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Transhumanism & Modern Gnosticism

'Men as righteous as we could not be judged harshly,' right?

Reader Rob G. writes, on transgenderism and transhumanism:

“it’s gnostic heresy, now with tech!”

Yep. From Marion Montgomery:

“What is effected by Nominalism, as it is appropriated out of Occam’s intricate arguments, is an instrument of power over nature justified on the authority of autonomous intellect, whereby the Platonic idea of the transcendent model is presumed a creation by autonomous intellect itself through its signs [i.e., words — M.M. makes this apparent earlier in the essay], as first divorced from but then in turn imposed upon nature. In the Christian tradition, nature is created and therefore both dependent upon and from its Creator. Hence my epithet of Modernism as an inverted Platonism, in which reality becomes dependent upon autonomous intellect itself. It follows at last from this gnostic assumption that truth itself is that which is decreed by intellect. By the power of autonomous intellect, then, such truth is made universal — according, of course, to the extent of power exercised by the particular universalizing, autonomous intellect. This is to say that a principle, subjectively authorized, becomes a dogma to be imposed as a limit against rival intellectual subjectivisms, and ideology to be established by force if necessary, providing only that there is a sufficient power for its enforcement.”

(From “Consequences in the Provinces: Ideas Have Consequences 50 Years After,” Steps Towards Restoration: The Consequences of Richard Weaver’s Ideas, Ted J. Smith III, ed.)

In short: Separate words from reality, then turn them against it, in the process creating your own pseudo-transcendent model upon which the new “reality” depends. Next, proceed to make this created understanding of things universal, by force if necessary.

Modernism thus formulates its own dogmas, decreed on the authority of its own self-created “transcendent model,” all the while claiming to reject dogmaticism. You always know that some concept of absolute right and wrong is at work when you’re not morally entitled to disapprove.

“But it is certainly possible to criticize transhumanism from a purely philosophical point of view.”

Weaver was a nominal Protestant and Platonist, Montgomery a practicing Anglo-Catholic and Thomist. Their opposition to techno-Gnosticism was rooted in their realist philosophies, not their religions.

True, true. The great Ken Myers, whose Mars Hill Audio Journal is indispensable on this topic, e-mails to point me to this Mark Shiffman essay on transhumanism from First Things. It’s terrific. Excerpts:

For the greatest salesman of this utilitarian view of reason, Descartes, the goal of rigorous thought is to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” Thus empowered, we shall invent an “infinity of applications” which will not only enable us to enjoy the goods of the earth without effort, but also will free us from “an infinitude of maladies both of body and mind,” thus securing “the preservation of health, which is without doubt the chief blessing and the foundation of all other blessings in this life.” He envisions these medical “applications” ultimately allowing us to transcend the previous limits of our nature, freeing us from “the infirmities of age,” and even “rendering men wiser and cleverer than they have hitherto been.”

Today, the most ambitious Cartesian dreams of life extension and enhancement set the agenda for “transhumanism.” Although it styles itself a philosophy, transhumanism is really a religious movement with a twenty-first-century marketing campaign (under the brand “H+”). Like their prophet Descartes, transhumanists think of the human being as a consciousness hosted in a body, and of the body as a machine that the will can manipulate by means of reason. Transhumanism adds a new technological claim: Computing advances are on the verge of bringing about the “singularity,” a convergence of artificial, computer-based intelligence and human, brain-based intelligence. This convergence will allow us to transfer ourselves out of the “wetware” of the brain and into super-sophisticated hardware, thus enhancing our powers and possibly securing a kind of immortality. We are on the brink of transcending the bodily limits that have previously constrained humanity, thereby becoming transhuman.

It’s easy to write transhumanism off as a fringe phenomenon of science fantasy. But this is a mistake, for elements of it are already engulfing us. A growing number of Americans now spend much of their time on the Internet, living partly through machines and interacting with other disembodied persons. Transgender therapies are increasingly common and have widespread social and regulatory acceptance. Alongside its various research initiatives to develop gadgets like self-driving cars, Google has funded Calico, a research institute devoted to finding a cure for aging, possibly through gene editing. Our technological pioneers are already seeking and selling various ways to transcend the limitations of our embodied humanity.

Shiffman quotes the leading academic promoter of transhumanism, Steve Fuller, arguing that transhumanism is actually something we should embrace for essentially religious reasons (because it’s the best way for us to fulfill our desire for self-transcendence). Shiffman:

Fuller and (co-author Veronika) Lipinska take up More’s coinage and argue that innovation is necessary if we are to realize our distinctive human capacity for self-transcendence; excessive caution does injustice to our highest longings. We need to promote risk for the sake of important advances in medical and other technologies that will benefit us all, and compensate for their service those willing to take the risks. … We become more godlike through our own efforts of self-transcendence, rather than through humble prayer and petition and self-giving love.

