Scholars & Saints

Mormon Transhumanism (feat. Jon Bialecki)

June 17, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 16
Mormon Transhumanism (feat. Jon Bialecki)
Scholars & Saints
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Scholars & Saints
Mormon Transhumanism (feat. Jon Bialecki)
Jun 17, 2022 Episode 16
Stephen Betts

Professor Jon Bialecki of the University of California-San Diego joins me to discuss what Mormon Transhumanism reveals about speculative thought. 

Show Notes Transcript

Professor Jon Bialecki of the University of California-San Diego joins me to discuss what Mormon Transhumanism reveals about speculative thought. 

Mormon Transhumanism

[00:00:00] Stephen Betts: This is Scholars and Saints: The UVA Mormon Studies podcast. I'm Stephen Betts.

[00:00:17] I'm joined today by Dr. Jon Bialecki, an anthropologist of American religions and religious transhumanism. We're discussing Dr. Bialecki's he's not yet released second book Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, Speculative Thought, and Worlds Without End which should be released later this year or early next year.

[00:00:53] Dr. Bialecki is also the author of A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement in which he examines the miraculous in the evangelical Vineyard Church. Thanks for being here today, Jon. 

[00:01:05] Jon Bialecki: Oh, thanks so much for having me as we were discussing earlier, I'm very excited and nervous to be here as someone who's, uh, consumed as a Gentile, who's consumed a lot of Mormon podcast material to finally be on the recording side of a podcast is kind of like a television fanatic who's wandered onto the wrong sides that the lights during a taping just doesn't know what to do. So. Thank you for having me 

[00:01:30] Stephen Betts: Well, we're tremendously, uh, uh, pleased to have you here today, Jon, I want to kind of get into this by first talking about your, your disciplinary background. Of course, in Mormon studies, as you know, uh, a lot of Mormon studies is history oriented and of course, increasingly we've seen other disciplinary idioms, religious studies and a variety of others, but many of our listeners may be unfamiliar with your kind of disciplinary language and theoretical apparatus in anthropology.

[00:01:58] And, and, uh, your, your work builds on. So previous anthropological work on Mormonism, uh, by scholars that are familiar in Mormon studies, Brad Kramer, Fennela Cannell, uh, Douglas Davies, Daymon Smith, but historically Mormonism has not been an attractive subject for anthropologists. So I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what drew you to this project and, and what keeps other people away.

[00:02:25] Jon Bialecki: Let me start out with what keeps other people away. And also this touches on another thing. You mentioned the fact that anthropology has some, I won't wanna say unique, but an unusual methodology compared to many of the other disciplines that you mentioned and. The core element of anthropological research, the gold standard, at least since the early 20th century has been participant observation and participant observation, you know, it's, what's inside the tin is just what's on the label.

[00:02:56] One participates and one observes. Usually one will be hopefully like embedded for long periods of time with the population. And it's one thing where you are dropped off to some sort of south island and the poor people in the village. They have nowhere else to the go so they're stuck with you, but Mormons are industrious, busy moderns and folks who are sort of have their day stripped apart by things like division of labor, uh, you know, uh, the commoditization of life, things like that. They still always have a lot of time, but still other people do work with moderns. And, um, my previous work was with some Southern California evangelicals who had a, sort of a charismatic bent, so it's obviously possible.

[00:03:50] But the other thing is that a large amount of vital material occurs in two spheres. And when we're discussing adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and other sort of Restoration tradition, uh, religious movements. And it's the family. And a large part is the temple. And the family is very hard to crack.

[00:04:14] Uh, it's possible of course, to be adopted, to love the family and people oftentimes take that route. But for some reason, I think it seems more difficult to insert oneself in a Mormon family for the temple. Um, obviously there's material on the temple. That's beyond the kind of signs and token stuff. That's obviously incredibly sacrosanct, so you can learn something of it.

[00:04:40] But one can't observe one can't participate. Now, all this makes it sound like there's features of Mormonism that are the barrier, but there's another barrier, which is, I think it's fair to say that there's a lot of anthropological, soft prejudice against Mormons. Mormons shouldn't feel too bad though, because for a long time, there was a lot of soft prejudice against studying Christians.

