Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Human Becomings (part 1)

I'm excited to write this post. This is the real reason I study science, I believe in God, I go to school, work, church... the reason I love, the reason I live. This is the "why" that justifies "what" I do. It's a little abstract, and I may be drawing correlations between unrelated things, but to me, it makes sense. It is my schematic connection that makes the world go 'round. I'm talking about my answer to the three questions,"Who am I? Why am I here? What is my destiny?"

As you may have noticed, I am interested in evolution. The reason organic evolution interests me is that it helps answer one of those three questions raised above, "Who am I, or better put, where did I come from?" Of course, I don't think it answers the question entirely, but it's a good start for it explains the origins of my body, an important component of who I am. I believe that my mind, as part of my body, is also the product of evolution. Evolution explains quite well many of the quandaries of human existence and the conflicts, both internal and external, that we experience.

As a missionary I often indulged in "deep" doctrinal conversations and debates with my companions, and these discussions provided my first opportunities to explain, albeit in a very naive and reductionist way, my budding worldview and philosophy of human origins and destiny. My early explanation went something like this:
Pretend this [my hand at eye level] is a ship travelling close to the speed of light. Einstein described a scenario in which a ship could travel "to the future" by exceeding the speed of light, and then halting to allow the light to "catch up to it," where those on board could watch as the events from the time the light barrier was broken to the current/future time would transpire at an accelerated speed, like a "sonic boom" of light...
By this point, my 19 year old friends would often have the same expression as Keanu Reeves' What If meme.
This assumes that superluminal speed is possible, and once achieved, those on board would not simply cease to exist and could return to normal time and space. But what if, once the ship broke that barrier, it was surprised to find another previously unknown dimension full of ships and beings from other times, some very ancient, who had done the same thing? Obviously we would not now know of such a dimension. In essence, it would exist outside the visible/observable universe. (Einstein was very clear that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light, and in the universe there are no privileged frames of reference.) Would this not satisfy many of the demands of godhood? In particular, omnipresence could be possible through a connection of these different ships which broke the barrier at different times to complete a timeline of the universe, connecting very young civilizations to very old ones. And if normal time and space could be re-entered from any of these access points, then causality could be interrupted, and is that not the definition of omnipotence? And if these beings could speak to one another, and compile their shared knowledge, would that not approach a sort of omniscience? And if we allow all these as possible, is it not also possible that this is how God became God, And how we may one day become gods as well? 
After such a conversation, my first companion, Elder "Ike" Carr of Portsmouth NH, reminded me of a scripture unique to Mormonism, found in the Doctrine and Covenants section 131 vs 6-8, a favorite of his father (a chemistry professor), which reads:
"6 It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance. 
 7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; 
 8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter."
I did not realize the theological ramifications of this scripture at the time, and did not have the vocabulary to describe its significance, but I have since learned that there is a word for this kind of worldview: metaphysical naturalism.  Opposed to methodological naturalism, which is a common assumption of the scientific method (the supernatural may exist, but it is not observable, and therefore not of interest to science), metaphysical naturalism assumes that the supernatural does not exist at all, and hence the entirety of the universe is explicable by natural causes. It is often associated with the most militant forms of atheism, and never (to my knowledge) associated with religion, with this one exception.

It occurred to me that this was a theological gold mine--a paradigm capable of integrating science and religion. It was this recognition that allowed my mind to explore the realm of science without fear of what I might find, because ultimately it all was one.

That was an exciting time in my life. I saw new horizons of knowledge and possibilities open up to me for the first time. I devoured this new knowledge. Nothing was off limits. I began to read books by authors whose very names were a hiss and byword among other faithful Mormons and conjured up the worst possible descriptions in our vocabulary (atheists, darwinists, intellectuals, liberals!), as well as authors who were not known to me but should have been (Gould, Diamond, Singer, Sagan, Orwell, Wilson).

I read books which I knew would challenge my beliefs, like The Origin of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics. And when the evidence of the Asian ancestry  of Native Americans was laid out clearly, unambiguously in front of me, I accepted that I could no longer believe in the mainstream Mormon narrative of continental geography, a doctrine taught explicitly by Joseph Smith and many of his successors, which taught that the Native Americans of both North and South America were descended from the house of Israel and that the story of how they arrived is contained in the Book of Mormon.

I also began to read books which I knew would help me to strengthen the link between science and religion (Finding Darwin's God and Only a Theory, by Kenneth Miller, Mormon Scientist, memoir of Henry Eyring); however, it soon occurred to me that I was learning a new language, and that my Mormon vernacular was starting to slip away. I could no longer hold "normal" conversations with my Mormon friends about scriptural topics, mostly because these conversations are based on a literal reading of the text as historical fact, and, except in certain circles, there is little room for hermeneutics and critical analysis.

In the fall of 2010, I enrolled in a course called Science and Religion from the division of humanities and philosophy. We began the course by taking assessments of our religious and scientific literacy (not to brag, but I was the only student in the class who passed either of them in any semester the class had been taught...) As a class, we would prepare by reading assigned articles and chapters from Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't, and Michael Ruse's Evolution and Religion: A Dialogue, and then debate with each other. It was one of the most stimulating classes I had in college. Also during this semester, a new lecture/debate series began at ASU led by physicist Lawrence Krauss called Origins. I was able to attend the first event, called the Great Debate: Can Science Tell us Right from Wrong? The panelists included Peter Singer, Sam Harris (of the New Atheists' "Four Horsemen" fame), neurobiologists Steven Pinker and Patricia Churchland, and philosopher Simon Blackburn.

Harris spoke first, and used the opportunity to promote his most recent book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, in which he argues that the is-ought problem attributed to David Hume does not exhaust the reach of naturalism (or science) into the realm of values and morality, historically the domain of ethics and religion. (This is also known as Hume's Guillotine, which is a refutation of the classical naturalist fallacy, essentially arguing that just because something is, that does not imply that it ought to be so.)  Harris argues that "good" is simply that which produces the greatest happiness in the minds of conscious creatures (essentially a teleological/consequentialist/utilitarian argument for the 21st century).

All of the presentations I heard that night impacted me, but I find myself coming back to this one again and again. I took notes of course, and that night shared what I had heard with my wife. She later told me that night was also a pivotal moment in her intellectual development (the beginning of the end, so to speak, for her worldview shaped by the traditional Mormon narrative) as it was for me. 

I had never heard of the term "Transhumanism" at this point, but I was soon to find out that I was,  unknowingly, a firm believer in it. 


  1. You have helped me to stop and think for a few minutes at the end of a hectic day. Of course, the 3 questions interest me as well: "Who am I? Why am I here? What is my destiny?"

    I'll be interested to see part 2.

  2. Do you ever watch "Ancient Aliens" or "The Universe", both of which used to stream on Netflix?

    I recently watched (via Netflix DVD in the mail) the interview with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Aurthur C. Clark, in which Hawking made the comment, "I don't think the laws of physics can tell us how to treat our neighbor."