Prometheus Unbound

prometheusI came across a fairly mind-blowing article this morning.

I don’t take this sort of stuff very seriously, any more than the ideas of some about man leaving earth to live on gigantic spacecraft or reach another planet within their lifetime. Intellectual masturbation abounds! Some of the ideas are impossible or too far-fetched. Others would involve killing off most of the world’s population in order to make these ideas available to the tiny elite of the hyper-rich. What is this all about?

Most of us Boomers grew up with Star Trek and Dr Who, and with the fascination of science fiction. Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, man has dreamed about being the master of life and death, the very questions religious people leave to a deity or other factors beyond our control. The Romantics grappled with the struggle between man emancipating himself from the old determinism, but at the same time bewailing the increasing mechanisation and industrialisation of their world. It is not by accident that I choose the theme of Prometheus, a theme of classical Greek mythology that is present as much in modern science fiction cinema as the poetry of the Romantics.

These speculations in the 1960’s stimulated my curiosity, only to be told that Star Trek communicators didn’t exist (they do now – mobile phones), nor did robots or bionic human-machine hybrids. Technology has advanced almost at the speed of science fiction, and there are some very frightening prospects.

In this documentary, we find two opposing viewpoints: life coming from matter and depending on it – or life / consciousness / energy being the source of everything. In the former view (materialism), life depends on physical matter and the soul is not more than an active brain. When the brain dies, life is extinguished. In the latter view, life is incarnate and takes flesh during the life we know, but is independent of it. Life and consciousness continue after bodily death. The latter view is not exclusive to religious people but is also shared by some members of the scientific community.

The subject I approach is one that is based on the materialist view, that man has to seek immortality by improving the physical body or replacing it with the use of high technology. What is reassuring is that transhumanism contains the seeds of its own failure. It promises to make imperfect humanity perfect and eliminate sickness, poverty, war, etc. Briefly, it is a utopian vision, but utopianism in itself isn’t wrong, just impossible in the world we know.

Perhaps utopia for some is dystopia for others. Imagine for a moment that such technology would “work”. Would everybody benefit? The blind or lame destitute in the slums of Calcutta or London? Would there have to be ethnic or cultural “cleansing”? Transhumanists promise a five hundred year lifespan. Why not a thousand years? If you have the world populated by people in mechanical bodies who live for a thousand years, what do you do with people who only live for sixty years and who already overpopulate the earth in relation with the resources needed for industrial and technological “growth”? Put them in gas chambers or shoot them? As for humans designed with computers, would we be all the same, mass produced? Surely, mass production would be cheaper (I assume there would still be money in the new world) like it is today for cars, computers and most things we have in our homes.

There is then the possibility of chimeras, a cross between several species. I daydreamed as a child about having the wings of a bird so that I could fly. As I went to school on the bus and I saw the beauty of England’s Lake District in all seasons, I imagined myself flying alongside the bus, over the lake and the mountains and wherever I wanted. Manipulating genes and DNA makes it possible to make a human / animal hybrid. Yes, it is being done!

The next stage is separating the soul / spirit from the brain and programming it into a computer, a computer of the future, perhaps a quantum computer. As the hardware wears out, the software is just transferred as we do today on our laptops and backup drives. Strangely, this seems to collude with the view that consciousness is not absolutely dependent on the brain. Science has devised ways of improving the body with mechanical parts. We have dentures, pacemakers, prosthetic limbs to replace those that had to be amputated. Dialysis does the job of failed kidneys, when the alternative is death. No one complains. Recently, a mechanical heart has been devised that would be just as good as a natural heart and wired up to the brain. I have a couple of bits of plastic mesh in my body, used by a surgeon to fix my hernias. I also wear reading glasses, a device that has existed for many centuries to help us see when our eyes don’t focus as they used to do. After that, there are brain implants to control neurological disorders and modern prosthetic limbs. Where is the limit? Could they just transplant a brain into a robot, and recover the data and back it up before the brain dies? Perhaps it might be possible. But, is that what we want? Can we just keep pushing the tolerance and acceptance threshold indefinitely?

