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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Why I Hope the MTA Is Right, but Also Why It's Safer to Assume They're Not

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Last week’s post was titled Building the Tower of Babel, and it was written as a critique of the position and views of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Specifically it was directed at an article written by Lincoln Cannon titled Ethical Progress is not Babel. In response to my post Cannon came by and we engaged in an extended discussion in the comments section. If you’re interested in seeing that back and forth, I would recommend that you check them out. Particularly if you’re interested in seeing Cannon’s defense of the MTA. (And what open-minded person wouldn’t be?)

I was grateful Cannon stopped by for several reasons. First I was worried about misrepresenting the MTA, and indeed it’s clear that I didn’t emphasize enough that, for the MTA, technology is just one of many means to bring about salvation and in their view insufficient by itself. Second a two-sided discussion of the issues is generally going to be more informative and more rigorous than a one-sided monologue. And third because I honestly wasn’t sure what to do with the post, or with the MTA in general. Allow me to explain.

In a previous post I put people into three categories: the Radical Humanists, the Disengaged Middle and the Actively Religious. And in that post I said I had more sympathy for and felt more connected to the Radical Humanists than to the Disengaged Middle. The MTA is almost unique in being part of both the Radical Humanist group and the Actively Religious. Consequently I should be very favorably disposed to them, and I am, but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re right, though if it were completely up to me I’d want them to be right. This is the difficulty. On the one hand I think there are a lot of issues where we agree. And on those issues both of us (but especially me) need all the allies we can get. On the other hand, I think they’re engaged in a particularly seductive and subtle form of heresy. (That may be too strong of a word.) And I am well-positioned to act as a defender of the Mormon Orthodoxy against this, let’s say, mild heresy. And it should go without saying that I could be wrong about this. Which is one of the reasons why I think you should go read the discussion in the comments of the last post and decide for yourself.

Perhaps a metaphor might help to illuminate how I see and relate to the MTA. Imagine that you and your brother both dream of selling chocolate covered asparagus. So one day the two of you decide to start a business doing just that. As your business gets going your father offers you a lot of advice. His advice is wise and insightful and by following it your business gradually grows to the point where it’s a regional success story. But at some point your father dies.

Initially this doesn’t really change anything, but eventually you and your brother are faced with a business decision where you don’t see eye to eye, and your father isn’t around anymore. Let’s say the two of you are approached by someone offering to invest a lot of money in the business. You think the guy is shady and additionally that once he’s part owner, that he may change the chocolate covered asparagus business in ways that would damage it, alter it into something unrecognizable or potentially even destroy it. Perhaps he might make you switch to lower quality chocolate, or perhaps he wants to branch into chocolate covered broccoli. (Which is just insane.) Regardless, you don’t trust him or his motives.

On the other hand, your brother thinks it’s a great opportunity to really expand the chocolate covered asparagus business from being a regional player into a worldwide concern. In the past your father might have settled the dispute, but he’s gone, and as the two of you look back on his copious advice you can both find statements which seem to support your side in the dispute. And, not only that, both of you feel that the other person is emphasizing some elements of your father’s advice while ignoring other parts. In any event you’re adamant that you don’t want this guy as an investor and part owner, and your brother is equally adamant that it’s a tremendous opportunity and the only way your chocolate covered asparagus business is really going to be successful.

None of this means that you don’t still love your brother, or that either of you is any less committed to the vision of chocolate covered asparagus. Or that either of you is less respectful of your late father. But these commonalities do nothing to resolve the conflict. You still feel that this new investor may destroy the chocolate covered asparagus business, while your brother feels that the investor is going to provide the money necessary to make it a huge success. And perhaps, most interesting of all, if you could just choose the eventual outcome of the decision you would choose your brother’s expected outcome. You would choose for the investment to be successful, and for chocolate covered asparagus to fill the world, bringing peace and prosperity in it’s wake.

But, you can’t choose one future over another, you can’t know what will happen when you take on the investor. And in your mind it’s better to preserve the company you have than risk losing it all on a unclear bet and a potentially unreliable partner.

