Glimpsing the Posthuman Mentality
It’s tantalizing to wonder whether there’s a superior way of thinking that makes average human adults seem childlike. There have been geniuses throughout history who’ve excelled in the sciences or the arts, and there have been spiritual revolutionaries who’ve been hailed as enlightened incarnations of a higher power. Science fiction, too, theorizes that an extraterrestrial species might be so intellectually and technologically advanced as to be beyond our comprehension.
But perhaps it’s possible to extrapolate the contents of what we might call a posthuman state of mind, by reflecting on how a posthuman would have to think differently from an average benighted person.
Two Principles for Extrapolating Posthuman Mentality
Here are some principles for how this might work. Enlightenment or posthuman cognition may entail not access to hidden information, but a more encompassing and virtuous perspective on information that’s otherwise taken for granted. That is, the posthuman intellect might recognize the importance of what’s hiding in plain sight even for lowlier folks.
Moreover, the posthuman would relate to an average human mind as an adult would relate to a child in at least this respect: the posthuman might feel embarrassed on behalf of unenlightened folks, because our behavior seems obviously foolish from the higher-level perspective.
A child lacks the mental resources to appreciate the silliness of some of her errors, and she can’t help but act on wayward assumptions because she’s naïve and still trying to figure out how the world works. But when the child grows up, she can only look back patronisingly at her earlier confusions, knowing how naïve she couldn’t help being at that young age.
Similarly, an average person might conceivably grow into an enlightened frame of mind, in which case she’d come to think the conventional beliefs and attitudes of her relatively confused, former self were just as naïve and childish. Childhood has its revenge on the average adult mentality, as it were, since the latter might be likewise undermined and mocked by a yet more humbling mindset.
Those two assumptions go a long way in allowing us to imagine what an enlightened being might think, since we can test the merits of a potential perspective by asking whether that advanced way of understanding would:
- reinterpret what we tend to ignore even though the fact that makes for the more profound truth is staring us in the face, and
- enable the posthuman to feel justly patronizing towards the contents of more childish and wrongheaded worldviews.
Toy Religion from the Sun God
For example, much theological output and religious conduct might be dismissed as childish follies, owing to posthuman reflection on the likely fact that theism grew out of a misunderstanding of our planet’s relation to the sun. If the sun was the obvious symbol of a chief deity in the “heavens” of outer space, the panoply of religious speculations about what God is like as a person and what his or her plans are for us are liable to come across as so many embarrassing errors.
The ancient Egyptians worshiped the Sun as a deity named “Ra,” and the pharaohs associated themselves with Osiris and Horus, the grandsons of Ra, by way of an elaborate myth that featured regeneration, divine judgment, and the salvation of kings by means of life after death. Ra illuminates the sky and the earth by day, and travels to the underworld by night where he meets Osiris, lord of the dead and bestower of resurrection. The union of Ra and Osiris at that nadir rejuvenates Ra and enables the Sun to rise in the morning.
All of which was transmitted to Greco-Roman culture via the Mysteries of Isis (and through similar dying-and-rising godman cults in the region) and was garbled in the Christian variant that cast a Jewish, moralistic, and egalitarian light on the Egyptian salvation myths.
The point, though, is that a posthuman outlook might be quick to note the commonality and to discount the entire sweep of that religious evolution as a series of outbursts of frivolous imagination sparked by a naïve worship of the Sun and of kings as the grandsons of that solar god.
Granted, this shift in perspective would depend on more than just what we now take for granted, namely the knowledge that Earth and the Sun are just examples of many other planets and stars in the universe. Commonsense has developed because our species collectively has passed through a childlike stage into a more jaded, “modern” one, owing to the accumulation of collective memory and to technological advances which updated our cosmology and self-understanding.
Still, that wealth of new information about the nature of the universe has become commonplace in postindustrial societies. For those fortunate inhabitants, then, the question is what use an enlightened, posthuman being would make of those standard conceptions. Given that nature is obviously such and such, which religious beliefs and practices seem perfectly small-minded?
