The first work of science fiction was written because Mary Shelley couldn’t think of a ghost story. When she first came to Lake Geneva writing was the last thing on her mind, she’d originally intended on taking a vacation. Her relationship with the alchemist-poet Percy Shelley had set off an avalanche of scandal and drama; he had abandoned his marriage to be with her. Fleeing England, the couple was desperate to get their mind off it with vigorous outdoor activity, but fallout from a volcanic eruption the year before foiled their plans. In fact 1816 would eventually be known as “The Year Without A Summer”, in Lake Geneva it was cold enough to confine the pair to a Swiss villa with their new friend Lord Byron and his personal physician. During this isolation the group amused themselves by reading translated German ghost stories. Byron eventually suggested they should try writing some spooky tales of their own.
Mary liked the idea but found herself stumped, she spent days trying to think of something. Inspiration finally struck after listening to her boyfriend Percy and Lord Byron discuss what might come of Galvanism, the discovery of “animal electricity” and the gruesome phenomena of dead flesh temporarily reviving under electrical stimulation. To many late 18th and early 19th century scientists it seemed that at last the secret of life had been uncovered. It was possible that man would soon gain total control over biology. Debate raged over what should be done with these new powers if they materialized. Theologists were terrified that success would mean the triumph of atheism, people would come to understand that man was a kind of automaton fully explainable without an immortal soul. Industrialists on the other hand were intrigued, and even talked of creating a new race of servants to replace their human workers. Mary found it all haunting, she went to bed that night imagining “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”, the ‘thing’ brought to life by the awesome power of Galvanism. When she tore herself away from the daydream she realized it would be a perfect story. With this first scene in mind she began writing the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein and his monster.
Galvanism may have been new but the scientific impulses behind it were not. It had taken over two millennia for chemistry to reach the stage where creating new forms of life from raw parts seemed like a realistic possibility. Percy Shelley’s interest in the Noble Art of alchemy placed him at the tail end of a nearly two century long project to purify Europe, casting out its backwardness and superstitions.
At Oxford he had set up a kind of ‘mad scientists lab’ in his dorm room, a primordial chaos of galvanic batteries, obscure poisons, and strange drugs. This put Percy into conflict with certain religious faculty, Roseanne Montillo writes:
While on a nightly round Mr. Bethell heard peculiar noises coming from behind Shelley's locked doors. Curious, he became convinced that Shelley was engaging in "nefarious scientific pursuits," which of course he intended to put a halt to. He marched into the room, where Shelley was engulfed in a leaping "blue-flame". Stunned, Bethell asked what he was doing, and Shelley replied, "I am raising the devil." On hearing this, the tutor approached the galvanic battery and placed his hands above it. He received a nasty electrical discharge that sent him flying across the room.
Shelley was later expelled for writing a pamphlet advocating atheism. Mary learned what she knew of alchemy from Percy. Thus her novel Frankenstein inadvertently stands at a cultural-historical nexus, between the world before and after Europe’s transmutation from feudal slum to secularizing industrial society. During this period chemistry underwent its own transformation from ‘alchemy’ to chymistry, attacking its former claims to goldmaking in exchange for greater academic status. As a result alchemy’s legacy has been largely excised from the history of science. Isaac Newton for example was an aspiring adept who mostly researched how to brew the philosophers stone. He would have been rightly known in his own time as an alchemist, but is given the title of ‘physicist’ or ‘mathematician’ in ours.
Alchemy As Precursor and Its Early History
Histories of transhumanism have been indirect victims of sidelining alchemy’s influence on science. Two mentions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appear in Nick Bostrom’s history of transhumanism, and they’re both incidental. The Galvanism which had inspired her story doesn’t appear at all, and alchemy is relegated to a few paragraphs at the beginning. Newton comes up as a ‘rational humanist’, which he was not (Keynes, 1946). Four of the paper’s twenty five pages are dedicated to antecedents, with the rest focusing on 20th century developments. Elise Bohan’s book on the same subject also skips alchemy on the basis that transhumanism is founded on modern scientific epistemology, so nothing before that can really be called transhumanism (Bohan, 2019). This is unfortunate because alchemy is very much part of the history of science, and it’s the part which most earnestly engages with the goals of transhumanism. It is precisely the embarrassment from these earlier studies overexaggerations, hoaxes and mythologies that makes people feel the need to apologize when discussing the ‘absurdity’ of discovering eternal life in the modern academic context (as e.g. Huaizhi and Yuantao 2001 do). One could argue that transhumanists simply represent a return to form now that modern science has regained the confidence its predecessors lost during the Enlightenment.
