The Mod | Transhumanism, Theurgy, and the Genesis of a Cyberspace Utopia

Tuesday, 28 Jul 2020

If you have watched an episode of the Japanese anime Ghost in the shell or seen the Netflix sci-fiction Movie Altered Carbon, you may be familiar with the question whether ever-upgrading technologies will eventually bring humanity beyond their current natural limitations. But it is not just sci-fi works that are asking this question. Serious-minded scholars are holding academic conferences and publishing their research on this question around the world. However, the idea of transcending the current human condition and ascending to the next level of being is not a novel invention of modern science and technology. As a modern theurgy in the tradition of alchemy, transhumanism is a new mythology of cyberspace utopia.

Transhumanism: A Proposal for the Next Version of Humanity

As an uprising philosophical, intellectual, and social movement, and a conceptional intersection of multiple threads which further separates into various tributaries, it is not an easy task to cast a definition of transhumanism. The term covers efforts and tendencies that are rapidly developing and evolving. Dorcas Cheng-Tozun offers a definition that transhumanism is the “faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans.” Similarly, Michael Plato writes, “the transhumanist movement seeks to improve human intelligence, physical strength, and the five senses by technological means.”[1] According to these thinkers, human limitations, e.g., disease, ageing, can and should be overcome. Advances in technology will allow humans to do just that, and we are the ones who are responsible for our own evolutionary destiny.

The concep of transhumanism is closely related to humanism and posthumanism. It is the immediate fruit from the soil of Enlightenment humanism. As the eminent transhumanist, Nick Bostrom, puts it, “Transhumanism has roots in rational humanism.”[2] It is also related to posthumanism. If the human can continuously “transcend” themselves, they would eventually achieve a stage that they become a new species beyond the current label “human”. Though, as Jacob Shatzer notes, the two are distinct: “One way to distinguish between transhumanism and posthumanism is that transhumanism focuses on the ever-changing process of development and growth, while posthumanism focuses on a point beyond the human. Posthumanism focuses on the product.”[3] A philosophical trajectory, then, can be traced from Enlightenment humanism to transhumanism to posthumanism.

A Perpetual Quest for Human Immortality

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Western legend of the Foundation of Youth and the Philosopher’s stone (or the Elixir of Life), to the Eastern practices of Neidan, human history evidences an obsession with immortality, and, as Bostrom observes, evidences an exploration of “almost all conceivable means to the preservation of life.”[4]

Alchemists have unceasingly sought the transforming magic of substance and humanity. The desire of alchemy is both practical and theoretical. As Karen-Claire Voss notes, “if, one the material level, the alchemists’ purpose in the laboratory was the production of gold…on the spiritual level the purpose was to develop the true Self, to ‘lead out the gold within’.”[5] Thus, a bridge between alchemy and human enhancement (both physically and spiritually) has long been built. For example, the alchemical writing De Natura Rerum (1537), attributed to Paracelsus (1493-1541), introduced homunculus, a kind of small artificial human being, and inspired infinite imaginations of the alchemists to pursue the cause.[6]

Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum (1620) proposed to broaden scientific exploration in every way to make human living condition improved. His advocation echoes in most Enlightenment thinkers. For example, Kant defined the Enlightenment as “man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity.” In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed his overman (“Übermensch”) theory and asked,

Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?

The “overman” that Nietzsche has in mind is more cultural and spiritual, rather than technical and physical, to be sure.[7] Nevertheless, it is undeniable that current transhumanists have embraced what he presupposed and are implementing it in a more “practical” way.[8]

The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 lent further conceptual credibility to the notion of a continually evolving human species. After the Enlightenment, with the rapid development of modern science and technology, rational subjectivity and anthropocentrism lead all the way down to transhumanism.

Transhumanism and Alchemy

It seems on the surface that transhumanist is a merely technical effort with natural means. However, as Eric Steinhart remarks, “The correspondences between theurgy and transhumanism are not accidental. A long chain of artisans carries ancient pagan technology into modern transhumanism.”[9] Dan McQuillian similarly claims that, “Data science strongly echoes the Neoplatonism that informed the early science of Copernicus and Galileo. ” Many transhumanists frankly admit that they are inspired by the Platonic injunction to become godlike. It is ture, transhumanism shared metaphysics, methods, goals with theurgy.

