The New Axial Age

The advances of science are resurrecting the religious imagination. Human history will end when men become gods — or dust. The alternative is an ecology of existence.

Mario Hugo for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The most disruptive and far-reaching transformations of human civilization — redesigning the genome and creating intelligent machines — are no longer science fiction fantasies but materializing reality.

“Biological evolution has taken three and a half or four billion years to get us where we are,” the pioneering cartographer of the human genome Craig Venter says. “Social evolution has been much faster. Now that we can read and write the genetic code, put it in digital form and translate it back into synthesized life, it will be possible to speed up biological evolution to the pace of social evolution. … That gives us control over biological design. We can write DNA software, boot it up to a converter and create unlimited variations on biological life.” Since technology is driven by social demand, the intensive search for a remedy to the coronavirus in the global pandemic of 2020 has only accelerated this trajectory.

Engineering visionary Ray Kurzweil suggests that artificial intelligence will extend our mortal splendor as we integrate human intelligence with the machines we create. He predicts that by the 2030s, human brains will be able to connect to the cloud, allowing us to receive emails and photos directly into the brain and to back up our thoughts and memories. This will be possible, he says, via nanobots — tiny robots built from DNA — swimming around in the brain’s capillaries. He sees the extension of human thought into predominantly non-biological media as the next step in the evolution of humans — just as learning to use tools was for our ancestors.

Some scientists, such as James Lovelock, argue that we have already entered what he calls the Novacene Age, where the centrality of the human will diminish as our own creations, in which organisms are mechanized and machines biologized, leap ahead to superintelligence. He believes that generalized AI that can learn and evolve by processing information faster than the human mind will demote our species to a secondary order.

Though not much on the minds of the entrepreneurial technologists and scientists who are manically marching ahead, such God-like capacities so deeply stir foundational questions of origins and destiny that they are resurrecting the religious imagination. And they raise the challenge of which path to take and what governing choices to make.

Singularity Vs. Ecology

One path — transhumanist singularity — is a kind of hyper-Anthropocene surge that seeks to extend the reach of algorithmic order over all, including through the creation of non-biological intelligence. Yuval Harari argues in his book “Homo Deus” that this new ideology of “dataism” reduces the biological organism to information that can be organized by programmed algorithms that seek a desired outcome.

To some, this reprises the hubris of the Tower of Babel; to others, it only demonstrates that the limits of Promethean prowess have been consigned once and for all to the dustbin of ancient myth. In this view, we should commit to our mutation and just get on with it.

Another path follows the imperatives of ecology, which emphasize that humans are embedded in community and nature, in sets of relationships that escape data capture. This perspective seeks an equilibrium between human potential and our environment. It aims to protect the dignity and autonomy of the person from a “brave new biocracy” that would program the individual life from womb to tomb. It understands that most of what it means to be human — love, the creative spark, agony – fall between lines of code. And, as Lovelock points out, even electronically based intelligent machines, like humans themselves, cannot survive a planet heated beyond a sustained temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Breath Of Life And Immortal Machines

As far as we know, there is no cure for human death, no ingenious algorithm that can program the mysterious breath that at first gives life its form and then corrodes and withers it. It is in the breathing space in between that we love, long and become human.

But who now is to say science should not enter the atrium between life and death as agony sets in? Why not meddle in the other end of existence, the quickening of new life or even before, by designing desired genetic combinations? Why not pursue purity and perfection and reach for immortality through cloning or cyborgs? As the dataist ideology suggests, we stole fire from the gods, so why not the code of life? And why not transfer all we know to immortal machines we hope will serve us but can’t be sure won’t end up as our masters?

That we can’t answer these questions with any convincing moral authority defines today’s epochal juncture. Liberal democracy, no less a consumer society wedded to the scientific worldview, cannot offer a defense on its own terms of the person or of human dignity when faced with such questions. There is only a utilitarian reply. The same goes for China’s particular materialist brand of progress and rejuvenation. “Health,” “longevity,” “enhanced experience” or “saving a life” are the only standards. If that is what most people want and that is what science can do, then what’s the problem? To some, the pending disappearance of the human person is only a nostalgic hesitation in the face of an inexorable fate.

In the face of the scale and scope of the transformation underway, the timid endeavor of setting mores and ethical guidance hardly seems up to the task. The American Academy of Sciences, for example, holds the position that genetic modification that edits out an inherited disease should only be allowed when there are no medical alternatives. Most responsible scientists accept the rule that changing the germline, thus entering human-engineered mutations into the evolutionary stream, should be prohibited. But as the rogue Chinese scientist He Jiankui demonstrated in 2019 by producing genetically designed babies, these shallow roots are easily pulled out of the soil without transcendent grounding.

