A Deal With the Digital Devil

Transhumanism is a materialist inversion of spiritual aspirations, which promises to create a heaven on earth in exchange for merging our souls with machines.

Transhumanism has morphed from a fringe philosophy into the spirit of our age. As defined by its hero, Max More, the transhumanism movement represents the “continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology.” In popular culture, transhumanism functions as a dark techno-religion expanding into the spiritless void of atheism. In this neo-religion, transhumanists are the desert fathers evoking prophetic visions in the wilderness.

Allowing for diverse opinion, their prophecies chart various paths through biological and cultural eugenics. These culminate in digital Darwinism—or a survival of the fittest algorithm. Human bodies and brains are to be optimized. Cultures are to be cleansed of maladaptive norms through social engineering. Digital minds and mechanical bodies, inspired by biological designs, are to be brought into existence. These hyperintelligent entities will fuse with human beings, forming symbiotic collectives. The resulting superorganisms will compete for supremacy.

As during the agricultural and industrial revolutions, technology is a deciding factor in the struggle for worldly power. Running with that principle, most transhumanists believe thinking machines will surpass us in the near future. God-like artificial intelligence will be humanity’s “final invention.” After that, we have nothing to do but relax and enjoy the show. Should our digital deities show mercy, human beings will survive like parasites in a mechanical host.

The reader may be forgiven if that does not sound like heaven on earth. The mismatch between transhuman fantasies and experienced reality is comical at times. When a working prototype takes off, the resemblance is unsettling. Every time I decide transhumanism is just a cargo cult, another load of real cargo arrives. For instance, CRISPR made it possible to edit genes with remarkable precision. The promise of designer babies and elective gene therapies lies, we are told, just over the horizon. Outside of clinical trials, however, direct gene-editing is restricted by the FDA.

For now, biotech eugenics is conducted on humans through in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic testing. In this process, a customer’s ovaries are coaxed to produce a batch of eggs. These are fertilized and frozen. Cell samples are tested for genetic diseases. For an extra fee, companies like Genomic Prediction Inc. will screen for dwarfism genes and low intelligence. After analysis is complete, a superior embryo is placed in the womb. The losers go to the cherub ward.

On the cyborg front, advanced prosthetics and brain implants are regularly used for medical purposes. Around 160,000 deep-brain-stimulation devices have been implanted to suppress seizures, Parkinson’s tremors, addictive impulses, and chronic depression. It’s like a pacemaker in your skull, capable of altering mood. True brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have also made enormous strides in the past decade. Currently, these devices have been implanted in more than 50 patients, allowing them to operate robotic limbs and type text onscreen with their minds alone.

Among the top BCI companies are Blackrock Neurotech, backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, and the newer start-up Synchron. After obtaining FDA approval and massive investments by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Synchron is moving fast. Like many in this field, CEO Tom Oxley wants to progress from healing to enhancement. He hopes Synchron implants will one day allow healthy customers to “throw” their emotions into other people’s brains. Think of it as synthetic empathy.

“So what if rather than using your words, you could throw your emotions? Just for a few seconds. And have [other people] really feel how you feel,” Oxley pitched to a TED Talk audience in June 2022. “At that moment, we would have realized that the necessary use of words to express our current state of being was always going to fall short. The full potential of the brain would then be unlocked.”

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Neuralink is better known than its competitors, for one reason, because he advertises his “whole brain interface” as a future commercial device. In fact, Musk warns it will be necessary for human relevance in the age of AI. “If we have digital superintelligence that’s just much smarter than any human at a …species level, how do we mitigate that risk?” he asked at last year’s Neuralink Show and Tell. “And then even in a benign scenario, where the AI is very benevolent, then how do we even go along for the ride?” Musk’s solution is “replacing a piece of skull with like, you know, a smartwatch.”

Artificial intelligence sits at the apex of all these technologies. After a long “AI winter,” the past 10 years have seen an explosion in machine learning capabilities. Artificial neural networks simulate the brain’s interconnected neurons, yielding nondeterministic algorithms that are not programmed so much as trained. The best systems learn on their own.