The unenlightened late-modern answer to that question is a positivistic one: science and secular humanism seem advanced compared to childish prehistoric animism and magic. Yet a posthuman perspective would have to be surprising and subversive rather than flattering to our conventional ways of thinking. Again, we might piece together the contents of the posthuman perspective by reflecting on the difference between trusting in the wisdom of various sophisticated theologies, and noticing that they’re all based on a colossal, relatively childish blunder, that is, on a personification of the Sun.
Sexuality as a Model for Platonic Transcendence
Here’s another example, based on the universality of our sexual practices. We take for granted the biological sexualization of everyone, from the division of genders to puberty, romantic love, sexual intercourse, orgasm, procreation, and fetishes or sexual deviance from the biological program. But a posthuman might notice unsettling connections between these universal practices and our religious notions. Whereas sexuality seems obvious to ordinary human cognition, the use of sexuality as the raw material for the applications of Platonism in the preposterous Western religious metaphors might seem obvious to the posthuman intellect.
These religions are dualistic: the material world is polluted compared to the glory of the spiritual realm which we’ll access if we’re in good standing with God. Similarly, sexuality entails a division between the profane world of nonsexual customs and conventions under which we toil, and the relatively prized, sacred one of intimacy with our partner.
We cross from the former to the latter when we’re fortunate or when we have the equivalent of gnosis (saving knowledge) to seduce or to win the favour of a potential partner. Just as we must prove ourselves to God to earn favour in the afterlife, we must win the favour of a mate in the present life to experience sexual ecstasy. When preparing for sex we remove our clothes just as we’ll lose our flesh when we die, and our spirit will join with the divine just as our naked body joins with that of our partner in the act of copulation.
Orgasm is the model for spiritual bliss, while sexual deviations are the original sins that make us unworthy of our “promised land,” our destiny with God or our naturally selected orgasm. Procreation and female biological creativity are aspects of sexuality that patriarchal cultures had to downplay or coopt. Just as men and women are divided because of the evolution of sexual reproduction, the monotheist’s God is in practice and character male rather than female. Moreover, the male preoccupation with dominance entailed the subjugation of women and the pretense that a masculine deity would be supremely creative even though women were apparently the sole life-givers since it was obvious that women carried newborns to term.
Here again we have the potential for posthuman revelation, which we can test by asking those two questions. Does an idea reinterpret what we tend to ignore even though the basis for the more profound truth is staring us in the face? And does the idea shame us, enabling the posthuman who’s the theoretical source of that idea to feel justly patronizing towards the more childish and wrongheaded worldviews that are swept away by the posthuman insight?
Discounting Puerile Contenders for Wisdom
Of course, we can’t know whether those subversive speculations in fact belong to an enlightened perspective — not unless we had independent access to that higher mentality. The two principles in question don’t indicate exactly what a posthuman would think but tell us only how posthuman thoughts would differ from ordinary ones. By applying the above two principles we can eliminate candidates for supreme wisdom, because the principles establish the consistency of certain candidates with the posthuman stature.
Still, if this analysis is on the right track, its importance is clear. Specifically, we could of course eliminate from contention the mainstream exoteric religious myths and practices that, far from challenging our standard ways of thinking, derive from childlike naivety and thus directly make a mockery of their proponents and practitioners. But we can eliminate also the so-called mystical contenders for enlightenment that are all-too reassuring and convenient in their implications. For example, we could dismiss the “law of attraction” and the prosperity gospel, these being pseudo-spiritual rationales for Western standards of egoism, consumerism, and capitalism.
Recall how we conceived of enlightenment as a posthuman perspective which stands in relation to average human mentality as the latter stands to the average child’s mind. Just as adult ways of thinking are necessarily subversive from a naïve child’s point of view, posthuman conceptions would make a mockery of the conventions of average adults like us. What this means is that if a therapy, theology, or mystical revelation supports or flatters rather than undermines or belittles average adult conceptions and social norms, we can rule out those things as signs of what a posthuman would have to say on the matter.
Contrast this search for posthuman insights with the New Testament’s ideal of blind, childlike faith. In Matthew 19:14 Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” This implies that Christians should accept their smallness in relation to God, since that humility or poorness in spirit compels them to submit to the Christian God’s narrow plan for our salvation. But this implies also that lay Christians should be childlike in relation to the Christian institutions that speak for God, which is why Catholics refer to priests as “fathers.”
Paul likewise sneers at worldly wisdom, quoting Isaiah 29:14 and saying, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20–21).
