Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Transfigurism: Explanation and Response

Some time ago I published an emotion piece on transhumanism, passion in religion, and the lack of fire I felt from the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Much to my surprise, as I am not a popular blogger, I was contacted by two members of that society. Its founder, Lincoln Cannon, held a conversation with me via Twitter, and its current president, Carl Youngblood, left a comment. I found that not only had I failed to coherently express my feelings about those three subjects, I had underestimated the ideological distance between myself and the MTA.

I'm going to post some of their comments directly, attempt to express their beliefs as if they were my own, and then respond with, I hope, a more logical declaration of my thoughts on this matter.

Two thoughts, coming from the VP of the Mormon Transhumanist association: 1) Why don't you actually enter into a dialogue with members of the MTA to see how much agreement there is? We don't all believe the same thing. We are also willing to be persuaded by sound arguments. 2) I suspect some of our areas of disagreement might be around what characteristics are most desirable in a god. I take the pattern outlined in D&C 121 very seriously, and believe that gods do not employ "compulsory means." What are we left with without that? Love, mercy, forebearance, long-suffering and love unfeigned. I also believe very strongly in vigor and strenuosity, and I believe that the ethic promulgated by Christ is and should be most vigorous. But it is vigorous not because it is violent, but because it is willing to go to the ends of the earth and back to save humanity. I suspect much of the violent attributes that you have attributed to God are found more in the Old Testament than the New. My personal view on that is that much that has been attributed to God in the history of humanity was their own tribal rivalries and limited perspective. There is nothing more ennobling and self-justifying than being able to say that God is on your side. One can easily see how ancient peoples could have fallen into this tendency. Indeed, I see this transition from tribal polytheism towards monotheism as a form of evolutionary progress in humanity's conception of God, but that should not lead us to codify in stone earlier views and feel that we need to make contortions to accommodate inferior ethics.     
Carl Youngblood

Most Mormon Transhumanists don't recognize divinity in fear and egotism, even if ancient prophets began there.

You're forgetting the second book in the series, not to mention the third and fourth.

I'm remembering that Jesus interpreted it beyond your interpretation.

You're only looking at part of the picture.

I think your position is theologically archaic and dangerous.

Lincoln Cannon

I think I may once have believed something similar, whether or not I could articulate it then. If I now held beliefs that caused me to read those responses and say, "Yes, that is how I feel, those are my thoughts," I might join my voice with theirs to say something like this:

All men are born with passions good and ill, and are subjected to the temptations of Satan and the gentle guidance of the Holy Ghost as they seek to find and live a good life. While all of our passions are given by God, many of them are intended for use only in narrow contexts; for example, sexual love is meant to deepen and enrich the love between couples, and those emotions related to anger are meant to grant us energy to protect ourselves and our loved ones from immediate, present danger, and to be laid aside the instant that danger has passed.

To truly live a good life, we must prune our passions, as Christ did. He preached that while violence may in the worst of times be necessary, it is better generally to avoid it. His commandment to love one another supercedes the morality of the Old Testament, which was meant to prepare the children of Israel for the new law he preached. Many stories in the Old Testament are meant as cautionary tales, not as general instructions - and certainly not as instructions for us, in this age of peace, when the counsel of Christ to be gentle as doves is easier to follow than ever.

A Mormon Transhumanist should see a future where the blessings of technology allow us to bridle our passions, that we may be filled with love, and grant us powers of patience, that we might emulate Christ far better than our fallen bodies now allow.

What you see as bloodlessness is forbearance. What you call pusillanimity is tolerance. We invite the atheist into our organization because we are confident in our theism, and in the power of God to work miracles over long spans of time, and because we love them as we love all of God's children. If our fire is not bright enough for your tastes, come and sit by it, and see if it does not warm you as it has warmed us.

I won't call this a steelman because I haven't expressed their full arguments and have added some of my own. I mean it to prove my understanding of most of Mr. Cannon and Mr. Youngblood's positions - again, aren't those amazing transhumanist names? - and to show that I am not capable only of understanding the pulp fiction parts of the Bible. I really do believe a lot of that, and the rest is pretty close. The preceding four paragraphs do not, however, go any real distance toward closing that gap.

Here is the Obelisk, the hull fragment from an alien starship covered in runes that make my head spin trying to take in their shapes, the astral gulf between my own worldview and that of my dear Transfigurist brothers:

That should not lead us to codify in stone earlier views and feel that we need to make contortions to accommodate inferior ethics.     
I think your position is theologically archaic and dangerous.

I've been staring at those sigils trying to wrap my thoughts around them. I'll make a stab at it, then head off to Montana to help the Army talk to heptapods. You'll notice my formality slipping. I'm not comfortable here.