The origins of those predecessors are shrouded in mystery. No records survive of man’s first serious attempts at goldmaking, and its early history is not completely known. Medieval alchemists believed their discipline had been invented by a man named Hermes Trismegistus (Principe, 2013). Said to have received the true theology from God, Hermes was famous for prophesizing the rise of Christianity. However close analysis of the Hermetic texts bearing his name in the 17th century found them to be the pseudonymous work of other, likely Greek authors of the 3rd and 4th centuries (“Isaac Casaubon,” n.d.). Modern scholarship gives conflicted accounts of alchemy’s origins. Lawrence Principe writes in his Secrets Of Alchemy that alchemy was born from the practical counterfeiting literature of Egyptian artisans meeting Greek philosophy through 3rd century (A.D.) trade (Principe, 2013). He believes that some people were unsatisfied with counterfeiting gold, and began researching how to make the genuine article.
Many other scholars don’t believe alchemy began with making gold at all. Jung’s interpretation of alchemy as an internal, spiritual transformation is (in)famous, but also ahistorical (Principe, 2013). A more plausible narrative is presented by S. Mahdihassan, who interprets the ‘red powder’ described as the philosophers stone to be colloidal gold, often ‘brick red’ in color (Mahdihassan, 1979). In his account alchemy began as part of Chinese medicine, which held ‘soul energy’ to be related to redness. Herbalist immortality cults slowly evolved into metallic (i.e. gold, mercury) immortality cults, and their beliefs were spread by trade to India, Rome, etc. We know in China itself there are descriptions of immortals eating gold to preserve their youth. For example the book “On Salt and Iron” written by Huan Kuan in 81 B.C states that “immortals swallow gold and pearls, so that they enjoy eternal life in heaven and earth”; later works explicitly claim alchemists eat gold to live longer (Huaizhi & Yuantao, 2001). Alchemy then was the preparation of colloidal red-gold, which eventually mutated into attempts to create gold bullion.
Regardless of which interpretation we believe it is clear that Chinese alchemy seems to have started as medicine, primarily pursuing the elixir of life. Western alchemy by contrast fixated at some early point in its history on the philosophers stone, a legendary substance said to be able to turn ‘base metals’ into gold bullion. In both cases these aims were largely retained, with the elixir of life staying primary in China even after the introduction of goldmaking (Barnes, 1934), and medicine only becoming a major component of Western alchemy after John of Rupescissa wrote about it in the 14th century (Principe, 2013). Thus we can say that alchemy began the formal scientific study of two key planks of the extropian agenda: Defeating death in the Eastern alchemy and achieving post-scarcity in the West.
Alchemy and Transhumanism
Beyond goals alchemy shares a fundamental philosophical bond with transhumanism: It was likely the first time men made the argument that artificial products could out-do their natural equivalents. In today’s world of synthetic fabrics, pharmaceuticals, plastics and stainless steel nobody denies that it’s possible to improve on the materials provided by nature. But when alchemy first hit the scene (and for many centuries after) this was considered an open question. Avicenna (A.D. 980-1037) wrote against alchemy on the basis that human industry is fundamentally weaker than the powers of god, implying transmutation is impossible (Principe, 2013). Roger Bacon’s (A.D. 1214-1294) spirited response to this argument in 1266-67 went farther than claiming parity, he insisted that alchemical gold was better than real gold! Principe notes that defenses of alchemy may constitute the first sustained arguments in favor of the power of human ingenuity and technology (Principe, 2013). This seems plausible, nearly a thousand years earlier Ge Hong of the Eastern Dynasty (A.D. 284-364) wrote that ‘medicinal gold’ made by alchemists was better at curing disease than real gold, stating “the gold thus transformed is the essence of all the medicine, much better than all the natural drugs” (Huaizhi & Yuantao, 2001). Mahdihassan points out that the colloidal gold which may have inspired the legend of the philosophers stone would be the first synthetic drug ever made (Mahdihassan, 1984). The willingness to:
- Radically intervene in
- Places thought to be immutable natural orders by
- Carefully applying natural philosophy
Is a clear philosophical family relation to alchemy that goes beyond superficial shared goals.
These days when it comes to radical intervention, making table salt doesn’t cut it anymore. In his book Great Mambo Chicken & The Transhuman Condition Ed Regis describes the artificial planets proposed by Gerry O’Neill. O’Neill asked his students, almost on a whim, if the earth’s surface was really the best place for human life. They studied the question seriously and concluded that artificial worlds could be much better than earth. However building them would require people to accept the sense of intervening into the terra firma itself to create better conditions for crops, cities, space travel, etc (Regis, 1990). Like Bacon’s insistence that alchemical gold can beat the natural article, O’Neill doesn’t stop at the idea we might create comparable worlds to Earth. He thinks our planets ‘design’ is mediocre (also, recall, not actually designed) and human engineering can surpass it.