Who is paying for this technology? To whom will it be available?

The next stage is connecting people’s brains to the internet and other communications systems directly. Where is the limit? I suppose I am an old fogey, but I know that I would never want my brain or soul connected to a machine. What if my body fails? The alternative is death, whether we cease to exist or continue to exist at a different level. So be it…

The increase of technology and complexity in life can only go on for so long. It certainly frightens me. The essential instinct at the basis of all this is the preservation of what we know as life at all costs. We do not all fear death, but rather accept it as the closing of one mode of existence to pass on to another. We are confronted with the prospect of this life being finite, having an end. God is infinite, perfect in everything in which we humans are not. There is every chance that I am old enough not to be concerned by the maturing of these technologies, perhaps also the young people reading this blog.

This kind of materialist utopianism was a dystopia in the twentieth century. It was central to the Nazi ideology and was aptly described in the almost prophetic writings of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. One cannot be so naive as to imagine that human / animal / machine hybrids would be allowed to be autonomous and free persons. They would presumably be controlled by some kind of master computer using something like internet and wi-fi. This utopia would involve the extermination of the majority of humanity on account of “imperfections”, race, social and economic considerations, education, etc. We have heard it all before!

I deliberately refrain from using theological arguments, because we religious folk are said to be the Luddites in this game, resisting progress and man’s ambition to excel himself. It suffices to express ourselves in purely “human” terms. Would we be happy with our thousand-year lives, our limitless perfection – but at the cost of our humanity and our spiritual souls? Such a world, like the one we know, is not immune from human evil and the danger of society collapsing. We will always have disease and pain. They are part of our condition.

The Christian in us remembers the many stories in the Old Testament about the Flood, the Tower of Babel and the many other allegorical narratives of man without God going too far and containing the seeds of his own destruction. It is the message Mary Shelley expressed in her terrifying Frankenstein so long ago. We live and experience the Prometheus Unbound of the ancient Greeks, and we may suffer greatly from the consequences. Mess about with our genes and DNA, or those of our food, and we will be in deep trouble!

I have my faith as a Christian that we continue to live after death and that we will discover new frontiers that our present life does not allow us to imagine. This faith is comforted by the kind of science that has discovered that consciousness precedes matter (or the energy that gives us the illusion of matter). That world view takes away our fear of death and the obsession of prolonging ourselves beyond what is natural and reasonable.

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22 Responses to Prometheus Unbound

  1. Warwickensis says:

    Father,

    I had a nightmare on these very lines a while ago.

    Blogged it here: http://warwickensis.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/visions-of-future.html

    • I have had quite a few recently: nuclear war, being in Paris with buildings collapsing around me, this kind of thing. Often, dreams are just nonsense, but they might be the experience of consciousness away from our “normal” existence. Strange stuff!

  2. The Anti-Gnostic says:

    “Trans-human” is the same old Gnosticism that the Church has declared heretical since her founding. It is premised on a mind-body dichotomy which, ironically, is itself contrary to biological science. Good old C.S. Lewis has already been over this.

    There is nothing new under the sun, and we have been repeating the same errors since Genesis 1 through 11.

    • Gnosticism seems to be one of the most abused words I have ever come across. Pope Francis used the word to describe the traditionalists! Transhumanism seems to me to be the opposite of the kind of Gnosticism described here. Manichaeism seems to be only one kind of historical gnosticism in the history of heresies. Would you care to expand on your reasoning? I’m not saying you are wrong, but we do need to go through things, not just call things names.

      • The Anti-Gnostic says:

        The notion of the material world as infinitely malleable and, where un-malleable, requiring transcendence is purely gnostic. Christian Science, Transcendental Meditation, “gender-reassignment”, trans-humanism, the late Classical-era Gnostic cults all stem from the same disdain for Creation and rebellion against the physical and biological laws of the universe. The animating premise behind gnosticism is that what is truly the essence of humanity is the disembodied mind. The ontological reality is that Man is a triune being in the image of the Triune God: he is mind, body and spirit as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In other words, Man, like God, is the whole package. This relates directly to the “gender bending” you posted about earlier. A transsexual man is a superficial, mutilated simulacrum of a female human. A homosexual marriage is a superficial, perverse simulacrum of an actual marriage. So too, a brain hooked up to a machine is a superficial, mutilated simulacrum of a human, or a shell of a body where the mind is gone and the brain and tissues kept alive by oxygen and IV’s. This is awful technology spawned from the despair and rebellion of the modern world’s inability to deal with physical death.

