Distraction Free Reading

Gods, AIs, and Mormon Transhumanism

I’d like to start this post by juxtaposing two scenes. The first one is set about two years ago, and occurred on the third floor of the Provo, Utah Convention Center. The scene was very similar to the one found in any academic conference—down to the dais, the rows of chairs, and a screen designed for projecting PowerPoint slides. We were between presentations, and as often happens during moments such as these, I was spending the interstitial moments catching up with acquaintances I mostly know from on-line interactions. In the case at hand, the person I was talking to is in his late twenties or early thirties, someone who had recently left his position in the United States Marines; in fact, he had left the military so recently that he still had the short haircut associated with service. On his arm, he also had a tattoo of an electromagnetic equation. He is holding one hand out in front of my face as we talk. In normal conversations, a gesture like that would be rude, but this was not a normal conversation. This is because he was describing how, at very close distances, he can feel the presence of electricity with his hands. He had gained this ability through intervening in his physical body—biohacking—which I will return to shortly.

The other scene is in the future, or at least in a possible future. Some hypothetical individual is using a computer, or more properly, is virtually inside some computer-generated virtual landscape. This space is not being accessed through any contemporary technology, such as Oculus Rift, but something more immersive, with perhaps a full run of tactile, haptic, and maybe even olfactory senses being either convincingly simulated or actually produced and conveyed directly to the physical body through nanotechnology. And what is our user doing? He or she (most likely a he, though) is engaging with a near perfect simulacrum of a celebrity. And by engaging, I mean, well, having sexual intercourse.

The first scene I described was just one moment in the 2017 Annual Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association.[1] Though not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (occasionally abbreviated to LDS), the Mormon Transhumanist Association, or ‘MTA,’ is a body mostly comprised of Mormons in good standing with Church, as well of as significant numbers of non LDS Mormons, ex-Mormons, Christians interested in transhumanism, and non-believers. The purpose of the group is to create a space to think about and advocate for a religiously-inflected flavor of transhumanism. Here, transhumanism is understood as a social movement of people both anticipating, but also at times creating, near future technologies in fields such as nanotechnology, robotics, genetics, and (most importantly for our purposes today) computer science and artificial intelligence. These near future technologies are believed to be so profound in their effect that much of the species-limits that have historically characterized humanity would be overcome, and that we (either individually or collectively) would become something altogether more than human. And while my self-modified interlocutor may be an exception in that most Mormon Transhumanists don’t engage in this sort of body-hacking, like him many MTA members take this interest in transhumanism very seriously.

A black and white sketch of a wagon wheel with wings coming out of either side appears in a black and white logo of the Mormon Transhumanist Association

My claim here is the seemingly dull, obvious argument that most members of the MTA would find the second scene involving virtual pornography and a virtual celebrity to be ethically objectionable. This probably does not shock you, considering the fact that we are discussing a group characterized by a Mormon ethos, which commonly involves a concern with “pornography addiction.” The twist in my argument is that the roots of MTA members’ judgement would lie not in any sexual prudery, or alternately not stem from a strong commitment to a particular heteronormative and ‘conservative’ vision of the heteronormative family associated with the Latter-Day Saints. Rather, I argue that it is rooted in how most MTA members conceive of both the nature of Gods, and of what (if anything) divides the human from the divine. In short, the way that the extra-human is understood has serious effects on how the non-human is understood, or be more exact, on what is considered to be non-human in the first place.

Secular and Mormon Transhumanisms

Now, this is not to say that secular transhumanism (to the degree that we can talk about ‘one’ thing being secular transhumanism) and Mormon transhumanism have nothing in common. Transhumanists engage in variety of activities. For instance, my friend who is capable of feeling electricity through his fingers gained this ability through a practice known as ‘grinding,’ which is essentially the biohacking of their own bodies to gain new capacity through the use of unapproved or still-developing technologies. In this specific case, he had self-implanted very small magnets in his hand; when these magnets were near electro-magnetic field, they reacted like all magnets to, reactions that were sensed by nerve endings that had, over time, learned to be sensitive to the state of these implants; this allowed him to, for instance, sense the presence of live wires, which were useful when he was engaged in working with radio and other distance-signaling technology.