Inferior ethics... theologically archaic... do these people believe that our society is morally superior to the ancients? That there has been some ever-rising ethical curve, that societal morality has, maybe, been steadily progressing from the time of the Old Testament? That Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac because he had inferior ethics, and if we were given that command - or not, he already did that one, we all know the answer, our Abraham moments will be on other things - that we need to listen to the spirit of the age and obey that voice?

OK, that's not completely fair. The example I debated with Lincoln Cannon was not the binding of Isaac but the harrying of Canaan, an event with even worse PR in the modern age. And many reasonable individuals would of course consider refusal to give their children up for blood sacrifice to be common human decency, not some spirit of the age.

I'm stretching out old neurons here, reconfiguring, constructing an emulation in my mind to interact with and seek understanding with these people, with this conception of decency they consider human and common. Seems I'm something of a transhumanist myself.

Here's my view, I had to send an expedition down to the foundation of my ideology to scrape this up but there it was, spelled out in Grade 60 rebar and wrapped in concrete:

I do not believe the ethical standards of modern society are the result of progress because I do not believe human society is capable of ethical progress.

Human society divorced from Christ, if I may offer some autoexegesis. I just don't believe that any group of humans left alone to smash their standards against each other will come up with something transcendentally good. They'll make something that's fit. However I feel about modern morality, I can't deny that it's working, it's propagating, it's adapting well to external stimuli. It's a very strong meme, this kind of... outward-focused individualism, based on some kind of harm principle, I'm struggling to define it, but please don't think I haven't been in it.

Irene Bloom, in Religious Diversity and Human Rights, defines it as "human rights thinking." I've got the book, it's mostly written black coffee stains but I've deciphered this passage:
Human rights thinking, on the other hand, is commonly presented as conceptually unencumbered, being modern and Western in its origins, secularistic in its persuasions, and, above all, universalistic in its claims. More important, its fundamental is the human in the sense that the major human rights documents are concerned with what belongs to all human beings by virtue of their humanity rather than with what defines them as members of a particular culture, civilization, or religious community.
That matches the writing on these hull fragments. "Universalistic" brings to mind "Universalism," the term noted xenolinguist Mencius Moldbug used for this philosophy. It fits, it really does. Earlier in the chapter Prof. Bloom talks of how "religious tensions have increased in the world in recent years" making it harder to "sustain without significant qualifications an alternative vision of religion as primarily an ethical inspiration and an energizing force in human rights thinking and practice." This stele seems to be praising the human rights thinking meme for its destabilization of traditional human modes of thought; further on Bloom speaks of HRT finding "in the world's religions some common denominator of human dignity and a shared commitment to the wellbeing of all human beings."

So the HRT meme seeks not only to replace the old thoughtways but to assimilate them, which explains its popularity with...

I suppose I seem like I've been speaking Martian. Mind the gap. My point is that this isn't common human decency, it's another moral framework that's pretty successful. It promotes treating people the same regardless of their background, which is nice for you when you're a high-caste Brahmin eager to integrate and pretty hard on you when you were born to be the world's best pipe fitter but live your life thinking you're an idiot because you did bad at math. It sets out responsibilities of the rich with regard to the poor, which is nice for helping temporarily embarrassed millionaires get a leg up but very tough on getting individuals with high time preference into fulfilling careers.

I suppose the affluent conditions of modern life are some kind of argument in favor of HRT, because we have it and we're affluent, but then we've allowed somewhere north of fifty million infants to be dismembered and thrown in garbage cans in the last forty years. Maybe some of them were clumps of cells, yet to have souls breathed into them, but can you really say there's been an effort from the HRT community to protect or even acknowledge the ones that weren't? Or have we been too concerned with the rights of the mothers to not be inconvenienced by their pregnancies anymore?

See, here's why I'm refusing so hard to offer HRT any kind of universal legitimacy. There's no objective basis for this ever-shifting set of rights as opposed to any other. I've tried to find it, believe me, and I have been met time and again with responses that range all the way from stunned disbelief that I don't already hold these beliefs to anger and hostility that I would challenge basic. Human. Decency.

So yeah, I don't believe Old Testament morals are necessarily archaic. They put cities to the sword, sure, and we don't (unless we're really angry and there's military targets there too and we drop leaflets first), but they also hated, HATED, child sacrifice. And we don't.

That's the short explanation.

I can see the response already: well, can't we keep what's good about modern ethics and ditch the Moloch stuff? To which I would respond, what is good about modern ethics? No, I don't believe it's all bad, but how do we know what's good and what's bad? How do you tell? How are you telling, right now? You are running an operating system. You believe that some things are good and some are bad and if you were raised a hundred years ago or in the future you'd believe something else with the same conviction.

Me too. I know I'm not exempt. I know my morality sucks compared to the higher vision God holds. Is it moral because he declares it so or does he declare it so because it is? What do I care? I just want to know what's good and what's bad and my life experience to this date shows I can't really rely on my instincts that much.