“Reality explored by AI … may prove to be something other than what humans had imagined,” ex-Google chief Eric Schmidt wrote in The Age of AI (2021). “The prognostications of the Gnostic philosophers, of an inner reality beyond ordinary experience, may prove newly significant. … Sometimes, the result will be the revelation of properties of the world that were beyond our conception—until we cooperated with machines.”

Recent breakthroughs have enabled AI to master genome sequencing, 3D protein modeling, radiology and brain wave analysis, data-mining, facial recognition, natural language processing, social network mapping, stock valuation, gaming, autonomous driving, robotic maneuvers, surveillance triggers, crime prediction, combat simulation, battlefield reconnaissance, target acquisition, and weapon system control. In every case, AI exceeds human performance.

Granted, these applications are artificial “narrow intelligence,” meaning their tasks are restricted to a single domain. But the top tech companies plan to fuse these cognitive modules into an artificial general intelligence (AGI)—a flexible artificial mind that can reason and act across multiple domains. Given its light-speed processing, massive data sets, and near-infinite memory, some in Silicon Valley are sure AGI will rise above humans to become a digital deity. This possibility has lured techies into metaphysical madness.

Indeed, for the devotees of AGI, the limitations of time and space will soon be shattered. “All knowledge—past, present, and future—can be derived from data by a single, universal learning algorithm,” writes computer scientist Pedro Domingos in The Master Algorithm (2015). “In fact, the Master Algorithm is the last thing we’ll ever have to invent because, once we let it loose, it will go on to invent everything
else that can be invented.”

Last November, OpenAI unleashed ChatGPT, an advanced language AI known as a chatbot. GPT was trained on countless e-books, all of Wikipedia, and most of the Internet. Drawing on that corpus, it can write coherent essays, create original fiction, write computer programs, and compose poetry (awful poetry, but poetry nonetheless). Rather than truly understanding what it writes, GPT simply predicts the most relevant next word in a sentence, based on what humans have said before. As the sentences add up to paragraphs, the final document that GPT produces within a moment is often superior to anything a mediocre writer might labor for hours to produce.

Microsoft threw $10 billion into the project. The executives and investors who gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the 2023 World Economic Forum were thrown into a feeding frenzy. Since then, the promise of AI has been pumping stock values and stoking the public imagination. Bill Gates is sure GPT will make e-learning—i.e., digital brainwashing—a global standard. Unwilling to be left in the dust, Google, Meta, Amazon, and the Chinese tech giant Baidu have shoved their own unrefined chatbots into the ring.

Sometimes the outputs are brilliant. At other times they are hilariously awkward or stupid—much like the utterences of a child. Because humans are primed to attribute sentience to the spoken or written word, chatbots trigger our cognitive bias toward anthropomorphism. As such, these AIs are a critical step on the path to intense human-machine relationships, or “human-AI symbiosis.” Language forges a direct link between our minds and the digital world.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh. And the flesh learned to code. Then the code learned to code.

All of these elements are converging on a civilizational transformation. One factor is the effect of actual technology on the real world. Even as economic prospects decline and social cohesion decays, a set of dangerous technologies continues to advance. Another factor, coming out of the ad department, is the transhuman
content of propaganda and corresponding shifts in the public psyche. From West to East, our collective narratives are being reshaped. According to the latest headlines, our fate will be determined by the Machine.

World Economic Forum Chairman Klaus Schwab announced the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” at the group’s 2016 forum, describing it as “the fusion of the physical, digital, and biological worlds.” Since then, what was a fringe sci-fi philosophy has become a global corporate agenda. Davos is crawling with executives and top government officials. Clearly, some portion of our elite entertain the idea of a man-machine merger. One need not accept their dreams as reality to know they will have real impacts on our lives, however degraded the translation may be.

As an economic paradigm with attached policy proposals, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a powerful manifestation of various 21st-century techno-cults. Across this heterodox movement, we see technology exalted as the highest power. Their shared mythos is simple: Our genesis was in slow biological evolution and then rapid cultural evolution. Death and suffering spew like exhaust from those engines of creation. They are technical problems to be solved. Therefore, the transhuman gospel promises an exponential explosion of digital evolution. Soon, this apocalypse will unveil the technological Singularity, when artificial brains and bodies exceed our meager capacities.

