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Author’s Note: Reviewing the revision history I found that this post was completed in essentially this finished form on April 2nd, prior to General Conference and to my other posts published since that time. My thoughts since April 2nd remain essentially unchanged despite an intervening roller-coaster of emotions on subjects discussed below.
Faith we will live forever
Something most Transhumanists are acutely aware of is that science provides no guarantee we will survive endlessly into the future–not as individuals, and not even as a race. Natural disasters seem almost guaranteed to wipe us out, even if it is only the heat death of the universe. Perhaps more likely, we will misuse our technology and wipe ourselves out. Some feel a pressing need to quickly develop the technologies that will prevent these catastrophes. As regards preventing immanent threats like asteroids hitting the earth, supervolcanoes blowing up countries and causing new ice ages, or diseases ravaging our population or food supply, I’m with them completely. We need to work toward technologies and societies that can withstand such events. I have chosen, like many others–Transhumanist or not–to believe that we can survive for a very long time, and to work for that survival. I want to become a distant part of my grandchildren’s cultural history, at the very least, and I wouldn’t be averse to sharing a future with them. I’m choosing to trust that humanity can survive into the future. This is not a given, but I choose to have faith in it. There are good reasons to believe it is possible, if we will work for it. That’s what faith is, after all, evidence that things we hope for could yet be true.
I depart from many Transhumanists (although not really very far) as regards the technological advances that are of most pressing need to prevent our self-destruction. I believe that the greatest needs in this regard are matters of moral character and moral societies. We need sustainable and eternal characters with much more urgency than we need to extend our lifespans or intelligence (although I see absolutely no reason we can’t work on both, especially since they are often inseparable).
Compassion is our hope
Since before the first atomic bomb was tested, people began to realize that our ability to wipe ourselves out was about to become a real thing–not just an apocalyptic imagining or over-exaggeration of the absolute importance of some ruling lineage, like the Brother of Jared’s descendents in the Book of Ether. By the end of the Cold War, we had nuclear arsenals sufficient to wipe out life on earth (at least complex, surface-dependent life) many times over. As far as I know, these haven’t decreased in number, and we aren’t very close to an adequate defense against such destruction. So far, good judgment, love of mankind, realistic self interest, and other arguably good traits are what have kept us from nuclear winter–not any technology that could protect us from the effects of nuclear war. As our abilities to harness vast energy supplies increases and spreads to more countries, the chances that one group lacking such restraining qualities could doom us all should continue to grow.
Other scientific advances increase the possibilities of disastrous chemical or biological warfare on scales that could begin to match the threat of nuclear war. The same technologies that could help us live indefinitely, or make our children supergeniuses, could be used to make biological weapons. The most deadly communicable diseases are typically less likely to spread through the whole earth, since such a spread would wipe out their host population and ultimately doom the disease to extinction. Humans could possibly circumvent the natural limits and make deadly, airborne diseases capable of killing entire cities. Try to imagine the Black Death, or worse, all over again. Or make it a crop disease. How would we defend against the nearly limitless possible modes of attack? How long would it take us to recover? And in the mean time, what would be our chances of preparing the technologies to survive an asteroid impact? The longer we wait to be ready, the more likely we are to be hit before then.
In his Benevolence (or Compassion) Argument, Lincoln Cannon has sometimes pointed out this trend–our offensive capabilities keep increasing faster than our abilities to defend ourselves. This trend might not be real, but it has always seemed a lot easier to destroy than to create, and there isn’t much you can do about it. As technology advances and makes it more and more possible for smaller and smaller groups of people to hold the destructive fate of humanity in their hands, what happens to the chances of our prolonged survival? You get the point. Things don’t look good for humanity. Unless. . .
We may have a choice. We could become more benevolent. In fact, any civilization that advances to our state of technology, and presumably some distance beyond, as well, is pretty likely to wipe itself out. Unless that civilization becomes benevolent enough that no member of it with any appreciable power (i.e. enough power to wipe out the civilization) will ever choose to exercise his or her destructive power. How many times do you have to make the mistake of launching the nuclear warheads or sending out the superbug? At some point, there’s no turning back and rethinking your decision. The button’s been pressed. The seal broken. Alternatively, the whole civilization may become sufficiently benevolent. This seems to be the real hope for humanity’s future, and I think we should be working towards it with great exertion.
You may have noticed that the Benevolence Argument in this most simple form only requires a very limited, potentially measurable benevolence. We need a society where no one with sufficient power will choose to use it destructively. That’s the minimum, but I don’t think that minimum is a realistic goal. I think our survival depends on aiming well beyond the minimum, because if we don’t some outlier can make one bad choice and that’s the end for all of us.
Charity is the most important technology
In the dreams of my idealistic Mormon youth, the future had a name. It’s still a name that conjures hope, for me. It is Zion. We must build Zion.