No, we need revelation, and as Latter-day Saints we agree that we need continuing revelation, personal as well as public. I believe the Transfigurists' contention is that modern morality is closer to God's perfect morality than that which drove the Israelites to scour Canaan. I say we don't know that. We don't know the long-term damage of our recent radical societal changes. We don't know what damage, what long-term harm, the Israelites sparing Canaan would have caused. I agree with Cannon and Youngblood and co. that to love God and love each other are our highest commandments but I do not agree that our society knows in the slightest how that's done.

I'm willing to believe that the Israelites were murderers. I'm willing to believe they were merciful. I don't see this as a lack of moral firmness, but as a bold refusal to be bound by the spirit of any age. I see a willingness to present new tablets for new laws, whatever the finger may inscribe, as necessary for those Saints willing to ride out a Singularity.

But honestly I brought up the Old Testament in the first place as an aesthetic contention. I wasn't saying we need to drop Jeshualike love for Joshualike aggression, I was saying they're the same thing, and milquetoast modernism is opposed to it because it's not beautiful and they are.


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  3. My first name is Carl, not Brad.

    It seems to me from your writing that you're more interested in a clever turn of phrase than really analyzing the proposition that our present civilization is less violent and more benevolent than the civilizations of the Old Testament. Though it is not without controversy, I think Steven Pinker has done an excellent job of examining this proposition in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. I would recommend reading it.

    It sometimes also helps to increase the distance between different time periods to make the contrast greater and therefore easier to recognize. Let's examine the evidence presented by the rocks themselves, on the walls of caves and other surfaces in nature. Going back 10,000 years, we are now at a period in which there is no evidence of writing of any kind. The earliest recovered artifacts with any evidence of pictographic text are less than 10,000 years old. Was civilization more or less advanced without writing? Could it also be said that civilization has improved morally since that time?

    This question may be more difficult to answer than the previous one, but I think it can still be speculated on productively. Writing enables us to communicate better with one another and to convey our thoughts and feelings to another human being more effectively. This in turn increases our ability to empathize with one another. When we can empathize with someone we are less inclined to feel alienated from them, to think of them as wholly other, to kill them, and more inclined to form some kind of friendly bond with them.

    Let’s go back even further, say 100,000 years, before any evidence of human drawings on cave walls etc. Were humans more advanced technologically and/or morally at this stage? Clearly not technologically more advanced. But I think we can safely conclude that morality was also weaker then. Even a casual consideration of this period causes us to quickly realize that technology is a moral enabler. It doesn’t force people to make moral choices, but it enables more refined moralities to develop. Beings who can’t even communicate with one another cannot form bonds of empathy. Beings who can communicate only in crude ways cannot form bonds that are as intricate and intimate as those who can communicate in more advanced ways.

    In this sense, even our innate morphological capacities can be thought of as technologies. Organisms with the capability of speech are capable of developing more intimate bonds than those without it; likewise in organisms with vision.


Let’s go back even further, say, 1M years. At this point, humans in our present anatomical form did not even exist. Were the sentient beings alive at this time more advanced than us technologically and morally? Certainly not, if any of the fossil and archaeological evidence is to be believed.


Various forms of evidence show that more than 2/3 of all humans in prehistoric times died violent deaths, whereas in our modern society, even when taking into account all world wars, far less than 1% of the population dies a violent death today. That statistic alone demonstrates that humanity has improved morally since prehistoric (and even Old Testament) times.


Far more is discussed in Pinker’s book. I suggest you read it so that your analysis of this subject can focus more on evidence and less on speculation. After all, if we are “true Mormons,” as Joseph Smith put it, we will want follow the “grand fundamental principles of Mormonism,” one of which is “to embrace truth, let it come from whence it may.” Even if truth goes against our proclivities or expectations, we should be willing to grab onto it and learn from it better ways of being.

    1. Correction accepted. Who's Brad anyway?

      You're operating under the assumption that fewer people dying violent deaths is better. I know that challenging that assumption sounds absolutely crazy to you, but let me put it this way: how much of the human population currently dies a good death? Were those violent deaths utterly senseless or culminations of fulfilled lives? Does Pinker cover that? How about the suicide rate? That might give you a better view on how good of a life people are having.

      I didn't ask for evidence that people aren't dying violently. Oh, man, I just now remembered the other bold point I was going to bring up. I'll have to write it up later, but it was going to be something like:
      Just because it's peaceful doesn't mean it's good.
      Maybe I'll go into that soon.

      I'm not saying peace corrupts, I'm saying our peace corrupts. Something like ten percent of my generation saves themselves for marriage. What's it worth, having this society where fewer people are killed (even if we accept Pinker's arguments - his sources were severely limited in many cases) if everybody goes to Hell (figurative) when they die? And anyway, how violent were those 50,000,000 abortion deaths?

