Saturday, October 18, 2008

Transhumanist spirituality, again



I have been accused, for example by Wesley J. Smith, of interpreting transhumanism like a religion. While I am only proud of being flamed by anti-progress luddites, I have been displeased by seeing Smith's flames echoed by persons closer to the transhumanist community. I wish to repeat here that, if religion is defined as "seeking to find transcendence and truth, meaning and purpose", then I am ready and willing to accept the label "religious". I want to find meaning and transcendence through scientific means and, if I don't find it, I want to build it. My scientific worldview and my belief in our potential for boundless expansion make me appreciate the plausibility of, for example, omega-point-like scenarios where science and spacetime engineering permit to resurrect the dead. This is very hard to swallow for many transhumanists. Perhaps the communication problem lies in using the world “religion” which has a very negative connotation for some. Maybe “spirituality” would work better. Of course, these ideas generate even stronger debates in conventional religious circles.

I am a full member of the Society for Universal Immortalism and one of the founding members of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, a new group of radical, hardcore transhumanists, also open to spiritual sensibilities, who propose a UNreligion of science with a cosmic engineering plan for tomorrow's scientists and engineers as well as a memetic engineering plan for today's world: let's offer everyone a beautiful cosmic vision of wonder, hope and happiness, firmly based on science and transhumanism.

I am also a full member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. This may seem a strange place to be for someone who does not believe in any "traditional" God, lives in Europe, has never been in Utah and probably has never met a Mormon face to face, and whose mental image of Mormons, derived from movies, is one of overly serious and zealous people in white shirts, black ties and stiff dresses. To make it even stranger I will disclose that the basic beliefs of Mormons The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), outlined for example here, do not make more sense to me than the articles of faith of other Christian denominations and religions.

But the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation makes a lot of sense to me:
(1) We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.
(2) We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.
(3) We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.

And readers of my blog will know that I am very fond of the spiritual and cosmic visions of Lincoln Cannon and other people in the MTA. Mormon Transhumanists represent the best synthesis of transhumanism and spirituality that I have found. They are also very nice persons who care for each other and for other people on our planet, and the MTA website is by far the best transhumanist community site in terms of both IT implementation and content.

On March 30 Lincoln gave a presentation in Second Life, and explained that Mormonism is more compatible with transhumanism than other Christian denominations and religions because the LDS doctrine is open to the idea of a God evolving in and with the universe and achieving Godhead by means of a technology enabled evolutionary process. Of course not all Mormon would agree (see this interesting discussion). I was quite pleased with Lincoln’s answer to one of my questions, about the possibility that some future civilization may find a way, by extracting all relevant information from the past, to resurrect us by “copying us to the future”. Lincoln answered that this technological resurrection option is an element of his faith, and also mentioned alternative scenarios based on Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory: perhaps those who are running us as simulations may choose to continue running us after our physical death. This answer is in this video clip.

More recently, the MTA has presented The New God Argument at Sunstone 2008: we should "trust that an advanced civilization more benevolent than us probably created our world”. Not supernatural creation, but engineering work: the authors make many references to the fact that, as we advance toward the capability to create synthetic worlds populated by sentient beings, more and more thinkers are beginning to seriously consider the possibility that we, ourselves, may be sentient beings in a reality computationally created by a higher level of reality (see more comments here). And in a few months there will be an interesting conference on Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision: "An assumption can be made that, according to LDS understanding, God is the architect of the Creation and the engineer of our bodies and spirits. Man, on the other hand, is believed to be capable of growing to become like God. The theological question is: where does engineering fit in the convergence of these two realms?". The list of topics looks like the program of a radical transhumanist conference.

I have been flamed (see above) for writing "I want our ideas to reach as many people as possible, in a clear and understandable way. Why? Because our worldview can give a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness. This has been the historic function of the world’s great religions, which are now finally beginning to show some fatigue and soon will be completely unable to persuade people more and more culturally sophisticated and used to the scientific worldview... I am very interested in the current experimental activities to create “transhumanist religions”, based on science, but still able to offer hope in “another life” even for those who are already dead. Some information on these experiments, links and my own toughts can be found in my article Engineering Transcendence". This is why I am so interested in the MTA's very ambitious project to present transhumanism as a natural consequence of the basic tenets of an established religion and our wildest dreams, transcending biology, eliminating death and achieving Godhead, as part of God's plan for humankind. I am persuaded that "infecting" established religion with our beautiful and powerful transhumanist memes can only result in a better world and more happiness for more people.

The MTA is a good start, but we should not stop there. The LDS doctrine seems to offer a somewhat easier entry point for transhumanist memes, but what about other Christian denomination and major religions like Islam? I am persuaded that the transhumanist message can be presented in such a way as to be acceptable, while remaining true to its essence, for most religious persons.

And we see more and more people abandoning traditional religions and embarking on their own personal quest for meaning, often joining one or another New Age cult. They leave the beaten path and wander through energy pyramids, crystals, gurus, alternative medicine, meditation, karma, ESP, reincarnation... often falling prey of greedy sharks in the (big) business of spirituality who smoothly steal their money by telling them what they want to hear. Transhumanists are used to making fun of New Agers as naive and gullible people. But I think their honest search for transcendence and purpose is something good and I am sure that, if they were equipped with sharper intellectual tools, they would search meaning in the beautiful cosmic visions of transhumanist thinkers like Moravec, Kurzweil, More, Bainbridge and Gardner. They would not find dogmas and certainties, but reasons for hope. I think the New Age galaxy could represent a very fertile new ground for transhumanist outreach.