Science Resurrects The Religious Imagination           

Science, our philosophers and theologians have so far told us, has no knowledge of being. It can only report that we are a collection of cells. A bundle of nerves. An immune system. A host for the microbial universe. “Being,” “the person” and “human dignity” are concepts arising instead from the religious imagination. In Islam, the body is God’s trust. In the Judeo-Christian heritage, the person is inviolable because he or she is a reflection of God’s grace, made in God’s image.

In the East, where echoes of Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto remain cultural foundations, being is relational. It is situated in a matrix of nature and mutual interaction with others that defines dignity and autonomy. In Japan, the word “ningen, which means “person,” originally meant “between people” and came from Confucianism. In Daoism, moral order is about the harmony of aligning with the cosmos in which all being is encompassed without the division between “above” and “below” forms, between objective and subjective, culture and nature. Ethics do not originate in individuals but between people, and by extension, nature — and perhaps by further extension, to artificial intelligence and synthetic biology.

To stick with the Western resonance for now, if we no longer believe in this link between the person and the sacred, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has reflected, the bottom falls out of the values that underlay liberal democracy, leaving a lethal concoction of nihilism and technological prowess. As the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once pithily put it: “Culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense.”

Humanists reason that we need no longer rely on this thin reed of faith to determine what it means to be human. Anti-humanists have already written off the illusion of human centrality in the cosmos. Yet societies speeding toward the future are likely to increasingly look to traditional religion for moral and ethical guidance as they seek to eke meaning out of their mutation in the new age of AI and genomics.

Leon Kass, who headed the president’s council on bioethics in the U.S. from 2001 to 2005, has turned to the biblical book of Genesis for answers about the human condition in the 21st century. In his book, “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis,” he sees genetic engineering and dreams of cloning as our contemporary equivalent to the limitless hubris of the Tower of Babel, which, in the biblical account, God struck down.

Even the foremost European voice of secular reason, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, has arrived at a similar conclusion. In a conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict, Habermas asked whether “modern democracies of necessity must draw from moral — especially religious — sources that they cannot themselves produce.” He concludes that liberal democracies must leave a wide open space for religious expression and religious forms of life, particularly when confronting issues at the frontiers of science.

For Habermas, the benchmarks of Western civilization — liberty, conscience, human rights, democracy — are rooted in its Judeo-Christian heritage. “To this day, we have no other options,” he writes. “We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Habermas sees “unbridled subjectivity” as conflicting with “what is really absolute; that is … the unconditional right of every creature to be respected in its bodiliness and recognized in its otherness as an ‘image of God.’”

Loath to leave life’s big questions to secular philosophers, the Catholic Church has not failed to offer guidance to its own flock. In “Fides et Ratio,” or “Faith and Reason,” published in 1998, Pope John Paul II expressed the Catholic Church’s concern:

It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity. This in turn makes it possible to erase from the countenance of man and woman the marks of their likeness to God, and thus to lead them little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope.

Coming out of the 20th-century traumas of Eastern Europe, the late pope rightly focused on how this erosion of the basis of human dignity had paved the way for willful totalitarian rule.

Mario Hugo for Noema Magazine
Brave New Biocracy, From Womb To Tomb

Ivan Illich, the fallen priest, philosopher and self-described archaeologist of modern certitudes, took this view a step further by placing it in the context of the 21st century technological leaps. He feared “that the abstract, secular notion of ‘a life’ will be sacralized, thereby making it possible that this spectral entity will progressively replace the notion of ‘a person’ in which the humanism of Western individualism is anchored.” Illich went on to argue that “a life,” defined no longer as “the miraculous sharing of God’s own intimacy” but as an “immune system” to be medically managed, is “the most powerful idol the church has had to face in the course of its history.” Just as the crumbled ground of human dignity yielded to totalitarianism in the 20th century, Illich viewed the “depersonalization” of the technological order as preparing the path to a brave new biocracy in which all are reduced to patients managed from “sperm to worm” by the medical-industrial complex, being kept alive rather than living.

Indeed, it is all too easy to see modern consumer societies succumbing to this idolatrous embrace, devoting vast sums of GDP to the goal of postponing the end as long as possible. Hospitals and clinics have already become our new temples and cathedrals. Harari believes humans will voluntarily surrender their souls to the new god of data in the name of “health.”

It’s a juggernaut that will be hard to stop because the only moral language we have celebrates “progress.” As Bill Joy, one of today’s more visionary technologists, has warned, the “system” — avaricious venture capitalists and the market opportunities of consumer capitalism — is pre-programmed to say “yes” not “no” whenever there is a demand to fill. He also knows that few scientists are immune to the ambitious fires of discovery: what can be done, will be done.