[00:05:06] Anthropologists are oftentimes interested in alterity and they want to go and encounter difference. Christianity is oft-times for north American or European anthropologists, what you had at home. And so that's the last thing oftentimes you wanna deal with now that's changed because the political power of the evangelical right in, uh, the United States, that's certainly made them a group that cannot be ignored. And so there's some who have like, started studying conservative Christianity because, you know, it's, it's going to be a force on the ground. One has to have an understanding of it. The other thing is that oftentimes anthropologists would go into the field and they would be very excited to go and study whatever, like local ritual or religious practice that they had been preparing for.

[00:06:03] And then they find to their shock. And oftentimes there are horror that everyone has converted. And so what do you do? You set aside two years to live with people in the Highland lands of Papua New Guinea, you know, and they're talking about the Rapture. So you learn what you can from the way they talk about the rapture and what it says about Christianity and what it says about their own culture.

[00:06:26] And what it says about the modern world. So that's been, people have had to have kind of a reckoning. Anthropologists behind me, um, with Christianity, but even then there's something about the way the church is imagined that serves as a living factor. And it's two things, one of which is there sort of a kind of Protestant unconscious to a lot of anthropologists.

[00:06:53] This may sound strange, 'cause they just talked about how anthropology had trouble dealing with Christianity. But remember the reason they had trouble dealing with Christianity is because they came from Christian backgrounds, right? So some of their unarticulated ideas about what is and is not proper religion is brought to the fore and they say, this is not proper religion.

[00:07:15] And again, this is something that's touched on a Make Yourself Gods, right? This kind of disconnect between what is correct religion in the kind of secular sense of the term and the sort of foundational religiosity that still informs the 21st century church. So there's that, but then there's something else.

[00:07:42] There's the belief that Mormons are a monoculture. And I know that many of those listening are either breaking out in laughter or like really torquing their heads, rolling their eyes. But a lot of the variation, difference, complexity is not seen by those outside the church. And therefore it's, I was, I was blind to it.

[00:08:09] I considered Mormons to be a monoculture before I began. And I, of all people, someone who studied Christianity in the United States should not have been caught up in this delusion, but there I was, and it took me actually, uh, encountering a very non monoculture form of Mormonism to disabuse me of my earlier error.

[00:08:35] And I'm thinking too, this is something I don't talk about in the book. And I probably shouldn't talk about it at all. But I think another problem with the anthropology of Mormonism is that oftentimes people who have been drawn to it have been drawn to it because they had some background with the church.

[00:08:55] And that doesn't mean that it's bad anthropology. You know, they have the advantage, they have an insider sense of things, right. They can catch distinctions. That another anthropologist, it would miss his or her eye or their eye, um, upon the moment of encounter. And it would take years for them to go and catch up on some of the subtleties.

[00:09:17] But the downside to that is that there is, I don't wanna say a temptation 'cause it makes it sound like it's a sin, but oftentimes if you come from a Mormon background and you're studying, uh, the church, you are going to be concerned with the issues that concern Mormons. And that means, well, you'll be able to be a part of some very interesting debates that are important to you.

[00:09:44] But also means that people outside who don't have an intrinsic interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints oftentimes don't see what the point of the conversation is. And so oft- times they get ignored. So that's more or less in probably over the extended format. Some of the blockages there's been when it comes to a, uh, robust anthropological study of the Restoration movement. 

[00:10:13] Stephen Betts: Yeah. And, and you talk about, of course, this book is about Mormon transhumanism, as well as its relationship with secular transhumanisms and Mormonism or Mormon-isms, I suppose we should say, uh, speaking of monoculture, you talk about how, uh, it took, uh, this very non, uh, monocultural form of, of Mormonism to kind of jar you out of this, out of this way of thinking and I think that with what you just laid out about how insiders even in the academy, tend to privilege the things that are important to their own culture, right? Mormon transhumanism, bizarrely, nobody seems to be writing about it within Mormon studies. Um, you'd think that that would be, uh, a prime location and it is a prime location as we, as we find in your book. Um, but you'd think that this would be very, uh, very interesting place for Mormon studies to go and because for a variety of reasons that you've laid out, it hasn't gone there, but I'm hoping you'll introduce us to this term, transhumanism, this movement or set of movements, transhumanism and, and what is Mormon transhumanism.

