Body, Mind and Progress in Posthumanism
Department of Religion,University of Heidlberg
of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 14 Issue
2 - August 2005 - version 1.1 - pgs 55-67
Religion and transhumanism are often regarded as competing or
even opposing sense establishing systems. But especially European media
philosophers tend to identify common elements of both systems that mainly depend
on the metaphysical reception of ideas related to the body and cyberspace. The
posthuman aim of a virtual and immortal existence inside the storage of a
computer seems to be a continuation or a revivification of the ancient Gnostic
philosophy. Focusing the physical aspects of posthumanist utopias the article
shows that posthumanism can hardly be interpreted as Gnosis but rather as a mere
1. The Body in Cyberspace
The question of immortality is considered to be quite essential
for religion and for transhumanism. Thus, religion and transhumanism are often
regarded as competing or even opposing sense establishing systems. But
especially European media philosophers tend to identify common elements of both
systems that mainly depend on the metaphysical reception of ideas related to the
body and cyberspace. The transhuman or posthuman aim of a virtual and immortal
existence inside the storage of a computer seems to be a continuation or a
revivification of the ancient Gnostic philosophy. But apparently, we have
forgotten our bodies.
It might be one of the most palpable peculiarities of post-modern
philosophy to assess the disappearance of the body and the end of bodily senses.
Jean Baudrillard (1994), Dietmar Kamper and Christof Wulf (1984), and many
others have done a lot of remarkable observations and analysis on the
development of our bodies in the age of medial reproduction. The diffused
reality of the body is mooted, because referring to the Slovenian
philosopher Slavoj Zizek “we live in a society with coffee without caffeine,
with chocolate without sugar and with virtuality as reality without reality” (Zizek
& Negt 2001).
When Florian Roetzer edited the two volumes of the Art Forum
International in 1996 on the future of the body, the utopias of the
posthuman body were discussed by a wide range of art and media theorists and
philosophers. Their different contributions centred potential and utopian
transformations of the body in context of genetic engineering and prosthesis
technology (Deitch 1996; Roetzer 1996; Steels 1996; Stelarc 1996). In a most
extreme example the American robotics researcher Hans Moravec presented his
vision of an absolute virtual, human existence as the promising goal of
evolution. The human personality – the human “mind” – should be scanned as a
perfect simulation and should continue to exist thenceforward as an immortal
being inside the storage of a computer (Moravec 1996).
By this small article in the Art Forum International
Moravec became the most prominent reference point for many European philosophers
and cultural theorists, who dealt with the so called posthumanism. Unfortunately
most of theses publications only mentioned Moravec’s name but did not take into
account his concepts (Boehme 1996; Hayles 1999:35; Zons 2001:16).
The release of the human personality from its “carnal
corporation” as Moravec had described it, was identified as a gnostic or even
platonic motif in the post-modern cultural debate – cybergnosis and
cyberplatonism became a saw (List 1996).
Its prophets such as Marvin Minsky or Hans
Moravec are Gnostics, because they intend to overcome the world of matter and
corporality, in order to create a “pure” sphere of mind ... The scrap heap earth
and the grub sack of the human body are the sacrifice, that can be done
light-hearted in favor of the exit of the bio evolution, since earth and body
are stamped by perdition. (Boehme 1996:259)
But do we have to interpret every utopia of a separation of the
human body and mind as a kind of Gnosis? Or does the reception by post-modern
exegetes dominate the proper structures of posthumanist reasoning? Is it
plausible to determine the posthuman utopias of a disembodied existence in
cyberspace as Gnosis or as a new variety of Platonism? Here, we will discuss
Hence, it is necessary to introduce some further differentiations
in the extensive discourse of medial utopias of bodies. At the same time we have
epistemologically to become aware of our well beloved gnostic or platonic
glasses, with which we prefer to, perceive every kind of overcoming the human
body. Since at this point the explicit bodily utopias of posthumanism shall be
analyzed we first have to determine the very centre of posthumanist thought in
comparison with transhumanism. Afterwards the gnostic interpretation of
posthumanism will be outlined and compared in different aspects with the
philosophical concepts of Gnosis.