Yet, all at the same time feel unease over the danger of technology unmoored from any sense of the sacred, whether in religious or humanistic conceptions. For transhumanists, all is intelligence and nothing is sacred.

Illich invoked T.S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” Like Eliot, we may well wonder if “the cycles of heaven in 20 centuries / Bring us farther from God and nearer to the dust.”

Kass and Habermas are right to suggest that the new power of technology to change not only the world but also ourselves ought to prompt an urgent search for a new moral language that can speak to our scientific leaps — a search for wisdom wherever we can find it, including in early religious and ethical texts from all civilizations.

Karl Jaspers, a German-Swiss philosopher, was known for his study of the so-called Axial Age, when all the great religions and philosophies were born around the same time over two millennia ago — Confucianism in China, the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Homer’s Greece and the Hebrew prophets. Jaspers saw these first civilizations arising in the wake of what he called “the first Promethean Age” of man’s discovery of fire and earliest inventions. Writing in 1949, he thought the world was now entering the “second Promethean Age” in the wake of industrialization and other advances in technology and science, notably the nuclear bomb.

Already then, Jaspers doubted that our civilization was up to the spiritual challenge posed by our scientific advances. He, too, felt that “the dissolution of modern thought has not been able to offer anything of real content out of its own origin to overcome it — because the simplicity of depth does not exist in any new shape, and could hardly assert its new shape if it were to come into being, without having preserved the former content” of the Axial Age awakenings. If the faiths and ethics that have held for millennia no longer compel belief or allegiance, what comes next?

The Question

As Henry Kissinger (yes, that Kissinger) has perceptively posited with respect to AI: “The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy.”

A few contemporary philosophers, like Peter Sloterdijk, have been pursuing that search for a new cultural operating system that situates being in the arriving era. Information in our era of networks and genome maps, according to Sloterdijk, binds humans and their tools that transform nature into one operative system. This “post-metaphysical” condition not only abolishes the separation between the subjective person and “objective spirit” but the distinction between culture and nature as well.

Here is the way he put it in a 2014 article in New Perspectives Quarterly:

The fundamental differentiation of soul and thing, spirit and matter, subject and object, freedom and technique cannot cope with entities that are by their very constitution hybrids with a spiritual and material “component.” Cybernetics, as the theory and practice of intelligent machines, and modern biology, as the study of system-environment-units, have forced the questions of the old metaphysical divisions to be posed anew.

Here, the concept of objective spirit turns into the principle of information. Information enters between thoughts and things as a third value, between the pole of reflection and the pole of the thing, between spirit and matter. Intelligent machines — like all artifices that are culturally created — eventually also compel the recognition of “spirit.” Reflection or thought is infused into matter and remains there ready to be re-found and further cultivated. Machines and artifices are thus memories or reflections turned objective.

“Such a reconceptualization, the constellation of ‘I’ and ‘world,’” the German philosopher argues, “loses much of its luster, not to mention the worn-out polarity of individual and society. But above all, the metaphysical distinction between nature and culture withers. This is because both sides of the distinction are only regional states of information and its processing.”

For Sloterdijk, this information ecology gives humans a new fused identity with each other, with their world and their tools. Humans are no longer an identity apart. He calls this co-intelligent system “anthropo-technology.”

The theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin saw a spiritual dimension emerging from this encompassing connectedness of human and machine, which he called the “noosphere.” For him, the density and intensity of a global apparatus of communication linking all mankind would mark a new step of evolution that would revive the unity of origins before humans were splintered after their exile from the Garden of Eden.

What is certain is that the faster the pace and the greater the scope of scientific discovery, the more the religious and ethical imagination will be stirred. French philosopher Henri Bergson, in his book “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion,” imagined modern humans as technologically adept giants with puny souls. “In this body, distended out of all proportion,” he wrote, “the soul remains what it was, too small to fill it, too weak to guide it. … This enlarged body awaits a supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical.”

Leszek Kolakowski put it in more definitive terms. “As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification,” he said in an interview with me at All Souls College at Oxford in 1991. “Who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation.”

The more scientific discovery reveals, the more we realize it can’t answer the great existential questions. In the end, we are compelled to agree with Kolakowski’s conclusion: “Man does not live by reason alone.” Existence cannot be reduced to data or our microbial makeup.

Not surprisingly, the most difficult challenge for governance arises when facing the greatest transformation of human civilization since the discovery of fire. Finding that point of equilibrium — homeostasis — that enhances human potential to its utmost while respecting nature and preserving the dignity and autonomy of the individual living in community, of what it means to be human, is a summons for custodians of the soul no less profound than for scientists peering into the physical origins of the universe or the minute interstices of our DNA.

