Gnosticism and Transhumanism. Jeffrey C. Pugh has written an essay titled The Disappearing Human: Gnostic Dreams in a Transhumanist World. Ultimately the author’s view is that the experience of being human is too complex to be properly synthesized and any attempt to better mankind is certain to ignore the traits of compassion and empathy. All in all a very negative view of both Gnosticism and Transhumanism.
Transhumanism is dedicated to freeing humankind from the limitations of biological life, creating new bodies that will carry us into the future. In seeking freedom from the constraints of nature, it resembles ancient Gnosticism, but complicates the question of what the human being is. In contrast to the perspective that we are our brains, I argue that human consciousness and subjectivity originate from complex interactions between the body and the surrounding environment. These qualities emerge from a distinct set of structural couplings embodied within multiple organ systems and the multiplicity of connections within the brain. These connections take on different forms, including structural, chemical, and electrical manifestations within the totality of the human body. This embodiment suggests that human consciousness, and the intricate levels of experience that accompany it, cannot be replicated in non-organic forms such as computers or synaptic implants without a significant loss to human identity. The Gnostic desire to escape our embodiment found in transhumanism carries the danger of dissolving the human being.
The entire program of scientific and technological practices that shape transhumanism can be understood in religious terms, since transcendence of the mundane—a core animating concern of religion—drives much of the transhumanist agenda. It is not just the escape from the ordinary world, but the human struggle with death and finitude that permeates the work of transhumanists. This is not unique to transhumanism, however; the desire to deny our mortality and survive death has motivated human endeavors from antiquity to the present (Becker 1987).
While transhumanism does not replicate ancient Gnosticism, it does represent the reappearance of a perennial ideology that recurs through history and continues to shape and inform human culture. The Gnostic vision was rooted in the idea that the divine was held captive within the cell of the human body, which existed within the larger prison of Earth. The only way to achieve true freedom was to escape from this captivity and reunite with our true source and being in the realm of light. While not Gnostic in seeing the divine spirit within as the essence of human identity, transhumanism shares this eschatological vision—the end of all things leads to escaping the body.2
In the very hope of cybernetic immortality, we are hard at work on technologies of extending ourselves beyond our current bodies. This envisioned future shows up in numerous cultural expressions like the HBO series Westworld, or movies like Transcendence and Selfless, shaping society to accept and embrace the worlds being prepared for us. Sometimes these expressions of material culture take on more dystopian themes, as in the Matrix trilogy, or Blade Runner, but in the labs and research programs working in AI, nanotechnology, and superintelligence, most conversation around transhumanism focuses on the promise more than the peril. One example of this type of optimism was offered by William Sims Bainbridge when he speculated that [i]n the distant future, we may learn to conceptualize our biological lives on Earth as extended childhoods preparing us for the real life that follows in cyberspace (Bainbridge 2014, p. 119). In Bainbridge’s imagination, we would transmute from flesh into data, and as information we would travel throughout the universe taking on new bodies. Free from the constraints of our biology, the anticipated world of transhumanists offers us a type of resurrection and immortality (if you die in cyberspace, you can choose a new avatar). This type of vision represents the more extreme end of the transhumanist continuum; nonetheless, it inspires many who are working to create that future.
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