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Lincoln Cannon on Singularity 1 on 1: Reach Out To Religious Transhumanists

Lincoln Cannon is one of those people who break the mold. He is not only a software engineer with degrees in philosophy and business but also the president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. So if, like me, you thought that Mormon Transhumanism is an oxymoron, you should put your presumptions away and give Lincoln the chance to explain why this is not the case. Then you can judge for yourself.

During our conversation with Cannon we cover a wide variety of topics such as: the history and purpose behind the Mormon Transhumanist Association; the story of how Lincoln discovered the technological singularity and transhumanism; what is Mormonism and how it is compatible with both of the above; the relationship between Mormonism, science and technology; the historicity of the Book of Mormon; being feminist, intellectual or gay and how that relates to being Mormon and/or transhumanist…

As always you can listen to or download the audio file above, or scroll down and watch the video interview in full.

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Who is Lincoln Cannon?

Lincoln Cannon is a philosopher and programmer, promoting change toward radical flourishing in creativity and compassion through technology and religion. He has over fifteen years of professional experience as a software engineer, Internet marketer, information technologist, and leader of technical teams in development and integration of web, mobile and management information systems. Lincoln holds degrees in business administration and philosophy. He is married with Dorothée Vankrieckenge, a French national, and is father to three bilingual children. In his spare time, Lincoln serves as president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association.

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  • CM Stewart

    Quite an interesting interview, thanks, Mr. Cannon and Nikola. I always find interviews of highly religious people both fascinating and perplexing, and this one was no exception.

    “Wow, there are secular people who think very much like I do, *and they’re not even religious people.* ” That quote speaks volumes.

    What is good and beautiful and true about humanity, etc . . “I call those sorts of aesthetics ‘religion.’ ” That’s a surprising definition of “religion.” “There is something . . in practice quite religious about singularitarianism and transhumanism.” Another puzzling quote, but I think my brain isn’t wired to to understand religion, regardless of of how much I’ve researched it for my fiction novels.

    I would’ve liked to hear specifically why Cannon is Mormon, and his thoughts on Joseph Smith and his invisible golden tablets. I thought the Smith story was the premise of Mormonism. Perhaps in a future interview he will explain how he is able (or not able) to compartmentalize the Smith story within the context of intellectual rationalism.

    I was disappointed to hear Cannon say there is an integrity to admire in the bigotry of homophobic Mormons. Again, I would’ve liked to hear how he compartmentalizes the historical gay-bashing of the Mormon church with his own Mormonism. Simply saying his religious views differ from traditional Mormonism is skirting the issue, in my opinion. I know time was an issue.

    Fav quote: “Salt Lake City is the gayest city in America.” That’s a great idea for a tee-shirt slogan. Profits from the sale of these shirts could support pro-gay organizations (“Mormon” or otherwise). Feel free to run with this idea, Mr. Cannon. :)

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net/ Lincoln Cannon

    Hi CM Stewart. Thanks for your feedback. Here are some thoughts.

    I’m interested to know more about how you interpreted my expression of wonder about “secular people who think very much like I do”. In my experience up to the point of encountering Transhumanists, no secular person had shared with me an expression of trust in posthumanity, which is basically faith in God, so far as I’m concerned. Of course, most theists don’t see it that way, but most Mormons do, implicitly — “implicilty” because most Mormons haven’t encountered secular expressions of ideas that correspond well with our understanding of God as a being that evolved into Godhood.

    You mention feeling puzzled by my use of “religion”. Please let me know if the elaboration at the following link helps: http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2012/06/post-secularism-and-resurrecting-god.html

    Why am I a Mormon? I hope to talk with Nikola more about this in a follow-up discussion. For now, though, here are a few thoughts. First, I was born to and raised by Mormon parents, which has of course deeply influenced my world view. Second, through the highs and lows of life, Mormonism has perpetually inspired me in one way or another — even when I was agnostic regarding any transcendent God. Third, while there are aspects of Mormonism that I disagree with or do not understand weel, on the whole it makes more sense to me than any alternative with which I’m acquainted.

    What about Joseph Smith? I consider Joseph a prophet, not an any infallible sense, and not even necessarily in any foretelling sense. Rather, I consider him a prophet in the esthetic sense, as a visionary and forthteller (notice the “th” rather than “e”). Despite his many flaws (many of which he admitted himself), he has inspired me deeply. I don’t think of this in terms of compartmentalization. I look at prophets, generally (Joseph and otherwise), as persons who manage to sense and articulate an esthetic that provokes a community to a strenuous mood. I look at prophets as applied artists — like sociological engineers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all prophets are equal or that all prophets are good. We should assess them based on all the other criteria available to us.