Grinding is a not an uncommon activity in secular transhumanism, and obviously it is found among members of the MTA as well (though my sense is that it is comparatively uncommon among Mormon Transhumanists). Grinding, though, does not exhaust transhumanist interests or endeavors. Many transhumanists of all stripes take nutritional supplements, or undergo very specific eating regimens, such as extremely low-calorie diets, in the hopes of considerably prolonging their life spans. There are transhumanists who are interested in cryonics, which is the use of low temperature liquid nitrogen systems for the preservation of dead bodies (though many in the cryonics community prefer the term ‘patients’ over various terms usually used for corpses) in the hope that future technology will allow for their ailments to be cured and for them to be revived. And as implied by the anticipation of future technologies, transhumanists also spend a great deal of time speculating about prospective innovations such as nanotechnology or artificial intelligence.

It is the speculation about artificial intelligence that actually connects the MTA to the scene. Ray Kurzweil, author, inventor, futurist, and Google’s “director of engineering” is probably one of the best known and most prolific secular transhumanists, and has expended a great deal of energy in predicting how different aspects of society will be affected by these incipient technologies. In one passage in his book The Singularity is Near, he uses a dialogue between two characters, each situated in different moments of history, to discuss what this technology means for sex work. Through this dialogue, Kurzweil quickly presents the conclusion that one of the effects of a full immersion virtual reality will be the legalization of sex work, as virtual reality allows for individuals not co-present to have intercourse. But he also notes that such technology may vitiate the need for any human partner whatsoever. It is here that Kurzweil presents the scenario of sex with entirely virtual entities, such as our digitally reproduced celebrity. He is not the only person to have presented the idea of virtual intercourse with simulated or artificial people; the Kurzweil case is the most solid instance of this kind of imagining, and while it would be wrong to say that secular transhumanists are fixated on the subject, this is fantasy that also appears at times in experimental technology, transhumanist themed science fiction, and also in other futurist’s prognostications.

This is also a fantasy that religious transhumanists have critiqued, though not always with reference to Kurzweil. One critique was offered online by Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian Pastor with an interest in and strong sympathy for transhumanism, and one of the founders of the Christian Transhumanist Association (The Christian Transhumanist Association organization that was in many ways modeled after and mentored by the Mormon Transhumanist Association; the CTA is also an organization that shares a partially interlocking board with the MTA). In his article on ‘sexbots,’ Benek worries that these artificial sexual persons will become false ‘idols’ that we will worship, with worship here not meant in the literal sense of some ritualistic adoration, but rather as something that will dominate our attention and keep us away from a proper focus on God, as well as interfering with our forming human relationships. Their risk is that they will become small “g” gods, as Benek puts it. They will simply be another conduit for people to become caught in sex addiction. In closing, he even speculated that someday, if a certain threshold of self-awareness and agency was reached by these sexbots, we even might owe a moral duty to such entities.

Mormon Transhumanists have picked up on this problem as well. In a 2015 MTA Conference, this problem was used as an example by a board member during a presentation; specifically contrasting Benek’s discussion with Kurzweil’s discussion of sex with virtual celebrities, the board member used Benek’s analysis as an example of what kind of critical contribution religious transhumanism could make to discussions of transhumanist ethics; after the talks, this same example was brought up multiple times by MTA members in later public discussions that day, including by the then-president of the association. But each time it was brought up, the point was brought up in a different way than Benek originally posited. The focus was not the damage to us humans, but the way that this use of virtual celebrities violated the agency of these intelligences; “this,” one of the close-to-founding MTA members said, “is what Silicon Valley cannot grasp.” Specifically, what was escaping Silicon Valley was the moral obligation to a potentially sentient virtual figure, even if they were virtual figures used just for pleasure.

