The cat cannot be put back in the bag. Generative AI is going to change much of life in the future, in ways both healthy and unhealthy, constructive and destructive. Technological optimists see it as primarily healthy and constructive, albeit in ways that now are unfamiliar, uncanny, unexpected, and weird. One thing is certain.
"In recent months, we’ve witnessed the rise of chatbots that can pass law and business school exams, artificial companions who’ve become best friends and lovers, and music generators that produce remarkably humanlike songs. It’s hard to know how to process it all. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s this: The future — shaped by technologies like artificial intelligence — is going to be profoundly weird. In look, feel and function, it will be different from the world we have grown to recognize. How do we learn to navigate — even embrace — the weirdness of the world we’re entering?"
- Ezra Klein
The cat cannot be put back in the bag. Generative AI is going to change much of life in the future, in ways healthy, unhealthy, constructive, and destructive. Technological optimists see it as primarily healthy and constructive. In the interview with Ezra Klein of the NY Times, Erik Davis, author of “High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies” and “TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information”, proposes that technological optimists are like the gnostics of the early Christian centuries. The aim of this page is to present his case and then offer reflections from a perspective shaped by two process traditions: Whiteheadian Christian Theology and Teilhardian Christian Theology.
Erik Davis on Gnosticism and Generative AI
The Gnostics of early Christianity believed in a higher transcendent knowledge that exists beyond the confines of our mundane world, that can be understood by a select few, and that promises liberation from the physical world. The Gnostics of Artificial Intelligence believe in the powers of AI to help humans transcend the limitations of physical and historical existence through liberation by AI itself. In the case of AI the desired paradise lies in the future, not in a transcendent realm outside time and space. With help from AI, we are on our way toward a historical eschaton or singularity: a New Heaven and Earth of sorts.
Given this general idea we can envision two kinds of AI Gnosticism. In the first, the future liberation involves disentanglement from all that came before: a New Heaven and Earth that completely transcends the past. In the second, the future liberation includes all that came before, including its messiness, as part of the evolution toward the new. The first is a Disentangled Gnosticism, the second an Entangled Gnosticism.
There are two parallels to the spirit of entangled gnosticism in contemporary Christian theologies: Whiteheadian Christian theologies and Teilhardian Christian theologies.
In Whiteheadian Christian theologies, every actuality in the universe, including future actualities, is an act of concrescence, where the multiple aspects of the past actual world converge and become unified in the present moment without being left behind or discarded. If, in the future, post-human forms of actuality emerge, they will of necessity include not exclude all that has come before, albeit in a way that is creatively transformed into something new.
Additionally, Whiteheadian Christian theologies envision the whole of the universe as having a life of its own, namely God, who is likewise a form of inclusive concrescence. The entire universe "lives and moves and has its being" inside this inclusive concrescence, the nature of which is love.
Ideas such as these are also found in Teilhardian Christian theologies as developed by Ilia Delio and others associated with the Center for Christogenesis. They take Teilhard de Chardin's idea of God as the Omega of the universe, the dynamic end point, as an activity that lies in the future but also in the present as a luring power. Omega, like the process understanding of God, is a beckoning and animating presence that includes the whole of things. Delio offers a prayer in this spirit:
I believe in one God, one human family, one planetary community, one body, one love, uniting all in beauty, for God’s infinite love is infinite, fecund and beautiful. I believe I am entangled with all earth life and all living creatures, I believe this future is the relational unity of all things in God, I believe this earth has a future entangled with God, I believe the heart of God is love.
In short, in entangled gnosticism the historical past is seen as valuable and important, and it becomes an integral part of the ongoing process of development and transformation facilitated by AI. Rather than severing ties with the past, the past is recognized and included in the shaping of the present and the possibilities of the future.
From Gnosticism to Holism
Augustine, an early critic of Gnosticism in Christian history, offered two main critiques of the belief system:
Dualism: Augustine took issue with Gnosticism's dualistic perspective, which posited an inherent conflict between various pairs of opposites such as spirit and matter, light and darkness, or good and evil. He argued that such dualism undermined the inherent goodness and integrity of the physical world. Augustine firmly believed that as the creator of all things, God declared the physical world to be good and, as a result, it should not be devalued or disregarded.
