more on the “Californian ideology”

A brief follow-up to a recent post … Here’s an interesting article by Samuel Loncar called “The Vibrant Religious Life of Silicon Valley, and Why It’s Killing the Economy.” A key passage:

The “religion of technology” is not itself new. The late historian David Noble, in his book by that title, traced its origins in a particular strain of Christianity which saw technology as means of reversing the effects of the Fall. What is new, and perhaps alarming, is that the most influential sector of the economy is awash in this sea of faith, and that its ethos in Silicon Valley is particularly unfriendly to human life as the middle classes know it. The general optimism about divinization in Silicon Valley motivates a widespread (though by no means universal) disregard for, and even hostility toward, material culture: you know, things like bodies (which Silva calls “skin bags”) and jobs which involve them.

The very fact that Silicon Valley has incubated this new religious culture unbeknownst to most of the outside world suggests how insulated it is. On the one hand, five minutes spent listening to the CEO of Google or some other tech giant will show you how differently people in Silicon Valley think from the rest of the country — listen carefully and you realize most of them simply assume there will be massive unemployment in the coming decades — and how unselfconscious most are of their differences. On the other hand, listen to mainstream East Coast journalists and intellectuals, and you would think a kind of ho-hum secularism, completely disinterested in becoming gods, is still the uncontested norm among modern elites.

If religion makes a comeback, but this is the religion that comes back….

More on this later, but for now just one brief note about bodies as “skin bags”: in the opening scene of Mad Max: Fury Road, Max is captured and branded and used to provide blood transfusions to an ill War Boy named Nux. Nux calls Max “my blood bag.” Hey, it’s only a body.

an academic farce

Peter Conn is right about one thing: college accreditation is a mess. But his comments about religious colleges are thoughtless, uninformed, and bigoted.

Conn is appalled — appalled — that religious colleges can receive accreditation. Why does this appall him? Well, because they have communal statements of faith, and this proves that in them “the primacy of reason has been abandoned.” The idea that religious faith and reason are incompatible can only be put forth by someone utterly ignorant of the centuries of philosophical debate on this subject, which continues to this day; and if it’s the primacy of reason that Conn is particularly concerned with, perhaps he might take a look at the recent (and not-so-recent) history of his own discipline, which is also mine. Could anyone affirm with a straight face that English studies in America has for the past quarter-century or more been governed by “the primacy of reason”? I seriously doubt that Conn even knows what he means by “reason.” Any stick to beat a dog.

Conn is, if possible, even farther off-base when he writes of “the manifest disconnect between the bedrock principle of academic freedom and the governing regulations that corrupt academic freedom at Wheaton.” I taught at Wheaton for twenty-nine years, and when people asked me why I stayed there for so long my answer was always the same: I was there for the academic freedom. My interests were in the intersection of theology, religious practice, and literature — a very rich field, but one that in most secular universities I would have been strongly discouraged from pursuing except in a corrosively skeptical way. Certainly in such an environment I would never have dared to write a book on the theology of reading — and yet what I learned in writing that book has been foundational for the rest of my career.

Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even naïve enough to believe that the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches, is, unlike Wheaton, a value-neutral institution. But as Stanley Fish pointed out years ago, “What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” Wheaton is differently closed than Penn; and for the people who teach there and study there, that difference is typically liberating rather than confining. It certainly was for me.

It would take me another ten thousand words to exhaustively detail Conn’s errors of commission and omission — I could have fun with his apparent belief that Christian colleges generally support “creation science” — but in conclusion let me just zero in on this: “Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”

How do accreditation agencies “uphold” “academic and intellectual standards”? They look at such factors as class size, test scores of incoming students, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, and the like. When they look really closely they might note the quality of the institutions from which the faculty received their terminal degrees, and the percentage of graduates who go on for further education.

These are the measures that, when the accreditation agencies come calling, schools like Wheaton are judged by — that is, the same measures that all other colleges and universities in America are judged by. Wheaton faculty in the humanities — I’ll confine my comments to that field — have recently published books on the university presses of Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton, among others. Former students of mine — to speak even more narrowly — have gone on to get degrees from the finest institutions in the world, and are now professors (some of them tenured) at first-rate universities here and abroad. The factual record speaks for itself, for those who, unlike Conn, are willing to look into it. And I am not even mentioning non-academic achievements.