2. Posthumanism and Transhumanism
After Thomas Blount had defined the word posthuman in his
Glossographia (1656) as something in the future (“following or to come,
that shall be”), the American culture theorist Ihab Hassan (1977) was to my
knowledge the first who used the term posthumanist for the philosophical ideas
of overcoming the human race as well as humanism (Blount 1656; Hassan 1977;
Simpson & Weiner 1989:197; Krueger 2004:107-112). In his novel Schismatrix,
the science fiction author Bruce Sterling (1979) signifies a future species as
post-human that is demerged in the two sub-species of Shapers and
Mechanics. After the robotic researcher Hans Moravec had proclaimed the
vision of a post-biological and supernatural future of humankind in his
constitutional work Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence
(1988), the term “post-biological” was increasingly replaced by the notion of
“posthuman” in succeeding publications of the 1990s (Dery 1996:371; Hayles
1999:343; Regis 1990:7, 144).
But what is posthumanism? In the scientific literature there is a
variety of inconsistent definitions, which mostly identify posthumanism with
transhumanism. Katherine Hayles for example characterizes posthumanism by the
fundamental philosophical assumption that human beings are determined by their
pattern of information and not by their devaluated prosthesis-body, so that
human beings can be understood as a kind of machine (Hayles 1999:2 et seq.).
Jens Schroeter defines posthumanism completely differently as a conglomerate of
technological visions of human transformation from genetic engineering to
diverse cyborg utopias (Schroeter 2002:84 et seq.; Richard 2000:72). Leading
thinkers of the pragmatic transhumanism underline some other aspects defining
the term posthuman:
A posthuman is a human descendant who has
been augmented to such a degree as to be no longer a human. Many transhumanists
want to become posthuman. As a posthuman, your mental and physical abilities
would far surpass those of any unaugmented human. You would be smarter than any
human genius and be able to remember things much more easily ... Posthumans
could be completely synthetic (based on artificial intelligence) or they could
be the result of making many partial augmentations of a biological human or a
transhuman. Some posthumans may even find it advantageous to get rid of their
bodies and live as information patterns on large super-fast computer networks.
Referring to our basic question of Gnosis and posthumanism it
seems to be all the more appropriate to clarify the difference between
posthumanism and transhumanism.
Although these two terms are used interchangeable in some common discourses we
can identify two diverse groups of texts within the transhuman and posthuman
discourse. Mainly there are two circumstances that require a differentiation:
first, transhumanism and posthumanism have different origins and second, their
goals and the structure of their arguments differ.
The beginning of transhumanism in the 1970s can be localized
particularly in California, dominated by the visions of the futurist Fereidoun
M. Esfandiary (FM2030), the commitment of the psychedelic movement’s
mastermind Timothy Leary and the ideas of cryonics as Robert Ettinger has worked
them out. Above all they focus the enhancement of human beings’ mental and
physical powers by technology or psychoactive substances (Esfandiary 1973;
Ettinger 1972; Leary & Sirius 1997).
In contrast to these transhumanist thinkers, the physicist Frank
Tipler, the AI researcher Marvin Minsky, the robotic researcher Hans Moravec and
the IT entrepreneur Raymond Kurzweil, which in my view belong to posthumanism,
center themselves among cybernetic visions of the simulation of human beings –
in no way do they refer to the early transhumanists such as Esfandiary, Leary
and Ettinger. The immortal existence in virtuality is the human aim for such
posthumanist thinkers, and such a goal will be achieved by the end of 21st
century even according to their most pessimistic estimations.
Transhumanists devote themselves to more pragmatic questions of
life extension and mind enhancement technologies, such as life-prolonging diets,
smart drugs and prosthesis technology or even the prospects of cryonics while
these applications are almost never mentioned in posthumanist writings. Although
the edge is fuzzy, one could point out that posthumanism shapes the aim and
transhumanism expresses the way to overcome the present biological human being.
The disregard for the present and practical matters in
posthumanism reflects the distinctive differences with respect to transhumanism.
While in transhumanism human beings and their descendants are the subject of
evolution, artificial intelligence and robots are the future agents of evolution
and progress in posthumanist reasoning. Here, human immortality in a virtual
habitat is only a concomitant phenomenon of the autonomous progress of
artificial intelligent, posthuman beings. While posthumanism is focused on the
idea of an artificial “progeny” of humankind, transhumanism remains
For posthumanist reasoning and for the question of an existence
in cyberspace, the idea of the technological immortalization has insofar a
fundamental and constitutive significance as only by this means the continuity
of humankind can be guaranteed. A posthumanist philosophy, created by human
beings, that proclaims the total annihilation of biological evolution and life
in favor of machine’s evolution, would be unthinkable without this very charity
of an immortal existence. Thence, the idea of uploading human beings into
an absolute virtual existence inside the storage of a computer takes the center
stage of the posthumanist philosophy – and this is the context of the question
of Gnosis in cyberspace.