Since then, I’ve occasionally used this problem as a probing question in interviews with various MTA members, and while it was not a universal position, there are worries about the effect of such entities. There are also deeply held worries for these entities as well. Of course, that is not the only concern. This is, after all, an age dominated by ‘deep fakes,’ the name for videos (chiefly pornographic videos) where a face taken from some other source can be mapped onto the face of a performer in a video with such success that it can at times fool the eye, and make it appear as if it is the individual from that original source video who is engaged in the activity depicted in the doctored target video. Debates raged, though in a playful and polite manner, as to whether there was some right not to have virtual duplicates of oneself made for purposes of simulated coitus and other questionable pleasures, with the crux of the debate focusing on whether this was an activity that was either acceptable, but only as a mental ‘fantasy,’ whether there was something like a digital private, where one could craft images for one’s own consumption on the assumption that they were not for any circulation or sharing, or whether even the play of entirely non-digital, private mental fantasies were an insult to the person’s identity (with identity sometimes articulated in the particularly Mormon idiom of ’spirit’). But this discussion oriented around deep fakes was addressing ‘dumb’ simulations, rather than simulacra that might be so complex as to have something like sentience. On that point, everything I’ve seen or heard from MTA members read like settled law: a conscious simulation was a rights-bearing entity, and not a mere instrumental object. Among a heterodox and freethinking set of individuals, such agreement is remarkable.

Why should this be the case? And why should worry about the injuries these virtual people might suffer be more pressing than the injury caused by the existence of these virtual people? The reasons why, I’d like to suggest, have to do with Mormon cosmology, and also with some Mormon Transhumanist re-readings of that cosmology. Specifically, it’s a function of two of the most distinctive features of that cosmology: theosis and pre-existence.

Theosis and Care

The core of Mormon theosis can be distilled from “The King Follet Discourse,” a funeral oration that Joseph Smith gave three months before he, along with his brother, were lynched by a mob that broke into their Carthage, Illinois jail cell. This sermon has never been given the status of cannon in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it has still been almost unmeasurably influential. The essence of The King Follet Discourse is found in the couplet created a generation later as a summary of this momentous address: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be,” which suggests an infinite regress of Gods, begotten by Gods, begetting Gods. Over time, this theological claim has been systematized by generations of Mormon Thinkers in the following way: God achieved his divine status through some sort of test of ethical agency that occurred by way of a mortal life on some other world, a test that, upon his passing, gave him the knowledge and right to eventually make this Earth as a proving ground for his own spirit-children, so that those of them shown worthy can themselves begin the long process that ends in their own theosis. It is important to understand that the Earth is a test, and not a cradle. Pre-existing entities, ‘children of God,’ do the equivalent of drinking the waters of Lethe before they become embodied on Earth, forgetting all of their pre-existence, and have their moral character assessed through the choices they make in their lives. Accounts of the process of how these children of God and Heavenly Mother came into pre-existence varies (sometimes leaning on some quite biological metaphors for creation) but at its core there is an agreement that parturition of spirit children by the divine couple involves the gathering of eternally existing ‘intelligences’ into the premortal spirit-bodies.

What kind of uptake has this theodicy and cosmology had with Mormon Transhumanists? This is a complex inheritance for the MTA, and it is hard to say that members have done one thing with it. Mormon transhumanist thought is more akin to a sensibility or an aesthetic than a doctrine, and as mentioned earlier, while the predominance of members are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing with the Church, many are not. For some, what this message brings to transhumanism is a mythic backdrop that can be used as inspiration and guidance in how to develop and carry out the sort of effective deifications that they anticipate new technologies bequeathing them; it is not uncommon for these transhumanists to say that if there is not a God already, Mormonism is an ethical map for what we can do as we become Gods.