As the great humanist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once put it in his masterpiece, “Faust”: “You are equal to the spirit you can understand, not me!” That phrase, spoken contemptuously by the Earth spirit with whom Faust compared himself as a peer, can be read both ways — as nature humbling human prowess and as Goethe’s own message of humankind discovering knowledge of its limits.

To Harari, this narrative of the human condition bound by limits is likely becoming an anachronism; its fiction is fading. While Harari acknowledges the dangers these developments could bring, he also sees the potential for a future that goes beyond the humanist literature and religious constraints that have historically warned us that transgressing natural limits invites catastrophe.

“These are myths that try to assure humans that there is never going to be anything better than you. If you try to create something better than you, it will backfire and not succeed,” Harari says. But science is changing all that, he concludes. “Humans are now about to do something that natural selection never managed to do, which is to create inorganic life — AI. If you look at this in the cosmic terms of 4 billion years of life on Earth, not even in the short term of 50,000 years or so of human history, we are on the verge of breaking out of the organic realm.”

Human History Will End When Men Become Gods — Or Dust

Harari responds to Goethe’s warning in today’s world with these words: “History began when humans invented gods and will end when humans become gods.” This purposefully ambiguous statement can be read either as an epitaph for our species or as the ultimate graduation of human evolution to its highest form, ascending to dwell with the creators of the universe, not in heaven, but in the manmade cloud.

To speak of governance in this context is to caution that, now more than ever, the wisdom of humility must temper this conceit of homo deus as the overreaching author of our fate. If recklessness rules, we may end up as neither men nor gods, but as the dust Eliot feared.

The New Axial Age Will Emerge From Re-Embedded Transcendence

This brings us back to the notion of a new Axial Age. For the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the first Axial Age resulted from the “great disembedding” of the person from isolated mimetic communities and nature, where the “good” had been simply defined as survival and flourishing of the tribe guided by oral narrative myth. With the arrival of written language — the stored memories of the first cloud technology, symbolic competencies evolved beyond local narratives through the interiority of reflection into shared meanings by individuals beyond their immediate circumstances. 

This “transcendence” in turn led to the possibility of monotheistic religions and broad-based ethical systems. The critical self-distancing element of disembedded reflection further evolved into what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “theoretic culture,” to scientific discovery and the Enlightenment of modernity. In its own dialectical turn, this has led to the end of a metaphysical divide through the merger of organism and machine, humans and nature, objective and subjective.

What Peter Sloterdijk calls “immunitary reason” — the survival-protective impulse of the species — has now recognized that the consequences of human dis-embeddedness from nature (climate change) now threaten its own survival. The coronavirus pandemic has similarly reminded humankind that we are only small fish swimming in the vast microbial sea of encompassing nature. This new awareness implies a re-embedding of transcendence into nature if human civilization is to survive.

But there are also other dimensions of theoretic culture that are revealing the inner workings of nature as well as surpassing the link between intelligence and organic life. Synthetic biology, by which we have deciphered the genetic code and can read and rewrite it, brings human purposiveness into the process of evolution. Advances in artificial intelligence promise to enable machines that learn from chance and contingency to develop autonomously beyond what humans have programmed them to do.

In this sense, the quality of transcendence and theoretic culture enabled by the epoch of written culture is turning in on itself, marking a decisive break from the first Axial Age legacy.

This reincarnation, as Sloterdijk has articulated, reaches a new level that integrates nature, humans and their tools into one hybrid operative system tied together by information. But this re-embedding would seem to lead back to immersion of the person in his or her bodiliness and apartness into a matrix of relations not seen since before the Axial Age — in short, the demise of human centrality as the Anthropocene yields to depersonalized biocracy and the Novacene Age of hyperintelligence in a planetary hothouse.

Yet, just as traces of early mimetic culture, archetypes and idols remained into modernity, might elements of the human autonomy of modernity secure a presence in the new epoch? As Bellah wrote in his study of the Axial Age, in cultural evolution, nothing is ever lost.

In this emergent era, as the corporeal and mundane fuse with transcendent, learned-shared meanings, the person may not be extinguished and plurality may not dissolve into singularity. Rather, the transcendent would be manifest in the particular and vice versa as it is processed through the contingent reality of concrete circumstance, thereby individuating experience and forging diversity within a new unity. Humans would thus become the co-creators of being just as a pianist is co-creator of a musical score through a virtuoso performance.

Perhaps what we are witnessing is a version of Teilhard de Chardin’s vision. The long-lost unity of origins would finally meet up again in the unity of destiny. It is the perpetual and differentiated quest for equilibrium in this new ecology of existence — an evolved level of homeostasis by which all beings not only survive but thrive — that is the new ground of the sacred.