. Per Mormon mythology, Gods have been engaging in similar creative acts for a long time, perhaps without beginning. It’s a plan that has been implemented and reimplemented, presumably with variation, many times. And the aim isn’t so much to determine eternal salvation in the simplistic sense of judgment, but rather to cultivate thriving.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Mormon scripture describes God’s purpose as that of bringing about immortality and eternal life. The Book of Mormon describes human purpose as that of “joy.” And Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, described human purpose as “happiness.” None of this is sufficiently accounted for by characterizing the plan of God to be about determining eternal salvation, which sounds like more of a scare tactic – which Mormon scripture does grimly admit to employing instrumentally for our ultimate welfare.
As Seeks Authority mentions, one plan presented at the heavenly council entailed agency in mortal life. This plan, per the mythology, was championed by the premortal Jesus. It’s the plan that Gods have long used. And, while it works to cultivate thriving, it does come with real risk, real suffering, and real losses.
Seeks Authority proceeds to characterize implementation of God’s plan with, it seems, yet more frustration. As he sees it, the plan was rigged against us. God gave us a bunch of arbitrary commands, flawed brains and bodies, and practically impossible expectations. If I saw things that way, I’d leave Mormonism too.
But that’s a straw man of Mormon theology. More accurately and charitably, the proposition of Mormon theology is that God inspired and continues to inspire humanity, according to circumstance, with rules to help us toward Godhood. The proposition is that our mortal bodies are temporary but contextually sufficient for experience and education. And the proposition is that the grace of God has provided and yet will provide sufficient means for us to learn how to become Gods ourselves, the same as all other Gods have done before, without defeating the purpose by doing everything for us.
This might be easier to think about by looking forward rather than backward. Consider the future possibility of autonomous artificial intelligence. Imagine the problems that we’d cause, the destruction that we’d enable, if we simply gave such artificial intelligence all of our power indiscriminately. A far more trustworthy and effective approach is one of gradual enhancement with increasing exposure to independence, with real opportunity and real risk, during cautious observation and calculated intervention – much like raising our biological children.
Seeks Authority continues his account of Mormon agency:
“But, as the story is told, Lucifer, like a board member, offered an alternative plan: What if everyone would still receive a body and live a great life on Earth and they would all achieve eternal salvation because none of them would have free will to mess it up? Because then everyone would get in, right? God of course rejected the plan and cast him out forever. Using, you guessed it, free will to decide, right? Sort of useful when he has it, huh? And now we humans, inheritors of all this debate, swear up and down the world over that we would choose choice. But really, maybe Lucifer was kind of onto something?
Another plan presented at the heavenly council would reject agency. This plan was championed by Lucifer. As the story goes, God chose Jesus’ plan, Lucifer rebelled, and there was war in heaven. Eventually, a third of the host of heaven was cast out, along with Lucifer, who became Satan.
Seeks Authority characterizes Lucifer’s plan as enabling “a great life” after which “all achieve eternal salvation.” But Mormon scripture points out the conceptual incoherence of that characterization. Opportunity for life and salvation are conceptually coherent only within a context that admits risk of death and damnation. Without real risk, there’s not real opportunity, and there’s no real existence – except from the perspective of other agents.
Mormon scripture depicts Satan aspiring to rise above others, seeking the power and glory of God without consent. In contrast, the scriptures depict Jesus aspiring to raise each other together in the power and glory of Godhood, as long as we consent to suffer through the work together. On the one hand, we would become less than servants, but at least we wouldn’t suffer. On the other, we might become Gods.
Mormons rarely give Lucifer’s plan a fair hearing. But outside Mormonism, many thinkers have recognized the salience of optimizing for suffering mitigation. Maybe Lucifer was kind of onto something, as Seeks Authority points out. But to judge that well, we need a less frustrated and more robust account of the alternative plan – optimizing for thriving cultivation.
Now we go back to Seeks Authority one more time:
“If success or failure in life and eternal salvation hinges upon human ability to exercise free will and exert self-control, then doesn’t this also include obeying all of God’s commandments and not eating that brightly lit sugar cookie? Growing up, think about all the rules we had. Is it really free will if it is so constrained all the time? No coffee. No alcohol. It’s not a chill religion, Scribe. It was kind of algorithmic, come to think of it. Why give will in the first place if you’re just going to constrain it?”
This is a beautiful ending to Seeks Authority’s thoughts. He partially expresses, or at least hints at, a powerful idea. But it seems that he’s not fully aware of it. It’s as if the idea is just starting to form in his mind.