Shiffman goes on to explain the roots of this modern Gnosticism in the late medieval period, with the triumph of univocity (Duns Scotus) and nominalism (William of Ockham) over metaphysical realism, whose last and greatest exponent was Thomas Aquinas. (I tell a brief version of this history in The Benedict Option). You might think all of this is abstract mumbo-jumbo, but in fact it’s the water in which all of us swim:

Fuller’s advocacy of transhumanism has cultural resonance because he articulates and celebrates the theological principles that structure and orient modern thought. While his account is often sloppy, he is nevertheless right that the transhumanist agenda is a logical consequence of Gnosticism (which he and many others mistake for Christianity), and that this Gnosticism, which has theological roots in the Scotist-­nominalist revolution in metaphysics, ever more exclusively shapes the modern cultural imagination and our understanding of what it is to be human. His failure to interpret correctly the philosophical and theological traditions that precede this revolution shows how difficult it is to think outside the nominalist and Gnostic horizon once we’re inside it, especially when our technologically mediated relationship to the natural world and our own bodies reinforces its hold on us.

Shiffman leads his readers on a compact discussion of the changing views, from ancient times until today, of what it means to be human. He concludes:

As techno-liberation has become more aggressive, and the cultural swindle of its humanistic façade more apparent, the American genius of voluntary association has produced a response. The steady growth of classical academies and classical Christian homeschooling seems to testify to a growing realization that the classical Christian humanism of Humanity 3.5 is the real liberation of humanity and cultivation of human dignity.

A spontaneous renewal of humane culture will, of course, face considerable opposition as the idolaters of progress recognize the full scope of its nonconformity. We need to protect the growth of these precious seeds in a number of ways. First and foremost are legal safeguards for the right to educate. Second, biblically inspired institutions of higher education need increasing self-awareness that the vision of humanity, nature, and God that provides their identity has to be defended in its integrity. Third, in both classical schooling and higher education, a self-conscious recovery of a biblical and philosophical understanding of created nature and the practical and spiritual relationship to it that fosters the human good must have a place in the curriculum. Metaphysical reflection and the cultivation of wonder provide the indispensable foundation for a critique of and response to the Gnostic culture that dominates our lives.

Read the whole thing. We Christians need to contemplate intensely these (and other?) means of resistance. Here’s the thing, though: how many of us Christians are captive to the modern way of seeing the world, such that we are allies of transhumanism (and transgenderism, and all the rest) whether we know it or not?

This is why I look with skepticism, even hostility, on the plans Christians have to “take America back for Christ” (#MAGA Evangelicalism) or to “institute the Social Reign of Christ The King” (integralist Catholicism). It seems to me that neither recognize how hopelessly compromised most Christians are by modern Gnosticism. We like this stuff! We like the power it gives us. It’s dissolving Christianity, and, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s phrase, it’s abolishing man. Before we can hope to re-Christianize America, we have to re-Christianize Christians.

One last thing. Yesterday, reader Isaac H. mentioned the sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s short story “Tower of Babylon.” I bought it for 99 cents on Kindle. It was really good. It’s a story about Elamite miners in ancient Babylon who are participating in the construction of the famous tower. When the story begins, the builders have reached the vault of heaven (the story depends on ancient cosmology), and who are thinking about piercing it, even though they fear that it might bring a second deluge upon the earth. This passage jumped out at me.

Hillalum could not keep his doubts silent at such a time. “And if the waters are endless?” he asked. “Yahweh may not punish us, bu Yahweh may allow us to bring our judgment upon ourselves.”

“Elamite,” said Qurdusa, “even as a newcomer to the tower, you should know better than that. We labor for our love of Yahweh, we have done so for all our lives, and so have our fathers for generations back. Men as righteous as we could not be judged harshly.”

“It is true that we work with the purest of aims, but that doesn’t mean we have worked wisely. Did men truly choose the correct path when they opted to live their lives away from the soil from which they were shaped? Never has Yahweh said that the choice was proper. Now we stand ready to break open heaven, even when we know that water lies above us. If we are misguided, how can we be sure Yahweh will protect us from our own errors?”

Men as righteous as we could not be judged harshly. Of course not.

UPDATE: Prof. Steve Fuller adds this to the comments thread:

For the record, while Shiffman is critical of my work, he has got the theology of it right, and is even right to ferret out the hidden Gnosticism, which is explored in more detail here: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137374899