One of the more subtle parallels between transhumanism and alchemy is their shared attitude towards greed, and by extension agency. Sustained human agency is difficult because people do not default to ‘agentic’ behavior in the economically rational, maximizing sense. A maximizing agent implicitly wants everything. The infamous paperclip maximizer will, if given the power to do so, consume every available resource in the universe to make more paperclips. People usually don’t act like that, they’re more like automatons that explore for N steps until they find a niche to settle into, ideally exploiting it for the rest of their life. Even the basic drives are about satisfaction, not maximization. Take hunger for example: You get hungry, eat, and are no longer hungry; until the equilibrium is disrupted and you become hungry again.
Only people who are hard to satisfy can really manifest agency, otherwise they settle into a niche and decay. Those who are competent eventually reach a kind of escape velocity, where they’ve won enough at life that they’ve fully satisfied their physical and social needs. People who want to make an impact beyond that, whose agency doesn’t short circuit in the presence of readily available mates, land, food & water, respect, and all the other trappings of personal victory are the only kind of creature that is suited to things like transhumanism or alchemy. Evolutionary psychologists are quick to remind us that all of our behavior is an elaborate ruse to mate and raise babies. The first act of transcendence is to let this ruse become self sustaining, a game that is played for its own sake on its own terms. Loving your neighbor is adaptive, loving the world is pathology. It’s necessary to develop this kind of pathology to get anywhere with serious transhumanism when the script is calling for babies and suicide. Good people who want to be good rather than just adaptively good (i.e. genuinely altruistic) should be maximizers.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, imagine taking a walk with your friend on the beach. It’s a nice day out and neither of you are in any hurry. You both decide that since you’re there, cleaning up trash sounds like a decent thing to do while you talk. As you’re cleaning you get to asking yourselves how you could clean at scale. It turns out beaches have a lot of trash, and you know every piece of it will wind up contaminating the water or lodged in an animals stomach. The ideas start small and gradually get more ambitious. One thought is you could start a livestream of trash collecting together, advertising the activity as an opportunity for cool philosophical discussion. Maybe you could make a trash collection game, one that uses machine learning to identify and score points for different kinds of trash. Perhaps there’s some kind of legal intervention you could lobby for, one that would reduce the amount of trash being left on beaches in the first place.
You end up collecting a full trash bag, which you discover takes a lot of effort. Your imagination turns to big piles of trash like this on every beach in the world, and the herculean task of trying to pick it all up. That aching in your bones is one garbage bags worth, the pain of picking up a single beach of trash. Zooming out you imagine that sensation growing as the picture gets bigger. 5 beaches worth of pain, 10 beaches, 20 beaches, 50, 100…you envision a little army of people picking up trash off beaches, at a scale where it’s no longer human, it’s just a number. And each monotonic increase in that number represents that pain in your bones, that ache in your back.
And the good of picking up a beach worth of trash. If your brain was designed to exist in the modern world, that’s what it would feel like to do good at scale, to make a number go up that was adjusted to the right thing. It’d be the good feelings of picking up a beach worth of trash, times that tick, like a trash collection clicker game where the numbers flood your nervous system and you’re overwhelmed with utility.
We see this kind of thinking drive many transhumanist philosophies. It’s the central idea of Effective Altruism, a transhumanist-adjacent movement that tries to figure out how to do the most good with your life. But the general idea of cultivating an infinite hunger for more has an earlier precedent in Max More’s Extropy, a transhumanist movement that was active in the late 80’s and 90’s. More writes in his manifesto Principles of Extropy (More, 2003):
Extropy means seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an open-ended lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to continuing development. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities as individuals, as organizations, and as a species. Growing in healthy directions without bound.
“Growing in healthy directions without bound.” is the blueprint of a maximizing agent.
Universalist Greed in this precisely-articulated sense is a novel feature of Extropy. As far as I know before the 20th century there is no concept of a ‘maximizing agent’ as a value-neutral category. There are ‘tyrants’ and ‘conquerers’, but the idea of a good person who wants literally everything is foreign territory. Perhaps the closest is Niccolo Machiavelli, who was reviled as a sort of antichrist for advocating rational tyranny on utilitarian grounds. It is no coincidence that a certain kind of left-wing thinker reacts to ‘rationalist’ ideas by screaming ‘fascism!’ (Armistead, 2016). This kind of frank ambition is traditionally parsed as moral and spiritual sickness.