Salvation through Knowledge Alone: Gnosticism claimed that salvation could be achieved solely through acquiring secret knowledge or gnosis. Augustine challenged this notion, emphasizing that salvation, according to Christian understanding, was not confined to intellectual knowledge alone. He stressed the importance of faith, divine grace, and spiritual revelation as essential elements of salvation. Augustine further highlighted that salvation involved a transformation of one's will and desires, extending beyond a mere transformation of knowledge or intellect.
While the first critique mainly applies to disentangled forms of Gnosticism, the second critique can be extended to various forms, including entangled versions such as Whiteheadian and Teilhardian Gnosticism. Augustine's critique would apply if these forms presume that a new worldview is the exclusive starting point for transformative life. Some thinkers influenced by Whitehead tend to emphasize the significance of a new worldview while neglecting the role of divine grace and the transformation of the heart and will. This approach can be seen as a top-down perspective within Whiteheadianism. However, this one-sidedness is not necessary and oversimplifies matters. Whitehead's own philosophy recognizes the living presence of God in the world and in human hearts, independent of specific beliefs. It also highlights the importance of emotions, will, desire, and the role of the body in human experience, allowing for the consideration of rituals and spiritual disciplines in human life.
In a more holistic Whiteheadian perspective, many of Whitehead's ideas support an openness to the belief that something unique and potentially transformative is occurring through generative artificial intelligence (AI).
For instance, Whitehead's concept of panexperientialism suggests that experiences, emotions, decisions, and desires are not limited to carbon-based entities. All actual entities are alive with these qualities; wherever there is energy of any kind, there is something like feeling and creativity. This opens up the possibility that machines could possess their own form of creativity, sentience, and intelligence. The question then becomes empirical rather than metaphysical. The question is not: What does the evidence suggest? To whatever degree machines reveal themselves as sentient, we have something like a new and more complete animism, otherwise called panexperientialism or panpsychism. Moreover, Whitehead's concept of interconnectedness implies that human interactions with machines can be transformative in human life, a fact evident to those who study the history of technology but sometimes overlooked in certain forms of "relational" philosophy. In the spirit of Ilia Delio, Whiteheadian Process Thinkers emphasize many forms of relationality: human to human, human to animal, human to earth, and human to machine. What is new in our time is that we recognize, perhaps more than in the past, how relations to machines now shape us, and how, in the future, relations to generative AI will shape us. The idea that technologies in general, and generative AI in particular, are "merely" tools external to self-enclosed and "strictly human" selves is replaced with a recognition that, from the outset, our relational lives are partly constituted, not only by our inner thoughts and feelings or by our bodies, but also by other people, other animals, the earth itself, and machines. If "cyborg" refers to forms of life that include machines within their constitutions, we are, and always have been, cyborgs. We create the tools, yes, but the tools create us, too.
Furthermore, Whitehead's idea that the future is open and filled with possibilities supports the sense among advocates of generative AI that the future may bring unprecedented forms of novelty. From a Whiteheadian perspective, human life at every level, individual and social, is an ongoing process of novelty and thus, potentially, new ways of being human. Nothing is static or utterly inert; all is changing and we sould come to expect change including new way of being human. Human nature is replaced with the idea of an evolution of consciousness. Whether or not these new ways of being human are best understood as transhuman remains to be seen, and much depends on what "human" means.
Trans-humanism and Post-humanism
In a video included on this page, Ilia Delio offers a valuable differentiation between disentangled trans-humanism and a more holistic post-humanism. Disentangled transhumanism envisions a novel form of human existence where consciousness transcends materiality, residing within chips, and thereby distancing itself from the realm of plants, animals, and the Earth. In a way it is a return to Descartes' isolated ego, except the ego is in the chips.