      • You have expressed this so well. I make a big distinction on modifications made to a human body for medical reasons (eg. amputating a limb because of gangrene) and plastic surgery for reasons of wanting a different appearance. The modern world’s inability to deal with physical death – there you have hit the nail on the head. Do you make this distinction, or should people hooked up to machines to keep them alive be euthanised or left to die naturally? It is a good question.

        If you say “The animating premise behind gnosticism is that what is truly the essence of humanity is the disembodied mind.”, could I not argue that life after physical death is impossible? There is a theory according to which the disembodied spirit becomes a quantity of fragmented quanta and can only find its personality in the whole or incarnated. (I won’t comment on reincarnation – which is foreign to Christianity.)

        Naturally I would never perform a same-sex marriage, both in principle and in obedience to the laws of God and my Church.

        Again, thank you for your well-expressed comment. It all needs to be discussed and reasoned out.

      • Dale says:

        The anti-gnostic stated the following: ” The ontological reality is that Man is a triune being in the image of the Triune God: he is mind, body and spirit as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In other words, Man, like God, is the whole package.”

        I remember in seminary, during one of Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy’s dogmatic theology classes, (after reading Dun Scotus, who made almost the same statement), mentioning this in class, to which Fr Boris responded that such a theological concept is “western” (the great no-no word in Orthodoxy) and did not align with eastern theological concepts. Hence, it is nice to see an Orthodox use this same terminology to show that the theology of the Trinity is in some sense completely natural to the reality of the human, created, condition.

      • nonvivamultra says:

        If we are ‘a whole package’, then what is good for the body ought to be good for the soul. This is a fine theory, but it seems to me difficult to align with the praxis of Early Christianity. It isn’t good for the body to flagellate it; it isn’t good for the body to fast to the point of starvation, or to having one’s lips become pale (see the Liber Gomorrheanus). It isn’t good for a person to have no physical intimacy of any sort. It isn’t good for the body or the person to deprive them of sleep. But all these are part of ascesis, at least as practiced in the West in the past. If we are ‘one package’, corporal mortification doesn’t make sense, at least to me.

        At least in Western theology, there is a distinct attitude that the soul is utterly distinct from the body and undetectable to the mortal person. There is also a tendency to see extremes of self-denial, up to the point of eating vomit and licking puss-filled wounds, as good. I don’t see how this reconciles with being “one package”. Perhaps I’m missing the mark here, but I just don’t think this argument works.

      • Stephen K says:

        Every time we give expression to the notion that there is a ‘higher’ life, a ‘higher’ way of being, a higher consciousness – and let us admit it we all do – we are mimicking our caricatures of Gnostics – those who sought to achieve a higher knowledge, infusion of the Spirit, whatever. In truth, unless we have resigned ourselves to a sensual, materialist, political concept of what it means to be Christian or ‘Church’ – and, I’ll be frank, I find myself wondering whether those who insist on the “way things have always been done” are not falling into this trap – we are seeking some kind of gnosis or its analogy (in my view). Personally, whilst I acknowledge the term ‘New Age’ encompasses a veritable Heinz-variety of aspirations and notions, I find it not only suggestive of liberation (i.e. freedom) but latent in so much of our discourse. I remain alternately bemused and annoyed by the readiness to dismiss ‘the other’ as ‘Gnostic’ or whatever.
        I feel I want to shout “We are not different from each other!”