The problem with wanting everything is that everyone else wants everything too. Solving this problem is nontrivial. One simple equilibrium that works is to instruct good people to renounce and to punish others who fail to renounce their agency. This is the Christian recipe for moral goodness: Submit to god and retreat from public life to preserve your purity, castigate anyone who engages in worldly pursuits. The idea being if you become too ambitious, you’ll inevitably do harm. It’s not an unfounded fear, the cautionary tale of so many 20th century dictators should be enough to give us serious pause.
For Universalist Greed to be a viable ethic, there must be some method of getting maximizing agents to cooperate with each other. Yudkowsky’s Coherent Extrapolated Volition is one prototype of this coordinating machinery. The idea is that a peace treaty may be struck so that anyone who wins the game will give away almost all of their winnings to others. I suspect that to really make this work would require either a strong commitment mechanism, or some horrifying game theoretical development in the vein of the Mutually Assured Destruction used to prevent annhilation during the cold war. Either is beyond the scope of this essay.
Universalist Greed in Alchemy
In alchemy we begin to see the seeds of a Universalist Greed. This first appears in the common moral dimension added to the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. The stone is a vehicle to satisfy human greed, turning base metals like lead into valuable metals such as silver and gold. Yet alchemical secrecy is a moral precursor: Knowledge of the stone was said to be carefully guarded so that it does not fall into the wrong hands. In his Secrets of Alchemy Lawrence Principe describes Jabir ibn-Hayyan’s (721 – c. 815) ‘dispersion of knowledge’, a secrecy technique supposedly advised to him by his master to thwart the unworthy (Principe, 2013):
The Jabirian corpus also carries stylistic features that left their mark on subsequent alchemical writers. The first of these is the dispersion of knowledge (tabdid al-'ilm), a method ostensibly for helping to preserve secrecy. Jabir states that "my method is to present knowledge by cutting it up and dispersing it into many places." The idea is that the entirety of Jabir's teaching cannot be found altogether in one place; instead, he distributes a single idea or process piecemeal through one or several books. This technique partly fulfills the charge given to Jabir by his supposed master, Ja'far: "O Jabir, reveal the knowledge as you desire, but such that none have access to it but those who are truly worthy of it."
Who is worthy varies from time to time and place to place, but the nature of alchemy lends itself to certain narratives. It was often believed that the secrecy helped foil the impatient and unvirtuous, who were too stunted to do the long study necessary to achieve the stone. Roger Bacon for example believed that scientific wisdom was revealed to men by god so that they might find salvation (Brehm, 1976). This naturally linked scientific (i.e. alchemical) knowledge to moral character, leading Bacon to lament that “we Christians discover nothing worthy, the reason for which is that we do not have their [Abrahamic and Pagan luminary ancestors] morals. For it is impossible that wisdom stand with sin, but perfect virtue is required by her.” (Brehm, 1976). As Principe notes however, we should take some caution with this sort of statement. At the time Bacon was writing alchemy’s position in Europe was tenuous, facing crackdowns and persecution; linking alchemy to Christian piety was one of the ways its practitioners survived in the face of social hostility (Principe, 2013).
Regardless of their sincerity, links between Christian piety and chemical knowledge began to run deep in European alchemy. These even extended into explanations of the stones mechanism of action. It was generally thought that the stone worked by purifying ‘base metals’. Alchemists believed there were only a handful of kinds of metal, and that lesser alloys like copper were impure forms of silver and gold (Principe, 2013). This theme of purification lent itself well to Christian allegory and metaphor. Roger Bacon believed that the elixir of life worked on the same principle as the Christian resurrection (Brehm, 1976). Later writers like Count Michael Maier (1569-1622) discuss their quest for the stone in nearly identical moral language to Bacon (Tilton, 2003). Maier believed the stone simultaneously grants ‘temperance’, or a withdrawal from overindulgence, while fulfilling the greedy aspiration of goldmaking (Tilton, 2003):
In Maier's eyes disease was closely associated with impiety and a sinful lifestyle; and the Universal Medicine which he strove to uncover imparted 'temperance' to the human body, a term which refers simultaneously to a somatic and a psychic or moral state. The imbalance of humours in the body that Maier sought to treat was the direct result of overindulgence in sensual pleasures, such as the drinking of alcohol, sexual debauchery and gluttony. Likewise, impious urges such as anger are the result of just such a disequilibrium in the four bodily fluids, which may be remedied by the temperance-imparting lapis just as metals may gain a more perfect proportion or balance of opposing elements. Furthermore, the operation of Maier's alchemical remedies depends upon the 'virtue' of divine origins inhering in the rays of the sun, be it directly received or reflected; and in the term virtus itself we may also see something of the holistic sense that has been largely lost to contemporary science, i.e. the dual meaning of 'strength' or 'power' and 'moral virtue'.
