”Transhumanists like myself, who encourage shedding our biological limitations in favor of becoming technological gods, are broadly secular.” —Zoltan Istvan
In a previous piece I laid out an overview of orthodox Christian theology with a view to exploring transhumanism as fundamentally rooted (though unconsciously) in that Christian mythos. There’s a number of reasons that perspective is important.
For one there’s too often been a tendency to confuse transhumanism as a principally Gnostic (rather than orthodox Christian) movement. While there are some Gnostic-type elements I think the deep structural overlap with the orthodox tradition is stronger—though as I’ve argued elsewhere Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity are both species of dualism so they are much closer to each other than either side typically likes to admit.
The other major implication of highlighting the orthodox Christian background to transhumanism is that transhumanism has presented itself largely–though not exclusively–in the terms of atheism, agnosticism, and secular (trans)humanism. Transhumanism as a result, I argue, becomes a kind of shadow theology, except in the few thinkers who grasp it is at root, a theological venture. This shadow theology creates an ideological cover for a series of questionable faith-based assumptions that cannot be criticized as such because of the officially non-religious self-identity of much of the transhumanist movement, particularly in it’s more libertarian wing.
As detailed in the previous piece, the key elements of orthodox Christian theology as they (re)appear in transhumanism are the following: death as a form of a “mistake” or kind of suffering to be undone; an apocalyptic transition to another reality symbolized principally by the coming of physical immortality as well as material abundance more broadly; this changed status of material creation can be seen as an entrance in a god-like deified status; the use of spiritualized technologies to achieve these goals.
I ended that piece by arguing there was really only one major point of disagreement between orthodox Christianity and transhumanism: namely that in the Christian telling it is ultimately the action of the Sovereign Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier whereas in the transhumanist telling it is the work of humans that will achieve such ends.
It is to that last point that I want to focus attention here. In order to gain a greater appreciation of the deep mythic and magical roots of transhumanism we need to talk about alchemy, it’s intersection with orthodox Christianity (particularly in the West), and it’s contemporary revival in transhumanism (again typically in an unacknowledged light).
Alchemy, as a tradition, is certainly not bound to the West. For example the Chinese Taoists have their own longstanding alchemical tradition, as did India where it was known as tantra. Nevertheless transhumanism grew up in the Western context—including, very uncomfortably, out of the eugenics movement—first in Europe and then most especially in the United States, particularly California in the 1970s/80s. Transhumanism is a worldwide movement now so it can’t be reduced to a solely Western provenance, nevertheless the Western influence on transhumanism should not be underestimated. Therefore it’s to the roots of Western religion, metaphysics, and consciousness that we need to look to really get a hold of the deeper currents of transhumanism.
Which brings us back to alchemy, specifically Western alchemy. Alchemy is a spiritual technology oriented fundamentally to physical immortality (same as Chinese Taoist alchemy). Alchemy, it can be argued, has even further back roots into shamanic traditions of ancient pedigree—with their strong emphasis on creating the immortality of the soul. But, as detailed in the previous piece, with the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic movement (growing out of Zoroastrianism) the vision shifts to one of resurrected status, not simply immortality of a pre-existent soul in another realm (like the stars) after death but radically transformed material resurrection and ultimately divinization of the human body and the material creation itself in the messianic age, most especially including the abolition of death.
During that same time period (first few centuries of the Common Era) alchemy and magical practice more generally became intertwined with Neoplatonic philosophy, uniting both a stream of spiritual awakening and the transformation of the material itself. As Christianity became more and more a force in the Roman Empire it began to incorporate Neoplatonic philosophy to ground it’s Christian theology, see for example Origen and later Dionysius the Areopagite.
This eclectic mix created a united stream whereby both alchemical-magical practice and Christianity—which would otherwise seem to be in opposition to each other—could meet in Neoplatonism. As Joseph Farrell and Scot de Hart pointed out in their indispensable text Transhumanism: A Grimoire of Alchemical Agendas this allowed alchemy in the West to hide itself within the folds of Neoplatonic Christianity. The was especially the case in the later middle ages and on into the Renaissance.
There was a core contradiction however in that conjunction from both the Neoplatonic side as well as the alchemical. It was only a figure like Giordano Bruno who came out in full force admitting the core incongruency of that setup for which he was burned at the stake, proving why others were more willing to hide under the guise of official theology and work more in secret.