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)
“. . . there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:2-3)
“. . . behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” (Doctrine and Covenants 104:16)
“I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27)
This is the world that God would have us build, and He sent His Son to show us how. He didn’t come and show us the technologies of eternal life, of traveling to the stars, or of resurrection. He has let us know that such powers exist–and we can hope and dream and work for the day when these things will be realities in our daily lives–but He showed us instead compassion. This thought on greatness found in service is familiar to Latter-day Saints:
“And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)
Jesus’s life was a profound example of this service. One of the most moving summaries of Christ’s life, for me, is found in the vision of Nephi. Let’s remember a little of what Nephi saw as the angel showed him Jesus’s life:
“Knowest thou the condescension of God? . . .
“Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits; and the angel spake and showed all these things unto me. And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God. . . . Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record. And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world. (1 Nephi 11:16,31-33)
I read all this and see a not very hidden message–unity is a prerequisite for the kind of benevolence that will bring immortality to humanity. Unity requires atonement. Atonement requires that the powerful–God and Jesus have both done it–reach down and lift up the poor. They have to give up safety and security and turn power over to those who might even use it to hurt them. I know Jesus didn’t give up all his power. He still had power to take his life again, but he gave substantial power to those who might use it to hurt Him. And he let them go all the way through with it. He had to find out if each of us will use our power to destroy, or if we will bear each other’s crosses. It may be that only through this condescension we can learn if others are benevolent enough to be trusted. This may be the only way to learn it of ourselves, too. Only through sharing our power and becoming at-one can we build Zion.
Jonathan the Critic
I’m an LDS apologist at heart. Hugh Nibley and Orson Pratt are among my heroes. I hope that someone might say of me, as Brigham Young did of Orson Pratt: If he were cut up into one inch pieces, every one of them would cry out, “Mormonism is true! Mormonism is true! Mormonism is true!” I hope that, like Hugh and Orson, I care more about building Zion than about “Ecclesiastical Correctness”. In that light, I’m going to step out of my chosen role of theological speculator and offer my fellow saints what I hope is a call to greater things.
I can’t be one when I’m not part of something. I can’t be one with my family if I’m never home. I can’t be one with my neighbors if I never visit, never lend a helping hand or a listening ear. If the church is to be unified, the powerful must submit their power to the weak, but faithful, of the church. This was the condescension of God. There is risk when we do it. We might be hurt by their choices. Until the weak are in our councils and we are asking what revelation God has given them before we make our decisions, we cannot be one. Until we are equal, we cannot be one.
We need mechanisms where every member can feel heard and represented. No organization will ever perfectly serve the needs of every individual, but when people feel unrecognized–when they don’t know if they are being heard, or they can’t tell if they are understood–they do not feel at-one. Our child may know we heard his words, but if he doesn’t hear what we say in our prayers for him, how can he know if the revelation we receive for the family encompasses his needs and desires? I can tell him I prayed about it and got an answer, but how does he know I asked his question and not my question? And when our child grows up, if he felt unrepresented or misunderstood as a child, what will he feel as an adult?
Women can’t fully be one with the institutional LDS church if they are not fully part of its councils. Until they have real power–until they make ultimate decisions about things that affect the entire church, until they are in every ward council meeting, until they decide where church monies go, until women can turn to the safety of women for spiritual authority in their struggles and sins, until these things happen–women are not fully part of the LDS church. Women can’t be fully one with the church, and we have not fully accepted at-one-ment.
You say it’s not men leading the church, but God? The God who says it is not meet that we should be commanded in all things? You think He is micromanaging? You say that the Priesthood has been given to men, and that is our doctrine? Okay. I don’t really care how it is done. We need women in all our decision making councils represented at least 30%. How did I come up with that number? Countries with 30% or more female representation in their governments are measurably more peaceful. 10 or 20% doesn’t cut it. Science is more creative and productive in organizations that have significant percentages of female administrators. Workplaces are safer for women, and are more supportive of family demands, when more women are in decision making positions. Do we think we are that different from the rest of humanity? We need to give young women visible roles of equal value to young men. Otherwise, there will always be some innocent young women asking why they aren’t included, and some well-meaning young men unconsciously feeling more valuable than their sisters. We need women deciding what they do with their share of church monies. We need to trust women to receive revelation. Let’s build on the example of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. They seek revelation and require unity before they move forward on any major decisions. We can still require revelation and unity before we move forward on major decisions in our Ward Councils. We just need our Bishoprics requiring revelation and unity with our Relief Society Presidencies. Revelation will still guide the church, not votes. It will just be revelation to men and women. It will be another step toward unity. We will be saying with our actions, “Women, you are a part of us.” This is at-one-ment.
This is Atonement. This is what Christ did. This is what Enoch did. This is how the Saints in Mesoamerica survived the catastrophic depopulation after the time of Christ’s death. This is how the Saints built the Mountain West–or tried to. The poor are lifted up in that the rich are made low. By whom? Themselves. We are each rich, and we have to make ourselves low. The richer I am, the lower I have to go.
Atonement and Zion
If we are to trust humanity has a future, we have to trust humanity can build Zion. Otherwise, we’ll wipe ourselves out–if nature doesn’t get us first. As faith without works is dead, how do we act on that faith? Let’s build Zion. Let’s build unity. Let’s atone. Let’s take the chance and empower the poor, the weak, the different, and the marginalized. It is humanity’s only real chance.