Okay that metaphor ended up being longer than I initially planned, also, as with all metaphors it’s not perfect, but hopefully it gives you some sense of the spirit in which I’m critiquing the MTA. And perhaps the metaphor also helps explain why there are many ways in which I hope the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. Finally I hope it also provides a framework for my conclusion that the best course of action is to assume that they’re not right. But, let’s start by examining a couple of areas where I definitely hope they are correct.

The first and largest area where I hope the MTA is right and I’m wrong is war and violence. There is significant evidence that humans are getting less violent. The best book on the subject is Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which I reviewed in a previous post. As I mentioned in that post I do agree that there has been a short term trend of less violence, and also, a definite decrease in the number of deaths due to war. This dovetails nicely with the MTA’s assertion that humanity’s morality is increasing at the same rate as its technology, and given these trends, there is certainly ample reason to be optimistic. But this is where the Mormon part of the MTA comes into play. While it’s certainly reasonable for Pinker and secular transhumanists to be optimistic about the future, for Mormons and Christians in general, there is the little matter of Armageddon. Or as it’s described in one of my favorite scriptures Doctrine and Covenants Section 87 verse 6:

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

I assume that the MTA has an explanation for this scripture that is different than mine, but I’m having a hard time finding anything specific online. If I had to guess, I imagine they would say that it has already happened. But in any case, they have to have an alternative explanation because if we assume that the situation described above has yet to arrive, then the MTA will have at least two problems. First the trend of decreasing violence and increasing morality will have definitely ended, and second I think it’s safe to assume that if we have to pass through the “full end of all nations”, that what comes out on the other side won’t bear any resemblance to the utopian transhumanist vision of the MTA. Again, I hope they’re right, and I hope I’m wrong, I hope that scripture has somehow already been fulfilled, or that I’m completely misinterpreting it. I hope that humanity is more peaceful than I think, rather than less. But just because I want something to be a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how it’s actually going to play out.

For our second area, let’s take a look at genetic engineering. Just today I was listening to the Radiolab podcast, specifically the most recent episode which was an update to an older episode exploring a technology called CRISPR. If you’re not familiar with it, CRISPR is a cheap and easy technology for editing DNA, and the possibilities for it’s use are nearly endless. The most benign and least controversial application of CRISPR would be using it to eliminate genetic diseases like hemophilia (something they’re already testing in mice.) From this we move on to more questionable uses, like using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos (very similar to the movie Gattaca). Another questionable application would involve using CRISPR to edit some small portion of a species and then, taking advantage of another technique called Gene Drive, use the initially modified individuals to spread the edited genes to the rest of the species. An example of this would be modifying mosquitos so that they no longer carry malaria. But it’s easy to imagine how this might cause unforeseen problems. Also how the technique could be used in the service of other, less savory goals. I’ll allow you a second to imagine some of the nightmare scenarios this technique makes available to future evil geniuses.

CRISPR is exactly the sort of technology the MTA and other transhumanists have been looking forward to. It’s not hard to see how the cheap and easy editing of DNA makes it easier to achieve things like immortality and greater intelligence. But as I already pointed out even positive uses for CRISPR have been controversial. According to the Radiolab podcast the majority of bioethicists are opposed to using CRISPR to add beneficial traits to human embryos. (Which hasn’t stopped China from experimenting with it.)

As far as I understand it the MTA’s position on all of this is that it’s going to be great, that the bioethicists worry to much. This attitude stems from their aforementioned belief that morality and technology are advancing together. Which means that by the time we master a technology we will also have developed the morality to handle it. As it turns out DNA editing is another area of agreement between the MTA and Steven Pinker, who said the following:

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

Given this description perhaps you can see why I hope the MTA, and Pinker are right. I hope that CRISPR and other similar technologies do yield a better life for billions. I hope that humanity is mature enough to deal with the technology, and that it’s just as cool, and as transformative as they predict. That the worries of the bioethicists concerning CRISPR and the warnings of scripture concerning war, turn out to be overblown. That the future really is as awesome as they say it’s going to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true.