One radical illustration of this point is the transhumanist proposal of mind uploading. The ultimate goal of this technological advancement is to upload human minds into cloud storage while enhancing and upgrading the bodies. Bodies become like computer hardware, which can be reassembled to accommodate different downloaded minds. It involves three steps. First, with the aid of deconstructing brain with nanobots or other technologies, create a sufficiently exact copy of the human brain. Second, reconstruct the neuronal network that the brain implemented, and combine it with neuron models. Third, emulate this whole computational structure on a supercomputer or storage cloud. The result would be an immortal bodyless human who can inhabit a robot or an upgraded new body. Alternatively, of course, he or she could choose to live in virtual reality.

We can see a radical Platonic dualism underwriting this proposal, as well as echoes of the ancient practice within the Western esoteric tradition: alchemy. Similarly, the alchemical work has three primary stages: the nigredo, the albedo, and the rubedo. Karen-Claire Voss notes, “the essence of the alchemical movement is contained in the oft-quoted motto: solve et coagula, ‘divide and unite.'” The nigredo is the preparatory stage, then the albedo divides of the chaotic substance into polar opposites, and at last, the rubedo produces a genuine compound rather than the two compounds being superficially reunited. The result of this process is the Philosopher’s Stone: a completely distinct “third thing”.[10]

It goes similarly with mind-uploading. There is a preparation stage, then the body and soul are divided, and at the final and decisive stage, the purpose is not to resemble a former human, but a whole new third thing: a posthuman! Through the mind uploading and cloud storage, a new inhabitant ascends into the “cyberspace heaven.”

A Mythology: Genesis of a Utopia

Although some transhumanists emphasize the non-religious nature of their views, it is not surprising that various transhumanist groups are trying to establish transhumanism as a religion. A particularly important aspect of the religion is its dreaming and striving for a utopia. According to Eurich Nell, utopias can be loosely defined as “man’s dreams of a better world,”[11] or perhaps a perfect world, with perfect human beings or at least human beings that are as perfect as they can be in a perfect (social, political, or technical) environment. In his “Letter from Utopia,” Nick Bostrom gives his vision of where humanity is headed:

And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now – a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwelling requires a million lightyears ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.

Unmistakably, that is a heaven without a sovereign God, or we should say, full of immortal gods who have deified themselves.

Thus, despite different concerns and methods, transhumanists share one common myth. The myth has a genesis: the creation of the cyberspace as new heavens and new earth. It has a soteriology: salvation from the limitation and imperfection of the current version of humanity. It even constructs its eschatology: humans are now in a cyber kingdom that is “already but not yet” come.

Conclusion

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on at the World Government Summit in Dubai (2017), “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”  For him, humans need to merge with machines to become a kind of cyborg so that we can avoid becoming redundant in the face of artificial intelligence. For thousands of years, we have been told such myths. Supernatural naturalism has inspired the quest for human immorality without a transcendent God while seeking a future of transcendent human beings. When will humans who are created in Imago Dei be willing to bow down and realize that it was God who once became a bodily flesh and walked toward us as “a stranger we finally meet”? [12] We cannot and do not have to transcend ourselves, God descended to us.

 

 

Q. Luo is currently an international student of Westminster Seminary California, and an intern at Escondido URC. He holds a Ph.D. in the area of artificial intelligence.

 

 

[1] Michael Plato, “The Immortality Machine: Transhumanism and the Race to Beat Death,” Plough Quarterly (Winter 2018): 21.

[2] Nick Bostrom, “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” Journal of evolution and technology, 14. 1 (2005), 3.

[3] Jacob Shatzer, Transhumanism and the Image of God, (IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 40.

[4] “A History of Transhumanist Thought,” 1.

[5] Karen-Claire Voss, “Spiritual Alchemy: Interpreting Representative Texts and Images,” in Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, ed. by R. van den Broek and W.J. Hanegraaff. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998), 157.

[6] Though Carl Jung argued that the concept of homunculus first appeared far early in the third century A.D. in the Vision of Zosimos. McGuire, William, and Carl Gustav Jung. Alchemical Studies. (Routledge, 1967), 126.

[7] See Sorgner Stefan Lorenz, “Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism” in Journal of Evolution and Technology, vol. 20 Issue 1, March 2009, 29-42; Russell Blackford, Editorial: “Nietzsche and European Posthumanisms”, in Journal of Evolution and Technology, vol. 21 Issue 1, January 2010, i-iii.

[8] See Max More, “The overhuman in the transhuman,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 21, no. 1 (2010): 1-4.

[9] Eric Steinhart, “Theurgy and Transhumanism,” Revista Archai 29 (2020): 3.

[10] Karen-Claire Voss, “Spiritual Alchemy: Interpreting Representative Texts and Images,” 157-160.

[11] Eurich, N. Science in Utopia: a Mighty Design. (Harvard Univeristy Press, 1967), 21.

[12]Horton, Michael Scott. The Christian Faith: a Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 46.

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