Technological progress urgently needs the emergence of moral progress so that the spark of reason does not consume the existence of humankind
The technical skills of humans have always been remarkable throughout history, so much so that, even now, the artifacts of classical antiquity leave us astounded at the ingenuity of man. Those who are familiar with the Antikythera mechanism (see video HERE) can attest to the fact that the complexity of this computing system, devised to calculate the movement of the stars, is staggering. The wonder that our creations elicit in us might make us think that the creative and technical ability that characterizes us has a divine origin.
It was Plato, among others, who described in his Protagoras, and put into the mouth of the famous Athenian sophist, the myth of the formation of man. In it, the gods forge the mortal races from other gods that have not yet finished forming in the elements of earth and fire. Thus, the gods command the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus to capture these incomplete gods and divide their abilities to distribute them among the mortal races. Hence, the link of the mortal races with the gods is obvious according to the myth, because they are formed from the fragments of incomplete gods.
Epimetheus asks Prometheus to allow him to take charge of the formation of the new races, and distributes the fragmented abilities. His intention is to create a balance between the new beings so that they do not destroy each other. Those that enjoy some advantage over the rest are surpassed by others in another aspect. Epimetheus ensures with his plan that none is completely above the rest.
During the molding, Epitmetheus takes sufficient care to equip each species so that it can live in conformity with nature. However, he realizes that he has spent all the abilities equipping the species when he sees that he still has to equip the human species. So, bewildered, he asks Prometheus for help, and his brother looks at the result of Epimetheus’s work: all the animals are carefully equipped while man, helpless, is naked, barefoot and unarmed.
In Plato’s tale, we can consider the image of man in the order of nature: a misfit, poor, defenseless, a being who by mistake or carelessness of the gods has not been prepared for life in the world, and who does not fit into the balance established by Epimetheus so that the species do not destroy each other. Consequently, it can be said that man is the neediest of all.
When he sees his brother’s mistake, Prometheus hastens and seeks a solution. As there are no more fragments of the gods left, he decides to enter Hephaestus’s workshop without being seen, and steals the fire from the forge of the gods together with the professional wisdom of Athena, because this knowledge is necessary in order to become master of the fire. Hence, thanks to the astuteness of Prometheus and his audacity, man enjoys the ability of divine reason to master fire and the professional arts, which allow him to mould nature and make it his own according to his needs.
Plato thereby illustrates the origin of human technical knowledge and does not hesitate to consider it divine. Nonetheless, the spark of reason with which man is equipped is enclosed within a battered and weak body, which needs devices to survive. Despite his relationship with divinity, man continues to be a destitute being and his body is, consequently, the prison of the divine spark, a view of the body that is developed within the Gnostic school, and which over the centuries has been reformulated in different ways. As Hans Jonas describes, enclosed in the soul is “the spirit or ‘pneuma’ (called also the ‘spark’), a portion of the divine substance from beyond which has fallen into the world”.
Therefore, despite the divine gift, man has in his hands an illegitimate power that exceeds his abilities and that requires immense responsibility. The being of man is the union of two heterogeneous elements that subsist in contradiction and that need to be released from the tension that they generate. Therefore, within the Gnostic school, the human being is understood according to a radical dualism that reduces its being to mere spirit – pneuma – and considers its material condition as a divine punishment or an error of divinity. The salvation of man, likewise, becomes the salvation of the divinity that has been enclosed in the human matter and that must be restored in its original integrity, as if all human individuals were part of a huge puzzle that, joined together, forms the true image of God.
God must be redeemed by overcoming matter, by breaking the shell of the body that transforms the spirit into something impure because it is mixed with the corporal. In order to be itself, true identity needs, as can be seen, a spiritual indeterminacy separate from all material elements.
Transhumanism. A gnostic anthropological approach
The connection of this Gnostic anthropological approach with transhumanism and with some gender theories can be considered clear. In what sense? We have just said that the being of man is a contradictory being, and that his existence is characterized by the tension generated by the contradiction. That tension is released through the exercise and putting into practice of knowledge of technology. Human devices are the manifestation of the divine force in the cosmic drama that represents human life. Thanks to technology, mankind can release the divinity locked within him and manifest the strength and power of the divine spark that he possesses. The force of divinity is patent when technology enables man to subdue the world of nature using it, and when he can modify his body to transform it into something completely different to what it was before or now. We can see, then, that man rectifies Epimetheus’s error and honors Prometheus when he ventures to correct his bodily limitations and becomes the measure of all things. Transhumanism and gender theory fit perfectly within Promethean wisdom.
This way of understanding the origin of humanity contrasts completely with the biblical story of the creation of man by God. In the Book of Genesis, it is evident that in the beginning, the human race is created in a context of plenitude, of perfection. The existence of woman and man is brought about by the Creator as a good deed of his hands: they are created in the image of God and formed from the earth created by Yahweh as something good.