This perspective on alchemy derived from Maier’s interest in Rosicrucianism, a (mostly mythical) hermetic sect which de-emphasized goldmaking in favor of chymical medicine and service to humanity (Wunder, 2008). They borrowed this attitude from the physician Paracelsus (A.D. 1493-1541), who wrote much about the connection between alchemy, metaphysics, and medicine, but tended to see goldmaking in a contemptuous light (Wunder, 2008; Principe, 2013). Many followers of Paracelsus saw toxicity as arising from original sin, which alchemy could redeem by extracting useful medicine from otherwise poisonous plants and substances; by this means the alchemist became a kind of savior (Principe, 2013). Rosicrucian myths expanded on this theme, pushing focus beyond just the personal virtue of the alchemical practitioner, emphasizing their role in redeeming a fallen humanity (Wunder, 2008). In this way they extended a morally-tinged greed into an outright universalist one.
Many transhumanists focus on mitigating existential risks (X-Risk) that might eradicate humanity, and some alchemists were driven by similar concerns. Franciscan friars in particular believed that the coming of the Antichrist was an immediate threat. Roger Bacon (A.D. 1214-1294) and John of Rupescissa (ca. 1310 – between 1366 and 1370) both carried out alchemical research with the aim of thwarting his coming assault on Christendom (Principe, 2013). Rupescissa wrote (Principe, 2013):
I considered the coming times predicted by Christ in the Gospels, namely, of the tribulations in the time of the Antichrist, under which the Roman Church shall be tormented and have all her worldly riches despoiled by tyrants...Thus for the sake of liberating the chosen people of God, to whom it is granted to know the ministry of God and the magisterium of truth, I wish to speak of the work of the great Philosophers' Stone without lofty speech. My intention is to be helpful to the good of the holy Roman Church and briefly to explain the whole truth about the Stone.
This may have been the first time people undertook scientific research with the explicit intent of averting the end of the world. While John’s interest in alchemy seemed to depend on this motivation (Principe, 2013), it would be naive to imagine Roger Bacon wouldn’t have been interested in carrying out this research regardless. A comparable situation might be Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Musk has explicitly cited AI Risk as a key motivation behind the proposed brain-computer-interface (Neuralink, 2019). He believes that AI is less likely to kill us if we can symbiotically merge with it in a way that would be impossible with our current communication limitations. At the same time it’d be hard to argue that if AI Risk weren’t present Elon Musk would have no interest in the project.
Alchemy and Romanticism
Despite all these similarities it would be difficult to argue that medieval alchemy directly inspired transhumanism. Goldmaking largely disappeared from Europe in the 18th century, when it was driven underground again by Enlightenment and Renaissance criticism (Principe, 2013). Naively we might imagine it was some kind of scientific or philosophical critique that reburied alchemy, but this doesn’t seem to be the case (Principe, 2013). While it is now common knowledge that gold is an element, this was not actually proven at the time. Instead european alchemy succumbed to moral panic insisting goldmaking was not just theoretically flawed but actively fraudulent. These critiques had existed in one form or another for centuries, but in the 18th they began to seriously erode goldmaking as a study (Principe, 2013). This led high profile chemists to jettison public work on the subject so they would be allowed to join the academy (Principe, 2013). Where before alchemy and chymistry had been synonyms, ‘alchemy’ was increasingly used as a scapegoat for the parts of chemical work that were barring chymists from state and institutional support.
Ironically enough alchemy-as-scapegoat did go on to directly influence transhumanism through its descendant’s involvement with science fiction. An unintended side effect of the scapegoating was to make ‘alchemy’, now considered the antithesis of Enlightenment epistemology, 50 feet tall as occult knowledge. Like so many other abandoned scientific ideas it took on a second life as pseudoscience and mysticism. When later people began to oppose reason’s perceived excesses they turned to ‘alchemy’ in rebellion (Principe, 2013). This strange countercultural current was nursed along by a proliferation of 18th century secret societies such as Freemasons, the Illuminati, etc (Principe, 2013; Wunder, 2008). These societies were loosely based on the legendary Rosicrucian order, whose hoax manifesto had taken on a powerful life of its own all across Europe (Wunder, 2008).
The basic model of these fraternities was to turn enlightenment philosophy into ritual-based mystery cults, with each ‘degree’ of advancement representing internalization of a key enlightenment principle (Wunder, 2008). This structure obviously lent itself to adaption and modification, so that there were many lodges and orders teaching many different ‘degrees’. The proliferation and churn of these organizations was so swift that there arose great confusion about everything relating to Freemasonry, secret societies, etc (Wunder, 2008). By combining secrecy and intellectual filtering it became possible for many fraternities to teach secular and atheist worldviews under the guise of Masonry; a practice for which the entire phenomena came under frequent scrutiny (Wunder, 2008). Anti-Masonic literature and debate along with the societies themselves were a mainstream cultural feature across Europe, one which would endure well into the 20th century.