Some of Wheaton’s most famous alumni have strayed pretty far from its theological commitments, though I think Wes Craven has done a pretty good job of illustrating the consequences of original sin. But even those who have turned aside from evangelicalism, or Christianity altogether, often pay tribute to Wheaton for providing them the intellectual tools they have used to forge their own path — see, for instance, Bart Ehrman in the early pages of Misquoting Jesus. The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.

In this respect, the institutional attitude of Wheaton College differs considerably from the personal attitude of Peter Conn, who, it appears, cannot bear the thought that the academic world should make room for people whose beliefs he despises — even if they meet the same academic standards as other colleges and universities. What Conn wants is a purge of religion from academic life. He ought to own that desire, and stop trying to camouflage it with the verbal fig-leaves of “intellectual standards” and “academic freedom” — concepts he neither understands nor values.

on philosophical religion

I haven’t read the book Peter Gordon reviews here, but the conceptual frame of the review interests me. (This is sort of off-topic for this blog, by the way.)

Here’s a key passage:

The grand tradition of philosophical religion thus aims at a symphônia of religion and philosophy. This term has a purely technical meaning, of course, but its cognate use in music captures the basic thought that we can harmonize the two voices. The guiding thought of Fraenkel’s study is that what may strike us as an unforgivably elitist distinction, between philosophers and non-philosophers, actually went along with a universalistic acknowledgment that diverse religious traditions share a common core. For it is precisely the social distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers that permitted philosophers to claim that, despite variations in literal content, religion bears an invariant allegorical truth—the insight that God and Reason are one. Plato, for example, believed that the laws of Crete and the laws of Sparta were essentially the same: variations in appearances could be explained by the philosopher as due to the influence of historical and cultural context. It was therefore possible for Plato, in Fraenkel’s assessment, to endorse both contextual pluralism (about variations in religious representations and practices) and universalism (about the inner meaning of religion itself).

Gordon’s review is essentially a detailed précis of Carlos Fraenkel’s new history of philosophical religions, and Gordon seems to share the view quite common among intellectuals that philosophical religion is a big improvement over ordinary religion because, so the argument goes, by placing religion within the sphere of civilized intellectual disputation you takes the violent edge off of the thing.

Following Fraenkel, Gordon speculates on why philosophical religion has declined — he simply assumes that it has, though perhaps Fraenkel provides evidence to support this claim — and what is noteworthy to me about those speculations is that they, like philosophical religion itself, operate strictly within the intellectual realm. It seems not to occur to Gordon that philosophical religion’s fortunes might alter for reasons that are not strictly intellectual themselves.

Perhaps philosophical religion has declined (if it has) and has never been very popular (which is certainly true) because religion is not simply a matter of holding to a set of metaphysical propositions. Now, metaphysical propositions are intrinsic to most of what we call religions, but history would suggest that those propositions cannot be sustained without a strong framework of ritual and practice. This is something that all anthropologists and sociologists of religion know, and it seems like something that anyone writing about the fate of religion in a given society ought also to be aware of. Philosophical religion has never existed and never will exist in a vacuum: it always finds its place within a much larger set of beliefs, acts, and habits. A purely philosophical religion has never been sustainable because a purely philosophical religion isn’t a religion at all.

Is Transhumanism a Religion?

In late April, blogger Michael Anissimov claimed that we are all transhumanists now, in part because

At their base, the world’s major two largest religions — Christianity and Islam — are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman — the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self‑modification.

Just a few days ago, on the other hand, Mr. Anissimov observed that “When theists call the Singularity movement ‘religious,’ they are essentially saying, ‘Oh no, this scientifically‑informed philosophy is intruding on our traditional turf!’”

My point in juxtaposing these two passages is not only to suggest that it is not fully clear just who is intruding on whose turf, but also to suggest that the whole issue seems to be miscast. Back when I was writing about environmentalism I came across those who thought environmentalism was somehow a religion, and for that reason alone deeply problematic. That they would often speak of it as a “secular religion” already struck me as odd, not quite like talking about a “square circle” but close.