The interaction between Mormonism and Transhumanism can work in the other direction. For other MTA members, what transhumanism brings to the Mormon Cosmological speculation is a technical vocabulary for how God could have created this universe. One frequently mentioned possibility is the ‘simulation hypothesis.’ Originally posited by Oxford Philosopher Nick Bostrom, and endorsed by the likes of Elon Musk, the claim is that if humans are capable of building multiple real-world computer simulations of the universe, then the number of universe simulations would far outnumber the one ‘actual’ universe, so statistically it would be far more likely that we are inside such a simulation, rather than situated at ‘base reality.’ The simulation hypothesis is only one account; I have heard members also discuss this Universe as being materially created, informed by speculation in physics about the possibility of artificially created “pocket universes.” And many members are indifferent to this question, either because of a lack of belief in the created nature of this universe, or because they are more interested in promulgating the ethical adoption of near-future technologies. But the simulation hypothesis has an importance and a centrality in Mormon thought that would be hard to overemphasize.

In a world where this is a plausible cosmology, the shift from concern about to care for virtual intelligences makes sense. A religious reading of Mormon Cosmology presents intelligences as something created by and cared for by Gods, and a transhumanist cosmology informed by the simulation hypothesis would suggest that these artificial intelligences may ontologically be little different from ourselves, since we too may be computer simulations—and hence have no real basis to regard these other entities as ‘other.’

Now, I want to be clear. In one way, this resonance between the simulation hypothesis and involuntary virtual sex-partners is just an intellectual curio, a bit of something unexpected from a religious transhumanist imaginary. Not all transhumanists, let alone all Mormon Transhumanists, agree with the simulation hypothesis, and the idea of sentient virtual sex partners is not idée fixe among Mormon Transhumanists. But this could be seen as part of a wider pattern of thought. An example of this wider pattern was expressed in a discussion I had with a transhumanist engineer working at the Lehi, Utah based private genealogical corporation, Ancestry.com. After reporting the breadth of the corporation’s genealogical and genetic database, he began to discuss what that information might be used for. After moving through some more speculative ideas, such as the corporation’s database being used in what amounted to Russian-cosmist style resurrection of the dead, he rather quickly presented the idea of using this information to create ancestor simulations. This was a possibility that, he stated, had been talked about before at the Ancestry.com office; but no more quickly had he mentioned that, than he began discussing in earnest the difficulties that would result from having sentient or pseudo-sentient entities that were also corporate intellectual property. He even referenced a rather rare and hard to come across novel by the science fiction writer Ted Chiang that touched on this very moral and political problem.

This concern is not merely about pornography and technology—not that concerns about pornography and technology are illegitimate objects of discussion, or do not touch on important issues in their own right. But this concern for Kurzweil’s virtual celebrity sex-slaves, and other sentient objects akin to these virtual celebrity sex slaves, emphasizes the links between critique, cosmology, and ethics when it comes to developing technologies. Many MTA members work in the technology sector, and how they create and treat various low-level AIs, simple as these AIs are at the present moment, is probably colored by the possibility that they may at some level form more of a kinship with them than one might expect. And it also suggests that religious critique of artificial intelligence has more to offer than mere Luddism. It can also at times present pertinent comments and concerns, and sometimes these comments and concerns are not motivated by a fear of playing at being God, but rather by a serious appreciation of the ethical responsibilities entailed in the act of playing God.

[1] In the August 2018 recent General Conference (a bi-annual series of speeches from Church leaders that all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to listen to, either in person, or more likely via broadcast or internet live-stream), President Russel M. Nelson stated that members should only use the Church’s full name, and rejected the use of “Mormon” to refer to the institution, its members, or the associated culture. (The Church’s official statement to this effect can be found, ironically enough, online at the Mormon Newsroom internet portal. I refrain from following his admonition here for two reasons. The first is that almost the entirety of the research on this project was done before the announcement, and hence my engaging in such a change in nomenclature would be ahistorical at best, revisionary at worse. The second reason is that the Mormon Transhumanist Association itself, which is the particular group I worked with, have declined to change their name. Part of the reason for this is institutional: as a non-profit corporation, this change would require amending its constitution. Another reason is that the term Mormon, though originally derogatory, was embraced by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; further, a large part of the nineteenth century religious speculative movement that the MTA draws some of its inspiration from having understood itself to be engaged in “Mormonism” as well. The MTA also notes that there are several religious movements that also trace back their origins to Joseph Smith, and include the Book of Mormon in their cannon.

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