There are four most relevant authors that I would like to assign
to posthumanism—Frank Tipler, Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec and Raymond
Kurzweil—who share the vision of human life simulations in cyberspace.
Frank Tipler (*1947) is professor of mathematical physics at
Tulane University. Together with the English cosmo-physicist John D. Barrow
he published his chief scientific work, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle
in 1986 (Barrow & Tipler 1986), which included a teleological interpretation of
the history of the universe. However, Tipler shot to fame with his book The
Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead,
published in 1994.
In his cosmological perspective Tipler assumes that the universe
is closed and that it will end in the point Omega. Till then intelligent life –
that is humankind and its artificial progeny – must gain the total control of
the whole universe, while at the same time the amount of information, that is
produced by living beings, will converge towards infinity. When the sun
collapses in about five billion years, the only chance to survive, according to
Tipler, lies in a pure virtual existence of humankind in gigantic computers.
Tipler identifies the aiming point of cosmological history, the point Omega,
with god (Tipler 1995). The book was criticised mainly because of the ”hostile
takeover” of religion by physics and even the internationally well known
theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg contributed a differentiated commentary on
Tipler’s theory. (Birtel 1995; Ellis 1994; Pannenberg 1995).
In opposition to Tipler the posthumanist visions of American
cyberneticist Marvin Minsky are characterized by a blatant criticism of
religion. His influence on posthumanist philosophy can hardly be overestimated,
since the co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab was the mentor of several of
today’s posthumanist and transhumanist thinkers.
Minsky’s significance for posthumanism is most notably based on the formation of
the cybernetic idea of human beings. Thus, human beings are defined as a pattern
of information which could be simulated by a computer (Minsky 1982; 1988; 1994).
He combines his excellent reputation as AI researcher with his engagement for
Hans Moravec (*1948) is director of the largest American robotics
institute, the Mobile Robot Laboratory of the Carnegie-Mellon
University in Pittsburgh. In 1988 his controversial work Mind Children:
The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence appeared and is regarded as the
proper foundation of posthumanism for many adherents. Yet, the foreword of the
book sounds like a preamble of posthumanism:
Engaged for billions of years in a
relentless, spiralling arms race with one another, our genes have finally
outsmarted themselves ... What awaits us is not oblivion but rather a future
which, from our present vantage point, is best described by the words
“postbiological” or even “supernatural”. It is a world in which the human race
has been swept away by the tide of cultural change, usurped by its own
artificial progeny ... within the next century they will mature into entities as
complex as ourselves, and eventually into something transcending everything we
know – in whom we can take pride when they refer to themselves as our
descendants ... (Moravec 1988:1)
Moravec assumes that these posthuman artificial intelligences
have the same relation to humankind as children have to their parents. Moravec
has repeated this message for one and a half decades, now, and also his second
monograph Robot: Mere Machines to Transcendent Mind sparked large
interest in the USA (Moravec 1999). Moravec’s significance for the posthumanist
philosophy is due to the fact that he was the first to conceive a technological
possibility of immortalization as a scientist in 1988. Precisely he depicts the
technical way of this so called “transmigration”, that will according to Moravec
be available in 2018:
You’ve just been wheeled into the operating
room. A robot brain surgeon is in attendance. By your side is a computer waiting
to become a human equivalent, lacking only a program to run ... The robot
surgeon opens your brain case and places a hand on the brain’s surface ...
Instruments in the hand scan the first few millimeters of brain surface ...
These measurements, added to a comprehensive understanding of human neural
architecture, allow the surgeon to write a program that models the behavior of
the uppermost layer of scanned brain tissue. This program is installed in a
small portion of the waiting computer and activated ... The process is repeated
for the next layer ... In a final disorientating step the surgeon lifts out his
hand. Your suddenly abandoned body goes into spasms and dies. For a moment you
experience only quite and dark. Then, once again, you can open your eyes ...
Your metamorphosis is complete. (Moravec 1988:109 et seq.)
While humankind will slowly die off in the real world, Moravec’s
vision promises a never-ending virtual existence in the storage of a computer.
This particular point of Moravec’s Mind Children marks the specific
technical operation of immortalization for subsequent posthumanist authors: the
human brain is the template for a scanning process, which leads to the immortal
existence in cyberspace.