Matter in this story does not contradict the divine spirit. The divine breath is deliberately breathed on the human being by the Creator himself, and his divine likeness is fruit of the entirely free gift that God gives man. This likeness is clear if we look at the fact that Yahweh addressed Adam and Eve and spoke with them. We find here that, in the beginning, there was full knowledge of God, and for this reason man found himself in a situation of vital plenitude. Without any doubt, here human life is not a result of error, and his spiritual nature is not given because of the divine brilliance that seeks to correct its errors by molding its work.
The divine likeness is even more obvious in the fact that the Creator gave man the order not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This divine command, far from being a limitation of man’s freedom, is a way of preventing the contradiction of humankind and of making him fully divine. For the work of the One who created everything is in itself good, as echoed in the biblical story, so that if man disobeys God, he not only denies God, he denies himself, because he rejects the goodness of his being by disregarding the commandment of Yahweh: God’s request is not an impediment to the accomplishment of human freedom, it is a gift to be even more like divinity, which in itself is perfectly good and can have no contradiction in it. Consequently, to deny God is to deny man; according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is why death enters the Story.
After this comparison, we must pick up the Platonic story again. In it, we have seen that man is equipped with a power that compensates for his bodily helplessness. Nonetheless, that cognitive and technical ability is not always beneficial to him, because he commits excesses in the exercise of his technological power. These excesses lead him to moral failure. Unlike the man of Genesis, who enjoyed moral and practical perfection through knowledge of the Creator, Promethean man suffers his own knowledge as something that leads him to commit evil without knowing why. This evil is concretized in his inability to live in society, since he does not possess the appropriate moral wisdom to coexist politically.
In the Promethean myth, told by Plato, we discover that Zeus sees it necessary to send Hermes to help men to acquire knowledge of morality and justice, which is indispensable for organizing themselves within the city. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, asks Zeus if he has to bring moral knowledge to only a few men or to all. Zeus’s answer is blunt: all men must have moral knowledge because, without it, the existence of the city (society) is impossible, and whoever is incapable of participating in the moral life of the city must be eradicated like a disease.
The close relationship between Promethean and Hermetic knowledge in the Platonic myth is remarkable. Despite the bodily needs of the human being and his excesses in his conduct, which give a dreadful image of man, hermetic knowledge teaches him to act morally and to overcome his errors in his action. That is to say, the confidence in the moral capacity of man is clear in the myth: he can do good in his life. In contrast, if we take into account the transhumanist view of man, we find that the moral capacity of human nature is not considered and is reduced to a false moralism. Such a view is heir to the suspicion of Nietzsche, who considered that morality was a delusion so that man would not reach the definitive stage of his being: the superman, one whose will is not limited by reason or by moral principles, and who can exercise his will with the impetus of all its liberating force. Therefore, if transhumanism had to be framed within the myth of Prometheus, it can be said that it disregards the intervention of Hermes and tries to improve mankind with technology alone.
Moral knowledge is necessary to make technology genuinely human and not destroy us
We still do not know what the consequences of such reductionism will be. If we look at the Platonic tale, and we accept it, we cannot understand Promethean wisdom without Hermetic wisdom. Moral knowledge is necessary to make technology genuinely human and not destroy us. Prudence in the exercise of technological progress is more than reasonable if we think back to the twentieth century. Only a hundred years ago, Humanity was deeply shaken by the annihilation of millions of human beings in the battlefields of the Great War. Man had never had such capacity for destruction.
Since its invention, the machine gun is said to be the weapon that has taken most lives. It is terrifying to think that it is now that mankind has a found a way to completely destroy one other. Technological progress has done away with the art of war, and what was previously a real challenge for military strategists has been reduced to an escalation of power fuelled by the markets and the arms industry.
The occurrence of two world wars in the twentieth century has led us to a state of technological and weapons disarray. Today we have genuine power over nature and over ourselves; so much that it can cause outrage, because it seems that nothing can stop us. Weapons do not lead us to reduce the force of the enemy: we seek to annihilate it, destroy it, make it disappear. With this goal, the risk increases, because the enemy has the same capacity for destruction.
The alarmingly rapid development of the war industry highlights the disdain for human nature
The alarmingly rapid development of the war industry highlights the disdain for human nature that is the backdrop of our post-modern culture. The force of the divine spark has become a torrent of uncontrolled technology that seeks to annihilate the battered body with which Epimetheus equipped mankind.
The error of the gods has empowered man with a potential that could lead him to destruction. Added to that power is nostalgia for a return to the divine that despises its bodily nature, and seeks to be free of it by destroying the shell that encloses it.
Contempt for human nature has reached previously unscaled heights in the last century. The furnaces of Auschwitz consummate this pessimistic view of humankind: the spark of divinity becomes so incandescent that it incinerates man and is quenched with the extinction of human nature, erasing any glimmer of divinity in our world and consummating the death of God and mankind.