Mormon scripture asserts that agency requires law. One is conceptually incoherent without the other, as life and death, good and evil, salvation and damnation are conceptually incoherent without each other. Mormon temple ritual even goes so far as to depict Eve intentionally disobeying God’s law, and then intentionally persuading Adam to disobey God’s law, so that they both could develop knowledge of good and evil. While some Mormons do look at this as a literal historical event, many of us consider it a symbolic account of human emergence into moral agency.
From this perspective, agency and law aren’t existential negations of each other. Rather, they’re conceptual enablers of each other. They’re co-creative constraints. And in practice they can co-exist, which of course they do.
The answer to Seeks Authority’s question, then, is that God creates laws to empower real agency in practice – in contrast to a vacuous hypothetical free will in the absence of law that has nothing tangible against which to assert itself. And, indeed, law is kind of algorithmic, even altogether algorithmic at its most formal extents. Let’s explore that.
Reflection on Religion
Throughout Don’t Die, by Zero, the characters generate a productive tension between the ideas of agency and automation. Some argue on behalf of one. Others argue on behalf of the other. But, as I’ve observed previously, the characters who remain engaged with Scribe at the end of the book seem generally to support moderation of agency in favor of automation.
Unfortunately for the remaining characters, Seeks Authority has departed. And his observation about the algorithmic nature of religion, particularly Mormonism, seems to have departed with him. As the remaining characters commit to developing their plan, they seem not to be aware that they’re aiming to recreate in large measure that which most of them appear to have left behind earlier in their lives – religion, particularly Mormonism.
Religion is the most powerful social technology. Like the social technologies that we’ve developed on the world wide web, religion connects and mobilizes massive groups of people through formalized protocols that we call “doctrine” and “ritual” instead of “automation.” Although the words are different, the functions are analogous.
Too many overlook the function and power of religion, focusing too exclusively on the many ways in which it has been and is abused. That shouldn’t be surprising. Power, no matter its form, is neither good nor evil inherently. It’s just power, which we may use for good or evil.
Mormonism is no exception. It has been used for good and evil, as the characters in the book have witnessed, as Bryan and I have experienced. Some of us have chosen to walk away from that power. I’ve chosen to continue engaging with it.
But those who choose to walk away from it, aren’t always thoroughly doing what they suppose or present themselves to be doing. Misrecognized religion is rampant. Even among enthusiasts of technological evolution, misrecognized religiosity is common.
In Don’t Die, by Zero, the character that most thoroughly illustrates misrecognized religiosity is Blueprint. Here’s the misrecognition:
“Perhaps only those who have left a religion understand. Personally, I’ve never met anyone else who gets me the way that someone else who has left a religion does. And it can be anyone. Truly. They’re all the same wooly blankets. Strangely, almost paradoxically, I had never seen the world more clearly than I did after I became convinced that religion not only wasn’t for me but that eons of my growth and personal life had been stolen away from me.”
Then there’s Blueprint’s functional religiosity. He has his epiphanies, inspirations, and revelations of infinite games, while envisioning and emulating projections of superhumans and superorganisms – deities. He breaks his fasts with communions over the Blueprint protocol. He has rules upon rules, commandments, aimed at longevity points for salvation in a perpetual game of not dying – immortality.
Of course I’m not intending to demean or belittle Blueprint, as that would be hypocritical. I too envision infinite games of emulating God, understood in terms of superintelligent posthumanity. I too break my fasts with communions, whether they are bread and water with my local congregation, or the Thrivous protocol. And I too live by rules and commandments aimed at something like longevity points, both explicitly religious and quantitatively biological.
Blueprint and I have much in common, with two principal difference. First, whereas Blueprint misrecognizes his religiosity, I openly and enthusiastically recognize mine. Second, while Blueprint distances himself from traditional religion, I embrace and work to participate in explicitly fulfilling the most beautiful hopes and visions of traditional religion. I think these differences may also accurately describe differences between me and Bryan himself.
If that’s the case, despite and even because of the differences between us, I’m at peace. Bryan need not be like me, a Mormon or otherwise, to participate effectively in that work which I esteem to be most sublime – that which Mormons describe as “the work and glory of God.” Although some fellow Mormons feel and express otherwise, many of us prefer and even sense a spiritual mandate toward a liberal-minded ecumenical approach.
So far as my theology is concerned, God works through Bryan and innumerable people like him to accomplish the sublime work. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people, Mormon or otherwise. So, Bryan, please keep prophesying in word and action. May you live forever, or at least don’t die.