[00:11:21] Jon Bialecki: Okay. Gimme a second. I'm going to prepare to give you the poor man's Lincoln Cannon. That's one of the, um, more articulate spokespeople for the Mormon Transhumanists' Association which is the primary though not only object of my book and secular transhumanism, which inspired Mormon transhumanism. So I don't wanna give secular transhumanism the kind of primacy, because one of the points I'm trying to make is that we're dealing not with what is original and what is secondary transformations or degradations. Right. But they're all varietals. There is no like Platonic form underneath. So secular transhumanism is the idea that, and the advocacy for a host of now being produced or emergent or near future technologies that will so radically transform the human experience that you can say to have transcended it.

[00:12:25] These are things like cryonics, obviously capacity to have death be a temporary condition is something that has not been part of the usual human experience. There's hope for like nanotechnology that one may be able to have one's body medically treated, or perhaps even made better in an almost effortless way.

[00:12:48] And of course artificial intelligence. And the idea is that artificial intelligence is developing rapidly. I think just between you, me and our audience, that there's a lot of misunderstanding about what artificial intelligence is, but still there's this possibility that's something called general artificial intelligence might be produced. And that is basically a machine that is as smart as a human being and usually fold into it the idea, they might have some sort of volition, but here's the thing who designed that machine people did, but. Increasingly the work of producing machines is being fostered off the machines.

[00:13:29] Most of silicon chip design is done by other computers. And so once you go and produce a machine that is as smart as a human being, it will presumably when it turns its mind to producing a successor or perhaps improving itself, it would become more than human in its intelligence. And this can basically like ramp up to godlike levels very quickly.

[00:13:55] And the hope is that these devices will be quote the, uh, part, which you brought again, like machines of loving grace. That they will either care for humans or that in some kind of Elon Musk type way humans and artificial intelligence will merge. So that's secular transhumanism. Something about its demographic, this is probably not gonna shock anyone, but it's mostly male. Though not exclusively male. It's mostly white though. Again, not exclusively white. And it has a very wide libertarian strain to it though that doesn't of course exhaust all the political opinions, but they're out there imagining humanity transformed and that transformation can, if you think about it from the right angle. And I realize they've just mixed my metaphor here, look a lot like the doctrine of theosis, right. Of a kind of overcoming of one's current state, but basically, you know, live out the dream, outline the King Follett sermon and some Mormons who work in the tech industry who are exposed to this material, kind of put two and two together.

[00:15:08] And they start asking themselves, is this the way that God wants us to become more like him? Maybe the, how should I say, capacity to make these technologies were built into the very fabric of the universe. And, you know, Utah is the Beehive State. Let's go and just get about doing the work ourselves, right.

[00:15:30] Let's not wait for grace. Let's just go and start doing the heavy lifting now. And oftentimes it compared this to sort of like, you know, ordinances, which are, if you think about it, kind of that the responsibility falls to humans to do particular things. And perhaps, you know, this too is sort of an ordinance.

[00:15:49] And so there's a Mormon Transhumanists Association. Um, not all members of the MTA are in good standing with the church. Some have had problems with the church's attitude toward things like sexuality or their disturbed by the history of race, or they have been unnerved by the fact that the received history of the church doesn't map onto the history that's circulating right now in places like the blogosphere. But you know, a lot of them are devout members too, and this has become a sort of a society for thinking and imagining. It's not in any particular, uh, substrate to use a transhumanist forum. It has like in flesh meetings, it has your conference, it has like online aspects and it's folks who think through, like, what does transhumanism mean for contemporary Mormons. And what is it that Mormons can bring to a transhumanism that's secular that might make it better. So that is, in not quite the nutshell I hope to put in the Mormon Transhumanists Association.

[00:16:58] Stephen Betts: Yeah, I think, I mean, one of the really striking things about your ethnographic work with the MTA is for me is the degree of, of real commitment to this kind of societal transformation that members of, of the MTA and, and other transhumanists have where a lot of these people have a lot of technical expertise. They are very serious about possibilities and they can articulate those possibilities in very plausible ways. And so I think it's easy to, it's easy for outsiders to kind of create these caricatures of what these futurists might look like. You know, we think about like 1964 World's Fair or whatever. Or earlier when you have this futurism and, and this optimism, we're gonna be in flying cars and stuff.