      • You have put this so eloquently. Names from old times are used inappropriately for present-day “philosophies” or whatever we want to call them. Gnosticism is characterised as the idea of the disembodied spirit. The alternative is what we discussed earlier, namely ideas expressed by Tony Equale suggesting that the human spirit at death does not retain its personality. It would become a random collection of quanta, like the old scholastic analogy of matter without form. That is what happens to the body. It doesn’t cease to exist but is transformed by decomposition (or by burning or being eaten by animals, etc.). What is consciousness, or knowledge or gnosis? All “orthodox” Christians believe in the continuation of personality and consciousness beyond bodily death, and so this must a survival of Gnosticism. Perhaps those who have genuinely and completely purified themselves from Gnosticism are materialists and atheists. Of course I am arguing by “reductio ad absurdam” or taking things to extremes. Perhaps orthodox Christianity is moderate Gnosticism (especially the Alexandrian Fathers) in the same way as it assimilated elements of Paganism in order to “interface” with human cultures.

        It would be helpful for us to learn something about historical Gnosticism. No, I’m not defending it, but I do invite my readers to learn about it, go into the Finis Africae of the secret library and then adopt a critical attitude as historical criticism peels away the myths of the early Church. Many critics of historical Gnosticism base their criticism on the polemical writings of Irenaeus of Lyons, but there is a relatively new element to study: the Nag Hammadi scriptures found in Egypt in 1945. The documents were subjected to scientific scrutiny as to their authenticity, and they stood up to the tests.

        Christianity has always been divided between the contemplative dimension and the use of Christianity for the purposes of secular politics. All Christianity contains a Gnostic element, small or significant, that cannot be eliminated without rejecting the whole.

        Many tendencies these days are quite unhealthy. As you say, the New Age movement is highly questionable as are many occultist practices that bring risks of demonic possession and other phenomena that can’t be explained by natural science. We don’t overcome this problem by calling people Gnostics, but by restoring the balance in Christianity between mysticism, the contemplative life and our vocation in the world for humanity, life and the environment.

      • Stephen K says:

        All Christianity contains a Gnostic element, small or significant, that cannot be eliminated without rejecting the whole.

        Yes! That is what I was trying to say, in a nut-shell. Thank you, Father. I recommend the edition of The Gospel of St Thomas commented by Jean Yves Leloup (1986) as an entry point to opening one’s mind from the prejudices of historical “orthodoxy”.

      • Another very interesting author is Elaine Pagels. Bishop Stefan Höller, a Hungarian expatriate living in Los Angeles, is another interesting character. One of the most important pre-Nag Hammadi thinkers was Carl Gustav Jung who initiated a totally different method of psychoanalysis from that of Freud, his teacher. Freud was much more of a materialist in his understanding of the human psyche.

        Christianity now seems to be divided into two camps: those who want to connect to a spiritual and mystical content, and those who are looking for the perfect political ideology to do what humans do best!

      • Stephen K says:

        Pagels, Holler, I’ve read both. Now I will read Jung.

      • Yikes! Don’t you have to work? 😀

  3. J.D. says:

    The whole transhumanism stuff gives me the willies as does the sci-fi genre in general. No doubt there has been good done in the name of science and technology, but so much of it was won at the cost of much horrible suffering for those used in research. There is indeed something almost satanic and evil in transhumanism and scientific materialism. I personally find it viscerally repulsive on so many levels.

    As a man of faith I almost wonder if the Luddite way is a better way. I suppose I’d rather live in a culture where everyone was explicitly religious and perhaps a bit superstitious than to live in one where the prevailing mythology is one of cold, lifeless atheism and materialism, the goal of man being the manipulation of matter and the creation of man/machine hybrids.

    Perhaps I’m being romantic here but I’d rather live back in a pagan Viking village or amongst a tribe of pantheist neo Druids than suffer a sci-fi atheist future.

    • I feel the same way. Modern trans-humanism seems to be a jazzed-up version of Josef Mengele and his horrors at Auschwitz! I am highly sceptical of most of the claims of medicine, and I look back to an earlier period when some lived long lives and others died of different causes. Sometimes, my wife will complain because I eat too much fat from meat, and I tell her that I might die of another cause altogether. It has to happen, and this is something the Christian has to accept whilst doing everything to fulfil his vocation on earth.