The alchemist is one who desires to create The Philosopher’s Stone (or Elixir)—a product that would grant immortality. The Philosopher’s Stone was also an ability to tap into the very generative core of Life, thereby providing unlimited abundance of any kind material ("turning lead into gold").
The Philosopher’s Stone would therefore make one in essence a god. Notice that the alchemical process reflects the Christian apocalyptic vision to a T: divinization, physical immortality, and transformed unending material abundance. The key difference being for the alchemist this will occur through their alchemical process which involves the transformation/enlightenment of their consciousness (a la Neoplatonism) as well as the material processes. Both sides of that one coin—the spiritual and the material—can be said to be the consequence of a technology.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” —Arthur C. Clarke
“Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.” — Jeffrey Kripal
Everything lines up there except the action is not God’s as in orthodox Christianity. Everything in alchemy is now present in transhumanism. Transhumanism is the contemporary expression of this ancient movement of alchemy, itself profoundly shaped by orthodox Christian theology. What Christians call the messianic age, transhumanists call The Singularity.
I began this piece with the rather absurdist (on its face) quotation from noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan:
“Transhumanists like myself, who encourage shedding our biological limitations in favor of becoming technological gods, are broadly secular.”
How does one advocate becoming a god and then claim they are secular? Becoming a god is after all an intrinsically theological proposition. Technological gods are still gods after all.
As Charles Taylor established in his magnum opus A Secular Age, secularism is a specific cultural and religious tradition growing out of Western European Protestant Christianity. Put more simply, secularism is a religious worldview. Even Auguste de Comte’s scientistic narrative about the world consisting of three ages—magic (childhood), mythic (adolescence), and scientific secular rationality (adulthood)—is a secularized version of Joachim of Fiore’s medieval apocalyptic vision of The Three Ages of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What that means is that Istvan’s statement is weirdly quite accurate, though in an entirely opposite way than he imagines. Transhumanists are broadly secular insofar as they adhere to the religious worldview of secularism. (Istvan in particular is very religious with his militant atheistic stance). Secularism itself only grew out of a specific form of Christianity (Western Protestant). Secularism is a theological project and more to the point transhumanists—whether they realize it or not—are the contemporary expression of an ancient alchemical lineage. Becoming a god is the most theological of all projects imaginable. It’s a vision that has its roots in apocalyptic Christianity molded by a specifically alchemical agenda.
The major difference and danger is that traditional alchemy required a change of consciousness. It required a spiritual technology. Absent such a consciousness alchemy becomes a species of black magic and the dark arts. It becomes either (or both) of two possibilities: 1. an unintentional or shadow theology 2. an intentionally malevolent alchemy.
My guess would be the majority of the transhumanists would fall into the former category while there would be elites who use such ideas to promote the second darker vision (see the series Orphan Black for how that intertwined dual dynamic could play out.)
As Farrell and de Hart note in their book all the major technologies brought forward in support of a larger transhumanist (or posthuman vision) each replicate aspects of the traditional great chain of being: GMOs, genetic engineering, chimerical creations, nanotechnology, computer-human interfacing (cyborgs), AI, and robotics.
But because the majority of transhumanists come from an unconscious theological posture (namely secularism & alchemy) they will not recognize the project they are actually undertaking.
Julian Huxley brought the term transhumanism to the wider world. Dante centuries early in the Divine Comedy actually invented the term—to go beyond or transcend humanity—in his vision of Paradise, further proving the ultimately Christian roots of transhumanism. For Huxley however the term was invented as a rebranding exercise for the “science” (read: political & alchemical agenda) of eugenics. Eugenics had gotten a "bad rap" due to the Nazis so Huxley rather than re-thinking the whole project in light of the Nazi genocide thought it was more important to create a more sanitized name for what is, in essence, the same procedure. His brother Aldous of course wrote Brave New World as a clear prophesy of the coming transhumanist age—which, as I’ve said before, is the real dystopia to watch out for and not the Handmaid’s Tale.