    Regarding Mormonism’s history of sexism, racism and homophobia, I look at it quite the same way I look at my own ancestors’ history with the same problems. None is simply sexist, racist or homophobic. Each is more complex. I can recognize their flaws, I can point out and seek to persuade them away from their flaws, and I can even disagree and stand in the way of their flaws, all while celebrating what I recognize of good in them. At a certain point, of course, some us exhibit extremes of behavior that require more extreme responses. Many think Mormons or Mormonism have reached that point at various times and in various ways. In some specifics, I agree with them. On the whole, however, I disagree. That probably reflects our differing experiences with and knowledge about Mormonism, as well as different weights associated with various values.

    To clarify regarding one of your comments, I do not admire bigotry — not at all. I do admire integrity. Unfortunately, some of us have values that require us to be bigoted in order to maintain our integrity. Those of us who recognize problematic values should respond not by condemning the integrity, but rather but condemning the values. We don’t make others enduringly better persons by condoning acts against conscience or self deceit (although restraint, even compelled restraint, is merited at the extremes). We make others better by encouraging better values, expressed authentically.

    What do you think?

  • CM Stewart

    Hello again Mr. Cannon, thank you for replying to my comments.

    “how you interpreted my expression of wonder about ‘secular people who think
    very much like I do’ ” – I will try to condense volumes of thought into a couple sentences for the sake of brevity. My interpretation is twofold. First, an assumption of yet another example of an expected cultural and social divide between a highly religious demographic and a secular demographic. Second, an example of an unexpected commonality between a highly religious demographic and secular demographic.

    “no secular person had shared with me an expression of trust in posthumanity, which is basically faith in God” Perhaps this is in part because many secular people do not believe gods actually exist. For example, your definition of posthumanity is quite different from my own definition, which is, “the collection of sentient entities radically derived, augmented, or extracted from humans, which identify humans as an evolutionary step in their own existences.”

    Thanks for the link to your definition of “god.” Again, your definition is quite different from my own, which is “a supernatural, sentient entity which has created and / or controls all or part(s) of the universe.” I also point out that I don’t believe gods actually exist the same way I don’t believe leprechauns actually exist, for example. The esthetic awe I feel when contemplating the universe, etc, I attribute to an evolutionary adaptation, similar – but not identical – to the evolutionary adaptation of attributing unexplained phenomena to gods. The difference between “feeling awe” and “belief in the existence of gods” is the difference between emotion and attribution.

    “I was born to and raised by Mormon parents” If you could indulge a couple more questions – Do you believe that today you would be, for example, a Jew, or a Catholic, or a Muslim if you had been born to and raised by Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim parents? Do you believe that today you would be more inspired by the prophet Mohammed than by the prophet Joseph Smith had you been born to and raised by Muslim parents?

    Glad to read you personally do not admire bigotry. I do, however, know the Mormon church, as a whole, still admires, teaches, and funds bigotry. “some of us have values that require us to be bigoted in order to maintain our integrity” This is where I would absolutely stop admiring this specific instance of “integrity,” as it harms more than it helps. I also do not admire the pedophillic “integrity” of the Catholic Church and the hate-spewing “integrity” of the Westboro Baptist Church.

    Again, thank you for your time and consideration.

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net/ Lincoln Cannon

    Hi CM Stewart.

    You mentioned that our definitions of “posthumanity” are different. I’m actually fine with your definition, and I’d use “God” to describe the subset of posthumanity (as defined by you) that is both radically creative and radically compassionate. I imagine that you do not indiscriminately favor all posthuman possibilities, but rather that you discriminately favor that which we could loosely describe, as I have, to be both radically creative and radically compassionate. I also imagine that you would agree with me that there are practical and moral reasons to trust in our ability to increase the probability of realizing relatively better posthuman possibilities. If I’m right, I would consider that trust in posthumanity, or faith in God. I wouldn’t insist that you describe your views in those terms, but I would insist that I and others like me are authentic when we do.

    You also mentioned that our definitions of “God” are different. That’s usually the case when I speak with others about God, but my definition of “God” is also usually inclusive of others’ definitions. For example, you understand God to be supernatural. Strictly speaking, I understand God to be quite natural (frankly, I can’t even imagine what supernatural is supposed to mean without engaging in all kinds of nonsensical mental gymnastics), but I also recognize an approximation of my faith in a natural God to be represented in others’ faith in what they label as a “supernatural” God, as I recognize an approximation of my faith in God to be represented in Transhumanists’ trust in posthumanity. As mentioned in the blog post to which I linked, God always has been and is at least a posthuman projection, conceived in human categories, extending and negating human virtues and vices. Some atheists suggest most theists are atheists toward all but one God. While that may be true in many cases, it’s certainly not true in my case. I’m atheist toward no God. Each God exists at least as a posthuman projection, and often these projections are immensely powerful. To take another example, perhaps more like your leprechaun example, I think of Santa Claus in the same way. Santa Claus is at least an influential, although perhaps less radically posthuman, projection. Yet we can, and do, take it a step further. Each Christmas I realize Santa Claus in myself, and I tell my children quite directly that I’m Santa Claus (and that others are too). So far as I’m concerned, Santa Claus becomes concrete in us, and the same can be said of leprechauns and Gods. Certain kinds of Gods, however, are a special case in comparison to leprechauns and Santa Claus (and other kinds of Gods). Those Gods that are creators of more creators, if realized, imply something about the past of their realizers. To see what I mean, check out the New God Argument: http://www.new-god-argument.com