But perhaps, like me, you don’t think it is. Or perhaps, you’re just not sure. Or maybe despite my amazing rhetoric and ironclad logic, you still think that the MTA is right, and I’m wrong. The key thing, as always, is that we can’t know. We can’t predict the future, we can’t know for sure who is right and who is wrong. Though to be honest I think the evidence is in my favor, but even so let’s set that aside for the moment and examine the consequences of being wrong from either side.

If I’m wrong, and the MTA is correct, then my suffering will be minimal. Sure the transhumanist overlords will dredge up my old blog posts and use them to make me look foolish. Perhaps I’ll be included in a hall of fame of people who made monumentally bad predictions. But I’ll be too busy living to 150, enjoying a post scarcity society, and playing amazingly realistic video games, to take any notice of their taunting.

On the other hand, if I’m right and the MTA is wrong. Then the sufferings of those who were unprepared could be extreme. Take any of the things mentioned in D&C 87:6 and it’s clear that even a little preparation in advance could make a world of difference. I’m not necessarily advocating that we all drop everything and build fallout shelters, I’m talking about the fundamental asymmetry of the situation. Which is to say that the consequences of being wrong are much worse in one situation than in the other.

The positions of the MTA and the transhumanists and of Pinker are asymmetrical in several ways. First is the way I already mentioned, and is inherent in the nature of extreme negative events, or black swans as we like to call them. If you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once to make all the preparation worth while, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. To use an example from a previous post, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with shelf after shelf of canned goods. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people mock me, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. At that point, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of modernity and progress, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

The second way in which their position is asymmetrical is the number of people who have to be “good”. CRISPR is easy enough and cheap enough and powerful enough that a small group of people could inflict untold damage. The same goes for violence due to war. It’s not enough for the US and Russia to not get into a war. China, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, France, Japan, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Vietnam, the Ukraine, and on and on, all have to behave as well. The point being that even if you are impressed with modern standards of morality (which I’m not by the way) if only 1% of the people decide to be really bad, it doesn’t matter how good the other 99% are.

The final asymmetry is that of time. A large part of the transhumanist vision came about because we’re in a very peaceful time where technology is advancing very quickly. Thus the transhumanists came into being during a brief period where it seems obvious that things are going to continue getting better. But they seem to largely ignore the possibility that in 100 years an enormous number of things might have changed. The US might no longer exist, perhaps democracy itself will be rare, we could hit a technological plateau, and of course we’ll have to go that entire time without any of the black swans I already mentioned. No large scale nuclear wars, no horrible abuses of DNA editing, nor any other extreme negative events which might derail our current rate of progress and our current level of peace.

As my final point, in addition to the two things I hope the MTA is right about I’m going to add one thing which I hope they’re not right about. To introduce the subject I’d like to reference a series of books I just started reading. It’s the Culture Series by Iain M. Banks, named after the civilization at the core of all the books. Wikipedia describes Culture as a utopian, post-scarcity space communist society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences. We find out additionally that its citizens can live to be up to 400. So not immortal, but very long lived. In other words Culture is everything transhumanists hope for. As far as I can tell citizens of the Culture spend their time in either extreme boredom, some manner of an orgy or transitioning from one gender into another and back again. Perhaps this is someone’s idea of heaven, but it’s not mine. In other words if this or something like it is what the MTA has in mind as the fulfillment of all the things promised by the scriptures, then I hope they’re wrong. And I would offer up that they suffer from a failure of imagination.

I hope that resurrection is more than just cloning and cryonics, that transfiguration is more than having my mind uploaded into a World of Warcraft server, that “worlds without number” is more than just a SpaceX colony on Mars. That immortality is more than just the life I already have, but infinitely longer. If you’re thinking at this point that my description of things is a poor caricature of what the MTA really aspires to then you’re almost certainly correct, but I hope that however lofty the dreams of the MTA that those lofty dreams are in turn a poor caricature of what God really has in store for us.

Returning to my original point. I am very favorably disposed to the MTA. I think they have some great ideas, and I’ve very impressed with the way they’ve combined science and religion. Unfortunately, despite all that, we have very different philosophies when it comes to the business of chocolate covered asparagus.

Given that we don’t yet live in a post-scarcity society consider donating. And if you’re pretty sure we eventually will, that’s all the more reason to donate, since money will soon be pointless anyway.


