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Ray Kurzweil’s Transhumanism as Contemporary Esotericism

The Magus of Silicon Valley


The main protagonist of this paper Raymond Kurzweil, does not appear on your list of usual suspects in discussions about Western esotericism. Kurzweil (b. 1948) is an American engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who has founded a dozen companies and has about a fifty patents to his name. His original claim to fame was as developer of the first text-to-speech reading machines for the blind, in the 1970s. Appropriate for the theme of this conference, Kurzweil is also in the health food business: the company “Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products” specializes in food supplements that promise to increase lifespan. To those here who are musicians, Kurzweil is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Kurzweil synthesizer, which helped form the new sample-based sound of the 1980s.
But in recent years, Kurzweil has moved on to slightly more ambitious projects, such as how to live forever. In fact, Kurzweil believes we are on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will lead to the complete restructuring of the fabric of reality, transmuting the universe into a vast, thinking being. This event is referred to as “the Singularity”. Kurzweil’s extreme estimations about the future of technology have made him a prophet of the so-called transhumanist movement. In this paper, I will argue that Kurzweil’s transhumanism contains a dimension of transgressive and millenarian spirituality that is best understood as an emerging form of contemporary esotericism.
Let me briefly outline the argument. When I consider transhumanism as a form of esotericism I do not mean that it is the contemporary heir to one of the many historical currents that have been lumped together under this rubric. I merely argue that transhumanism shares some key conceptual elements with so-called “esoteric currents”. Thus, I argue for a structural similarity with esoteric discourse. The historical background for this similarity could occupy a long and fascinating discussion on its own, but in this paper I shall not go there.
The second part of my argument is that transhumanism, as a movement, is currently merging with and mobilizing parts of the occulture. Transhumanist milieus appear to be converging with the technophilian, science-oriented wing of what used to be the “New Age movement”, and with fashionable “Eastern” religious systems. Thus, transhumanism adds a new set of discursive elements to what Kennet Granholm calls the “discursive complexes” that make up contemporary esotericism. Most crucially, it provides a new eschatological scenario in the form of the Singularity, at a time when the previous big scenario has recently failed. I am, of course, referring to 2012.


By Egil Asprem
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.
“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.
Julian Huxley, “Transhumanism” (1957), 17.


2. What is Transhumanism?

Transhumanism is a radically utopian movement, concerned with the development and application of human enhancement technologies. The baseline assumption is that humanity has the power to transcend its biological limitations, and that such transcendence is desirable, or even necessary for long-term survival. The tools for overcoming biology and reaching our true potential are found in the gamut of recent and emerging technologies, from biotechnology and medical research, to nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The unbounded use of such technologies is considered the road to total freedom, promising to make us a species of immortal, omniscient, space-travelling demigods.
Although a number of historical precursors could be mentioned, transhumanism came to its own as a movement in the late 1980s. And, while it has contributors and followers in a number of countries, the transhumanist movement’s centre of gravity is undeniably located in Silicon Valley. In fact, the ideological, political, and spiritual ideals of transhumanism flourish at the core of the US tech industry. This is understandable, since the transhumanist literature typically imbues the technologies of Silicon Valley with messianic significance.
Ray Kurzweil stands as the centre of this milieu. In 2008 he co-founded the Silicon Valley-based “Singularity University” together with people such as Google CEO Larry Page. It is a private education institute based on Kurzweil’s ideas, aiming to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Last December, Kurzweil was made director of engineering at Google. To be clear: We are not talking about a figure at the fringes of Silicon Valley, but of an influential leader at the heart of one of our days’ most powerful industries.
Kurzweil’s grand visions of our imminent technological future have been presented in a number of books. The titles of three of these are revealing of the increasingly ambitious message. In 1990, Kurzweil published The Age of Intelligent Machines, arguing that we would soon see computing power explode so that machines would be able to compete and beat humans in an increasing number of cognitive tasks. Nine years later, he released The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). At this point, the best human chess player had already been beaten by a machine, home computers had become commonplace, and the world wide web had fully emerged. The next frontier was to make machines more like humans, and eventually to transform humanity itself. By merging human and machine intelligence, Kurzweil argued, we will become a new species of supermen. This far more ambitious project was continued in his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near. In this book, transhumanism’s millenarian dimensions become more explicit, as Kurzweil describes a coming event that will transform not only human life as we know it, but the entire universe: the “singularity”.

