Rémi Sussan – Transhumanism and hermetism
To become immortal! To be close enough to the stars and speak to them! To surpass the boundaries of our individuality, to be the ones we want to be, just like a God! Many assurances of transhumanism remind the promises of religions around the globe. For many, they present proof that transhumanism is nothing but a mythology of the rags of science in disguise. Others, those who feel more sympathetic to this ideology, think that it answers, indeed, some questions of metaphysical origin, giving though solutions that belong to the rationality department. Some, do not hesitate to say that this vicinity should be taken into account rather than being rejected.
Whatever we think, the vicinity of transhumanism with the sacred exists and it should be investigated.
Such a religion, based on knowledge and technology, is a totally new phenomenon or are there historical precedents? And what can they teach us about a possible sacredness of the modern technology?
Undeniably, there is a philosophy that runs the whole history of the West. This dogma, which played a very significant role during the appearance of sciences in the Renaissance, owes its name, Ηermetism, to the God Mercury, “Hermes”, the Greek God of knowledge, of merchants and of the thieves. In advanced antiquity, at the beginnings of Christianity, Mercury, because of his Egyptian counterpart, Thoth, gained considerable prestige and became, under the name Mercury the Trismegistos, the new prophet, some times human, some times divine, of a religion of knowledge and technique.
What we call hermetism, in the narrow sense, is a philosophy expressed first and foremost through a set of texts called ‘hermetica’, which are gravitated around the teaching of Trismegistos and that we usually subdivide in “technical” and “philosophical” hermetica. Nonetheless, in the broader sense, hermetism was but an element of a cultural melting pot that had received many different influences: the one of Neo-Platonism, with an emphasis on mathematics and introspection, the one of theurgy or the evocation of Gods through magic, and finally the one of Christian Gnosticism, a dyadic religious movement that vowed for the evil character of the material world and the necessity to acquire grace, not through faith or actions, but knowledge itself. In reality, there may have never been a dyadic church, with a membership card and the prohibition to visit neighbors’ temples. It is more possible that the hermits of antiquity constructed their religion by borrowing elements from the hermetica, or Neo-Platonism or Christian Gnosticism, in a syncretism relative to the modern New Age.
In the middle Ages, hermetism disappears in the West, but not in the land of Islam. It is there where Alchemy is developed, an emblematic practice of hermetism which returns vigorously to the West during the Renaissance with Marsile Ficin and his disciple Pic de la Mirandole. In combination with the Jewish kabbala and Christianity, a totally original synthesis is created.
In 1600, the last great follower of hermetic thought, Giordano Bruno, was burnt alive. Some years later, Isaac Casaubon proved that the ‘corpus hermeticum’, which most people in the Rennaisance believed that it was an Egyptian text as ancient as the one of Moses, dates, in reality, to advanced antiquity. After those two serious adversities, hermetic thought may not have disappeared, but it became illicit. Hermetism becomes transformed to what, we subsequently call cabalism. It ceases to play a decisive role in the history of ideas. After Newton, who practices Alchemy, there are no hermits left who practice the new science. Leibniz is perhaps the last philosopher who obviously draws inspiration from it.
What are the important points of hermetic philosophy? First of all, the idea of human dignity. “ Man is such a huge miracle ”. With this dictum of Asclepius, begins the most famous hermetic study on “human dignity” written by Pic de la Mirandole. This shows well enough the role that hermetism played in the birth of renaissance humanism. According to Pic, what characterizes the power of man is his ability to self-transform as he wishes. “Man is allowed to be what he chooses to be”. The humanism of de la Mirandole, inspired by Asclepius, is, therefore, since its birth, a transhumanism.
Another important characteristic of hermetism is its use of techniques for the communion with the divine. Of course, hermetica do not handle modern technologies, but they are essentially devoted to alchemy, magic, astrology… It would be wrong, nevertheless, to think that those beliefs are just irrational activities that must be dissociated from real science.
It is certainly absurd to continue to believe in astrology today, with the accumulation of facts which demonstrate its arbitrary character and the impotence of astrologers to prove the value of their predictions. In antiquity, though, or during the Renaissance, astrology formed an expression of rationality, since it presumed the existence of a physical determinism as opposed to a divine providence that was beyond our reach. From a clearly philosophical point of view, there is no difference between a hermit who consults his horoscope and a modern imbecile who is trying to interpret his gene which he just got out from 23andme. We can simply hope that the method of the latter is more effective, although not even this is certain.
Alchemy, the central science of the hermetica techniques (to the point where hermetism and alchemy became almost synonymous through the ages) shows us that there are many other common elements with the modern transhumanist thought. The alchemist does not merely try to transform -to begin with- lead to gold. His basic aspiration is immortality. Of course, this research goes through technology. But there is something more important: the philosophy that lies underneath. In the alchemic thought, mainly after the Renaissance, the world is not perfect, not finished. While we thought that metals “evolved” naturally to become gold, the role of the alchemist was to accelerate this evolution and put it to practice on himself. The alchemist is therefore a partner of God in the process of the creation of the world. The Mercurian thought escapes from the traditional dichotomy of the West, that offers us the choice of full submission to nature, since any attempt to elude would be a sign of arrogance, hubris, or on the contrary, a rebellion against it, with the rejection of any value except for the utilitarian. Mercurianism presents to us an ecology that entails and accepts the transformation from man.
