Jan 10 2012

That Old Time Transformation

By Woody Evans

There are many examples of the expression of religious ecstasy as a move toward technosocial singularity in the transhuman literature.  James Hughes has made a case for Buddhism as a transhuman tradition.. Somewhat playfully, I have suggested that Christ represents (and is represented by) Terence McKenna’s “transcendental object at the end of time.” But there is a problem with this tendency to see the ecstatic and transformative elements of religion as merely transhuman.

Transhumanism is concerned with transforming what is now human into something else.  Through technology, we purposely direct our own co-evolution with our tools —— and the outcome is posthuman.  Transhumanism is about becoming something new in the history of the universe.  We become godlike, and we are no longer fettered by natural processes.  We become the masters of our own adaptation, and the masters of the material world.  From pico-scale to cosmos, our (newly shared and co-mingled?) egos eat the natural universe.

The problem may be one of definition. How does transhumanism tend to define “human”, and how do various traditional religions define “transformation”?  We’ll leave the question of transhumanism’s definition of ‘human’ alone for now, except to wonder what the limits of a humancentric universe might be when the day comes that humans have no limits.  The entirety of the universe itself becomes a kind of human (or singular posthuman supra-organism) maybe, and that sounds a lot like never being able to wake from a dream or leave your cousin’s trailer… but I digress.

The Soto school of Zen Buddhism is very much concerned with transformation.  By way of zazen (meditation) we realize and experience a perspective on reality that changes us.  This may happen slowly over time with occasional small glimpses of Truth (a kensho here and there), or it may happen in an avalanche — the famous satori moment of complete unity and understanding from which one never recovers.  But, as the old line goes, “before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water… after enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”  In Zen there is an emphasis on becoming fully human — not on escaping our humanity. And across Buddhism, there is profound respect for the enlightened one who turns back from nirvana to aid others.

Orthodox and Eastern Christianity, as (ironically) with the various re-imaginings of Gnosticism, emphasize transformation of the individual in the life and liturgy of the church.  We are transformed by our attempt to follow Christ.  God became Man, and therefore the world was saved from its separation from its creator -— in turning away from our separation (metanoia), we turn toward the light and life of theosis. We enter the kingdom.  But the church has long been imagined as a hospital.  We come to be healed and restored to an original state of connection with the divine, as we were at first in the garden. The transformation we experience takes us more fully and deeply into our humanity and into communion with others, not away from it.

It is possible to see in both of these examples a vision of transformation that is explicitly untranshuman. This is transformation from a state of neurosis and disjointedness into a state of grace and connection and awareness.  We could therefore say that religion rejects the posthuman vision of transhumanism, even if it shares a desire to transcend our current perceptions of the universe as “merely physical”.  In religion and in transhumanism we can find a longing for a vision of the world as energy-infused-material, as information-rich, as made primarily out of story-or-‘bits’ rather than that clunky old notion of atoms.  Transhumanism, as I have argued before, sometimes sounds increasingly religious — and there’s little doubt that much faith and Big Stories inform its visions of a posthuman future.  But authentic spiritual paths (authentic = tested and verified means) don’t promise quick fixes, they just offer lots of hard work and discipline.  Even if a magick button for transformation is discovered, long practice is necessary to integrate lessons from the world beyond into our experience of the world at hand.

None of it is easy.  And the aim of these dusty old means (the zafu, the chokti) is to become restored and fully human — not to become an over-stimulated hulking pile of self-serving nanites acting out million-year-old psychodramas in a hacked and terraformed pseudo-utopia.

It just seems to be an important distinction, going forward as fast as we are.