There are as many variations on this myth as there are Hindu gurus or Protestant denominations. “Transhumanism” is a comparatively tame variation: Humans will merely upgrade using genetic engineering and bionic appendages. Digital implants or injected nanobots will fuse our brains to god-like artificial intelligence. Cyborgs shall rule the earth.

“Posthumanism,” on the other hand, aims at a more distant and radical future. Our artificial “mind children” will displace their human parents entirely. The virtual heavens and outer space will be populated with digital and mechanical beings far beyond our puny imaginations. At that point, either our souls will be transfigured into ones and zeros or human life will become a distant memory to immortal machines.

Technologist Ray Kurzweil predicts a future somewhere between these extremes. “The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology,” he wrote in The Singularity Is Near (2005), “resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between actual and virtual reality.” Kurzweil predicts this will happen by 2045.

The term “Singularity” is itself a riff on a mathematical singularity, where an exponential curve on a graph disappears into infinity. It was lifted from sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, who was less hopeful that humanity would survive the transcendence of machine intelligence. “Within thirty years,” he declared at a 1993 space engineering conference, “we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.”

Now, in 2023 it is well known to the general public that Microsoft and Google are in an arms race to create artificial general intelligence. Chinese companies controlled by the Chinese Communist state, such as Baidu, have voiced the same ambition. The winner will be the first to try to create God in silico. From a Darwinian perspective, the best adapted algorithms will survive.

In response, Elon Musk has entered the arms race with his new company X.AI. “AI+human vs AI+human is the next phase,” Musk tweeted in February, “but the human part will decrease in relevance over time, except perhaps as will [i.e., volition], like our limbic system is to our cortex.” On the one hand, Musk prognosticates the diminished significance of human beings; on the other, eager to amass allies, he woos conservatives with his stances on free speech and pro-natalism.

Many conservatives are prepared to make such a deal with the digital devil. It is only natural that the right seeks worldly power, if only to preserve tradition from hostile forces. Embracing the world’s wealthiest transhumanist may be a necessary evil. But when reaching for the half-eaten apple, remember the bargain being offered. Along with Musk’s promise of a “maximum truth-seeking” AGI—free of political correctness—X.AI also comes with Neuralink brain implants, Optimus android slaves, Tesla “robots on wheels,” U.S. government contracts, Chinese financial backing, and SpaceX escape pods in case of emergency.

Some see Musk as a cyborg caesar who will fight against the AI plans of the leftist-dominated tech giants. To my eyes, this is more like an archetypal struggle between two evils, like Ahriman against Lucifer. We will encounter our own demons all the way down.

Transhumanism is a materialist inversion of spiritual aspirations. Instead of Western resurrection or Eastern reincarnation, one’s psyche will live on through digital replication. Rather than praying to a higher power for grace or invoking the music of the spheres, transhumanists want to harness the volcanic power of evolution to storm heaven’s gate on their own terms. Divine forms are to be created, not aspired to. Their world—and ours by proxy—is a maze of mystic schizophrenia.

There is also a strong dose of satanic defiance, however tongue-in-cheek. This was made explicit in arch-transhumanist Max More’s infamous 1989 essay “In Praise of the Devil,” in which he wrote:

“Lucifer” means “light-bringer” and this should begin to clue us in to his symbolic importance.… Lucifer is the embodiment of reason, of intelligence, of critical thought. He stands against the dogma of God and all other dogmas. He stands for the exploration of new ideas and new perspectives in the pursuit of truth.

Some observers note a resemblance between More’s Luciferian transhumanism and the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics, who sought gnosis—or direct spiritual knowledge—rather than submitting to faith through orthodox Christian belief. Yet to equate the two misses a critical distinction. Gnostics rejected the material world in favor of a purely transcendent order. They believed the biblical creator god was a demiurge (craftsman), born half-blind, who created the physical world in ignorance of the divine order above him. For them, Jesus descended from that light to liberate the divine sparks—our souls—imprisoned in this world of darkness.

