The New Gnosticism of the Transhumanists

For the (very very quickly) upcoming Love & Death Issue, I had the chance to […]

Ethan Richardson / 6.13.17

For the (very very quickly) upcoming Love & Death Issue, I had the chance to interview the journalist, Mark O’Connell, who is the author most recently of To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. He also wrote that amazing piece in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago about Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist who ran for president and drove across the country in a coffin-shaped bus. O’Connell’s new book reads like a travelogue among characters like Zoltan, futuristic types (mostly from California) that O’Connell describes with a charming blend of cynicism and aloof interest. Like an agnostic amidst a group of “true believers,” O’Connell is both repelled by and drawn in by the belief system that transhumanism proffers.

If you’re unfamiliar, transhumanism is the movement that asserts an immortal future thanks to technology and science. As O’Connell describes it, it is the technological teleology of salvation: “a projection whereby intelligent life takes over all matter in the universe, leading to a cosmological singularity.” In other words, the computers we’ve built, the science we’re discovering, will free us from our mortal coil, our bodies. We will live eternally in new bodies, machines unconstrained by sickness, vulnerability and death.

You can see how O’Connell hears the religious bells ringing. But he also, throughout the book, describes this paradox: that this futurism is just a new iteration of a very old idea. Despite all the science fiction lingo used to describe this singularity (“longevity escape velocity,” “whole brain emulation,” “cyborgs”), what we really have is the apex of Enlightenment thought, and before that, Gnostic thought. It is the idea that we are liberated by our minds, that certain refinements of knowledge will set us free.

Beneath the talk of future technologies, I could hear the murmur of ancient ideas. We were talking about the transmigration of souls, eternal return, reincarnation. Nothing is ever new. Nothing ever truly dies, but is reborn in a new form, a new language, a new substrate.

We were talking about immortality: the extraction of the essence of a person from the decaying structure of the body, the same basic deal humanity had been dreaming of closing since at least as far back as Gilgamesh. Transhumanism is sometimes framed as a contemporary resurgence of Gnostic heresies, as a quasi-scientific reimagining of a very ancient religious idea. (“At present,” as the political philosopher John Gray puts it, “Gnosticism is the faith of people who believe themselves to be machines.”) The adherents of this early Christian heretical sect held that the material world, and the material bodies with which human beings negotiated that world, were the creation not of God but of an evil second-order deity they called the demiurge. For the Gnostics, we humans were divine spirits trapped in a flesh that was the very material of evil…

This techno-dualistic account of ourselves, as software running on the hardware of our bodies, had grown out of an immemorial human propensity to identify ourselves with, and explain ourselves through, our most advanced machines. In a paper called “Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory,” the computer scientist John G. Daugman outlines the history of this tendency. Just as the water technologies of antiquity (pumps, fountains, water-based clocks) gave rise to the Greek and Roman languages of pneuma and the humors; and just as the presiding metaphor for human life during the Renaissance was clockwork; and just as in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, with its steam engines and pressurized energies, Freud brought these forces to bear on our conception of the unconscious, there was now a vision of the minds of humans as devices for the storing and processing of data, as neural code running on the wetware of the central nervous system.

O’Connell here captures the pervasive and eternal (and gnostic) yearning to know something well enough to beat it, evade it, move past it. Of course, the “it” there is death. We have always sought new ways of understanding ourselves out of conundrum we find ourselves–namely, that we are animals, too. That we get sick and we die. In sitting down over beers with Randal Koene, a big proponent of “whole brain emulation,” O’Connell kept asking himself “what exactly it was that he envisioned when thought about the eventual achievement of…an uploaded version of the self?” If there is no body, what is the self? Or better yet, if there’s a resurrection, what or who is resurrected?

Perhaps the reason for our being insane animals is precisely our inability to accept ourselves as animals, to accept the fact that we will die animal deaths. And why should we accept it? It’s a fact not to be borne, an inadmissible reality. You would think that we’d be beyond this; you would think that, by now, we’d do better than just succumbing to nature’s final dumb imperative. Our existence, and its attendant neurosis, is defined by a seemingly irresolvable contradiction: that we are outside nature, beyond it and and above it like minor deities, and yet always helplessly within it, forever defined and circumscribed by its blind and implacable authority. 

This is the paradox which began existentialism, the same conundrum that Kierkegaard found to be the root problem of human life. And it is also, Kierkegaard believed, the starting point of any authentic faith. To believe in something that responds to this crucial conflict–despite all evidence to the contrary–this will feel like a leap into the absurd. And yet, this what we believe: that Christ died and was raised on the third day. It’s far-fetched, to believe that your scientific discoveries can help you outrun death. It is absurd to believe that you can live again, having gone through death.