[00:17:43] And these, these transhumanists and Mormons transhumanists are like, yeah, but what if we could actually resurrect people? What if we could actually just like, literally bring people back from the dead? What if we could migrate our consciousness into a computer? 

[00:17:56] Jon Bialecki: Oh, I mean, I, I think you're right on. And actually, uh, one of the distinctive features of, uh, Mormon transhumanism is a deep interest in resurrecting the dead. And how would they do that? That's a long technical discussion. Some of it seems more plausible than others. Some of it's built on philosophical debates about what constitutes you. If I create something that is 99.9% like you out of the archival data or something like that is, is it you?

[00:18:27] Yeah. The other thing I also wanna mention that is not just theosis, the materialism of Mormonism makes it also something that can work well with transhumanism and also the Brighamite doctrine.,I hope I'm proper in laying at his, at his feet, that miracles are technical work. It's not that God has suspended the laws of the universe, but he's a clever person or deity and has found ways to go and manipulate the situation technologically in ways that aren't known to us, at least at this point. And so this too, uh, makes Mormon transhumanism rhyme with secular transhumanism, or put it more properly, it shows how Mormonism rhymes with transhumanism and the facilitates, the existence of something like the Mormon Transhumanists Association. 

[00:19:23] Stephen Betts: Yeah.,so you use in the book you use the, these, this ethnography of course, the ethnography in itself is worth reading. But to my, to my ears, the labor of the book is you're using this ethnography to demonstrate something, uh, to demonstrate a couple of theoretical points. You're making some interventions in anthropology and also in Mormon studies that I think we need to talk about.

[00:19:47] And I, I first want to kind of outline what those look like. Sort of why they might be important. And then have you talk a little bit about how the ethnography shows that, how it illustrates it. So, first of all, you, you draw on the work of Brazilian anthropologist and I'm gonna butcher his name here because I am, I do not have Portuguese, but, uh, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who has this stunning interpretation of the work of, uh, the famous French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss's four volume, uh, book on MI or book books on myth, uh, indigenous myth in, in, uh, uh, is it central America or south America? 

[00:20:28] Jon Bialecki: Uh, it's all of the Americas. It's all of the Americas starts in south America and it works its way north. It is amazing and exhausting. 

[00:20:37] Stephen Betts: There's a very large, yeah, there's four there's four volume work. And, uh, of course Claude Levi-Strauss is part of this school of thought, uh, called structuralism, uh, which today, um, is considered theoretically outmoded for a variety of reasons. I'm wondering if you can, uh, give us a sense for, uh, what people mean by the term structuralism, the school of thought called structuralism.

[00:21:04] And this way that Viveiros de Castro is interpreting Levi-Strauss as an example. And I, I can't remember if this is his term or someone else's term, but as an example of, of a kind of "structuralism without structures," a kind of a, a, a kind of structure that or structuralism that allows for maybe emergence. 

[00:21:25] Jon Bialecki: Yeah. To be fair, there still are anthropological structuralists and maybe I'm one. Now I, after having written this book, I don't know, that's something I'll have to go and not meditate upon, but it is generally considered to be outmoded. It presents itself, or it's interpreted being like inordinately interested in "the primitive," which is true. Levi-Strauss was, uh, concerned with various indigenous and small-scale societies that he felt were, um, the, uh, cusp of being erased.

[00:21:54] But his interest was a anti-racist one because his argument is that a lot of things that look like their particularities is a result of shared cognitive material, that basically because all humans are working on the same hardware, so maybe used an overly transhumanist metaphor, that what's going on with them and what's going on with us is very similar and where, uh, Levi-Strauss tried to go and ground that was with linguistic structuralism, which was the idea that the meaning in a word is not a function of the word itself. It's not contained in the word, but it functions in relationship to other word, like, you know, sky and earth only makes sense in relation to each other; hot, cold.

