With an intellectually organic birth rooted in fusing faith, science and technology, the Mormon Transhumanist Association has grown mightily — and it’s undergoing big-tent changes as its annual conference takes place
“If you’re a Mormon, you should be a transhumanist.”
So wrote Lincoln Cannon first in a blog post, “Mormonism mandates transhumanism.” He proceeded to offer Mormon scripture for his assumptions that “God wants us to use ordained means to participate in God’s work,” “science and technology are among the means ordained of God,” “God’s work is to help each other attain godhood,” and “an essential attribute of godhood is a glorified immortal body.”
Therefore, God wants humankind to use science and technology to attain godhood and a glorified, immortal body, Cannon wrote.
“The conclusion… is at once a religious mandate,” he remarked, “and a description of the transhumanist project.”
Related is the eight-statement Transhumanist Declaration. Cannon co-founded the Mormon Transhumanist Association and it has a six-statement Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation. If folks support them (even “broadly,” Cannon said), they can be a part of the MTA, whether they be Mormon or non-Mormon, practicing or not.
And anyone is invited to attend the 2017 Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. It starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, Utah. Speakers will present until 6:30 p.m., with dinner following. Tickets can be purchased for between $20 and $40 online or at the event.
The purpose of the MTA is to advocate both creeds and “that advocacy is the ethical use of technically and religion to extend human abilities,” Cannon said.
Cannon also told the author that he and others sought an expression of their belief of a seriousness in the “works” part of the faith-and-works relationship with Mormonism and their trust in the “visions” that their religion offers.
“That was the common idea among the (MTA) founders,” Cannon said.
Then he added: “We hadn’t heard about transhumanism when we set out to make this organization.”
But while Cannon, MTA Chief Operating Officer Carl Youngblood and other Aug. 2006 originators of the nonprofit were “doing the research and trying to determine the specifics of the organization to create,” Cannon explained, “we came across transhumanism.”
Its philosophies struck them immediately to the point that they didn’t find any reason to “re-invent the wheel” in terms of creating an organization entirely different from the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+), whose creation saw the Transhumanist Declaration come with it. In Oct. 2010, the MTA renewed its affiliation with the WTA after the WTA board voted to accept the MTA.
“That led us to (realize) that we had always been transhumanists — or had been for a long time,” Cannon noted.
Lincoln Cannon is the co-founder of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. With more than 600 members, the MTA is the largest organization in the world for “the ethical use of technology and religion to extend human abilities,” Cannon said. Its annual conference starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo. (Lincoln Cannon)
Today, with more than 600 members, the MTA is the largest organization in the world for “the ethical use of technology and religion to extend human abilities.” It is also the largest religiously-affiliated transhumanist organization, Cannon said. Jon Bialecki, a University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science fellow, is studying the group.
Before what will be a half-dozen consecutive annual MTA conferences, the organization participated in the 2010 Transhumanism and Spirituality and 2009 Mormonism and Engineering conferences. Richard Bushman, author of the relatively well-known biography “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” was one of two keynote speakers for the second of the MTA-branded conferences. This year’s theme is “Evolving Gods” and its top-featured speakers are Steven Peck and Robin Hanson. (Each conference sees two keynoters, one’s address oriented around religion and the other’s, transhumanism.)
Peck is a biology professor at Brigham Young University who boasts more than 40 scientific articles in major publications. His research in theoretical and insect populations have been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences and the United Nations for helping in combating insect-borne illness.
Hanson is an economics professor at George Mason University and researcher at Oxford University. He has pioneered prediction markets for 29 years, was a principal architect of many markets and developed new technologies for trading. His book, “The Age of Em,” is about what Earth will be like when ruled by robots that are brain simulations, or ‘ems.’
Other speakers include George Handley, a BYU humanities associate dean; Michelle Glauser, founder of a tuition-free technology training and job placement program; and Ben Blair, creator of a platform to de-institutionalize education.
Christopher Bradford, MTA president, expects a highlight for him to be the keynoters.
“Steven Peck is a really great thinker and author and I’ve recently been reading Robin Hanson’s book,” he said.
Youngblood anticipates the Mormon transhumanist barber quartet performing again, an idea made reality in conferences after it was merely joked about a few years ago.
In November, Blaire Ostler was appointed CEO of the MTA. She is looking forward to furthering initiatives at the conference that include “more constructive” monthly meetups, a curriculum and a semi-annual family social.
The northern Utah meetups have been held monthly and entailed philosophical discussions.
The curriculum is being developed to be “easily-digestible small lessons or discussions” and “are going to coincide with our local meetup groups,” Ostler said.
“I’m trying to make Mormon transhumanism more accessible,” she remarked, “and palatable to people who don’t have a degree in philosophy or consider themselves technophiles or have a degree in computer science.”
Ostler also is developing the material to be presented in “gender- and “race-neutral” perspectives.
“A lot of times, religious messages get through a stereotypical lens — maybe the white male-default lens,” she said. “Like brotherhood… and Heavenly Father, not Heavenly Parents.”
The social is planned for the fall, she added.
“I’m particularly excited about this conference because we will shake things up,” Ostler said. “Sometimes Mormon transhumanism and transhumanism in general is big and abstract, but it can have a sense of community — we personalize it.”
It’s a next step after the initial one was reaching out to Mormons generally. The MTA first did that when it presented at Sunstone and then was the cover story for the symposium’s March 2007 magazine issue (that and another placement, in The New Yorker in April of last year, were all-time MTA highlights for Youngblood). Then the nonprofit presented for other organizations that were related to technology, including Second Life.
In the beginning
Cannon and Youngblood first met after elders quorum, a men’s organization that meets on Sundays as part of LDS church attendance. Youngblood met Bryan Johnson, who knew Cannon from a previous Mormon congregation and later introduced Youngblood to Cannon. (After selling a successful company, Johnson created an investment fund for the purpose of doing transhumanist-related research.) WTA board members when the organization accepted the MTA, who became friends with Cannon, included Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher and leading formulator of the simulation argument; James Hughes, a Trinity College bioethics professor and Buddhist; Michael LaTorra, an advocate of Buddhist transhumanism; and Giulio Prisco, an Italian information technology virtual reality consultant who “came out” as a believer in Catholicism, the faith of his youth, while keynoting the 2012 MTA conference, Cannon said.
Prisco was not the only person who it appears identified positivity with their spiritual heritage due to transhumanist associations with Cannon.
“Lincoln could explore things in a way I felt safe about with my Mormon faith,” said Youngblood, whose great-great-grandfather painted Salt Lake Temple murals after studying Impressionism in Paris after Brigham Young’s approval. “A lot of us were involved in technology-related things… we discovered a movement called transhumanism, which, in a lot of ways, is sort of a techno-utopia… and a paradise on Earth. … And Mormonism, being a restorationist movement and fairly recent, has many of the millenarian visions intact. (Transhumanism) was a little more close to us in (our) thinking about Zion and the renewal of the Earth and living to the age of a tree and lots of ideas (about) the Millennium.
“That got us thinking,” Youngblood continued, “that maybe (scientific and technological) improvements not seen by our religion are things that are a cooperative effort… between humanity and God. And maybe some of these (Mormon) things aren’t going to happen without us doing anything. And… we realized the Mormon conception of salvation itself — family history research to redeem the dead, ‘saviors on Mount Zion’ and theology being work and effort — it’s sort of a cooperation with God and angels.”
At that point, it was a matter of formally organizing, with nonprofit registration with the Internal Revenue Service, elected officers and a board of directors.
Youngblood, who came to the interview between 8 and 9 p.m. directly from having delivered conference fliers on BYU’s campus, also called the MTA a “really strong support group.”
“One of the most significant of my life — a core group,” he added. “It’s more of a safe place… to explore and challenge things, but it’s ecumenical in a way that is bridge-building and doesn’t create animosity between different groups.”
The (MTA’s) future is female
“To further (the MTA’s) pursuit of demographics,” Ostler was selected as CEO, Cannon said.
“We tried to convince a black, Jewish female (to be CEO) and had to settle on a white but at least got a woman,” he joked.
Ostler, who is also bisexual, was apprehensive three years ago to join the MTA because “it was dominated by white males,” she said. But she was invited to blog for the organization, and then to join the board, and then to be the CEO.
“This shows me that while there might be blind spots, it shows me a sincere and earnest desire… for diverse perspectives and diverse interpretations,” she said.
A main goal of Ostler’s is to “find ways to diversify (the MTA’s) demographic.”
“Everyone needs to know that Mormon transhumanism is definitely for them,” she said. “That’s what drew me because that’s the type of Mormonism I want.”
Sixty-two percent of MTA members said they were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and 59 percent identified as theists. On social policy, 53 percent identified as progressive, 20 percent as conservative and 18 percent as moderate. On economic policy, 32 percent identified as moderate, 32 percent as progressive and 29 percent as conservative, according to a 2014 survey.
Cannon acknowledged that his Mormon-mandates-transhumanism opinion is controversial; the final part of a five-part series on the Rational Faiths blog, written by Bradford, responded to criticisms of the philosophy. He responded to questions such as “Is the idea of Christ as community compatible with the idea of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” (answer: “Of course. Just ask Paul — or Jesus”) and “What is the role of Jesus in Mormon Transhumanism? (Answer: “Jesus is the great example of what it means to be a son or daughter of God, who has walked, pointed out, and opened the way for us to become like God.”)
A repeated criticism is a comparison of the MTA’s efforts with those in the biblical account of building their Tower of Babel in an effort to get to heaven. Wrote Cannon: “Today, as in the mythical days of Babel, we find ourselves at risk. Accelerating technological change has increased our destructive capacity faster than our defensive capacity. And yet, though our vices are many, our survival and progress so far are testimony to the extent of our virtues. We have proven ourselves at least benevolent enough to have attained an extent of heaven, however primitive, within the context of means provided by the grace of God. Have we reached our limits? Will we soon succumb to hubris? That depends in part on how we manage to proceed from here.
“Ethical progress is not Babel.”
Cannon noted that the word “Babel” appears in the Bible just twice and that The Book of Mormon references the tower in four chapters, “without much additional insight into the moral of the story.”
MTA leaders also pointed the author to technology God uses for his purposes in scripture. Among other devices, Cannon mentioned Noah’s ark and Ostler brought up The Book of Mormon’s Liahona. Cannon also noted that Jesus said to “raise the dead.”
“Do we take him seriously?” he asked. “I don’t know how to raise the dead, but I’ve got medicine and maybe we can approach it that way.”
Cannon also referenced quotes from church prophets Joseph Smith and John Taylor. Smith, after marveling at skyscrapers in New York City, wrote: “seeking these works are calculated to make men comfortable wise and happy, therefore, not for the works can the Lord be displeased; only against man is the anger of the Lord kindled because they give him not the glory.” Taylor wrote: “if we have any knowledge of electricity, we thank God for it. If we have any knowledge of the power of steam, we will say it’s from God. If we possess any other scientific information about the earth whereon we stand, or of the elements with which we are surrounded, we will thank God for the information, and say he has inspired men from time to time to understand them, and we will go on and grasp more intelligence, light and information, until we comprehend as we are comprehended of God.”
The LDS church has been asked but not made a statement about the MTA. And no MTA member is known to have yet been disciplined by the church for their transhumanist beliefs, Cannon said.