From a Logical Point of View
*Transcript of an interview done for From a Logical Point of View by Tarik D. LaCour.
Tarik D. LaCour: Normally for my Friday Traditio’s I share an interview or debate from a famous philosopher/scientist/ public intellectual, etc. But today I wanted to do something different. So, I decided to personally interview my friend Blaire Ostler, who is a philosopher and board member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Blaire, welcome to From a Logical Point of View.
Blaire Ostler: Thanks, Tarik. Happy to be here.
Tarik: Likewise. Tell my audience who does not know much about you who you are, what the central ideas of the Mormon Transhumanist Association are, and why you call yourself a “Mormon Enthusiast.”
Blaire: Sure thing. I’m a ninth generation Mormon. I often claim that if there is a Mormon DNA I have it. Mormonism is essentially woven into my identity. I was raised LDS and have served in just about every calling a woman can serve in except the Relief Society. As a queer Mormon, I also volunteer with many other Mormon and queer groups working to facilitate constructive reconciliation among Mormons and queer persons. As you noted, I’m also a Mormon Transhumanist. I am the former CEO and current board member of the Association. The Mormon Transhumanist Association generally works to promote the reconciliation of science and technology with religion. We do not see these idea as competing elements, but rather complementary elements. The term “Mormon Enthusiast” is a label I took upon myself after once being mistaken as a Mormon apologist. For me, I don’t have as much interest in apologetics as I do Mormon theology itself. For me, a Mormon Enthusiast is one who highly interested in, motivated by, and invested in Mormonism. Needless to say, in my work and worship, I’m a Mormon Enthusiast.
Tarik: Well, there are many things you point out that need clarification. So, you say that science and technology are not in conflict with religion (Richard Dawkins likely had a second stroke upon reading that), but does that mean that you are a proponent of developments in Artificial Intelligence?
Blaire: Haha! Dawkins and I would likely disagree on more than a few things when it comes to religion. As for artificial intelligence, like any technology, I advocate for the ethical use of said technologies. For example, a hammer could be used to build a house or kill an enemy. The hammer is not the issue–it’s how we use the hammer. AI is already here, the question is how far do we want to take it and what are we planning on doing with it? For me, AI is often a reflection of ourselves with similar strengths and weaknesses. We run the risk of passing on our shortcomings if we do not learn to become more compassionate and benevolent. We need to evolve with our technology.
Tarik: The main concern with A.I. is that it could overtake us in the workforce and make humans obsolete, and you can only be on vacation for so long. So, would you be open to a treaty that says that A.I. can be legal only insofar as it does not overtake humans in the workforce?
Blaire: To me, that’s like suggesting we shouldn’t use a printing press, type writers, or word processing, because it puts scribes out of work. We don’t need scribes anymore, because that occupation has become obsolete. Similarly, the development of new technologies will create new jobs and old jobs will become obsolete. For example, autonomous cars will put cab drivers and truckers out of jobs. This is a problem, because people need a way to earn a basic living. But I don’t think the solution is not to move forward with innovation. Instead we need to better prepare people for new jobs.
Tarik: That is not getting at the heart of the question I asked. No one is saying that we stop all technological innovation. We are concerned however that our machines may overtake us rather than help us. So, while it is true that the printing press made scribes obsolete, it did not make humans obsolete. Printing presses cannot think and operate without humans, but A.I. potentially can. And if that is the case, it could destroy us. Now, I am familiar enough with robotics to know this is not something that will likely occur in our lifetime. But it is a real question to think about in the present, would you agree?
Blaire: I’m okay if AI overtakes humans in the workforce, because at that point the workforce will be optional. If we have developed technologies that can do all our work for us (which I’m not saying is happening anytime soon) there will be no reason to earn a living wage. I think the bigger ethical concern is at that point, if an AI can walk, talk, and think as a human does it seems unethical to expect them to work for us and obey our commands. I do think we should consider the ramifications of AI developments as they unfold, but as of now, I don’t see sufficient reason to consider AI a threat to human existence. I’m more concerned about humans hurting humans than AI hurting humans.
Tarik: Certainly I am more concerned about President Trump causing harm than I am about A.I. causing harm at the present moment. But as philosophers it seems that we should be thinking about possible scenarios and how to avoid the potentially harmful ones.
Blaire: Agreed. That’s why my concerns are with the humans that are programming the AI, as I originally mentioned. We need to be more benevolent if we are expecting our AI to be benevolent. If we change ourselves, so will our programming of AI.
Tarik: I think our fundamental difference is that you are an optimist while I am a pessimist. But either way, it seems that A.I. is something we should all be keeping a close eye on.
Blaire: Yes, that does sounds about right. But I’m optimistic about our ability to find common ground. And I agree, AI is a very important development that deserves attention to both the risks and benefits. I thought we were going to talk about feminism and priesthood ordination for women?
Tarik: Yes, that was the next topic. But now that you bring it up, you are very outspoken about feminism, female ordination, and the fact the polygamy is not necessarily demeaning to women. Could you start with what feminism means to you? One of the great problems with feminism is that most feminists think there should not be a definition of it, which causes people like me to wonder if feminism is itself a belief or just a subset of humanism.
Blaire: Generally, feminism means that there is gender oppression happening to women and feminists seek to fix it. At least that’s my experience. The trick is not every feminist agrees on how to fix it. Many would consider this a subset of humanism. For me, I think of feminism and the efforts made toward gender liberation. By that I mean creating a community that does not put unnecessary mandates, expectations, or limitations of what a person is capable of according to the gender. This does not mean to imply gender is unimportant, it means your gender doesn’t necessarily determine your destiny.
