Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mormon Literature, or, Who Wins in a Fight: Pre-Mortal Eve or an Incorporeal Futuristic Android?

I hosted a little get together for friends here in Charlottesville tonight on the topic of Mormon literature. It was a lot of fun. We read (beforehand) a great recent short story called Avek, Who Is Distributed by Steven Peck and the first scene from Eric Samuelsen's brilliant play The Plan. We also talked a bit about what role literature does and should play in our lives, and especially Mormon literature and its connection to spirituality and religion.

One parallel between the two selections we read that I found particularly interesting was the theme of embodiment. Each piece took a different direction on that topic, though I'm not sure they ultimately came to different conclusions. The first scene of The Plan is a dialogue between Gaia, the pre-mortal Eve, and Lucifer, who has started stirring up rebellion to, uh, The Plan. Gaia, in the face of Lucifer's logical arguments about fairness, defends the decision of most of God's children to get a body even if it means pain, weakness, temptation, and disease--all while being held to a higher moral standard than lower lifeforms who fulfill the measure of their creation just by living according to base instinct--as necessary and glorious.

In "Avek, Who Is Distributed," the LDS church in the distant future has already begun baptizing androids and alien lifeforms, but they've reached a more serious impasse with Avek, an artificial intelligence who is distributed across thousands of computers and thus not housed in one single "body" that can be baptized. As the Seventy over Artificial Life Relations breaks the news to him, (spoiler alert) Avek proposes an ingenious solution: why not just baptize him by proxy? The Twelve Apostles love the idea and it allows Avek, and potentially many more AIs like him, to join the church.

The Plan thus defends embodiment as an absolutely necessary step in our eternal progression, while "Avek" could be read to push back on that by portraying a being who has no real physical body as a child of God who is treated just like those who do, receiving ordinances and progressing. I've always been a bit confused about why a body is so important to us--clearly we could make decisions and learn and grow to some degree before we came to earth--so I could see both sides of this.

On the necessity of embodiment side, I think of how a body, with its instincts and desires that aren't always aligned with our spirit's, is a great training ground for having stewardship over and/or working closely with others. A body isn't sentient, of course, but it often does seem to have "a life of its own." If I can learn how to coordinate with it--not trying to suppress its instincts for sleep, food, sex, pain avoidance, etc., but managing and balancing them within the larger context of the gospel--that seems like a wonderful low-stakes way to begin to understand how to truly become one with a spouse some day, who obviously will have her own ideas and thoughts and ways of doing things; we will have to synthesize and harmonize our sometimes disparate methods and goals into one general path back to God. And then add in kids to the mix, or even eons from now spirit children, and I can see the extensions of this principle of mind/body cohesion being pretty interesting. So that

While "Avek" discusses how beings without an easily definable body could be baptized by proxy, the non-negotiable idea that they would still need a physical counterpart to do the ordinance is telling. There are also some hints that Avek's hardware, even if not fixed, might be essential to him feeling the spirit. But it also reminds me of the thought experiments about how hard it is to point to any one part of our brain that is the "consciousness"--what are we, really, but distributed AIs, with the only difference between us and Avek is that the distribution is only within a head, not across galaxies? And don't we read anyways in the Doctrine and Covenants that "all spirit is matter" and thus that our distinction between body and soul is ultimately illusory? So maybe bodies per se don't really matter after all, though they could be a useful tool for certain purposes. I don't know if that even makes sense. In the end, I like having a body and am grateful for the knowledge that they're a step forward and something to care for and cherish.

Anyways, I'm grateful to literature in general for giving our imaginations grist for the complicated-ideas mill, and specifically to Mormon literature for expanding my spiritual horizons in really fun and interesting ways!

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