Who is my neighbour?

Today’s departmental research seminar on loosely on the future of political theology, and more specifically on reapplying Augustinian thinking to what the visitor saw as the present world situation. I always find such seminars an unsual experience, because the presuppositions everyone else there is working on are ultimately feel so alien. Indeed as I have come to realise since my first year as an undergrad, the things I know through the restored Gospel come with some very different presuppositions than modern western culture or general Christendom, and lead to a very different place. I sometimes feel it very difficult to interact with arguments built on very different foundations.

However, there were some specific claims made in today’s seminar that caused some quick reflection. I certainly question the optimistic depiction of the present world situation, as I do Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. While it’s true that the material situation of much of the world has improved over the last century, I believe there’s a big “if” around “if present trends continue”. I also severely doubt claims that human beings have become less violent over the last five centuries – I wonder how such claims are assessed, and the history of the twentieth century should be a sober reminder of what human beings are capable of.

However, I think there are even bigger question about the claim that there has been some kind of “moral revolution”; that modern people (presumably meaning the West, but there was no discussion about location) being more concerned with universal moral problems worldwide, such as poverty, disaster relief and so on. This appeared to be little disputed by some of the academic staff present, with the idea that concern for (generally perceived in terms of donating to charities) people far away may have an affect on nearby relations too.

I doubt all this. For one thing, I look around me, in the many different places I’ve been, and while I’ve met some genuinely good people (and I don’t include myself in that number!), I see little evidence that people generally are more moral now than before. Yet aside from this, it’s particularly this claim to universal moral concern I find dubious. Are people more moral because they’re concerned about people they do not know or cannot see? Possibly, though I feel it is impossible to really love someone without coming to know them, and more importantly I see little evidence this is reflected in better treatment of the people we do see, in the way we treat our families, our neighbours, those people who need service and are right before our eyes. Does giving money to a charity to people whose identities – because we do not know them – are little more than a fictional construction in our head compensate for lack of service, apathy or even hatred of those people we interact with every day? To draw upon John, if we do not love not our brother who we can see, how can we love our brother whom we have not seen?

Charity, meaning the pure love of Christ, is not a strength of mine, and its one I’m working on. I also don’t think that concern for the general welfare of humanity is a bad thing. Yet it strikes me as a very effective deflection if such a generalised concern for people as an abstract distracts us from actually developing charity for the very real individuals in front of us.

The real posthumanism

So I’ve recently been thinking about posthumanism, and particularly transhumanism – that is the idea that the human condition can be surpassed, and particularly avoided by technological means. In transhumanism this usually runs along lines of predicting a technological singularity, involving the creation of advanced AIs who will then lead to a cascade of technologies that, among other things, abolish death. It’s pretty clear to me that this is, in a sense, religion for atheist technophiles, the aptly named “rapture of the nerds”, complete with messiah and forthcoming new age that will bring life for believers. The existence of a so-called “Mormon transhumanist society” doesn’t really falsify that, since it turns out that tends to go along with rejecting essential LDS ideas about the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ (as opposed to technology) bringing resurrection to all mankind, let alone ideas about God.

Now there’s lots that could be discussed about these ideas. On one level, they could be potentially scary – people wanting to create super-intelligent AIs and turn themselves into machines does sound a little like something out of a technological dystopia, particularly with the somewhat naive hope that said new AIs would rain gifts rather than nuclear weapons down upon humanity (has Terminator taught us nothing? More to the point, wouldn’t Terminator give the AI ideas?) That is, it would be scary if I considered it all that possible at all. I don’t – progress is not inevitable, technological progress is not inevitably exponential (indeed in lots of fields it has slowed down), I severely doubt strong AIs are possible, and I don’t believe uploading someone’s memories, even if possible, entails immortality (if possible at all, it’d just be creating a AI with a copy of your memories, particularly evident if you leave the original alive…)

That said, I can understand some positive reasons as to why the idea would be attractive. The human condition comes with a lot of frailties. Death seems to be the one mentioned most in transhumanist circles, but there’s also sickness generally. I can definitely understand that one – I’m not dying, but I’ve certainly felt pretty grotty the last few days, and sure wish I could surpass that limitation. Then there’s the various weaknesses we have, the limitations on our abilities, on our minds and our bodies. When put in those terms, the desire to exceed the limits imposed by our present existence can be understandable.

Yet, as I have realised the last couple of weeks, it is the restored gospel that has this, and indeed the only real way to do this. We understand from revelation that we lived prior to our earthly existence, prior to assuming our earthly, mortal existence (D&C 93:29, Moses 3:5, Abraham 3:22-26). Our life as a human being is to help prepare us for eternity (Alma 34:33). Our personalities will in some fashion persist (Alma 34:34), as will our social relations (D&C 130:2). But much of what is the human condition is temporary. Rather, if we are faithful we can progress, receive all that the Father has (D&C 84:38), “receive of his fulness” (D&C 93:19) and become “gods”, “from everlasting to everlasting”, and having “all power” (D&C 132:20).

Our mortal existence then is somewhat like that of a caterpillar – limited, but a stage of existence through which we have to progress, and which through the gospel we may transcend completely. This is the only real hope for a genuine transcending of the human condition. In comparison, transhumanism offers to augment the caterpillar. It has no real power to turn the caterpillar into a butterfly.