In response, I paraphrased a passage from T. S. Eliot (“Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion”) to suggest that if environmentalism is a substitute for religion, it is because our religion is already a substitute for religion. Something of the same idea applies to transhumanism in its various forms. If it looks like a religion, that is probably because so many have a pretty degraded conception of what “religion” — and here I speak of the Biblical religions — is all about. Let me suggest it is not fundamentally angels.

At root, Biblical religion is about there being a God who created the world, is active in the world, and has expectations about how people should behave in the world. At root, transhumanism is not about any of these things; so far as I can tell for most transhumanists there is no God and we are the only source of expectations about how we should live in the world. It is very hard for me to understand in what sense one of these belief systems can substitute for another. True, both of them can be strongly held, both of them can serve as a guide to life. You can even say both depend on faith, to the extent that a good deal of transhumanism depends on evidence of what is as yet unseen. So I suppose that if you define religion as “a strongly held guide to life that depends on faith” then you can have a secular religion and it could be transhumanism.

But that definition seems to me to miss the point — like saying that Coke can serve as a substitute for red wine because both of them are dark-colored and drinkable liquids. Whatever their similarities, transhumanism and religion simply do not play the same part in the moral economy of human life. They strive for different ends and as a result they admire different qualities. For example, transhumanism is all about pride, while Biblical religions point to humility. Eliot once again seems to have the clearer understanding of what is at stake:

Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it. I can persuade myself … that some of the things that I can hope to get are better worth having than some of the things I cannot get; or I may hope to alter myself so as to want different things; but I cannot persuade myself that it is the same desires that are satisfied, or that I have in effect the same thing under a different name.

Transhumanism has indeed decided that it can do without religious faith and philosophy, hitching its wagon to willful creativity and calling it science. In contrast, binding discipline is at the root of Biblical religion. You do not have to want that discipline or believe in it to see that transhumanism is not just offering us the same kind of thing under a different name.

Looking for a Serious Debate

Over on his blog Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov has a few criticisms of our blog. Or at least, a blog sharing our blog’s name; he gets so many things wrong that it seems almost as though he’s describing some other blog. And Mr. Anissimov’s comments beneath his own post range from ill-informed and ill-reasoned to ill-mannered and practically illiterate. They are beneath response — except to note that Mr. Anissimov should know better. But putting aside those comments and the elementary errors that were likely the result of his general carelessness in argument — like misattributing to Charlie something that I wrote — some of the broader strokes of Mr. Anissimov’s ignorant and crude post deserve notice.
First, Mr. Anissimov’s post is intellectually lazy. To label an argument “religious” or “irreligious” does not amount to a refutation. Nor can you refute an argument by claiming to expose the belief structures that undergird it.
Second, Mr. Anissimov’s post is intellectually dishonest. He approvingly quotes an article that claims that “all prominent anti-transhumanists — [Francis] Fukuyama, [Leon] Kass, [and Bill] McKibben — are religious.” But anyone who has read those three thinkers’ books and essays will know that they make only publicly-accessible arguments that do not rely upon or even invoke religion. And more to the point, it is an indisputable matter of public fact that none of us here at Futurisms has made the arguments that Mr. Anissimov is imputing to us. None of us has ever argued that we object to transhumanism because “through suffering [we] will enter paradise after [we] are dead.” Not even close.
Once Mr. Anissimov has (falsely) established that those of us who disagree with him do so for religious reasons, he claims that we “want the same damn thing” that he wants. Except that while he wants to achieve immortality through science, his critics “think they can get it through magic.”
To the contrary, our arguments have in fact been humanistic and what you might call earthly — hardly magical thinking or appeals to paradise. The very distinction between humanists and transhumanists should make plain whose beliefs are grounded in earthly affairs and whose instead depend on appeals to fantasy. We are skeptical of transhumanist promises of paradise because their arguments are, by and large, based on faith and fantasy instead of reason and fact; because what they hope to deliver would likely be something quite other than paradise if it became reality; and because the promise of paradise can be used to justify things that ought not be tolerated.
It is too much to ask for Mr. Anissimov to be a charitable reader of our arguments, but if he wants to be taken seriously he should make an effort to seem capable of at least comprehending them. Until he does, it is a peculiar irony that a transhumanist would invoke religion in order to avoid engaging in a substantive debate with his critics.