      The purpose of our life on Earth isn't to avoid being violently killed. We exist on a much longer curve, on which a violent or other death is a blip. You could make a better argument if you focused on empathy and hospitality, but even then I could argue that we're not doing better there, that our charity has become detached and perfunctory, and bring up the decline of American volunteer organizations, when our volunteer spirit used to be world-renowned. You bring up Better Angels, I bring up Bowling Alone. I know a lot of people my age. The ones who are happy are the weird ones who are married with kids. The modern age isn't doing a good job getting people married with kids.

  4. Jesse, I don't think you really know how to value life and peace. You are in the absurd position of having such a better life than your predecessors and yet being wholly incapable of recognizing it. This armchair philosophizing has caused you somehow to be able to ignore the fact that life has been nasty, brutish, and short for the vast majority of humanity, and that we enjoy much more happiness and peace in comparison. Of course there are still problems, but they are much less severe than the alternatives. I'd wager that almost all inhabitants of prior eras would be happy to trade with you.

    1. Again, let's get away from the assumption prosperity equals morality. I know that I am better off, physically, than my ancestors. Does that get my generation called "the greatest generation?" No, that goes to the ones who survived a depression and fought a global war. Is my generation's morality superior to theirs, just because they went through a war and an economic crisis? That doesn't have anything to do with it. The late Roman empire was very prosperous and its people lived lives, in general, much less brutish and short than those before and after them. But were they morally superior to those of Charlemagne's time? They threw people in pits and made them fight lions.

      Remember, the defection between European New World colonies and hunter-gatherer natives was overwhelmingly one-way.

      And if you're going to accuse me of armchair philosophizing you can't just quote Locke out of context like that. He didn't say the vast majority of humanity lived nasty, brutish, short lives, he said that about people who don't know peace, e.g. where all war with all and the fruit of one's harvest is not guaranteed. I know a lot of people that refuse to get married because they fear they'll be unfairly divorced, I know a lot of people that were unfairly divorced. I know people who live nasty, brutish, short lives in their parents' basements, obese and unloved, overwhelmed by prosperity. No one would want to trade with them. It's a spiritually dead era, and you are in the absurd position of having such a worse life than your predecessors while being wholly incapable of recognizing it.

  5. Locke didn't say those words. Hobbes did. And you're still comparing relatively adjacent time periods with one another. What's more, you explicitly refer to "the greatest generation." If you really believe that monicker, it would mean that this generation was better than its predecessors, which would support my argument. Finally, your point about prosperity vs morality is an ironic one considering the tradeoff you're actually presenting to the inhabitants of prior eras with whom you would trade is nothing less than death vs life.

    Our Gospel is to have life, and to have it more abundantly. A great example of this imperative is the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose mission is to ensure that every human being grows up without disease and hunger and is provided with enough education to allow them to reach their full potential. Life is a prerequisite to all of these things, and any society that can't even provide this is inferior to one that can.

    1. You're right, I meant Hobbes, and I was filling in context from Leviathan. My bad. I wasn't actually saying it was the greatest generation, I don't actually believe we can classify generations like that, I was saying that even now there is a public perception that they were greater and it had nothing to do with their life expectancy.

      And again, you are conflating morality with living longer. You're not going to make that argument by hammering at it. Oh my goodness Jesse, are you aware you're advocating people dying more often? Yes, if it's good for them. Brigham Young was terrified of prosperity and what it would do to us. I'm sure he knew it would reduce our infant mortality rate too, but he was concerned about Life.

      Our gospel is to have life, and more abundantly, but we are immortal. It's not worth losing out on eternal life to have slightly more abundant mortal life. The processes of technology are, I believe, part of how this immortal life is enriched, but the greatest way to have life and have it abundantly is to repent and come unto Christ. A great example of this imperative is the work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose mission is to ensure that every human being grows up in light and truth and is provided with enough education to allow them to reach their full potential. Christ is a prerequisite to all of these things, and any society that can't even provide Him is inferior to one that can.

  6. How do you think immortality will be achieved? How has it been achieved in the past? By contravention of natural law? Not so, nor has Mormonism ever posited such. It has been achieved the same way every god before achieved it, through a thorough understanding of the operative principles. What we are proposing is not an alternative to the gospel of Christ, but the actual gospel of Christ, which posits a transformation of individual bodies and their environment through adherence to truths, both moral and scientific.

    1. What I am proposing is that we are as ignorant of the depths of the gospel of Christ as we are about the breadth of natural law. Neither of those statements have been far-fetched in the past. What's called for in this situation is humility, is an increase of open-mindedness - and don't tell me that believing prevailing wisdom requires open-mindedness. It doesn't. Being willing to disbelieve it, as I do, while being willing to disbelieve the alternatives that I also weigh, that is an open mind.