3. The Coming Singularity: Kurzweil’s millennial predictions

So what is the singularity? To get to grasp with this concept, we need to understand Kurzweil’s view of history. Transhumanists tend to share a “macrohistorical” vision by which all of human and natural history, even the history of the universe itself, can be understood in terms of one single mathematical concept: the exponential function.
This “grand narrative” is unmistakably shaped by the experiences of the tech industry over the past half century. It may indeed be seen as a generalization of the famous “Moore’s Law”, originally formulated in 1965 by the co-founder of Intel, Gordon E. Moore. Moore’s Law originally predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits increased exponentially, doubling every eighteen months. However, this trend was expected to flatten out when some physical boundary was met – which Moore thought would happen already by the mid-1970s.
Kurzweil defends a much more radical version of the exponential view, which he has dubbed the “Law of Accelerating Returns”. It is more radical in three ways: First, it is recursive: the results of change accelerate the future speed at which change happens. This contrasts with Moore’s law, which has doubling-times fixed at 18 months. Connected with this, exponential growth is seen as practically unrestrained. New technological abilities tend to find new and previously unforeseen ways to sidestep limitations. Reaching a “limit” only means that the exponential process starts over again on a higher level. Third, these overlapping exponential processes are universalized, as you can see from the graph to the right: exponential growth is not confined to computing power alone, but applies to all of technology, as well as to all of evolution – including non-biological evolution. The exponential function thus expresses the telos of the entire universe – from the big bang to the end of times.
The concept of the singularity results quite naturally from understanding historical and cosmological development as an exponential function. It delineates the final exponential turning-point, where change will accelerate so fast as to practically transform everything in the blink of an eye.
In Kurzweil’s view, the singularity will be triggered in the near future, when artificial intelligence first outmatch the human brain, and continue to expand exponentially beyond human capacity. This “explosion of intelligence” will be the exponential tipping-point, and Kurzweil dates it to 2045. But the super-intelligent AI will not be some lonely computer, like HAL9000, locked away in the deep vaults of a secret research facility. It will be created in a distributed network of intelligent nanorobots, that will be infused in the human organism, and connect our individual brains with everyone and everything else. The intelligence explosion will not happen separate from us – it will be us, radically transformed and fully merged with our machines and with each other. We will not only have telepathic abilities, but the ability to completely merge our personalities and memories with each other if we so wish.
Once this happens, we will change the world for ever. Kurzweil imagines that this conscious cloud of machines that we will now have become will set out to transform and rearrange the matter that makes up our planet. Eventually, all the matter and energy of the solar system will be made part of the expanding network of intelligence. We will transform our surroundings into a massive brain. Matter will become intelligent and conscious; “infused with spirit”, as Kurzweil puts it. Expanding exponentially, this process will eventually ripple through the galaxy until, quote, “the universe wakes up”. Intelligence and consciousness is the destiny of the universe – and humanity’s role is to bring its release.

4. Structural similarities: Transhumanism as esoteric discourse

It is not hard to draw analogies between transhumanist thought and concepts that are familiar from the study of esotericism. We can, for example, discern an “alchemical” ideal, concerning the transmutation of the body, the soul, and the world itself, and the attainment of immortality as a stage towards spiritual perfection. We find a concern with “higher knowledge” – a vast extension of reason beyond present limitations, requiring the complete transformation of our minds. Combined with both these is an ambition of apotheosis – of becoming divine, eternal, perfect beings. There is even a notion of “living nature”, although expressed through an eschatological event where the “dead” universe comes alive and wakes up at the end of history.
In fact, this apocalyptic vision, and the combined views on history, evolution, and human potential, is perhaps the most intriguing aspect for our purposes. At first sight, it may look like the transhumanists are simply yet another group attempting to “immanentize the eschaton”, in the sense of Eric Voegelin. They seek a “transcendental fulfilment” within history. But this reading does not carry all the way: the Singularity is imagined to lead to genuinely transcendent eschatological event. In fact, it combines eschatology and theology in ways that resonate with premillennialism and dispansationalism – apocalyptic theologies that have been strongly influential also on modern esotericism, from Theosophy and Thelema to the New Age. I suggest that Singularitarian transhumanism belongs to this same theological neighbourhood.
Moreover, the macrohistorical outlook of transhumanist spirituality implies an evolutionary “theology of emergence”. This is neatly illustrated in one of the many dialogue-sections of The Singularity Is Near, where Kurzweil has himself discussing religion with his good friend, Bill Gates. After discussing the need for a new, essentially leaderless religion that can come to grasp with the concept of the singularity, Gates asks: “So is there a God in this religion?” To which Kurzweil answers:

Not yet, but there will be. Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will “wake up”, be conscious, and sublimely intelligent. That’s about as close to God as I can imagine.

The divine emerges from matter. There is no Creator god, existing independently of the world; instead, a divine intelligence is created by and inside of the universe, in a sort of emergent pantheism. Essentially, Kurzweil has the monotheistic creation story in reverse. Not only that: since it is humans who will create god, Kurzweil’s version will also come across as the ultimate idolatry. This is Kurzweil as the “hermetic”, god-making magus.

