Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 15

Section 13:  Gnosticism and the Cybernauts:

Firstly a word on Gnosticism, which derives from the word gnôsis, the Greek word for "knowledge" or "insight."  It is possible to trace its roots back to the second and first centuries BCE.  Central to Gnosticism is a very strong "anti-cosmic world rejection," and consequently it is mistaken to call it a dualism.  We read the following in the IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

According to the Gnostics, this world, the material cosmos, is the result of a primordial error on the part of a supra-cosmic, supremely divine being, usually called Sophia (Wisdom) or simply the Logos. This being is described as the final emanation of a divine hierarchy, called the Plêrôma or "Fullness," at the head of which resides the supreme God, the One beyond Being. (See this link: IEP)

In brief Gnosticism refers to belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god, the demiurge.  There we shall leave it as it is a very arcane belief system which is extremely syncretistic. Gray puts it succinctly once again:

The flight from the prison of the flesh is the essence of the Gnostic heresy that, despite incessant persecution, persisted in Christendom for centuries, and which survives to this day in the Mandean community in Syria. (Op. cit., 142)

Gray is, of course, right when he says that Jesus promised the resurrection of the body, not an afterlife as a disembodied consciousness.  (See ibid., 143).  It is hard to deny that fact, and harder still for theologians to defend a totally spiritual heaven.

The next word that needs definition is cybernaut which is 1. a computer user who uses the internet or 2. someone who explores cyberspace.  Once again Gray refers to a novel and an author I have never heard of, viz., Neuromancer by William Gibson.  The plot of this novel does not matter a whit as he only uses it to illustrate the word cybernaut. In short, Gray describes today’s cybernauts as unknowing Gnostics. (See ibid., 142) Cyberspace, he argues, continues the Gnostic flight from the body. (See ibid., 143)  He also refers to a strange contemporary cult called Extropians who aim to shed the mortal flesh to arrive at the true spark of the divine in man. (See ibid., 144)

Section 14: Inside the Phantomat:

Once again I learn another new word.  Not alone that, but I am also introduced to another novelist and book I have never heard of.  The book in question is Summa Technologiae, which is a lovely pun on Thomas Aquinas’s theological work.  The author, this time, is Stanislaw Lem.  In his fantasy world Lem envisages a “phantomatic generator,” which enables users to enter into simulated worlds.  These are virtual worlds.  In this work of fantasy we are enabled through the phantomat to enter any world we like – win a marathon, accept the Nobel prize for Science or Literature, paint the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo etc.  However, Gray is correct when he says that Lem is doing nothing new at all because

Virtual reality is a technological simulation of techniques of lucid dreaming practised by shamans for millennia.  (Ibid., 147)

Section 15: The Mirror of Solitude:

Then Gray does it again.  He becomes extremely provocative, and I must say I love it.  Not that I agree with his or even violently disagree with him.  It’s just that I admit the courage of his questioning spirit which is so purely philosophical.  Everything and every action can be questioned by the true philosopher.  He questions the necessity of solitude for humankind.  Here he flies in the face of what the learned and deeply humane psychiatrist Anthony Storr has to say in his book Solitude which I am also reading at the moment.  I feel more deeply on the side of Storr who argues for the necessity of solitude to the very existence of humankind’s creativity.  Be that as it may, let me return to Gray who, with E.O. Wilson, believes that the next century will usher in The Age of Loneliness (Eremozoic Era)in the wake of the current The Age of Mammals (Cenozoic Era).  Again, Gray’s sheer pessimism sees a world which is devastated by overpopulation, followed by consequent diseases of alarming proportions which will usher in an Age of Loneliness or an Age of Mysticism.  Listen to this for both pessimism and sheer cynicism, but I praise Gray’s provocation:

Mystics imagine that by seeking out empty places they can open themselves to something other than themselves.  Nearly always they do the opposite.  They carry the thrash and litter of humanity wherever they go.  (ibid., 150)

And then this clincher of a sentence which almost makes me laugh, though I like it for its boldness: “A zoo is a better window from which to look out at the human world than a monastery.” (Ibid., 151)

Section 16: The Coast Opposite Humanity:

This is the short concluding section of chapter 4.  It’s a short summary and a rallying cry to his cause.  Once again he reminds the reader of humankind’s penchant for self-inflation and for pumping up his own importance.  We are animals and that is that.  We have vastly over-valued our significance.  In fact, he maintains we are living in our own solipsistic world, blind to other animals and to the fact that we are very much a species like they.  Then he says, in the epitome of pessimism, that “Homo sapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving… The Earth will forget mankind.  The play of life will go on.”  (ibid., 151)

I might add here that I cannot go all the way, even half way, with Gray on some of these monstrous generalisations, but I admire his philosophic courage for questioning our over-inflated sense of ourselves.  I agree that we have over-inflated ourselves, but, even if we place ourselves firmly on the level of other animals, we too, along with our fellow animals, have many redeeming features.  Gloriously exhilarating pessimism - so said Richard Holloway in his review of this book in the Scotsman newspaper.  Methinks he is right, whatever about Gray!

Above Benny the seal recuperating at the Irish Seal Sanctuary which we visited today with the school for a CSPE project. The Irish Seal Sanctuary will be found at this link here: ISS

No comments: