Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why My Atheism Extends To Futurology, But Why My Tolerance Might Not

I received a very nice invitation from a Robot Cultist asking if I would like to offer a "technoprogressive critique of Mormon transhumanism" at a conference of the faithful later in the summer. I seriously doubt it would be a particularly enjoyable scene for me, or ultimately of any real use to anybody present, but I also doubt my exact positions are quite the ones I would probably be expected to hold and so I explained them in declining the invitation. I thought it might be worthwhile to rehearse them here, too (the text is adapted):
Thank you for the invitation. I appreciate both its seriousness and its generosity. The truth is I don't think I know enough about the specifically "Mormon" sub-sect of transhumanist faith to really critique it differently than I do common or garden variety transhumanism more generally.

You know, although I am a convinced and cheerful atheist of many many years standing, I must admit I am not a militant about it, at least not so long as "militancy" is meant to indicate the belief of some atheists that everybody should be an atheist like they are. I am perfectly content to affirm, for example, that there are technoscientifically literate people of faith who embrace the secular separation of church and state and who struggle for social justice and who are perfectly lovely, reasonable people. Probably that includes at least some Robot Cultists in their transhumanoid, singularitarian, and techno-immortalist faiths as well, although I wonder if they really can have thought about their position very clearly.

Actually, when I am defending humanistic education or multicultural values against some militantly math-and-science fixated educational warriors or some clash of civilizational warriors, for example, I sometimes find that I am making arguments that have a certain kinship with some of the arguments at least some people of faith also make in defending their moral and cultural values from the more strident champions of scientism or objectivism. I believe that there is more to being reasonable than being scientific, and indeed I believe it is both unreasonable and unscientific to pretend that what makes moral, aesthetic, legal, ethical, and political beliefs reasonable (and most religious beliefs seem to be moral and aesthetic in character to me) is the same thing that makes scientific beliefs reasonable. Indeed, I tend to focus my anti-religious critiques mostly on the claims of the faithful when they would subvert science through the pretense that instrumental and faith claims have the same warrants or status, or when people tie their faiths to authoritarian or exclusionary or abusive politics or moralism (as abundantly many but by no means all people of faith tend to do).

Frankly, my critiques of superlative futurology are much the same: As a lifelong enthusiastic geek and sf fanboy, I enjoy much the same blue-skying and occupy some of the same nerd subcultures that many transhumanists do, but I strongly disapprove what happens when a fandom seeks to promote itself as a kind of policy-making apparatus, a form of scientific research, a legitimate and rigorous philosophical activity, or when its subcultural defensiveness leads it to embrace circuits of True Belief or guru-worship or incipient authoritarianism in an aspirational "movement" formation. But the problem with futurology, and this is even more obvious if not even more true with the superlative varieties of futurology I tend to lampoon as Robot Cultism -- the transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, digital-utopians, and so on -- is that it seems to me the term "futurology" is premised on and always signals precisely these sorts of faithful misconduct. I think the people who might seem like futurologists or futurologically-adjacent but who DON'T try to peddle their interests as fraudulent pop-tech marketing pretending to be real policy-making or legitimate philosophical thought or who DON'T indulge in collective wish-fulfillment fantasizing while pretending to be championing warrantable scientific practices are never futurologists, conventional or superlative: they are just, you know, sf fans, or geeks, or policy wonks.

As for the "technoprogressive" moniker, I still endorse some older pieces of mine in which I use that phrase, but I frankly jettisoned it a while back as introducing more confusion than clarity into discussions. There is too much jargon-coinage and PR-repackaging that is confused with productivity or insight or political work online and especially in futurological precincts online, if you ask me. I am still a technoscientifically literate and technodevelopmentally focused sustainable secular social democrat/democratic socialist-feminist (which is what that term always was a shorthand convenience for, in my use of it), but I think this term "technoprogressive" now lends itself to misconstrual as some kind of would-be "identity"-signal or "movement"-logo which I personally disapprove. As a programmatic designation, a "techno" fixated progressivism will tend (and has tended) too easily to reductive technological determinism, to insensitivity to the diversity and contingency of actually always fraught technodevelopmental stakeholder struggle, and to techno-fetishisms that ally too readily with extractive-industrialism and corporate-militarism, especially for Americans in our bubble of mass-mediated-and-armed-to-the-teeth-consumer-petrochemical spectacle.

So, I think I'll decline the invitation but thank you for offering me a chance to speak at your conference. I doubt it's really my kind of thing.


jimf said...

> I received a[n]. . . invitation. . . to offer a "technoprogressive critique
> of Mormon transhumanism". . . I seriously doubt it would be a particularly
> enjoyable scene for me, or ultimately of any real use to anybody present. . .

Yeah, that's a real double whammy. At least with (conventionally atheistic)
transhumansts, there is **ostensibly** a common ground of
epistemology (the scientific method, "warranted belief" as you put it).

With Mormons, you've got an entirely different basis for epistemology
(the "warmth in the bosom" that's supposed to indicate an affirmation
of truth coming from the Holy Ghost). Also, I **suspect** that many Mormons
also attracted to transhumanism are probably cross-referencing the
"odd" items of their own doctrine -- godhood in the afterlife, the
existence of other worlds, etc. -- with some of the SFnal elements
of transhumanism.

How a non-Mormon, atheist, socially liberal (homosexual!), skeptic of
transhumanism could establish **any** kind of common ground with such
an audience is beyond my ability to imagine. I'd think you'd be quite
likely to get the same reaction that Dan Savage got at his recent
"Journalism on the Edge" lecture.

BTW, I've been reading Park B. Romney's _The Apostasy of a High Priest:
The Sociology of An American Cult_

Carl Youngblood said...

jimf, plenty of Mormons do not fit into the stereotypes you've listed here. Especially Mormon transhumanists, who are striving for more rational bases for their faith in eventual human exaltation through the charitable use of science and technology.

Dale Carrico said...

Sounds like somebody's angling for an extra planet from the Robot God...

jimf said...

Carl Youngblood wrote:

> [P]lenty of Mormons do not fit into the stereotypes. . .

Well, I am not a Mormon. I watch ex-Mormon videos on YouTube, read the blogs
of both Mormons and ex-Mormons (in all the above instances, these are
mostly gay folks who have struggled to reconcile their homosexuality
with the LDS church's views on the subject). I've also read books by
people like Lyndon Lamborn and Park Romney.

But from what I understand, if you want to remain a Mormon in good
standing, you'd bloody well **better** fit the "stereotypes". Failure
to do so will result in a revocation of your temple recommend (at
the very least), then, if you don't mend your ways,
revocation of your callings and priesthood
authority, right through to excommunication. After which, you're
an apostate, and if your former friends and family members (the ones still
in good standing) persist in hanging out with you, **they** will be subject
to church discipline.

> . . .who are striving for more rational bases for their faith. . .

That in itself verges on heresy.

I remember that before I knew anything at all about Mormons, there
was something in _Time_ magazine about somebody named Boyd K. Packer
who made an infamous remark that the three greatest threats to the LDS
church were homosexuals, feminists and intellectuals:
"The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the
feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the
ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals."
(Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council, May 18, 1993).

And as far as "rational bases" are concerned, here's what
Park Romney has to say about that (_The Apostasy of a High Priest_,
Chapter 3, "The Validation of Truth"):

"The epistemology advocated in the _Book of Mormon_ is an appeal
to a circular form of self-convincing, beginning with and dependent
on an unleashed desire for the outcome of conviction. . .
This remarkable speech is found in the teachings attributed to
a prophet named Alma, as follows:

'But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to
an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith,
yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this
desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye
can give place for a portion of my words. . .

And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted
the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow,
ye must needs know that the seed is good. . .'
(_Book of Mormon_, "The Book of Alma", 1981 edition pp. 289-290).

In effect, Alma advocates that a conviction of the truth of his
words can be achieved by fixating on a desire to believe his words
are true until this desire fills the heart with a swelling
feeling, deemed to be a confirmation of his words. I'm sure
Alma is correct. A conviction of just about anything can
certainly be achieved in such a manner. I am personally convinced
that this is the same basic epistemology that gave rise to the
misplaced conviction of some nine hundred souls who followed
the late Jim Jones to Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, where they
ultimately committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape
Flavor Aid. The key to this handy system of epistemology is
to convince the follower to abandon the intellectual processes
of reasoned evaluation as an essential part of the appropriate
validation of truth, and to encourage the synaptic firings
of feeling-based memory traces associated with the anticipation
of something good that is desired. It's an emotional-based
sales job. Every marketing executive in America knows the
game and makes his living by the skill with which he employs it."