From all the aspects of mercurian thought, alchemy, mainly in its post renaissance version, is perhaps the one that approaches transhumanism the most, either because of the quest for physical immortality or because of the interest for the deeper structures of matter, through nanotechnology. Beyond this comparison though, it is mainly the sense of A world that can be perfected, in which man has the part of the catalyst for evolution, who draws the attention. Human conscience is not just an epiphenomenon in a world without meaning. It plays a fundamental part in the superior aims of the world.
Because, on the last day, the world will come to the realization: it’s the Omega Point of Frank Tipler, the moment when “life will have taken over the control of all matter and all the existing powers, not only in one world but in the logically possible worlds. Life will have evolved in all the areas of space, in all the universes that could exist, and it will have stored an infinite quantity of information, that will include all the tiny bits of knowledge that is logical for us to know”.
Furthermore, Mircea Eliade had observed, since 1931, the similitude between alchemy and the thought of Theilard de Chardin, who was the first to invent the Omega Pont: “there is a fundamental symmetry between the optimistic theology of Theilard de Chardin and particularly between his hope for a cosmic eschatology, fulfilled by Christ, and the religious ideology of the advanced western alchemy”.
Astrology is useful in order to understand the laws of nature. It is the study of determinism, of how things come. Magic is useful as the exact opposition to this determinism. By invoking the appropriate Gods, we can “escape from our destiny as it is written in the stars”, as the biblical speech says. If, for example, my character lacks some qualities of Venus, I will invoke Venus. This way I will be able to multiply my aesthetic and emotional capabilities, were the thoughts of the Florentine translator of the corpus hermeticum, Marsile Ficin. Magic, from a functional point of view, is the equivalent of what we call today increased sensibleness. The Nintendo exercises, the designers’ drugs, once the implants had substituted the rituals, but the aims remain the same.
Magic, though, is not just primitive psychology. It is something more. “Magic is to marry the world”, says Pic de la Mirandole. The primary condition for the success of magical ventures, explains to us his almost contemporary Cornelius Agrippa, is the conscience of human dignity that the magician must have”. “A magician, according to the philosophers, is someone who combines knowledge and the potential to act”, endorses ‘Giordano Bruno in the ‘de magia’. Magic therefore, is the function of this new religion which fosters action in the world and affirms the divine character of the human being. It also presents a world that is ruled completely by information, the code, either it being numerical, like in Pythagorism, or alphabetical, like in the kabbala. It is an idea used by the cyberculture and transhumanism seems to be directly originated from it. Erik Davis, a famous critic of new cultures and tendencies, wrote some excellent essays on this subject, like ‘A Computer, a Universe’ or his extraordinary book Techgnosis.
If man is God, he possesses creative power like God.
As things stand, the creation of artificial beings is an example of the supreme control of the magical and alchemist techniques. As Pierre Lory explains, about Jabir, the Arab alchemist of the Middle Ages, “he who fully controls the art he can produce, according to him, not only metallic substances (…) but plants and animals as well, even humans, with an exact imitation of the natural laws. The alchemist, sani, can actually imitate the creator, Bâri, until he can create equivalent achievements.
The idea of creating artificial beings, humanoids, golems according to the kabbala tradition, constructed souls that is, as the renaissance mercurian Giulio Camillo used to write (with a formula that seems to express the archaic form of artificial intelligence), it consists a fundamental hypothesis of the mercurian philosophy, since its beginning. According to the most famous reference of Asclepius on the subject:
“Whatever we have said until now about man is marvelous, but all those marvels do not deserve the following: what mainly produces admiration is that they made man capable of discovering the nature of gods, and reproduce it. Our first ancestors (…) invented the art to make gods. (…..) because they couldn’t create souls, they invoked the souls, after invoking the souls of demons or angels, they introduced them to their idols with sacred and divine ceremonies, so that those idols could do good and evil”. 
During the resurrection of greek – egyptian mercurianism in the renaissance, this text fascinated the Florentine interpreters, causing them fear at the same time. To construct Gods, isn’t it the utmost blasphemy?
According to the historian Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Florentine mercurian Lazarelli went even further from his ancient predecessors. If they believed that it was possible to “make Gods”, they considered it necessary to bring the planetary spirits to the statues. But for Lazarelli, the Christian revelation made this plan useless. According to him, one could create souls directly instead of attracting them from the stars. The mercurian magician therefore, possessed traits of the Creator Himself.
Cybergnosticism, Cybermercurianism, Cybermarcionism
As we have seen, mercurianism was just an ingredient in the complex cocktail of ancient spirituality. This means that if some ideas like divinity of man or the beauty of the material world are expressed through the hermetica, other ideas, more pessimistic, enter in the composition of the cocktail, and some times they exist in the very studies of mercurianism. Like the Gnostics, who rejected the world as evil and hoped to go to a purely spiritual world, freed from the constraints of the body. The Neo Platonists, while they considered the material world good, said that the human soul had to escape from it, a fact that identifies them with the Gnostics in this particular point.