The successful IT entrepreneur Raymond Kurzweil (*1948) brought
his newest book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human
Intelligence to market, coming along with a professional publicity campaign
in several countries (Kurzweil 1999). He was even nominated as the leading
thinker of posthumanism by many feature authors, who criticized his
technocentric prophecies (Borchers 1999; Guillaume 2000; Tenbrock 1999). In his
1999 book, Kurzweil introduces the beginning of humankind’s end: in 2099 human
beings and machines will have merged and humankind will have overcome its
4. The Gnostic Interpretation
Several media philosophers and postmodern thinkers construe this
virtual utopia of posthumanism as an expression of Gnostic philosophy. The
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj ˇi˛ek and the Californian
author Erik Davis conclude that posthumanist and technocentric visions which
argue for overcoming the human body in favor of an existence in virtuality imply
a Gnostic dimension of cyberspace – here, Davis uses the striking term
techgnosis (Davis 1998: 123 et seq.). While ˇi˛ek
identifies the overcoming of the human body as overcoming of human sexuality (ˇi˛ek
2000), Davis recognizes the virtual existence inside a computer based on
binary logic, information theory and mathematics as an scientific expression of
the antique platonic assumption, that behind the world of matter there is a
higher reality of mathematics and geometric structures (Davis 1998:124 et seq.).
In addition, the German sociologists Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf
identified Gnostic motives in the ongoing technological euphoria:
Civilization as transformation of the body
into mind was and still is on the other hand an abstraction of the body. Its
spiritualization, which was favored by enlightenment sympathizers, comes along
with pure light; matter is black and dark. Thus, it was self-evident that it
would surpass the senses, above all the senses of distance. There was a direct
path from the strategy of improvement to the substitution of physical abilities.
(Kamper & Wulf 1984b:12)
In his treatise on the future and reality of cybersex, the
Finnish author Hannu Eerikäinen even interprets the whole cyber-discourse as a
total overcoming of the body:
The grand message of the cyber discourse is
that we are living in a cyber-culture empowering us to transcend into cyberspace
where we can surf as cybernauts set free from all the constraints of
corporeality and matter, in the primal state of the matrix, in pure virtuality.
As we have seen in the beginning these ideas suggest a Gnostic or
Platonic interpretation of the virtual existence in cyberspace according to
Hartmut Boehme and Elisabeth List. The Gnostic idea of a body of light is
equated with the posthumanist fiction of electronic and visual simulations of
bodies in cyberspace (Boehme 1996; List 1996; Heim 1993). Since posthumanist
authors never explicitly sympathize with Gnostic traditions, the question arises
as to why the idea of a virtual existence is hastily construed as a Gnostic
perception by ˇi˛ek, Davis and many others.
One cause can be seen in the fact that the idea of cyberspace
already implies metaphysical assumptions. In 1993, Michael Heim alluded to the
metaphysics of virtual reality – but this euphonic metaphor, which was
frequently cited by postmodern authors, was based solely on the single sentence
of a less known computer scientist and Michael Heim’s free association of
religious and cybernetic goals.
Another reason for the potential misinterpretation may be found
in the Platonic rhetoric that is part of the occidental culture and that is used
sporadically by posthumanist authors. Sometimes religious metaphors such as the
“liberation of the physical ties” (Davis 1998: 123) are employed. But it would
be ignoring the semantic contexts of these metaphoric catchwords if one takes
these isolated expressions as the fundament of posthumanist reasoning. Thus,
Hans Moravec alludes to an age of mind (Zeitalter des Geistes) and a
state of mind (Staat des Geistes) in his highly regarded contribution in
the German Kunstforum International, but what follows here is merely a
quantifying listing of the greater power and the expected wealth, storage
capacities and computation rates of the posthuman entities – no Gnostic
arguments at all (Moravec 1996: 108-112). This paradigmatic misinterpretation
demonstrates the necessity of a more accurate analysis of posthuman utopias
because the structures of posthumanist reasoning referring to the overcoming of
the biological body and to the existence in cyberspace are significant for the
legitimating of a Gnostic interpretation of posthumanism.
5. What is Gnosis?
The term Gnosis – or the meaning hidden behind this idea – is one
of the most controversial questions of historical, theological and philosophical
research. But as far as Cybergnosis and Cyberplatonism are mentioned in the
context of posthumanism, a specific attribute of Gnostic philosophy is focused:
namely the disdain of the world.
