Transhumanist Will to Power and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Vision of Glory
The body is a burden. Our minds and wills are the expansive centre of our being, seemingly possessed of infinite capacity, but they are forever being held back by the limits imposed by our bodies—these bags of meat that require food and sleep, that defecate, and age, and, worst of all, die. This image of the body is nothing new. It’s at least as old as the extremes of Platonic thought in the West, but seems to crop up whenever humankind has enough leisure to reflect on its own consciousness.
Christianity, at its core, is deeply opposed to such ideas. The body—whatever else we might say of it—is a gift of God and one which shall be with us eternally in the resurrection. That is not to say it is unqualifiably good, of course, but to see it as nothing more that dead weight is not an option the orthodox faith leaves open to us. Yet, even Christian history has seen some of its prominent figures come close to espousing this view. Origen saw the body as, at best, a tutor given by God to the soul to help it rise beyond the material. Following in the footsteps of Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa likewise saw the body in very ambivalent terms. His orthodox Christian convictions forced him to acknowledge the resurrection of the body, yet he is ultimately “quite reticent in affirming that . . . embodied existence . . . participates sacramentally in eternal realities.” Christian dualism at its best saw the material world as being intimately linked to the divine realm in a way that gave it real permanent value, but Nyssen finds this a hard pill to swallow. Indeed, it is these extremes of Christian Neo-platonism than lead many today to be extremely skeptical of the Platonist-Christian tradition. That very reluctance has, at times, taken the form of a radical affirmation of the material order as independently good. The excesses of Christian dualism are then combated, by a modernist, nearly secular, affirmation of the material.
Yet, this new vision might not protect the value of the material world so well. The secular world has recently birthed its own version of the disparagement of the body—one even more twisted, I would argue—than that of Origen. This expression of the age-old hatred of the body exists within the movement known as transhumanism. The transhumanist’s “principal tenet is that it is now incumbent upon humanity to take control of its own evolution . . . so as to progress beyond Homo sapiens.” In at least some of its expressions, transhumanism converges with the extremes of the anti-aging movement in medicine, which, by treating aging as a disease, seeks to overcome death. One proponent of this transhumanist vision is the futurist, Ray Kurzweil. In a video promoting a futurist conference, Kurzweil describes his vision of the future, in which humans will be able to upload their consciousness permanently into deathless virtual worlds in which, no longer fettered by bodies, the potential of human wills would endlessly expand. Humans would not see “radical life extension only” but also “radical life expansion,” in which “we’re going to have millions of virtual environments to explore, we’re going to literally expand our brains.”  Kurzweil goes on to describe how humans will be able to rapidly expand their brain power and to “be routinely able to change our bodies very quickly, as well as our environments in virtual reality.” Without a body, the human being will be able to be whatever he or she wants to be, for so long as that form suits one’s pleasure, to become something new as soon as the whim strikes.
For all the apparent similarities between this transhumanist vision, and the Platonist-Christianity of Nyssen, there is a wide chasm between them. Nyssen’s commitment to the transcendent meant that he saw the Christian’s ascent from the body as being one into a fixed point of virtue, namely Christ.  This meant a necessary acknowledgement of the creaturely limits of humanity as well as the necessity of accepting the revelation that came with Christ. However reticent he may have been to affirm the material order, Nyssen could not abandon the resurrection of the dead. Nyssen’s vision is one of a deeper and deeper handing over of the self to God.
In contrast, the hope of transhumanists like Kurzweil is the absolutizing of the human will. Indeed, in a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal interview with Gilbert Meilaender on this very subject, it was pointed out that for the transhumanists, “it’s not really death that’s the enemy, it’s not being in control that’s the enemy”.  Between both views there is, as David Bentley Hart points out, a shared hope of divinization, but they have “two radically antagonistic visions of what it is to be a god”.  Nyssen’s vision is one of ever growing creaturely participation in the ultimate and unchanging good; it is thus a transformation that nonetheless retains the human. The transhumanist, by contrast, wishes to destroy humanity, by a violent act of will overcome what he has been.
The god of the transhumanists, thus, is very much like the late-medieval, volunteerist God who acts with absolute, and utterly untrustworthy, will. This horrendous gap, I think, hints at the truth of Hans Boersma’s worry that the loss of transcendence will not ultimately guarantee the worthiness of the material world, but it will instead degenerate into “the arbitrary whim of the will to power.”  The transhumanists have stripped the world of everything but the material order, and in response, they have sought to flee that order into a virtual world utterly malleable to the power of the human will.
I want to close by addressing a question some of you may have raised—why talk about transhumanism? The first reason is that, as obscure as this view may seem, important people hold it. Ray Kurzweil himself is director of engineering for Google, Inc. More significantly, however, I believe that transhumanism is simply a radical symptom of a more underlying sickness. The absolutizing of the human will can seen manifested throughout the Western world, in the politics and economics of our world, whether liberal or conservative, ostensibly Christian or radically atheist. Transhumanism is but the bleeding edge of a much larger problem.
 Ray Kurzweil, “Ray Kurzweil: Immortality by 2045,” Ray Kurzweil Videos, last modified June 21, 2013, accessed October 14, 2013, http://www.kurzweilai.net/global-futures-2045-ray-kurzweil-immortality-by-2045.
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