Marcion, who lived in the first century of our era is one of the first heretics of Christian thought and is often confused with the Gnostics. Quite wrongly, the Religious historian Iοan Couliano explains to us, since there is a fundamental difference. Truly, the Gnostics (at this point, they are close to the mercurians and the Neo Platonists) they considered than man possessed a divine element which made him equal, or even superior of Gods. On the contrary, for Marcionists, man is the creation of the evil God, the creator of the material world. And just out of pure compassion for those darkened and imperfect beings, the Unknown and good God sent Christ to save them.
The transhumanists were often considered “cybergnostics”, especially when they developed theories about their favorite technique for immortality, uploading, that is the “telecharging” of the contents of the brain to another one, inorganic, bipod. The way things stand, we are tempted to perfect this analysis and divide the transhumanist tendencies to many currents. Amongst them, “cybermercurianism”, that desires to use technology in order to create a perfect body, even a perfect world, thanks to large scale mechanics. But there is also a cybergnostic tendency in those who just want to abandon this world in order to recreate another, virtual one, in which the telecharged spirits could live. According to some hypothesis, some reach the point where they face the full or partial destruction of the “real world” in order to make from the computronium a hypothetical material that favors informatic speculations and that could be useful as a material support in very sophisticated “simulations”. A very intense contempt for the material world is expressed here. The transhumanists are trying to explain that those “simulations” will be proved equally rich, maybe richer than reality (to a point that we could find ourselves inside one of those, as the transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom reminds us) and that the telecharged body will be able to experience a unique range of sensual emotions: the very use of terms such as “virtual” or “simulation” immediately brings to our memory images of the aseptic and empty world of the Second Life. A sensation of the discarnate is very reinforced by the systematic and destructive use of the word “meat” to define the bilological, not “enhanced” body.
Are there any cybermarcionists? We watch them being erased in various currents about “singularity” who suspect that the real birth of transhumanity will occur with the creation of an intelligence, superior to the human being. This superior intelligence could be a mutant human being but for some, the human brain is structurally too defective to allow the passage to a superior level. Only an artificial intelligence, maximized from the beginning, can allow this “singularity”.
Man will always be an advanced mammal with restricted capabilities. Only one numeral God, a “friendly artificial intelligence” can save us from ourselves out of sympathy, possibly by telecharging us to an artificial paradise where, as marvelous as it is, in many ways it will resemble a forbidden area.
It is perhaps this combination of marcionistic pessimism, Gnostic dualism and mercurian optimism that makes transhumanism so hardly understandable from the outside and some times so scary. Very often it combines a language full of hope with very dark views on human nature that seem to refute the first message.
There no point in talking about immortality if, at the same time, we suggest that man, by nature, cannot hope to be master of his fate and must be abandoned in the hands of a superior and friendly artificial intelligence.
Science and knowledge
As Garth Fowden extensively explains in his book Mercury the Egyptian, to whole set of cosmic knowledge (science) should be transformed to knowledge in the end (knowledge of the self, the divine). The mercurianist can revive the statues, study the stars, invoke the demons, even construct the monument to immortality. Basically what counts is the nature of reality that is revealed before his eyes from this viewpoint. The success of those ventures, his immortality included, is nothing else than the sign of knowledge he acquired. We would be, perhaps, tempted to see an equivalent of knowledge, in the transhumanist plan, in the final promise that is enounced in the positions of Omega point, of the singularity that is (if we deduct its alarming, antihumanist side). It would be wrong, in my opinion. A promise is always connected to the future, with the hope of fulfillment, and is necessarily escorted by the stress of a possible failure. When it insists too much in the future, transhumanism approaches more popular Christianity than mercurianism or the more mystical and wrought forms of Christianity. A religious experience always takes place here and now, its value does not depend on the success of the installment of external conditions.
On the contrary, though, we can maybe say that finally the viability of telecharging is not that important, of what concentrates the universe, of the mega mechanics or the mechanics of the Omega point. What definitely counts is the vertigo that those perspectives provoke. With a simple view of the capability of these technologies, we gain access to the infinity of the world that becomes friendly, it becomes our home. “Oh my God, it is full of stars” exclaimed Dave Bowman, the hero of 2001 Space Odyssey” when his space ship was captured by the black Monolith, in orbit around Saturn. A formula that, beyond the faith to one or another technology, will maybe form the ecstatic cry of the mercurians of tomorrow.
 – Mircea Eliade, Le Mythe de l’alchimie, livre de poche, 1992.
< - Wouter J. Hanegraaff, "Sympathy for the devil, renaissance magic and the ambivalence of idols", available at http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeII/Sympdevil.html
- Technology capable of acting upon gigantic sets, manipulating, for example, entire solar systems, or creating a universe out of black holes …
- See, for example, Michael Anissimov,”Forecasting Superintelligence: the Technological Singularity”, available at http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/articles/superintelligencehowsoon.htm
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