The anthropological and cosmological dualism is characteristic
for the Gnostic world view. A good unknown deity of a metaphysical sphere is
confronted with one evil deity or several evil beings, which have created the
baneful, visible and material world. This dualistic nature is also reflected in
the nature of human beings: the human body is regarded as the prison of the
divine essence, of the human mind – the νου̃ς. In many Gnostic movements the
human mind is interpreted as an imprisoned part of the deity that has to be
released from his mortal frame in order to reunite with the deity on a higher
ontological sphere. The consequence of this attitude is the persistent contempt
of the body and all physical actions, primarily sexuality (Berger 1984; Heimerl
2003: 189 et seq.).
This element of the release of the mind from the body is implied
in the terms of Cyberplatonism and Cybergnosis. However, the contexts, the
complex reasoning and substantial aspects are completely different in the
Gnostic idea and in posthumanism. But this difference is clouded by recent
perceptions which are shaped by Christian, Platonic or Gnostic patterns. It
might be appropriate to describe the holistic world utopia of the French
philosopher Pierre Lévy as a kind of Cyberplatonism or Cybergnosis but this does
not seem to be adequate for posthumanism as we will see sequencing (Lévy 1994).
6. The Body in Posthumanism
All the posthumanist authors which are treated here – Tipler,
Moravec, Minsky, and Kurzweil – share the idea of the self-abandonment of
humankind in favor of artificial intelligence. Already in 1964 the Polish
writer Stanisław Lem named this idea a ”curious form of euthanasia, something
like a comfortable civilized suicide” (Lem 1981: 340). But the vision of a
technical immortalization of humankind is always connected with it: an existence
in virtuality should guarantee eternal life with eternal youth, endless wisdom
and endless wealth for everyone and everlasting self-development partly even in
a spiritual dimension till Tipler’s vision of a union with the Christian god.
But what will happen with the body? Can we speak of a Gnostic release from the
It seems to be appropriate to distinguish three aspects of this
very question. First, the idea of man in posthumanism – the relation of body and
mind; secondly, the utopias of bodies in their virtual existence; and finally,
the scale of progress in posthumanist philosophy.
6.1 The Idea of Man in Posthumanism
According to posthumanism, human beings are
determined materialistically. There is no soul, no metaphysics. Referring
Descartes and LaMettrie the human body is defined as a complex machine (Minsky
1988:30-39; Barrow & Tipler 1989:513-522; Tipler 1995:124; Moravec 1988:72;
Moravec 1999:110-124; Kurzweil 1999:5). Here, posthumanism receives a cybernetic
paradigm that has been generated mainly by Norbert Wiener in 1940s and 1950s.
Accordingly, the identity of the intelligent thinking human being is not based
in its body but on the mere information that is contained in the body:
We are beginning to see that such important
elements as the neurons, the atoms of the nervous complex of our body, do their
work under much the same conditions as vacuum tubes, with their relatively small
power supplied from outside by the circulation, and that the book-keeping which
is most essential to describe their function is not one of energy. In short, the
newer study of automata, whether in the metal or in the flesh, is a branch of
communication engineering, and its cardinal notions are those of message, amount
of disturbance or “noise” … quantity of information, coding technique, and so
on. (Wiener 1961:42)
It is quite evident that posthumanism is essentially based on
this cybernetic paradigm. This paradigm sees a human being from a scientific
perspective as a machine and from the perspective of communication technology as
a pattern of information. Thus, posthumanism decontextualizes a non-semantical
definition of information that has been pragmatically developed by Claude
Shannon and Warren Weaver in the context of communication technology – but from
their technologically determined context the concept of information was used to
create an ideology that ties personal human identity to a disembodied pattern of
information (Shannon & Weaver 1962:95-106). Norbert Wiener’s definition of human
beings as a message and his speculations on transferring this message by dint of
a body scan in 1950 seem to be only a few steps apart the from analogous
considerations of Hans Moravec when the latter suggests storing this “human
message” in a computer and bestowing upon it an eternal existence.
According to the cybernetic paradigm, human beings are
information processing machines of which the immaterial program with its
specific instructions constitutes the singular human personality. The history of
ideas enables us to understand how posthumanist authors perceived Descartes’
philosophy. While the dominance of the soul over the body is valid only in
Descartes’ proof of existence, posthumanism makes the thinking principle – the
information processing functions of the human brain – absolute: they are the
very essence of the human being.
