by David Pauls, CBC board of directors
Examination of the underlying philosophy to remake the human person exhibits qualities that are as old as the Greeks. Disdain for the body, the quest for hidden knowledge, and the goal to lead others to a higher plane of existence all smack of ancient Gnosticism, an idea that goes back nearly two millennia. Students of New Testament history will recognize Gnosticism as an early opponent of the newfound church, fought by the early Church Fathers into the second and third century.
The Gnostic impulse is first characterized by its disdain for the physical body and the general restraints of time and place. Since the temporal was thought to be evil and unredeemed, the Gnostics developed a profound dualistic schism between the body and the mind, which was spiritual and potentially immortal. The body, being bad, was eschewed while the mind was exalted. This led to two poles of behavior regarding the physical. One pole was asceticism with its denial of creature comfort. Material pleasure and comfort was disdained due to the undeserving nature of the body. The other pole was radical libertinism, with an anything goes attitude regarding the attainment of physical pleasure. Why worry about the body and behavior if it was degenerate anyway?
The second primary distinction regards redemption via attainment of secret knowledge, or gnosis. This knowledge was potentially available to only a few gifted select people who were endowed with the desire and capacity to attain and use this hidden wisdom. It was only through careful, diligent study that release from the bonds of material existence. Once attained, a person would be able to transcend the bounds of time, nature and history, reaching a plane of spiritual existence.
With the Transhumanist movement, one sees the Gnostic strain reasserting itself in the quest to transcend the degenerate body. The body is held in disdain. Advocates for enhancement technology exhibit disdain for the current status of the physical body. There is an abhorrence of the limitations that nature has placed upon the species. The insufficiencies of height, strength, vision, hearing, longevity and cognition are roadblocks to happiness and perpetual fulfillment. Nature has gotten the human race this far, but the inherent limits of existence are hurdles to be leapt.
Like the earlier Gnostics, knowledge and insight are the keys to overcome the deficiencies of the physical. With the accumulation of research in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and neural network interfacing, man will be able to overwhelm the frailty and deficiency inherent in the human condition and transform that which was weak into strength. The ability to repair, replace or enhance the various biological systems in the body allows one to overcome the limits of finitude. A logical outcome of this is the prospect of a multitiered view of humanity. If strong advocates of transhumanism have their wish, a new species of Techno sapien will emerge. The vast majority of the population, living in an ignorant and confused state, will be led by the chosen few to a new utopian existence or left behind to wallow in their naivet? The capability to move the mind into the machine will mark the attainment of the final goal of the Gnostics, that of overcoming the body completely, living in a psychic Nirvana with the constraints of nature, time and history left behind.
The old is trotted out as the new, dressed in software, DNA, and nanomachines. An ancient proverb from Solomon says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. His quote is as relevant today as it was two and a half millennia ago.