Distraction Free Reading

After, and Before, Anthropos

Filled with new atheists who see religion as “deathism,” yet animated by yearnings for immortality played out on a cosmic scale, it is easy to see why there is debate as to whether transhumanism and singulatarianism are either formally or effectively religious or religion. On one hand, the anthropologist Abou Farman has convincing argued that the one of the key historical possibility conditions for transhumanism to emerge as self-conscious social movement was religion’s loss of its monopoly on the ability to make determining statements on ultimate issues. If the Church cannot speak authoritatively about eternity, perhaps some futurists can? But Farman’s observation has to be weighed against the plethora of transhumanist organizations that have taken on religious trappings – groups like Teresem, Turing Church, or The Church of Perpetual Life. Further, there is also the claim that since striving for immortality can be given a genealogy that runs as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh, it cannot be properly classified as solely belonging to the secularism or the current secular dispensation (though this argument mistakes genealogical linkage for fixed identity).

Painted Fresco depicting Ezekiel's Wheel, a series of five interlocking rings with wings, flying through the sky.

Ezekiel’s Wheel in St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia | Public Domain

Of course, secular forms can filch symbols, organizational forms, and aesthetic sensibilities from religion, so even these transhumanist “religions” may possibly not count as religious from certain analytic vantages. The real test of how “religious” the “rapture of the nerds” really is would be to see what happens when transhumanism is in a relation of “double capture” with a pre-existing religious system (Deleuze and Guattari’s name for a moment when two autonomous systems seize and utilize each other for their independent ends). In that instance, the differences – or the lack of differences – between secular transhumanism and religiously reteritorialized transhumanism could open up this question; we could trace the way that alternative religious and transhumanist framings distend one another. Or to put it in the language of the introductory essay for this series, we could ask: what does an avowedly religious transhumanism do to transhumanist mutations and transformations of anthropos?

It turns out that in at least one instance of this thought experiment being carried out, religion does make quite a difference – but the most significant difference may not be to the shifts in anthropos’s future, but to its virtual pasts. The Mormon Transhumanist Association is the largest and longest-running religious transhumanist organizations; the MTA (as it often is abbreviated), in addition to getting a fair amount of press, is also is the religious transhumanist organization that has the best relationship with secular transhumanism and transhumanists. The MTA has long been an affiliate of H+, the largest transhumanist organization worldwide, and regularly has transhumanist luminaries such as Max More, Natasha-Vita Moore, Aubrey de Gray, and Ralph Merkle speak at their annual conferences in the Salt Lake City/Provo vicinity. Given the high number of MTA members who work in the sort of startups and information technology industries that employ large contingents of secular Silicon Valley Transhumanists, this commonality should not be too surprising. 

The MTA’s healthy relationship with secular transhumanism should not be taken to mean that the group is not also profoundly Mormon. While the group has non-Mormon, ex-Mormon, and new-order (or “cultural” Mormon) members, and while the MTA as an organization is mindful to make sure these constituencies are made to feel included, the organization primarily aims to dovetail with the sensibilities of believing Saints who are in good standing with the Church. This does not mean that these sensibilities are the same as the broader LDS, however. A significant share of these MTA Saints – I would suggest a preponderance – are “progressive” Mormons, who do not share the same understanding regarding issues like LGBTQ rights, marriage equality, and American politics as those held by the majority of their co-religionists; but for reasons of faith, tradition, or family, a great many of them are sacrament-attending Mormons all the same.

This does not mean that faithful MTA members expect a transhumanist future to be dropped in their lap by a transcendent God. They believe that the promises of the Christian millennium – including the resurrection of the dead – will be fulfilled, but they believe it must be brought about by their own efforts, and in typical Mormon style they anticipate that it will be quite a lot of work (it is not for no reason that Utah is called the Beehive State). In short, this post-human future does not just happen – it has to be made. This means that discussions during annual conferences, regular in-person meet ups, and on-line forums often take the same shape as those that appear in other transhumanist circles: anticipations of possibilities unleashed by new technologies, and the social and cultural changes that these changes would entail.