[00:22:47] And obviously it's more pairs than that. And you can have sort of nested oppositions and things and things as such and. Most of the work is actually done with how phonemes are related to each other and how you can, like "/p/" and "/b/" for example, are kind of, uh, opposed, but linked sounds right. And this is why when someone speaks with an accent after just a little bit of time, you can go and pick up what's being said, because their "/p/" and "/b/" it's not your "/p/" and "/b/" but it's the opposition, the difference that counts and Levi-Straus was thinking well, if this is how language functions, perhaps this is how human thought functions. And so he went and tried to exhaustively show first how kinship, and then social organization, and finally mythology are expressions of this cognitive system. But something happened along the way.

[00:23:48] And as Levi-Strauss worked more and more on myth, he started mentioning more and more, well, I'm also interested in topology, which may seem like a strange thing. Because topology, of course, is a mathematical field. It's about the way that you can de-form a structure with it being effectively the same, uh, the classic example and it's almost so classic that it's a cliche, is that a donut and a coffee cup are essentially the same form. They're just deformed a different way. They're both tauruses. And so why was Levi-Strauss talking about this newfound interest in topology? Well, as he worked on mythology and even afterwards the idea and importance of a cognitive structural apparatus, drifted away. And what he began to focus on is the way that when you cross borders, uh, the same myth will like twist or invert. How elements of it will stretch. It'll be condensed. And what you end up getting is not some kind of underlying neurological cognitive structure. That sort of makes differentiation possible, right.

[00:25:06] But just folding, it's shaping a, um, warping of material and that's "structuralism without structures" and it's attractive to me here because at one time you have to go and account for, uh, the similarities between Mormonism, transhumanism, Mormon transhumanism, but oftentimes some of these sharp differences. And so what does it mean to say both like, you know, Mormonism, transhumanism consider treatment of the dead as a kind of preservation for resurrection and why is it that they're considered to be incompatible with each other?

[00:25:42] And there's obviously specific doctrinal reasons and historical reasons that inform it. But at the same time also, it's the kind of twisting and switching and manipulation of a form in the most abstract sense because we're talking obviously now about, you know, something physical, but the, the concept, and that is something that's important to me.

[00:26:07] And you can see it again in for instance, discussions we mentioned earlier of, uh, resurrection, there are, uh, sometimes humanists who postulate something called "the omega point," which is at the end of time, humanity or humanity's successor, or whatever intelligent entities there are, will end up simulating and preserving whole worlds.

[00:26:29] And that you'll basically be resurrected, but that's the form in which is basically very little agency. You are waiting for super intelligence later down the line to go and resurrect you. And then there is a secular transhumanist concerns. Kurtzweil, he's a, uh, famous transhumanist. He has ties to Google. He has ties to DARPA, which is a government agency that does military research which is closely allied to a lot of, uh, transhumanist concerns.

[00:27:03] He lost his father at an early age, and he's been trying to go and resurrect his father by creating a corpus of material. He has every bit of information, every piece of writing, he could find every picture, uh, all the music his father authored because he was a composer, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And the idea is that he will be able to use that to "make" his father again.

[00:27:31] And so you can see that as a double-fold, right? It's the same concept, but there's a flip in agency and from a sort of a collective to an individuated. So, and then Mormon transhumanism is also another switch, another mix, another transformation. Inasmuch as the labor does fall upon humans to engage in the work of resurrection just like they talk about resurrection being an ordinance, you know, after, uh, Christ returns. But it's unlike the secular one, it's a collective one done as a society. And obviously, again, this has historical ties, right? It has links to, uh, Mormon genealogy. It has links to, which has an amazing database and is a, um, how should I say "Mormon friendly Utah-based technological corporation."

[00:28:29] Um, but also despite the fact is like different causal forces, you can see it as a turn between the kind of the double twist of one secular transhumanist vision and another passive secular transhumanist vision. And so that's why this kind of "structuralism without structures" has utility. 

[00:28:50] Stephen Betts: Yeah I like the way, and I'm probably gonna butcher this summary, but I like the way that, that you talk about in the book, these various you call them "possibility spaces" of thought.