One of the main draws for members of these societies was their blend of hermetic mysticism and secular teaching. They provided a ‘middle way’ for those who found total secularism too alienating (Wunder, 2008). This was catnip for Romantic writers like Percy & Mary Shelley, who would have been broadly exposed to these ideas. We can infer that these orders likely contained antecedents of the contemporary atheism that undergirds most transhumanist worldviews. For example the ‘honorable’ antiquarian Algernon Herbert discusses Hermetic atheist mystery cults in one of his books (Herbert, 1829). While reading the following passage, keep in mind that “The Iliaster” is one of Paracelsus’s names for the philosophers stone:
The same is the demigod of the school of Ammonius Saccas, called Man*. The outward doctrine of the pagans represented the dead as remaining in the imperfect state of soul without body, and they were not so much to blame for their description of that state as for the perpetuity which they assigned to it. They held out no promise of resurrection to any, and no general expectations of reward or punishment. And it was the intention of the Free-Masons to promulgate again the like doctrines, as they informed Henry 6th, saying, that they had in concealment “the art of becoming good and perfect without the help of fear and hope.” But the interior doctrine was, that the souls of men (that is to say, so much of the Quintessenceas was in them, or, as the Alchemists called it, their Evestrum) should suffer an oblivion of their past lives, and a compurgation by means of the elements or of a sort of chemical permutation, and should then pass into other human or animal bodies; until at last their very existence was destroyed by absorption into the mass of the universe.
Such was and is in substance, though with various modifications in the ways of stating it, the spirit of the interior atheism as concerning the future state. But those who, by participation in the Great Mysteries, partake of the nature of the Great Iliaster, shall return with glorified bodies when he returns, and are subject to no Lethe which should destroy their moral and to no absorption which should destroy their natural identity. That is not a mere dream of the fanatics; but it is (in one sense) supported by the prediction of Daniel, that many of the wicked shall arise at the first resurrection. The reader now sees how that fact, which is historically ascertained, is also morally accounted for, the interment of treasure; those, who were to come in the retinue of the great universal tyrant, were, in hoarding, not merely giving to him, but saving for themselves.
I find this passage (bolding mine) stunning in both its semantic associations and its testimony to the threat that Herbert must have felt from atheism. He calls them ‘fanatics’, a word which would seem entirely out of place in the same sentence as ‘atheism’ today. Not only does he engage with the concept, itself an admission that atheism has some intellectual standing, Herbert feels compelled to give his account of what ‘mundane atheists’ of the Hermetic (alchemical) sort believed. Further, having discussed in brief their plan to defeat death he goes so far as to admit that this plan will work(!), at least until Christ smites them for their hubris during the second coming. This is an admission of the most baffling sort, I am completely shocked that this text exists. Herbert seems to be a respected enough author to have his own wikipedia page so it seems unlikely that this is some kind of anomalous document like a conspiracy theory. This gives us some window into the role that alchemy would have played through hermetic orders in creating the foundations for the secular humanism that would later play so prominent a role in Extropy.
20th Century Development
During the 20th century Hermetic orders and secret societies shifted somewhat in their role. Increasing secularization made many of the secrets previously harbored by these pseudo-cults speakable in public without (violent) reprisal. These orders were also the victim of a general decline in fraternal organizations and clubs. This makes their history in the 20th century something of a late, decadent phase. A great deal of that decadence might be attributed to one Aleister Crowley, the infamous Satanist that put his own popular spin on the Masonic structure and teachings.
Crowley got his start in these organizations through his induction into the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn in 1898. Earlier at Trinity College he had developed a love of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, and was almost certainly a fan of Frankenstein (Wikipedia contributors, 2020), which Percy Shelley helped edit (Adams, 2008). In 1910 as part of his wandering mystic eclecticism, Crowley joined the Ordo Templi Orientis branch of Hermeticism, where he eventually achieved the VII degree (Carter & Wilson, 2004). Two years later in 1912 he would publish his Book of Lies, Theodor Reuss, the head of the OTO was furious. He confronted Crowley and claimed that he had revealed the highest secret of the order, a form of sex magick (i.e. of the sort that made Tantric Buddhism infamous in the West) in this book (Carter & Wilson, 2004). Crowley insisted he had done no such thing, until Reuss showed him the passage in question. Reuss swore him to secrecy and advanced him in the order to its highest degree. In 1917 Crowley began rewriting the masonic material at the foundation of the OTO in line with his Thelema, a new philosophy which posited that each man has a will and that “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (Carter & Wilson, 2004).