  1. You make too many assumptions. Most Transhumanists, including most Mormon Transhumanists, are not naive fatalistic optimists. Transhumanism is not mere technological cheerleading. It's as much about mitigating risks as it is about directly pursuing opportunities.

  2. ... and your characterization of MTA aspirations is indeed a poor caricature. Yet, even though your wildest imagination must be a poor caricature of the creative acts of superintelligence, learning and growing and creating starts there, as it does for all children. Those who would not play at all, and those who would play in antisocial ways, are the ones to worry most about.

  3. Finally, it's safer to assume MTA is wrong only as it's safer not to get out of bed. But if the safety of immersive Christian discipleship sounds more interesting then we're invited to raise the dead, we're told faith without works is dead and the person who must be commanded in all things is lazy and unwise, and we've good reason to act as if grace privides for opportunity rather than passivity.

    1. Thanks for the link to the Nineveh post. It clarifies for me your views on the various turmoils promised by the last days. And it's an interesting take. Other than the story of Ninevah can you point out any other examples? I'm genuinely, curious, I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I assume this is an area you're more familiar with.

      You mention that we need to worry about people who won't play at all. I'm not sure what it means to "play" vs. 'not-play". But based on your ideology if I behave in the following manner, what the downside?

      -Keep the commandments to the best of my ability.
      -Follow the current LDS Leadership (Monson, Erying, Uchtdorf, Nelson, et. al.)
      -Oppose embryo editing, cryonics, artificial intelligence, cybernetics enhancements, etc. to the extent that I speak out against them, and donate money to organizations that oppose them.

      I feel like with that third point I'm not playing so I should worry. But what should I worry about? What penalties do I incur? Do I get resurrected later? Does Jesus say he never knew me because I thought the risks of DNA editing out weighed it's benefits? Do I die sooner?

      I realize that question sounds a little flippant, but I'm honestly not sure what the risks are in not being on board with the MTA.

    2. Jeremiah,

      So far as I can tell, all of the examples of prophecy in the scriptures are consistent with idea that prophecy is not fortune-telling, but rather forth-telling. The D&C includes a particularly interesting explanation that the prophecy regarding building the temple, which failed, would not be held against the people because they did their best.

      What do you lose by not playing? That's complicated because there are many ways to play and not play, and we're not all required to play in all the same ways to all the same extents. We're all given different gifts to help each other. I (and most other Mormon Transhumanists) do not include salvation or exaltation a strictly individual matter, but rather an essentially communal endeavor. However, if in general we do not make use of the means God provides then, as Captain Moroni put it, any supposition of salvation would be vain. You get the benefits of the LDS Church genealogical database even if you never put any names in it, but you don't get it if none of us ever put any names in it.

    3. The temple example is an interesting one, but fairly limited in scope. Prophecies about tribulations during the last days are basically everywhere. And when I look around my impression is definitely not of people repenting in sackcloth and ashes. But I do understand where you're coming from a lot better.

      It doesn't sound like I'm risking very much in opposing any of the things I've mentioned, nor do I, personally, think the Captain Moroni quote really applies to someone who kept all the commandments but refused to have his kids embryos edited to increase longevity (for example).

      I think the asymmetry remains. I don't appear to lose very much if anything if I'm wrong, whereas if you're wrong then you may have violated some pretty fundamental commandments. From my perspective it's always commandments relating to life that have the biggest penalties, whether it's taking a life through murder, or messing with power to create life by committing adultery. Are you really 100% sure that artificial life extension is not in the same category? That it's in fact exactly the opposite? If it turns out it's even close to the same level of seriousness, than it would stand to reason that you might be dealing with similar consequences.

      I know we're not even close to being on the same page, but are you really sure you understand the worst case scenario if you're wrong? However small that chance is?

    4. We've been engaged in artificial life extension since the dawn of human civilization. And your position also puts you at risk of the condemnations that Jesus directed toward the Pharisees. In any case, my goal here was only to ensure silence wouldn't be interpreted by others as agreement. Thanks for giving these matters your attention, Jeremiah.