      I use technology and machines. I drive one. I am using one to write on the internet. On the other hand, I wonder if I would be able to adapt to life without them without going to the extremes of the “prepper” fraternity. I often ask myself if I would have preferred to live in a earlier era, and have to conclude that it would depend on whether I was in an aristocratic family or in a starving and disease-ridden family in a hovel. We couldn’t live in the past with the experience of our own time!

      Modernity also churns my stomach, and my wife often finds that I am too attached to the past. I have dire forebodings about the future, Earth becoming like Mars no less. Why has God not already thrown the toys out of the pram? Perhaps there might be some miracle…

      Perhaps Daesh with their public executions and amputations, destroying antiquities, museums and libraries like the Nazis, would be better than the trans-human dystopian nightmare!

  4. Neil Hailstone says:

    A Viking Pagan village would not be a desirable place for a ‘Romantic’ to dwell. I have just finished Vikings A History – ISBN 9780 297 86787 6- written by the historian Neil Oliver.

    It includes a description,with supporting evidence,of the the ritual gang rape of a female slave followed by her horrific execution as a sacrifice to their ‘Gods’.

    Later Viking history provides a source of inspiration including the ministries of St Olaf and St Magnus.

  5. ed pacht says:

    Is there another time I’d rather live in? Well, I take to heart Our Lord’s sentences: “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” So long as humanity thinks it is in charge, each time will find its own evils and use them “well”.

    I find science fiction valuable inasmuch as it is such a marvelous vehicle for taking trends one can see and following them to their end point. The result, whether supposedly utopian or obviously dystopian is always chilling if one looks deeply enough. Any of our technological “advances”, if allowed to progress freely, will ultimately arrive at such a place. On the whole technology has been a good thing, a product of the human mind at its best – unless it is allowed to express human hubris, to replace the will of God.

    I can’t yet make a cogent theological/philosophical argument for why, but there are aspects of current research and experiment that leave me trembling as if in the presence of ultimate evil. Among them are genetic manipulation, cloning, in vitro fertilization, the increasing interfacing of the brain and electronic hardware, virtual reality, Google glass and further developments of this idea.

    In fact the prevalence of superphones with almost every person makes me uneasy – the cultural and personal costs of such devices seem dangerously high.

    Enough of that. Just let it be said that I don’t much like the era in which I live, but am just as certain that I wouldn’t prefer another. There is, nonetheless, real joy in walking through such difficult environments in the presence of God.

  6. William Hoag says:

    When ever I read of transhumanism I immediately think of the British ex-pat Mr. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (born Neil Andrew Megson on 22 February 1950 at Manchester). P-Orridge is one of the originators of Industrial Music, being a founding member of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. The reason for my mental association is that Mr. P-Orridge has surgically and chemically refigured his body into a male-female monster as part of what he calls the Pandrogyne Project, an effort to make his and his late wife’s bodies nearly identical. P-Orridge’s intent is to express a belief that the self is pure consciousness trapped within the DNA-governed body…Gnosticism.

    • Oh dear! I read last year about a man who had his face altered to make it look like that of a cat. It sounds impossible but here he is:

      He committed suicide.

      “… self is pure consciousness trapped within the DNA-governed body… Gnosticism” To be fair to Gnosticism, we have many ancient writings not known even in Jung’s day or to St Irenaeus. There is a more “orthodox” Gnosticism in the Alexandrian school. I am concerned that we should not react to extremes.

  7. I would not worry too much about transhumanism. I have generally found that when humankind has been on the verge of building a tower unto heaven, or otherwise encroaching on God’s prerogatives, God has a nasty tendency of confusing the tongues, or allowing humanity to start another set of really nasty wars that start another dark age.

    I would be far more afraid of those wars. And for what follows after them.

    • I would agree with you exactly. There are any number of causes that could potentially cause extinction of humanity or even all life. If the damage is to be limited to World War III, there is ISIS / Daesh, the situation in Ukraine, the world banking system, the global elite. Transhumanism is the least of our worries!

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