[00:29:03] And so if we were to consider transhumanism this possibility space with, you know, all of these potential combinations of the way things could go and then Mormonism as this other possibility space, you put them together. And it's not just that you like get a bigger possibility space or the merging of those two possibilities spaces at that like line of intersection, you actually get a completely different possibility space if I'm understanding you correctly, that emerges wholly out of, out of those two and, and has affinities and, and has similarities to both of them, but is not dependent, I guess you could say on either of them? 

[00:29:42] Jon Bialecki: Right. It has autonomy, if you think about it, you know, um, theosis is important to Mormons, uh, this kind of, uh, overcoming the human is important to transhumanists. So there's a space where it overlaps, but if you are standing in that space, then you are a Mormon and a transhumanist. You are gonna start being a start asking other questions, questions that have no relation to the questions that Mormons are asking and the questions that transhumanists are asking, and those questions bring up other possibilities.

[00:30:14] And so this like new possibility space is created. And these new possibility spaces can intersect with other movements and produce even more possibility spaces. I mentioned at the end of the book that some LGBTQ-concerned Mormon transhumanists, which are a minority, but they are there and they're accepted as being part of the Mormon Transhumanist Association have been emboldened by these kind of speculative potential to reimagine aspects, other aspects of Mormon inheritance such as polygamy and their working out they're working out ideas of something that they call "queer polygamy," which would be a non-patriarchal form of sacred bonds between people that could be of friendship or the equivalent of marriage, but obviously would not be dependent on any kind of gender binary.

[00:31:19] And so this is an example of how possibility spaces beget more possibility spaces and you have new things formed. 

[00:31:28] Stephen Betts: One of the key, the key concepts that you really examine in the book is this idea of speculation and, and of speculative thought. Um, so we've talked already about, yeah the, the, what, what can happen when these possibility spaces intersect, but I want to hear more about the ways in which Mormon transhumanism in particular illuminates this idea of speculation, which has some, some other implications that we'll talk about, particularly in the thought of Henri Bergson who you also engage with. But, but I wanna talk. Yeah, this idea of, of speculative thought and, and what it, what Mormon transhumanism illuminates about it. 

[00:32:09] Jon Bialecki: One way to think about speculative thought is actually about an anthropological debate about what constitutes religion. And anthropological debates about what constitutes religion are problematic because you have to go and make a definition that encompasses every form of religiosity that one might encounter. And Clifford Geertz, who was a very erudite and a beautiful writer, a beautiful writer, a 20th century anthropologist. He had a definition of religion that would sound familiar. It is about affects that create beliefs that seem uniquely real, but that'sa very Protestant vision of what religion is.

[00:32:56] Talal Asad pointed out that this is not really a universal definition and he actually did workm well. not particpant observation work, but he read historical material about medieval Catholicism. It's not about inculcating beliefs and having feelings, right? It's about disciplining the body, making yourself be a particular kind of subject.

[00:33:22] And the footnote to this is of course that Talal Asad was trying to suggest that there is no universal definition of religion, but that issue is something we can put to the side. Cause it turns out most of the cases, a lot of anthropological discussions of religiosity seemed to fall into a kind of Geertzian camp or, uh, an Asadian camp. And, and this is because they're both useful explanations, right? One is the, you know, discipline and belief, but why would someone submit to discipline unless there was a sense that one believed ahead of time that it would be transformative? And why would you have this belief unless you had been shaped by your society, by the way that you are educated, which is a form of discipline, the way that you've been raised, which again is a form of discipline. Discipline is not negative, right? It's a, it it's shaping. But if there is a kind of mutuality between discipline and belief that they beget each other, right. Well, what work are they doing? And at least in the case of the church and by the church I mean The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was a way of creating a community that was safe from two dangers. That is the obvious external threat that started basically the day, the Book of Mormon was published and bled into the early 20th century. And even now to some degree is somewhere fairly perceptible, but still present in American society, but also internal de-cohesion, right? One of the things that's interesting about Mormonism is that why there are different traditions. It's not really the logic of denominationalism, right? That I may be a Methodist. You may be a Southern Baptist and we may do different things during our church services, but you're a Christian and I'm a Christian. And you know, we're all Christians. It's not that way in the church. Uh, or at least certainly not the way in the way that it's imagined by church leadership. And I think also by a large number of practicing members of the church, but what's the source. What's the danger of de-cohesion? What does it come from? What are the engines? Well, the imagination is an engine. If you use religious material to conceive of things in different ways that would be novel within that tradition that can be disruptive. And like I'm blanking out on the name right now and this is embarrassing. But for instance, you can think of the interest in spiritualism in the, I believe 1870s that ended up going and challenging Brigham Young's authority in, in the institutional church and how it had to be dealt with as a problem disciplinarily.