From the concept of power we are discussing here, we can draw one clear conclusion: in its origin, it is a result of the error of the gods; in granting it, the gods are limited and, in its exercise, it carries with it the contradiction, since both the gods and men refuse to exercise it. How? In endowing men with the divine spark, the gods lose the opportunity to completely master it and men, on being endowed with that power, are condemned to contradict themselves, because having power here means having to refuse to exercise it. In both cases, the gods renounce being gods and men renounce being men. Having power entails denying nature itself.
Faced with the horror of Auschwitz, Hans Jonas prepared a reflection to respond to the pointlessness of the evil carried out by the national socialists. The Jewish philosopher asked how God could be silent in light of the suffering of innocents. To answer this question, he transformed the notion of the Omnipotence of God. Jonas holds that divine omnipotence should be re-interpreted as a contradiction. The omnipotent being is the being that denies itself and that is absurd. The nature of the absurdity of absolute power is manifest in the fact that such power needs something that limits it to be able to exercise its omnipotent nature. However, on not having any limitation, it becomes something empty and lacking in sense, because it has nothing that resists it. The consequence that is derived from this is that omnipotence is in itself the nothing.
Divine omnipotence, to be defined as such, needs another upon which to exercise its power. That need for another leads it in turn to contradict itself, because it limits it and prevents it from being an absolute power. Thanks to that contradiction, however, the motion whereby everything exists is generated.
Because there are a limited and impotent God, it is neccesary to reform Nature
Hans Jonas thus sought to answer the question of evil: only a limited and impotent God can coexist with evil and accept what happens in the world. In this way, we avoid accusing God of being malignant for allowing evil, since, being impotent, he is unable to expel it from the world. Thus, we can accept that he is really good, because he is impotent, i.e. we accept that omnipotence is something irrational and it must be denied to understand it as a divine attribute. Nevertheless, it is important that we observe that divine impotence is a result of its omnipotence. The contradiction in this understanding of God is clear. A God like that can only be accepted after having denied reason.
Just as Luther did, Jonas says that divine freedom is in contradiction with the human: only one or the other exists. Furthermore, this contradiction supposedly results from God’s own creative act, since in creating God he denies himself and is limited to allowing the existence of human freedom. Therefore, it is in God where we find the source of evil. Creation is in itself the denial of the Creator. The acceptance of gnosis by Jonas is obvious; not in vain did he study Gnosticism his whole life.
With what we have just said, we can make the following connection: the myth of Prometheus, gnosis and transhumanism are closely related. The essence of this relationship is the deliberate acceptance of the contradiction. Here we believe – as with what has been said so far – that we can state that Promethean wisdom, gnosis and transhumanism can be considered synonyms.
Transhumanism accepts the absolute power of technology as a force that transforms reality
Transhumanism accepts the absolute power of technology as a force that transforms reality. Its force resides precisely in the renunciation of human nature. The renunciation of nature is necessary to overcome the divine error and to achieve the true life it is meant to have, in which the body does not limit it. However, it has already been said with Jonas that absolute power needs to renounce its omnipotence in order to be exercised. Therefore, in order to be such, the divine spark needs bodily limitation so that the tension that moves it to be does not consume it definitively. In a way, after acceptance of the contradiction, there is a necessary act of resignation: plenitude will never be accomplished.
In transhumanism, the contradiction of what has been said is hidden: the power given to us by technology is for itself the denial of freedom. The ability to deny the gods through technological creation leads us to introduce a new, post-human one, which will become reality with artificial intelligence. We deny one god to free man and create a new one to subjugate and destroy him. Just as the God of Jonas was denied in creating, man in transhumanism is denied in creating artificial intelligence. What, then, can we do to avoid falling into this contradiction? Technology should not be confused with religion. Transhumanism turns technology into a messianism and deprives scientific knowledge of the impartiality that characterizes it. The restoration of philosophical reason is needed, capable of distinguishing the planes of different knowledge, and which makes the moral capacity of the human being compatible with the realization and progress of technology within human culture.
It is no exaggeration to say that renouncing messianism and putting it in its place is an act of humility and judiciousness that is necessary in order to avoid repeating the atrocities committed by mankind when he seeks to replace the salvific action of God in history with his schemes. If reason and faith do not confuse their roles and respect the space that corresponds to each one, we might think of a technology that helps man, trusting in his moral capacity. Technological progress urgently needs the emergence of moral progress so that the spark of reason does not consume the existence of humankind.
Rafael Monterde Ferrando
Catholic University of Valencia
See transhumaity previous article HERE
For example, that contempt for the body can be seen in the transhumanist movement, which seeks to reshape human nature to overcome it and create a new trans-human species that is not helpless. It can also be considered that in gender theories that seek to disassociate personal identity from the body, we find the dualism typical of Gnosticism, which considers that the body is a malevolent limitation for the soul that needs to be freed from it.
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Siruela, Madrid, 2000. p. 78.