    Like you, I attribute my sense of esthetics to evolution of anatomy within environment, influenced to some extent or another by community. I don’t think we should stop there, though. Evolution is not random. It is shaped by its environment, predictable to the extent the environment is knowably, and controllable to the extent the environment is creatable. Evolution fills the contours of its environment, apparently without any predictable increases or decreases in complexity within the middle of the spectrum, but apparently with predictable increases in complexity at the top of the spectrum. We emote. Perhaps no creator anticipated our emotions. On the other hand, to the extent a creator planned our environment, that creator also anticipated our emotions. I hope and trust that we live in a God-shaped universe, an opportunity to achieve a radically flourishing posthuman potential, wherein we attain the capacity to create compassionately as the Gods we’ve projected. If we do, we would almost certainly not be the first or only to do so, as outlined in the New God Argument.

    You asked whether I might still be Jew, or Catholic or Muslim, had I been born to corresponding parents. Of course, I don’t know. I can say that I had been working my way out of faith in God, as understood in Mormon terms, for many years prior to encountering Transhumanism, which ended up reinforcing my Mormon faith. Because Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem to correspond less well (or at least less obviously) with Transhumanism, it seems less probable (but not impossible) that Transhumanism would have reinforced my faith in God as understood in those traditions. As evidence for the more obvious correspondence of Mormonism with Transhumanism, I’d appeal simply to the relative success of the Mormon Transhumanist Association.

    You also asked whether I would be more inspired by Mohammed than by Joseph Smith today, had I been born to Muslim parents. Again, I don’t know, but it seems likely that I wouldn’t even know about Joseph Smith, had I been born to Muslim parents. Assuming I encountered Joseph, and assuming I had developed a propensity for Transhumanist religious thinkers, I think I would have gained interest in Joseph, as I’ve gained interested in de Chardin and Federov, which are of different religious traditions than my own. However, I suspect I would have been inclined to look for Transhumanist interpretations of Mohammed as an effort to reconcile with my culture and traditions. I’m already inclined to do that toward Muslims as I am today, so I imagine my interest in that would have been even stronger had I started out Muslim. Then again, had I started out Muslim, it seems far less likely that I would be having a conversation like this with you. Mormons are implicitly Transhumanists, I contend. I’m not conversing here with you despite my Mormonism. I’m here because of my Mormonism.

    Regarding “integrity”, I think you’re equivocating. More importantly, though, I share your concern with the harm perpetrated by bigotry, wherever it is. I’d ask, though, whether you think it’s worth acknowledging progress where you observe it? I ask because I have many ex-Mormon friends who have become increasingly hostile toward the LDS Church as it has moved away from or relaxed some of its historical tendencies toward racism, sexism or homophobia. Some are increasingly angry about the speed of change, and some are angry that the LDS Church continues to exist at all. The opinion that the LDS Church can do no right looks to me like an emotional bias, at least as strong as that of Mormons that feel the LDS Church can do no wrong. Without justifying any bigotry or other weaknesses, and without intending to suggest that bigotry and other weaknesses shouldn’t be addressed, I contend unflinchingly that the LDS Church clearly does much good in the world. Can it do more? Yes. Should it? Yes! However, I see hypocrisy in indiscriminate anti-religious bigotry that is often directed at Mormonism and the LDS Church as an institution. Please know, CM Stewart, that I’m not suggesting that you’re engaged in this hypocrisy. To the contrary, it appears your emotions regarding these matters are similar to my own. As appears to be the case for you, I’m often angered by religious fundamentalism, both in Mormonism and elsewhere. However, I’m bringing up these matters because I’ve observed fundamentalism among Transhumanists. It would take a long time to read all the hate mail I’ve received from anti-religious Transhumanists over the years. Fundamentalism is as damaging when it’s anti-religious as it is when it’s religious.

    I look forward to your additional thoughts.

  • CM Stewart

    I’m on a fiction editing deadline through the end of this month, but as I appreciate our conversation, I’ll state a few brief points now, and perhaps follow up at a later date if you are interested.

    “frankly, I can’t even imagine what supernatural is supposed to mean
    without engaging in all kinds of nonsensical mental gymnastics” Exactly. And that is my definition of “gods.”

    “Regarding ‘integrity,’ I think you’re equivocating.” More than that, I think I’m calling out immorality as I see it, and explaining why I believe the admiration of integrity is meaningless without considering the context of the integrity.