[00:36:15] But at the same time, you need to have that imaginative potential, because if you think about it, Mormonism set up a whole new cosmology. It's this amazing post-Copernican tradition that has the possibility of multiplicity of gods. How does that work? How will resurrection function yet you have revelation, but revelation is a tool you don't wanna whip out for everything or else it becomes pointless, right? You wanna save it for the big things. And so you had this very strong 19th century tradition of speculation. And so that's something that you need to foster, but it's also dangerous. And one of the other features of speculation. at least as I see it. And there's probably other anthropologists who will disagree with me, disagree with me strongly is because it is just thought it's free of material entailments.

[00:37:10] That is yes, you're conditioned by the technology you use and your economic background, resources available to you. Uh, how you're gendered, stuff like that, but that's where you start, but it can go out in almost any direction. And so that makes it a very special mode of thought. One that is dangerous and necessary. And obviously it's not particular to Mormonism or even religion, but it's certainly an important way to think about these various groups in my book that are imagining possibilities based on wild concepts of what the human might. 

[00:37:52] Stephen Betts: Yeah, in a certain way, you know, speculation is almost in my mind, uh, and correct me, but, but it almost feels like it's not just as if you have this, this set possibility space that you can then expand through speculation. It's more like, uh, speculation creates new dimensions of possibility space, because like you said, like the imagination creates these almost infinite, infinite directions to take, to take these original components and not just recombine them, but send them out into, uh, into, into previously unexplored space.

[00:38:26] So I want to, uh, before we, before we wrap up here, I want to talk about speculation in the context of couple of other concepts that are very important in the book, which are Henri Bergson's concepts of the open and closed society and his notion of virtuality. So what are open and closed societies? What is virtuality and how does a speculative society like Mormon transhumanism illuminate these in useful and perhaps unique ways. 

[00:38:55] Jon Bialecki: Well, Henri Bergson, he was a late 19th, early 20th century, French philosopher. He was incredibly popular in his day, though he got into, apparently I've been told that the first traffic jam that ever occurred in New York were people flocking to see Henri Bergson give a lecture and he had a tendency to think about sort of almost mystical oppositions, right. Space is extension as something that's set out dry. Time as a kind of continual becoming, and he plays this again and works on like evolution and how memory functions and things like this.

[00:39:34] And he had different oppositions, but at the end of his life, he kind of mapped many of these oppositions onto each other and said, well, now I can talk about something like how morality functions and how society works. And he said that there's basically two possible poles. There is the closed society, which is a group of people where the morality is based upon having a short border between us and them and us taking care of our own.

[00:40:07] And then there's the open society, which, uh, Bergson imagined to be universalistic accepting, not disturbed by difference mode being, but Bergson also was a realist. Like he saw World War I, he'll still see World War II before he dies. He knows that it's not all light or darkness. Right. The open and closed society are elements of any particular social group.

[00:40:37] And the reason that's important is because we've talked about how in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there is a lot of disciplining concern with us and them. There is dedication to go and shutting down certain possibilities that it finds disturbing, debates about gender and sexuality is something you can remind.

[00:41:05] Or if you wanna go back to like the, uh, 1960s, seventies debates about race, but at the same time, you know, it is a universalistic religion. It imagined itself as offering salvation to everyone, it reaches out to everyone. You know, there are more Mormons outside the United States and there are inside the United States and those Mormons outside did not just appear magically. Right. They were contacted. They were welcomed in. And to a degree, their differences are acknowledged. Probably not as much as many figures would want it to be within the church, but that's a separate discussion. 