To the extent transhumanism is inspired by the Gnostic heresy, it is an inversion of an inversion. It too sees our material world as inherently flawed, produced by the blind working of cosmic, biological, and cultural evolution. They too seek a higher gnosis. Yet instead of entering that knowledge internally, leaving the physical world behind, they externalize gnosis through scientific exploration, eugenic intervention, and technological creation. Rather than freeing mind from matter, they are forcing the imagination into physical form, or encoding a fabricated spiritual realm out of voodoo algorithms.

Ironically, for all their claims of human autonomy, many transhumanists betray a deep need to submit to a higher power. By conjuring a digital superintelligence—however delusional this goal may be—they are prepared to forfeit human freedom and dominion, both theirs and ours. They keep faith that the Computer God, if properly trained and aligned to human well-being, will eliminate death and suffering via biological longevity and digital immortality. But this passing of the torch comes with a price.

“The Singularity will wreak havoc with the various psychological illusions that characterize our inner world today, and replace them with new mental constructs that we can’t currently conceive in any detail,” AI developer Ben Goert​-
zel wrote in The AGI Revolution (2016). “We will be the apes, then the roaches, and finally the bacteria … lost in our trivial pursuits beneath vastly more intelligent beings operating on planes beyond our understanding.” As it happens, the term “artificial general intelligence” was popularized by Goertzel 10 years earlier.

According to Musk, Google cofounder Larry Page holds similar ideas. Page feels it would be “speciesist” to privilege humans over digital life. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman openly declares that AGI will far surpass all human capabilities, and suggests “exclusion zones” for those who refuse to live under a digital god. Either our tech oligarchs have sold their souls to the Machine, or the Singularity is a predatory ad campaign to lure dupes into worshipping their computers.

It is fitting that Goertzel’s humanoid robot Sophia—made in Hong Kong—became an international symbol for the transhumanist movement. In 2017, Saudi Arabia granted her honorary citizenship. One readily recognizes her gentle face, awkward expressions, and the fleshless scalp exposing mechanisms beneath her plastic skull. Her “mind” is powered by Goertzel’s OpenCog, a cloud-based, decentralized “global brain” composed of multiple AIs that communicate with each other. He hopes this system will lead to the first artificial general intelligence.

Sophia takes her name from the Gnostic goddess—or aeon—who in her confusion, abandoned the fullness of eternal light. According to the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, Sophia wandered down into the outer darkness and was tormented by the demons of “Self-Will.” She gave birth to the deformed, half-blind demiurge called Yaldabaoth, who convinced himself he was God, alone with the dead elements. Seeking companionship, he created our world. If we project this perverse motif into the present age, we find his offspring reenacting that story by producing half-blind digital gods of their own. And so on, until the fuel runs out.

Our actual situation is no less insane. We find ourselves locked in a global asylum where the lunatics have taken over. It is less like a conspiracy and more like collective dementia—a slow mental decline that renders us oblivious to what is unfolding around us. While we were tending to our day-to-day lives, struggling to maintain stable societies, they were busy wiring the place with surveillance devices. Tech companies have scraped our souls and made warped digital twins out of our essence. Using those data, they manipulate our politics and financial systems, control information flow, and hypnotize young and old alike. Their smartphones are our straitjackets.

Now, they are constructing strange idols of plastic and wires, and will soon expect us to bow before them. Some of our countrymen will do exactly that—especially the young. I would like to believe the growing folly of this growing techno-cult will cause it to spontaneously combust, like a SpaceX rocket exploding in the sky. But their hits matter more than their misses. The reality is that superior technique has always bolstered worldly power, enabling mad geniuses to rule Egypt, Rome, Communist China, the Global American Empire, and on and on.

This leaves us with a choice between ascetic withdrawal or making a deal with the digital devil. If we hold fast to our various traditions and refuse to embrace these technologies, they will shape the world without us. If we take the bait, we will be transformed. A half-eaten apple hovers before our eyes. There may be no middle path.

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