Expand the temporal horizons just a hair further, though, and Mormon transhumanists start contemplating god-like powers: complete morphological freedom, incredible expansion of cognitive capacities, exploration of the solar system and beyond, and, again, the resurrection of the dead with the aid of genetic and genealogical information. The importance of genealogy in this narrative is of course a Mormon touch (more than one Mormon Transhumanist has spent time working at Ancestry.com) but these same god-like powers are also a common imagining of secular Transhumanist as well. And while Mormons may be more likely to attend to the existential risks and moral dangers than some of the more exuberantly optimistic secular Transhumanists, similar concerns about risk and culpability can be found in many segments of the secular Transhumanist community.

There is one difference between secular and Mormon transhumanists, though, and as one might expect, it has to do with those god-like powers. The difference is not the way that these anticipations changes the gods they will become, but how these anticipations simultaneously reconfigure who God was.

Contemporary Mormonism often self-presents as not that different from conservative American Protestantism: suit wearing, politically conservative, solidly heteronormative. But this apparent kinship with Protestantism is despite, and not be because of, the Mormon cosmological imagination. Mormonism preaches theosis, the idea that the telos of the eschatological arc is the divinization (or rather, the exaltation) of dutiful Saints. Theosis is not particular of Mormonism, of course – it was a recurrent, albeit it not controlling, concept in the first through third century Church. What is particularly Mormon, though, is the idea that this is a recursive operation. As Joseph Smith put it in the last sermon he gave before he was lynched by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, “[w]e suppose that God was God from Eternity, I will refute that Idea, or I will do away or take away the veil so you may see. It is the first principle to know that we may convers with him and that he once was <a> man like us, and the Father was once on an earth like us.” As God now wants man to become Gods, God was once a man himself.

In the context of Mormon Transhumanism this means that discussions of anticipated future Godlike powers have a different cast, for they are also an investigation as to how prior agents may have worked fashion the universe that we inhabit now. Again, this is not particular to Mormon Transhumanism. There is, for example, Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis – the idea that if future humans have the desire and the capacity to run ancestor simulations programs, then statistically we are almost certain to be a part of virtual simulations of the past ourselves. This idea is played with at times by secular transhumanists; figures such as Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk have played with the concept from time to time. But this is treated as idle speculation, something that if true has no real import for these transhumanists’ current affairs. For many Mormon transhumanists, by way of contrast, this is the ethical and ontological scaffolding of the universe.

This is not to say that every member of the MTA has come to peace with the idea that they are purely simulated beings. Many Mormon Transhumanists have walked away from the virtual edge of this simulation hypothesis, reconfiguring it as the “New God Argument,” which reasons that if it is possible for humanity to become beneficent God-like beings in the future, then it is highly probable that either humanity or the universe that houses it was the creation of similar god-like beings before them. Perhaps it was advanced engineering that made this material universe, or this planet, or this species. But even if we are not simulated beings, that does not mean that we are just one moment in a recursive operation that stretches out to infinity on both ends.

Again, it would be wrong to paint this thought as doctrine. Other Mormon transhumanists are ambivalent or indifferent to propositions that would fix the nature of God, or have retained visions of the divine much more in line with conventional Mormonism. And no one views the simulation hypothesis or the new god argument as a plank in any Mormon Transhumanist creed.  But this thought is still a recurring motif in Mormon Transhumanist discussions. As just one example, before it was released and managed to disappoint effectively everyone across the board, the video game “No Man’s Sky,” with its procedurally generated galaxy, was a recurrent topic of conversation. This was in part because of the (unfulfilled) promise of the game. But part of it was also the fact that this suggested one way through which God may have created this world.  Future trajectories are always also possible origin stories. 

No one in the MTA is suggesting that the base code of our universe is being run on a PlayStation 4. There is always hesitation and doubt on these issues. But to some degree this hesitation is also part of the point. Yes, one claim implicit here is that discussions of whether transhumanism is essentially religious have a certain validity to them, as long as this is religion in the generic; if religion is pure open supplementary potential, then the question is not whether transhumanism is religious, but rather what particular mode of religiosity and what particular instantiation of transhumanism have managed to double capture one another. But perhaps even more telling is what this discussion here says about the relationship between transhumanism and anthropos. The expansion of the potential capacities of the figure of anthropos does not just multiply the array of imaginable vectors anthropos could take; it also expands the array of potential pasts of anthropos as well, as capacities to create are also potential histories of creation. And doubt does not undo these virtual histories – it multiplies them. All this is to say that in some ways, it is not just the future of anthropos that is at stake in discussions of transhumanism, but in a way that resembles the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit, under the right conditions it is our pasts as that are at stake as well.

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