[00:41:39] Transhumanism is the same, right? It imagines creating technologies that will end the idea of scarcity. It would be the moment where everyone could be wealthy, where money wouldn't matter, right. Limitations on the production of energy, the disadvantages you have. All this can be like fixed with the technological intervention and you are given incredible amounts of freedom. And so there is the idea of an openness there, but transhumanists are haunted by the idea of religion and sometimes they call it "deathism." and why? Because their understanding of religion it's centered around death as the portal to the afterlife. Obviously these are not theologically sophisticated people. So, you know, think in terms of like resurrection, but even then they would say, well, that's something that's not real. Technology is real. What you have is pretend, but they feel they're being outcompeted by pretend all the time. And there's a lot of hostility to religion in general. And oftentimes religious transhumanists like Mormon transhumanists are at the brunt of some of their negative attention. So this way that society's open and close, it's linked obviously to like, concerns about discipline and belief, but also you can see in the moment of openness, you have to dream and think of the openness.

[00:43:11] So it has a tie to speculation. And so that's another thematic that runs throughout the book. 

[00:43:17] Stephen Betts: Yeah. So do you plan to, uh, continue working on Mormonism? I hope the answer is yes . 

[00:43:23] Jon Bialecki: Okay. This actually goes back to something you said in the beginning where you say that I was trying to make some theoretical interventions with my material.

[00:43:31] And it's actually the other way around the material forces you to theorize because when you're an anthropologist, you are hostage to the people that you are working with. Right? And so what I will end up doing is going to be a function of what my Mormon interlocutors are doing. As it is there are a few things going on. There's a book on, uh, anthropological theory. And obviously you can tell that I have a bent and perhaps a, uh, addiction to anthropological theory, but I'm also thinking about doing a social history of Kolob. I think that it's a interesting angle that you can think about how the ancient world is imagined, about what scripture is in the church about debates regarding things like the Book of Abraham, about some of that 19th century speculation. When people are trying to think, where is Kolob? What is Kolob? It's obviously got some aesthetic dimensions. There are artists who've worked with it. And there's also the great tradition of Mormon cranks who wanna go and tell you exactly where Kolob is because they've spent way too much time in their basement, on the internet, figuring it out.

[00:44:46] But it's also a way of talking about, you know, the kind of science fiction imagination of Mormons, and the church has a disproportionately large amount of fantasy and science fiction authors. And I think it's in part, because of how should I say ancestor effects things, small choices that were made early in BYU's history.

[00:45:05] But also I think it's part because like, when you have something like the Book of Abraham out there, you know, it, did you think of the cosmos differently. And so that's one thing I'm hoping to work on. And I'm also working a little bit with the idea of queer polygamy. It was referenced. I talk about queer polygamy in some of the concluding passages of my book.

[00:45:27] It's not the focus, but also because this is a book about speculation, I'm talking about it as an idea. And the question is, what does that look like as a lit, it looked like as a lived form, and, you know, It's an important question. It's an interesting question. Luckily, anthropology is predicated upon outsiders entering into worlds that are strange to them.

[00:45:49] And as a straight non-Mormon, um, this would be a different world indeed, but you know, I've been talking to some of the people who to various degrees practice it or imagine that they practice it or see what they do as being akin to it. And I think it's a story that needs to be told 

[00:46:06] Stephen Betts: these all sound like amazing projects. And may I just say, take my money now because, uh, we're ready.

[00:46:15] Jon Bialecki: From your lips to my publisher's ears!

[00:46:20] Stephen Betts: Uh, well, Jon, I really appreciate your time today. Um, I'm a really big fan of this book. I give it my five out of five stars. And, uh, although you are by no means new to, to, uh, an engagement with Mormonism welcome, uh, to Mormons studies officially now that your book is coming out.

[00:46:41] That's Jon Bialecki. We've been chatting about his fabulous forthcoming book Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, Speculative Thought, and Worlds Without End. Thanks for chatting with us today, Jon, 

[00:46:53] Jon Bialecki: ANd thank you, Stephen, for my, uh, podcast baptism.

[00:47:03] Stephen Betts: Thanks for listening. Scholars and Saints is brought to you by the Mormon studies program at the University of Virginia to support Scholars and Saints and the Mormon studies program, visit Mormon 

[00:47:21] This episode used music by Ryan Anderson, including artificial intelligence and one, and only under Creative Commons Attribution licensing. Hear more by Ryan Anderson at freemusicarchive dot org.