    “I’d ask, though, whether you think it’s worth acknowledging progress where you observe it?” Yes, absolutely.

    I look forward to further discussion. Have a nice apocalypse. ;)

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net/ Lincoln Cannon

    Good luck with your editing, CM Stewart, and happy apocalypse!

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net/ Lincoln Cannon

    RandomCoder, thanks for your comments and compliments. Here are some thoughts in response.

    Regarding the Creation Argument, it’s important to note that although the argument depends on the Simulation Argument, the argument does not depend on the Simulation Hypothesis. The Creation Argument generalizes the Simulation Argument, and is therefore compatible with any feasible creation mechanism. Many information technologists will find the Simulation Hypothesis salient. Many physicists and cosmologists will find something more along the lines of a cosmoforming hypothesis more salient. Either of these or any other creation hypothesis that does not contradict observation and experimentation is compatible with and sufficient for the Creation Argument. To consider the full strength of the argument, you should consider whatever creation mechanism you personally consider most feasible. Personally, I prefer a hybrid of the Simulation Hypothesis and a cosmoforming hypothesis, in which worlds begin as simulations and bud off into entirely new physical verses in the multiverse. Here are some more of my thoughts on that:

    http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2010/08/before-big-bang-posthuman-computers-in.html

    http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2010/08/further-inspiration-on-designer.html

    You ask about the morality of creating worlds like the one we’re now living in, or put differently and in traditional terms: the problem of evil. Observing our world and the suffering throughout it, I share this concern. In fact, in regards to specific (emphasize “specific”) evils, there is no justification whatsoever, so far as I’m concerned. Evil is evil precisely because its specifics are not justified or justifiable. On the other hand, the risk of evil may be justified, if opportunity for good is possible only within a context that permits risk of evil, and I think that’s the case. I cannot make any sense of the idea of a world that permits opportunity for good without risk of evil. It’s just plain nonsense. Given that we observe evil, either there is no compassionate creator, or the creator is not primarily concerned with avoiding evil. Moreover, given the great evils we observe, either there is no compassionate creator, or the creator is not merely concerned with basic opportunities for good. To the best of my ability to judge, the only kind of compassionate creator that seems compatible with the full extent of evil that we actually observe and experience is one that wants nothing less than to create more genuinely compassionate creators, rather than any mere prosthetic extensions of itself; and the only way I can imagine the possibility of creating more compassionate creators, who in turn have genuine compassionate and creative capacity independent from their creator, is through some kind of progressive yet pervasive relinquishment, both anatomical and environmental, as a parent progressively relinquishes its child from conception through birth and on to maturity. As we consider the morality and compassion of our creator, assuming we have one, we should consider our own morality and compassion as we procreate biological children and as we work toward creation of artificial general intelligence. What justifies our choice to bring our children or our artificial general intelligence into a world that will inevitably present them with the risk of evil? The only answer that satisfies me is that the opportunity for good, in its ultimate form, is the opportunity to become a genuinely compassionate creator, and that opportunity merits the attending risk. Here are more of my thoughts on this subject:

    http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2010/10/can-non-benevolent-super-intelligence.html

    http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2011/01/gods-of-suffering-and-oppression.html

    http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2012/05/becoming-god-can-be-cruel-and.html

  • Pingback: Singularity 1 on 1: Are Science and Religion Mutually Exclusive or Complimentary?()

  • advancedatheist

    Unless technological and economic progress resumes, transhumanism has nowhere to go outside of transhumanists’ imaginations. We do not live in a time of technological acceleration, padawan transhumanists. Even the guys who speak at singularity-themed conferences, like Peter Thiel and Tyler Cowen, have said that.

    So what do you plan to do with your lives in our real situation, not the make-believe one promoted by transhumanist charlatans?

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net/ Lincoln Cannon

    Hi Advancedatheist. You’re equivocating between Singularitarianism and Transhumanism. They’re not the same. Regardless of how fast change happens, and regardless of whether change tends toward flourishing, Transhumanism remains pertinent as a practical voice for the ethical use of technology to pursue the flourishing to which we aspire. An important category of truths is created and not merely discovered. To some extent, our future depends on our work to create it. That’s the importance of Transhumanism, whether or not anything happens as quickly as Singularitarians hope.

  • Vovix S.

    Dude, the issue is more complex but why to call everyone a “charlatan”? We DO live in a time of technological acceleration of SOME important technologies like IT, genomics, robotics etc. The question is: is this acceleration enough to stimulate some other technologies important for h+ or we need some additional efforts. In other words, Kurzweil says, “We can do it”, then Thiel says “we can’t do it unless we do also A, B, C”, then some Diamandis says “I see A, B and C getting speed because of X” and the development goes on, while naysayers are whining.

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