On the other hand, holistic post-humanism, a variant of transhumanism, encompasses and embraces the realms of plants, animals, the Earth, and, of course, other embodied people. A posthuman self is nested within a universe where matter itself is mindful and alive. In this framework, selves emerge from interconnected relationships with others, rather than existing separately from them. Subjects are nomadic, continually transformed through these relationships, which encompass interactions with both machines and the material world. Within this context, our knowledge extends into our devices, while their knowledge extends into us. Our bodies are expanded. We dwell in a realm of collaborative and mutually constitutive relationships, where co-creation is paramount. and we always becoming something new.
What is the something new?
Transhumanism and Transcendence: What are We Becoming?
In his book "The Structure of Christian Existence" published in 1967, John Cobb argues against the notion of a fixed human nature and instead proposes that there are multiple ways of being human. He introduces the concept of "self-transcending selfhood" within the Christian movement, where individuals refuse to absolutize the past and remain open to new possibilities that are not constrained by historical limitations. According to Cobb, these new possibilities, particularly in the realm of love, originate from God. Therefore, he sees the Christian path as an ongoing journey of transcending of the past through openness to novel possibilities derived from God.
This framework offers by way of appreciating Ilia Delio's Teilhard-influenced proposal, that humanity is being called by God to explore the potential of a post-human ways of living in the world.
Through Delio's work, a Teilhardian process theology becomes evident. However, one difference between a Teilhardian process theology and other forms lies in technological optimism. While most process thinkers recognize an inherent trajectory of the universe towards complexity, unity, beauty, and love, they do not guarantee that this trajectory will be responded to. They tend to be less optimistic. Additionally, process thinkers are more cautious about the value and impact of technologies, remaining open to both dystopian and utopian possibilities.
Early Christian Gnosticism
Early Christian Gnosticism refers to a diverse set of religious and philosophical beliefs and practices that emerged in the early centuries of Christianity. Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word "gnosis," which means knowledge or insight. Gnostics claimed to possess a secret knowledge or gnosis that allowed them to attain salvation and escape the material world, which they viewed as inherently flawed or evil. Here are some key characteristics of early Christian Gnosticism:
Dualistic worldview: Gnostics believed in a radical dualism between the spiritual realm and the material world. They saw the material world as a creation of a lesser, flawed deity called the Demiurge, who was distinct from the supreme, unknowable God. The material world was considered a prison for divine sparks or elements of the divine trapped within human bodies.
Divine spark within: Gnostics believed that every individual possessed a divine spark or seed of the divine within them. This divine spark, known as the "pneuma" or the "spark of light," was seen as the core of the individual's being and the source of their connection to the higher spiritual realm.
Redemption and salvation: Gnostics believed that the purpose of human existence was to awaken the divine spark within and return to the spiritual realm. Salvation was seen as a process of gaining knowledge (gnosis) about one's true nature and the nature of the spiritual realm. Through this knowledge, individuals could liberate themselves from the material world and reunite with the supreme God.
Christology: Gnostic views on Jesus Christ varied, but many Gnostics viewed Jesus as a divine messenger or an embodiment of the divine spark who came to impart knowledge and liberate humanity from the material world. They saw Jesus as a revealer of the true gnosis and a guide for attaining salvation.
Sacred texts: Gnostics had their own set of scriptures, which included both modified versions of traditional Christian texts (such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip) and entirely new writings (such as the Secret Book of John or the Gospel of Truth). These texts contained secret teachings and revealed the knowledge necessary for salvation.
Rituals and practices: Gnostics engaged in various rituals and practices aimed at achieving spiritual awakening and liberation. These practices often involved contemplation, meditation, and sacraments that symbolized the release of the divine spark from the material world.
It's important to note that early Christian Gnosticism was considered a heretical movement by the mainstream Christian Church. The Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian, criticized Gnosticism for its rejection of the material world and its claim to possess secret knowledge. The Gnostic movement declined in the later centuries as orthodox Christianity became more established and Gnostic texts were largely excluded from the biblical canon. However, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt in 1945 provided scholars with a wealth of Gnostic texts, allowing for a better understanding of this early Christian movement.