While at this point the reader may be tempted to conclude that we’ve lost the thread of connection, and none of this has anything to do with the likes of Max More or Eliezer Yudkowsky, they would be quite wrong. In the same year that he began developing his Thelema in earnest, Crowley wrote the novel Moonchild (1917) which discusses the artificial creation of a world-savior in the form of a homunculus (Carter & Wilson, 2004):
But other magicians sought to make this Homunculus in a way closer to nature. In all these cases they had held that environment could be modified at will by the application of telesmata or sympathetic figures. For example, a nine-pointed star would attract the influence which they called Luna — not meaning the actual moon, but an idea similar to the poets' idea of her. By surrounding an object with such stars, with similarly-disposed herbs, perfumes, metals, talismans, and so on, and by carefully keeping off all other influences by parallel methods, they hoped to invest the original object so treated with the Lunar qualities, and no others. (I am giving the brifest outline of an immense subject.) Now then they proceeded to try to make the Homunculus on very curious lines.
Man, said they, is merely a fertilized ovum properly incubated. Heredity is there even at first, of course, but in a feeble degree. Anyhow, they could arrange any desired environment from the beginning, if they could only manage to nourish the embryo in some artificial way — incubate it, in fact, as is done with chickens to-day. Furthermore, and this is the crucial point, they thought that by performing this experiment in a specially prepared place, a place protected magically against all incompatible forces, and by invoking into that place some one force which they desired, some tremendously powerful being, angel or archangel — and they had conjurations which they thought capable of doing this — that they would be able to cause the incarnation of beings of infinite knowledge and power, who would be able to bring the whole world into Light and Truth.
I may conclude this little sketch by saying that the idea has been almost universal in one form or another; the wish has always been for a Messiah or Superman, and the method some attempt to produce man by artificial or at least abnormal means.
Given his conception of the soul as information it is unsurprising that Eliezer Yudkowsky would seek to endow his Friendly AI with the abstract will (or ‘values’ as he terms it) of the human race. His abnormally birthed Messiah is not a man so much as he (she?) is all men. Certainly the ambition to summon a being of infinite knowledge and power to enlighten humanity is invoked as literally here as possible. But for the moment we will step away from Crowley, to focus on another important philosopher of the 1940’s sci-fi zeitgeist that helped inspire Eliezer’s philosophy, one Count Alfred Korzybski.
If one event in the 20th century had to be singled out as decisive of its character, it would probably be the first world war. WWI was an unprecedented martial slog that inspired a great deal of philosophical soul searching. It also created the necessary conditions for the rise of the Soviet Union, which included its own branch of Utopian Universalist Greed that this work is too brief to contain (Andarovna, 2019). Alfred Korzybski participated in this slaughter, and found himself quite shaken up by it. Worse still, many had predicted WWI before its onset, Jan Bloch’s infamous Is War Now Impossible? was published 15 years before the start of WWI. If everyone knew the war was on its way it seemed absurd that nobody could stop it (Miyazaki, 2020).
Korzybski considered the problem of what lesson should be learned from WWI long and hard. The ultimate result of his thinking was the book The Manhood of Humanity, published in 1921. Manhood of Humanity is a book whose essential thesis is that Man is a time binder, differentiated from the rest of nature by the ability to retain experiences and transmit them across generations. In Korzybski’s view, technological and social progress are an exponential function dependent on already accumulated knowledge (Kodish, 2011). Empirically the growth rate of technological capabilities had surpassed that of socializing abilities, inevitably leading to existential risk:
At present I am chiefly concerned to drive home the fact that it is the great disparity between the rapid progress of the natural and technological sciences on the one hand and the slow progress of the metaphysical, so-called social “sciences” on the other hand, that sooner or later so disturbs the equilibrium of human affairs as to result periodically in those social cataclysms which we call insurrections, revolutions and wars.
… And I would have him see clearly that, because the disparity which produces them increases as we pass from generation to generation—from term to term of our progressions—the “jumps” in question occur not only with increasing violence but with increasing frequency.