You might want to read that a second time to make sure you appreciate its audacity. God is being positioned as the posthuman, but our earthly enlightenment isn’t on the agenda. On the contrary, God is supposed to have intentionally hidden his wisdom, making it seem foolish to our ordinary intellects so only those who take a leap of blind faith would be saved. Spiritual matters can be only spiritually discerned, he says, leaving “natural man,” that is, philosophers, scientists, and other rational persons or intellectuals in the lurch (1 Cor. 2:14).
Faith for Christians is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The risen Jesus is said to have encouraged his followers to be blind and nonrational in their faith, contrasting that preferred kind with Thomas’s skepticism. Thomas was fortunate to have had the chance to touch Jesus’s wounds and thus to ease his doubts about whether Jesus had risen from the dead. But Jesus tells him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
All of which paved the way for the leading church’s totalitarian anti-intellectualism, as expressed many times by Augustine. Here’s just one example:
In the order of nature, when we learn anything, authority precedes reasoning. For a reason may seem weak, when, after it is given, it requires authority to confirm it. But because the minds of men are obscured by familiarity with darkness, which covers them in the night of sins and evil habits, and cannot perceive in a way suitable to the clearness and purity of reason, there is most wholesome provision for bringing the dazzled eye into the light of truth under the congenial shade of authority…Hence arises that principle on which we have all along insisted, that there is nothing more wholesome in the Catholic Church than using authority before argument.
The point is that this infantilizing religious tradition is starkly opposed to the prospect of revelatory earthly wisdom that would show why such conventional credulity is childish and why it’s so in an embarrassing rather than in a praiseworthy sense.
To be sure, Christians hold out hope for an apocalyptic deflation of human vanities when the hidden God will arrive to judge the Anthropocene, but in the meantime Christians affirm and are content with our insufficiency in relation to God, the posthuman. The philosophical option I’m considering here, rather, is to begin to outline the nature of posthuman wisdom, to humble and improve ourselves here and now.
Posthuman Subversion of Human Norms
It’s worth pointing out that the reason I speak of “posthumanity” is to avoid begging the question in thinking about enlightenment. We presume enlightenment represents an advance on ordinary cognition, or a goal we’re supposed to achieve. Similarly, we think human adulthood is what the child is supposed to grow into.
Yet there’s no need to think of biological developments in teleological terms. Biologically speaking, adults represent the “mature” form in our species only in that the adult can carry out our evolutionary function of sexually reproducing and transmitting the genetic code to another generation. Likewise, we can define the “advanced” way of thinking more neutrally along the lines of the two principles. A perspective is advanced if it (1) sees new connections within available information that have otherwise been overlooked, and (2) humiliates those who subscribe to contrary views that are revealed as childish and parochial in comparison.
In short, enlightenment is just what comes after human cognition (after that which is normal for average human adults), which is analogous to how the latter follows most children’s cognition. In each case, the “advanced” way of thinking humbles the former one by showing how much more can be done with the evidence the more limited mind already had at its disposal.
Suppose Jack has never played piano, but he’s always had one in his house. Jill is a virtuoso piano player and shocks Jack by playing the greatest music ever written, which he could never hope to play, on his very piano, the one he’d been using only as a stand to prop up some plants and old plates. That’s what an enlightened being would have to do, and that’s a sign an idea might be “advanced”: if the idea forces us to recognize how we’ve been oblivious all along, by humiliating and clowning us, showing up our weaknesses and limitations.
The trick, then, in this procedure is to sort possible conceptions according to their potential to convey the greatest mass humiliation. In other words, the question is which philosophies are the most profoundly ironic. Irony is crucial in this context since the posthuman genius would take what’s obvious to everyone, even to the lesser minds, and would understand that thing’s relevance to posthuman concerns.
The irony of enlightenment is that we may take for granted the makings of a profound truth, but we fail to appreciate their significance because we lack the ennobling perspective and concerns. The literal meaning is opposed to the intended one: we take ourselves to be wise compared to children, but our adult wisdom is foolishness next to the posthuman insights and way of life. Just as we’re liable to clown children and animals, we are likely clowns — each one of us, doing what we’re currently proud of doing — compared to what might come after us.