6.2 Utopias of Bodies
This pattern theory of identity, which is the fundament for the
idea of existence in cyberspace, must not hide the fact that this does not mean
the end of all corporal utopias in the posthuman visions. How do Tipler, Moravec
and Kurzweil depict corporeal existence in cyberspace?
According to posthumanist authors, all kinds or reality will be
available in this virtual state, so every immortal human being can pick out his
most enjoyable world and realize special corporeal utopias. Human beings can
change their appearance if desired. You are allowed to savor all culinary
pleasures you long for, and you are able to touch and feel other virtual beings.
Frank Tipler answers a question that commonly arises among his male unmarried
students: “Will there be sex in heaven?” – whereas “heaven” is equated with a
virtual existence by Tipler (Tipler gives regular lectures on his Omega-theory
at New Orleans’s Tulane University).
... since some people desire sex, the answer
has to be yes, sex will be available to those who wish it ... However, the
problems which sex generates in our present life will not occur in the afterlife
... it would be possible for each male to be matched not merely with the most
beautiful woman in the world, not merely with the most beautiful woman who has
ever lived, but to be matched with the most beautiful woman whose existence is
logically possible ... about two thirds of adult humans experience at some point
in their live an intense passion for a member of opposite sex which is not
reciprocated: this is the phenomenon of unrequited love. The Omega Point has the
power to turn this passion into requited love in the afterlife.(Tipler 1995:256 et seq.)
Hans Moravec and Raymond Kurzweil also create paradisiacal male
fantasies referring to the prospective virtual existence of men: you will
discover new dimensions of sexuality partly with virtual playmates and without
any fears of impotence or risks for your physical health (Kurzweil
1999:146-149): “... not just sex. Not even just very good sex. Incredible sex,
without such penalties as AIDS or unwanted pregnancy or even the wrath of a
jealous lover.” (Moravec & Pohl 1993:74).
Posthumanism promises a release from our concrete body but by no
means is there an end to physicality or even sexuality!
6.3 The Scale of Progress
Finally we have to ask for the plausibility of the posthumanist
idea of progress. Why do bodies have to be overcome according to
posthumanism? That’s the question for the scale of progress which defines the
normative foundation of the prospective progress.
It is distinctive that the measure of information processing is
the fundament of progress in Tipler’s concept. As far as Tipler determines life
with information processing, every kind of progress signifies an increase in
information processing. Even the final unification with god and the resurrection
(or simulation) of the dead depends on the future power of information
processing devices for handling huge amounts of information that are needed for
this "perfectioning" (Barrow & Tipler 1986:55-65).
Likewise Marvin Minsky identifies thinking in terms of
problem solving processes as the basic purpose of intelligent systems – he
condemns men’s trivial entertainment (such as football or pop music) as wasting
thinking capacities of our precious brains. Therefore the continuation of
biological life would be nothing but the prodigality of the robots’ future
thinking capacity: "We owe our minds to the deaths and lives of all the
creatures that were ever engaged in the struggle called Evolution. Our job is to
see that all this work shall not end up in meaningless waste.” (Minsky
Hans Moravec and Raymond Kurzweil also connect progress with the
increase of information processing, although they focus on technical and
quantitative comparisons between biological brains and past and prospective
capacities of computers. Colorful graphs on the increasing number of
calculations per second are combined with the assumption of an increasing
intelligence of those thinking systems (Moravec 1988:51-74; Moravec 1999:51-72;
Kurzweil 1999:9-39, 189-252).
The fundamental for posthumanist authors
referred to here is the maximizing of information processing capacities.
Progress of humankind and bodiless virtual existence are not legitimated by
metaphysics – e.g. as a transformation into a higher ontological state – but are
invoked in the context of a mere utilitarian understanding of progress and
In posthumanism, the material world and the biological body of
human beings is not generally regarded as a principally evil sphere that must be
overcome. One can even notice a certain respect for the abilities of the human
mind by the AI researchers such as Minsky and Kurzweil. There is no
fundamental dualistic world view of an ethically and ontologically condemnable
world and, for example, a higher metaphysical state of being in a virtual
sphere. Moravec’s and Tipler’s vision of transforming the whole universe into a
thinking entity by technical means opposes the Gnostic assumption that there is
already a metaphysical reality.
The human body with its limited mental abilities has simply
become obsolete in the course of technological developments of the past
centuries. In the view of posthumanism it is as antiquated as the record has
become obsolete after the introduction of compact disks. But the older sound
storage medium is not characterized as “bad” in principle. The parallel with a
record is quite evident since older audio recordings necessarily shall be
preserved as much as human life and accordingly human culture shall continue in
all posthumanist visions. The German philosopher Guenther Anders has already
depicted the image of the challenged body of the working man who has to compete
with the power, precision, and speed of machines. Here, the human body is not
only in an inferior position, but also seems to be a barrier for the future
Man is the saboteur of his own achievements.
“Saboteur” not because he would lay violent hands on his products … but because
he as a ”living being” is fixed and not free; in contrast the “dead things” are
dynamic and “free”; because he, as a child of nature, as a born being, as body,
is too well-defined, to join in the daily changes of machines’ world … (Anders
It is due to the French philosopher Paul Virilio that we have a
substantial analysis of the phenomena of movement and pace in the history of
modernity. On the basis of his observations he generated the thesis of immense
acceleration of action in nearly all dimensions of the life-world. After the
discovery of the speed of light and the distribution of electronic communication
devices the ”time of light” is the absolute measure of time for action (Virilio
1996:26). As a consequence from this experience with technology the feeling of
an increasing inertia is created, according to Virilio, since television,
Internet etc. encourages the immovable mobility – disabled persons are the
pathological model of the terminal-citizen who is upgraded with interactive
prostheses (Virilio 1996:34). Referring to Marvin Minsky, Virilio concludes that
the urge for eliminating distance has been carried forward inside the ”living
human machine” by substituting biological organs (Virilio 1994:114).
Under this perspective, the expected acceleration of information
processing (nothing else is life according to posthumanism) gains its
existential relevance which culminates in the substitution of humankind by the
faster machines. The body of human beings is obsolete because the neural
“information processing” is considered to be too slow to compete with the light
speed of electronic media and computers. Therefore, the human body has to be
overcome by the criterion of cybernetic efficiency and not because of Gnostic
The diffuse idea of cyberspace with all its connotations is often
equated with Gnosis, Platonism or even Hermetics and is mainly presented as the
essence of postmodern media theory and posthumanist or transhumanist futurology.
Hitherto the considerations above have shown that the use of the term
Cybergnosis or Cyberplatonism in the context of posthumanism are inappropriate –
as far as Gnosis is not understood as a totally arbitrary notion which fails any
analytical potential. Neither the idea of man, nor the motives for overcoming
the human body, nor the physical utopias of virtual existence can be named
Gnostic. Deconstructing the posthumanist sources, we can recognize very clearly
that the Platonic dualism of body and mind is not accepted by the materialistic
philosophy of posthumanism. If someone pretends that Minsky and Moravec are
proper Gnostics, this uttering reveals more about the metaphysical implications
of postmodern media theory than the reality of posthumanism.
In the context of the posthumanist discourse, our bodies are not
obsolete because they are ethically evil or because posthumanists long for an
existence in an ontologically higher reality or virtuality. The posthumanist
reasoning is completely different. Because the ongoing increase of computer’s
information processing capacities and the anticipated integration of the human
personality by uploading suggests an enormous augmentation of efficiency, the
virtual existence seems to be promising. The arguments are not Gnostic but
utilitarian! Also the idea of overcoming the body, which is considered to be
central by ˇi˛ek and Davis, must be examined. In
posthumanist visions, bodies do not disappear at all: what has to be overcome is
the material, real, concrete biological human body while simultaneously a vast
number of new body images were created. This ambivalent phenomenon might be
terminologically comprehended by the differentiation between body (Koerper)
and corporeality (Koerperlichkeit). Posthumanism proclaims the overcoming
of the body but not for the overcoming of corporeality since the future visions
are characterized by definite physical actions – sexuality plays a decisive role
here. If Gnosis means that not only the concrete material body shall lose its
significance but also that physical actions are stigmatized, it is not
appropriate to characterize posthumanism as a Gnostic philosophy. Referring to
Slavoj ˇi˛ek’s introductory words, posthumanism
postulates the vision of corporeality without a body but not of mind without a
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expedient to consider the semantic contexts of philosophical ideas – even if it
seems as if they have much in common. A metaphysic philosophy such as Gnosis and
posthumanism have different aims and different structures, although both might
be able to establish sense in people’s (limited) life.
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quotations are translated into English by O. Krueger.