5. Converging milieus: Dmitry Itskov and the Russia 2045 initiative

Kurzweil defines a “Singularitarian” as “someone who understands the Singularity and has reflected on its meaning for his or her life”. One person who has most certainly done this is the young Russian multimillionaire and online media tycoon, Dmitry Itskov (b. 1980). Itskov has realized that the singularity is coming in 2045, and has decided to take a proactive approach by investing his fortune in a project for physical immortality through Avatars. The first prototypes will be remote-controlled via brain-computer interface, but later, brain transplantation and even consciousness upload will be available. By the time of the singularity, the avatars will have become “holographic” – a code word for bodies made up of polymorphing nanobots. Irrespective of whether or not this is a feasible science project, there is little doubt about Mr Itskov’s favourite movie.
But Itskov’s vision is a lot broader than this. He believes that the coming Singularity forces us to reform our spiritual and political outlook. To this end he has established the Russia 2045 initiative, aimed to facilitate a transhumanist revolution in the five spheres of technology, politics, culture, ethics, and spirituality. What is interesting with the 2045 initiative is that it takes concrete steps towards synthesising transhumanist ideology with spirituality. In practice, this means lobbying the support of established spiritual positions. Itskov has for example been able to gather the support of the Dalai Lama. Here we see His Holiness promoting the avatar project with Itskov in Dharamsala last year – at least long enough for this picture to be taken.
The 2045 initiative has held two big international conferences. The first one in Moscow in 2012 featured an “interfaith dialogue” panel. Besides a Russian Hindu monk, a Tibetan Buddhist, and the Orthodox archbishop of Ottawa, it featured Alan Francis, an American Gurdjieff follower and 4th Way guru, active in California and Russia. Their transhumanist wisdom can be viewed freely on YouTube.
The second conference of the 2045 initiative transpired just a few weeks ago, in New York City. Again, the list of speakers is intriguing, because it brings together transhumanist ideologues such as Kurzweil, with engineers and scientists working practically with robotics, neuroengineering and artificial intelligence, and a number of household names of “New Age science”. Amit Goswami of The Self-Aware Universe is there, as are the two main theoreticians of “quantum consciousness”, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff. The scholar and Tibetan Buddhist spokesperson Robert Thurman is also there, speaking about the “merging of our cybernetic and subtle bodies”.

6. Transhumanist spirituality and the future

The Russia 2045 movement is only a recent and high-profile example of a trend that I think is much more pervasive: the transhumanist gospel is merging with parts of Western “alternative spirituality”. I think we should expect to see this trend become much more visible in the years ahead.
There are particularly two reasons why further convergence seems likely to me. One concerns the persuasiveness of transhumanist spirituality in a world that is, after all, really becoming more deeply infused with new technologies. Considering that those who create (and profit from) the new technologies and those who develop transhumanist ideology are sometimes the exact same people, we should only expect this rhetorical force to intensify. On a slightly Marxist perspective, transhumanist spirituality can already be seen as the religious “superstructure” of a social class that is becoming increasingly powerful. If their cultural influence continues to increase, it means that tech-savvy esotericists who are able to tap into the symbolic capital of Silicon Valley are going to be more successful. Of course, this prediction is entirely predicated on the continued success of companies such as Google and Apple, in combination with the new generation of government R&D agencies such as DARPA. In a sense, the fate of transhumanist esotericism is intertwined with the fate of the tech industry, since it relies on these for its cultural legitimacy.
The second aspect has to do with what Michael Barkun has termed “improvisational millennialism”: With the singularity now starting to become fixed at the date 2045, singularitarian transhumanism can supply a new eschatological scenario for post-2012 millennialists. The 2012 phenomenon connected the psychedelic prophesies of Terence McKenna with Maya calendar speculations, UFO-logy, conspiracy theory, and much besides. Now that Itskov’s movement is targeting the 2045 Singularity directly at Western spiritual communities, we should not be surprised to see this date become the next big candidate for the final “transformation of consciousness”. This time it is not meditation or psychoactive substances alone that are going to expand our minds and transform the world, but rather the infusion of nanobots in our brains. The rest, as usual, will be the end of history.

AI, Singularity und das Versprechen der Problemlösungen

Selected sources:

Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.
Brunner, Hermann. “Modelling Moore’s Law: Two Models of Faster Than Exponential Growth”. http://hoelder1in.org/Modeling_Moores_Law.html (accessed 19.06.2013).
Diamandis, Peter H. Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think. Free Press, 2012.
Ettinger, Robert. Man into Superman: The Startling Potential of Human Evolution – And How to Be Part of It. Ria University Press, 2005 [1st ed. 1972].
FM-2030 [F. M. Esfandiary]. Are You a Transhuman? Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World.  Warner Books, 1989.

Fukuyama, Francis. ‘Transhumanism’. Foreign Policy, September 1, 2004. Online: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2004/09/01/transhumanism.
Kurzweil, Raymond. The Age of Spiritual Machines. Viking Press, 1999.
Kurzweil, Raymond. The Singularity Is Near. Viking Press, 2005.
Kurzweil, Raymond. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. Viking Press, 2012.
Vinge, Vernon. “First Word”. Omni 1 (1983): 10.
Vinge, Vernon, „The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-
Voegelin, Eric. The New Science of Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Human Era“ (1993) http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html


Ptolemy, David (director). Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil. Ptolemaic Productions / Therapy Studios, 2009.
Waller, Anthony, Toshi Hoo, and Raymond Kurzweil (directors). The Singularity Is Near. Fighting Ants Productions / Cometstone Pictures / Exponential Films, 2010.


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Ray Kurzweil’s Transhumanism as Contemporary Esotericism
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