Tarik: Thank you for that clarification. I do not think the average member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would oppose what you have said, though certainly some might. But where feminism has become controversial in the mainstream LDS Church has been that some feminists also demand that women be ordained to the Church’s lay priesthood, and you have expressed that you want to see that happen. Why is that important?
Blaire: First, some feminists “demand” ordination, but not all. I don’t. I’m not sure that making demands like that is the most productive means to an end.
For me, I would personally like to see the ordination of any or all genders, not only women. I don’t see anything inherently “male” about the priesthood that means other genders should be excluded from it. I think it is important for many reasons. Churchwide ordination would give more people, such as women, autonomy within their religious community, especially single women. Churchwide ordination would also allow for a more gender is have an immersive and robust participation in religious ritual. Churchwide ordination would also allow diverse gender representation in church leadership and callings. It would also send a strong message to women and other genders that the power and authority to act in the main of God is not something they should be excluded from. Mormonism especially teaches the principle of theosis, humans becoming Gods. If this is to be taken seriously, as I do, how am I to become a God if not to practice with the power and authority of God on earth? I trust God wants us all to participate according to our skills, talents, and abilities. If a woman is discouraged from using their talents because of their gender, I cannot believe that is the will of God.
Tarik: Certainly if women were given the priesthood the dynamics of the Church would change. But it does not seem likely this will occur, so should feminists aim for lesser changes, such as more autonomy over the Relief Society, which has happened in the past?
Blaire: Hmmm. Good question. I’m not certain it will happen in my lifetime or not. The optimist in me says “yes” and the pessimist says “no.” I cannot speak for other feminists, but I cannot ask for anything less that what I believe to be the will of God. I believe God has much more in store for me. Sure, minor cosmetic changes to the political structure would help, but it cannot compensate for a failure to offer ordination independant of a person’s gender.
The strangest part to me is, why is this not a cause for celebration! There are worthy, willing, capable women desiring ordination to serve and bless the people of their community. Why aren’t we ringing the church bells in celebration for this godly desire? I can only imagine our Heavenly Parents, as any loving parent would, by responding, “This is wonderful news! Let’s ordain you and put you to work. Go! Baptize people in my name! Bless them! Serve them! Love them! Go to work thou good and faithful servant.”
Tarik: Well, I see no problem with women wanting to be ordained for the reasons you mentioned. But, if the person making this argument also sustains the president of the LDS Church as the only person who holds priesthood keys, it seems they would have to leave it his discretion whether or not women should be ordained. So, it is fine to say that you would like to see something happen, but organizations such as Ordain Women go far beyond that. Am I off base here?
Blaire: The Ordain Women movement has been tricky, with both pros and cons to consider. I personally appreciate that Ordain Women has put the discussion front and center. They have people talking in ways no one else has. I doubt you and I would be having this discussion without the Ordain Women movement. On the other hand, I can’t say I agree with all their tactics.
Tarik: An argument that has been used to advocate female ordination has been that their situation is similar to that of blacks before 1978. I have not found this argument persuasive because even during those years non-black women were never ordained, and second there are records of black men being ordained during the life of Joseph Smith, Jr. Should this argument be retired?
Blaire: I think there are parallels in the experiences that could be useful to draw upon, but I certainly wouldn’t consider the situations of black men in 1978 to be congruent with women in 2018. Even though women aren’t ordain today, black folks were also denied temple blessings. Women today aren’t excluded from the temple. Honestly, I think that question would be best answered by a black woman. I imagine her perspective on the matter to be far more enlightening than mine.
Also worth noting, there were also accounts of women being ordained in Joseph’s time. Although, it was likely different than what ordination looks like today. Women used to have more priesthood responsibilities than we do at present. Women blessed other women by the laying on of hands. They also gave healing blessings. There’s room in our history to improve upon on current practices if LDS leadership saw fit to. I trust there are many things that have yet to be revealed. The restoration is still happening.
Tarik: Certainly the Restoration is still happening (Article Nine of the Articles of Faith makes that clear), and it is also certainly the case that women were more involved in the past than they are in the present, as Jonathan A. Stapley’s new book The Mysteries of Godliness persuasively shows. However, even Stapley acknowledges that women were not ordained to priesthood offices in the past, though they did give blessings. And the terms “authority” “priesthood” and “keys” have meant different things in the past than they do today. So, while I do see evidence that women can take a greater role than they do at present, I do not know that there is evidence that demands women be ordained as was the case with men of African descent.
Blaire: Again, I have a hard time with the word “demand.” But I agree with your point about the experiences being different. If I were to make an argument that “demands” women be ordained to the priesthood, I would argue that our theology demands it–not that because black men were ordained in 1978.
Tarik: This has been a productive conversation, but all good things must come to an end. Let’s conclude with the following: Three things you would like to see changed in Mainstream Mormonism, and also if you care to share your testimony, you may do so.
Blaire: Wow! I get pick three things to change? This is awesome! For me, first, I would like to see ordination be extended to any gender. Second, I would like to see the full acceptance and celebration of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities including sealings being made available to same-sex couples and our transgender siblings. Third, I’d like to see plural sealing made available to all, not just men. I have shared my testimony in a blog post title The Mormon Enthusiast so people can take the liberty to reading it there if they would like.
But lastly, before we conclude we should probably ponder in our spare time the possibility of AI joining us in the pews. If AI wanted to be ordained and join in the work of building Zion, I think we should welcome them too. At that point, I suspect concerns of female ordination would be past time controversy that is laughable.
Tarik: Well, robots would certainly spice up elders quorum, but that is another conversation we will have later. Thank you so much for sharing your views on Mormonism, and I hope this is not the last time that we do this.
Blaire: It was a pleasure, as always, Tarik. Thanks for having me.
Tarik: Always a pleasure.