“The means to make the man of the future”

The impulse to redesign humanity is not new, and turns up in surprising places once you start paying attention to it. Consider the following passage from a very long speech given in 1891 by Woman’s Christian Temperance Union founder Frances Willard, one of the giants of turn-of-the-century progressivism:

It may be that in some better day the world will see a human being gifted with the best powers of what we are wont to call the “lower orders of creation;” keen sighted and swift of motion as a bird, sharp scented as a greyhound, faithful as a dog and full of wisdom as an elephant. It may be, too, that we shall see a human being who has not only these powers, but is made up of the best physical graces, mental gifts and graciousness of all generations; one who shall gain knowledge, not by the present slow process of acquisition, but instantaneously, through magnetic currents, from the books and brains about him. One who will be such a thinker as Kepler or Kant; such a poet as Shakespeare or Tennyson; such an artist as Da Vinci; such a sculptor as Phidias; such a musician as Beethoven; such a statesman as Gladstone; such a philanthropist as Shaftesbury; such a saint as Guyon. Naturally the unintelligent and the unimaginative will declare this impossible, but everything helps forward the advent of just such a being as that. All arts, inventions, philanthropies, religions, are but tentacul put forth, searching for the means to make the man of the future, who shall be what all who have the vision and faculty divine have always prophesied he would yet be — a microcosm, the mirror of the universe. We in our little corner, doing our work well-nigh unnoted by the world at large, are helping by our small increments of power to create this complete human being — the goal of all desire and hope. The coral zoophyte builds not more surely on the unseen reef that yet shall rise in gleaming beauty above the deep sea’s level blue than we are building for universal and perfected human nature. Nothing less is in our thought, and nothing else; for by ideals we live, and this ideal has been upon our consciousness from the beginning. The brain is but a stained glass window now, we wish to change it to a crystal pure and brilliant. The total abstinence [from alcohol] pledge is but one strand in the cable of our organised endeavour, for we have seen that to make man as God would have him be, the student of perfection must study his heredity, must hover like an unseen guardian about his cradle, his desk at school, his happy playground, his thoughtless and endangered youth, his tempted manhood, and must guard, not only against beginnings of ill in his own separate career, but their organised form in the habits, customs and laws of his nation and his world. For “it is easier to prevent than to undo.”

This excerpt is Willard at her most utopian, and to that extent does not do justice to the strong bent of practical reform that is the dominant tone of her speech. Yet it is not disconnected from that dominant tone; Willard evidently realized that reform has to aim at something or else it is mere change, and here she adumbrates her ultimate goal.

Willard’s description of her hoped-for human future could serve as a manifesto for contemporary transhumanism, but for a few key distinctions. The first is her sense, explicitly mentioned later in the speech, that the wisdom of science was on a convergent course with the truth of religion, which (in good Spinozistic fashion) she defines as doing good, not doctrine. The stir James Hughes made in transhumanist circles by even approaching the Catholic Church on transhumanism confirms the obvious, which is that for most transhumanists, their project is a substitute for religion.

A second distinction is her willingness to acknowledge not only animal bodily superiorities, but high points of human culture as well — which count as little or nothing for those in quest of the Singularity. What is Da Vinci, in comparison with some imagined super-intelligence? A dabbler and dauber, a constructor of termite mounds.

Finally, Willard looks to a perfected humanity. Her notion of that perfection is ultimately hard to fathom (mirror of the universe?) and perhaps somewhat mystical. But it is a united perfected humanity, not the for-the-most-part libertarian transhumanist visions of diverse forms of do-your-own-thing posthumanity. For Willard, we are all in this together.

On their merits, Willard’s speculations may be superior to the transhumanist norm, but at the very least they are rhetorically superior precisely for the differences just noted: she has a vision of human progress not cut off from all previous human history, but flowing from it. In context, that would be something like a common touch. She apparently thought nothing of laying out her vision to the second biennial convention of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and to do so in a section of her speech devoted to abstinence, the organization’s key issue. We don’t know, of course, how her audience, representatives of a mass movement, reacted to this passage. We do know that transhumanists talk mostly to… other transhumanists. But perhaps in principle their separation from the human mass should not be a problem; after all, if they are correct about the future, they’ll be alright Jack.