Again this is history most transhumanists do not know (or do not want to know). Remember the Huxley brothers are direct descendants of Thomas Henry Huxley, aka “Darwin’s bulldog”. Social Darwinism of course was the proximate cause and forerunner to eugenics (and therefore transhumanism). I’m not saying every self-identified transhumanist is some secret-Nazi, only that the "genetic roots" (dark pun very much intended) of transhumanism include all these theological streams and they exert an influence on the shape of transhumanism. Transhumanism’s largely naive secular humanist self-identity masks much deeper movements, which if left unconscious, will create incredible forms of suffering—what Freud called the “return of the repressed.”
So where have we come to in all these reflections? Christianity offers a vision of apocalyptic deification of matter and resurrected glorified immortal flesh and infinite material abundance through spiritualized technology (“The Holy Spirit”) as the final goal and summation of creation and history. Alchemy offers a pathway of transformed consciousness and materiality in order to realize that perfected material reality in the here and now and not through waiting for the messianic age to come at some far off distant future. That overlap in goals allowed many alchemists to hide out under the banner of Christian theology for much of the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. Even though, at root, alchemy believed that the human (and not God) would initiate such immortality. Though to be fair, in the alchemical view, the transformed human is God (or at least a god) and therefore in a sense, god does still achieve the outcome.
Science has it’s roots in Hermetic alchemy and promotes an ultimately alchemical agenda and once science separated itself out from the control of the church, the alchemists could come out more in full force for their agenda. In the meantime however science would officially adopt a materialist and scientistic philosophical framework (as detailed elsewhere on the site) leaving it’s Hermetic-magical-alchemical roots in the unconscious/shadow. This was especially true in Darwin’s theory of evolution*, which laid the groundwork for social darwinism, which eventually become eugenics, which after the Nazi horror got rebranded as transhumanism.
By and large secular transhumanists don’t recognize their own indebtedness to theology, particularly Christian theology (as well as alchemy). Even a spiritual transhumanist like Gulio Prisco advocates a modern version of Cosmism, whose original thinkers came from 19th century Russia. That is, the Cosmists came from a world steeped in the traditions of Russian Orthodox Christianity, which is to say precisely the tradition I’ve been speaking about in this pieces. The tradition that saw the Fall as a slide into non-being, death as entering via the Fall, and the divinization of the cosmos as the ultimate act of God. This overlap points yet again to the thesis that transhumanism is fundamentally sourced in Christian orthodoxy. One of the reasons transhumanism spends so much time attacking mainstream orthodox Christianity is that it’s fighting it’s own shadow.
Religions that are not able to criticize their own faith-claims create suffering. Human history has taught us this on an unbelievably horrific scale. Transhumanists on the whole are unconscious theological agents. They have often not seriously reflected on the nature of what it means to be a god. So much time and energy has gone into various imaginative scenarios of how humans can merge with machines and genetically engineer themselves in order to become a god, not nearly enough thought has gone into what are the ethical responsibilities (the burdens even) of being a god, as well as the potential forms of suffering and pain associated with being a god–see Buddhism’s teaching on the god realm for instance.
While the forms of the technology are new, the underlying ethos of transhumanism is very ancient. There’s nothing particularly innovative or radically emergent in the reflections. What is different is the loss of an understanding of the deeper currents and genetic influence of the movement itself. That is where the danger lies. Theology per se isn’t necessarily bad or destructive. Unconscious, shadow theology most certainly is. And transhumanist theology is some of the most powerfully unconscious theologies there is.
Perhaps the most dangerous possibility of an unconscious apocalyptic and alchemical "shadow theology" of transhumanism is how easily it can merge with a technocratic nightmare future whereby the transhumanism is for the elites and the masses are left to rot (see Elysium or Gattaca for examples). The link there is that in orthdoox apocalyptic thought--running from Zoroaster down through Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions--the damned can be banished to "the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth." God (or the gods) sometime like to purify the earth through catacalysm (see Noah and the Flood). If transhumanism takes a specific elite into a status of having transcended humanity into "technological gods" they will see themsevles as the elect and the ones chosen for the paradise of the Singularity while the rest will be left to burn in the fires of a hellish landscape of poverty, immiseration, and death. This extremely dark line of thought will require a further piece to fully explore but (scary to say) we can see already it's outlines and arguemnts is public discourse. These transhumanist technological gods may turn out to be less beneovlent caregivers and more Lovecraftian horror-deities.
* As opposed to Alfred Russell Wallace who sought to relate evolutionary theory to spiritualism and other more traditional metaphysics, including Hermeticism.