This realization was so profound to Korzybski that he couldn’t be satisfied just writing a book about the general phenomena. Given his thesis, it seemed obvious that the only hope of saving the world would be to find out what ‘time binding’ is made of, and then use that understanding to improve our ability to bind time in the social sciences (Kodish, 2011). He expected to put out a follow up book soon after Manhood, but it actually took him 10 years to write. The resulting work was published in 1933 as Science and Sanity, which can be thought of kind of like Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Sequences if they had been published in the 1930’s. To write them, Korzybski did his best to absorb the science then available to him about human cognition, physics, mathematics, and several other subjects besides (Kodish, 2011). He wrote that man was not an animal (obviously a mammal, but a time-binding mammal!), that cognition should be thought of as something performed by the whole-organism and its nervous system, that “the map is not the territory”, and had his students learn to differentiate between levels of abstraction above raw sensory perception. His hope was to create an enduring field of study based on these ideas, which he called (to his regret) General Semantics.
Science and Sanity was a cult hit that appealed to a particular sort of person. It was especially popular with the then-burgeoning Science Fiction fandom (Brunton, 2020):
Van Vogt, lover of systems, was always convinced a system existed for his life: a way to generate “unusual solutions” for the various problems of being human. He wrote a get-rich-quick book, a book about hypnotism, and – God help us all – “a novel about my theories on women,” “which has never been published as such” (small mercies). He wrote entire novels based on the system of General Semantics, a set of language and logic practices for becoming more objective and reasonable – to streamline the process of thinking. He sketched out schemes for meta-systems of living, with names like “Null-A” and “Nexialism,” and spent a decade or so in Dianetics, fiddling with e-meters and tape recorders amid piles of pamphlets offering superhumanity in a storefront on Sunset Boulevard. (He shared this peculiar trajectory toward transforming consciousness – Semantics, Scientology, and pulp science fiction, rather than, say, Marx or activism or acid – with William Burroughs.)
The 1930’s science fiction pulp (as found in Astounding Science Fiction) was of a new kind for literary pulp, in that it came with an ideological mission (Wright, 2013). While today we take the existence of rockets for granted, in the 1930’s rockets were a fringe theoretical subject whose practical possibility had not been established (Carter & Wilson, 2004). One of the overall goals of the science fiction pulp was to take humanity to the stars by promoting the development of rocketry (Wright, 2013). Science fiction has in fact preceded and in many cases promoted the practical research that would later come to redefine our society and conceptions of what is possible.
The mind-powers obsessed science fiction fandom and the esoteric magick of Aleister Crowley are combined in the person of Jack Parsons. Parsons is unusual in that his childhood interest in science fiction translated into pioneering work on rocketry. In fact, Parsons is arguably the person who did the most to make practical rocketry in the United States viable (Carter & Wilson, 2004). He was also a devoted disciple of Crowley, and became infamous for the Thelemic rituals and ceremonies he’d put on in his Pasadena mansion. These were part of a general quest to take Thelema mainstream, ushering in the age of the beast (Carter & Wilson, 2004). By destroying Christianity Parsons hoped to uplift humanity, a goal he and Crowley ostensibly shared. Crowley at one point wrote to Parsons (Carter & Wilson, 2004):
It seems to me that there is a danger of your sensitiveness upsetting your balance. Any experience that comes your way you have a tendency to over-estimate. The first fine careless rapture wears off in a month or so, and some other experience comes along and carries you off on its back. Meanwhile you have neglected and bewildered those who are dependent on you, either from above or from below.
I will ask you to bear in mind that you have one fulcrum for all your levers, and that is your original oath to devote yourself to raising mankind. All experiences, all efforts, must be referred to this; as long as it remains unshaken you cannot go far wrong, for by its own stability it will bring you back from any tendency to excess. At the same time, you being as senstitive as you are, it behoves [sic] you to be more on your guard than would be the case with the majority of people.
For his part, Parsons turned his leased mansion estate into 19 apartments. The ad he put out in the local paper informed prospective tenants that he would only rent to atheists and bohemians (Carter & Wilson, 2004). The resulting tenants practiced black magick, polyamory, discussed science fiction and futurology, and came from many walks of life (Carter & Wilson, 2004). This strange group house became a social and intellectual hot spot for the Pasadena aerospace and science fiction scenes.
While I’m not aware of Parsons himself ever taking any interest in General Semantics, his friends sure did (Carter & Wilson, 2004). Most notably Parsons was friends with L. Ron Hubbard, who played the role of ‘scribe’ during Parsons’ infamous Babalon Working, in which he combined Enochian magick rituals with tantric sex practices to try and birth a Moonchild (Carter & Wilson, 2004). Needless to say this did not work, but the experience seems to have been formative for Hubbard, whose enduring interest in Crowley’s Thelema (supposedly first encountered at age 16) and General Semantics would become key inspiration for his Dianetics and Scientology (Wright, 2013):
One striking parallel between Hubbard and Crowley is the latter's assertion that "spiritual progress did not depend on religious or moral codes, but was like any other science." Crowley argued that by advancing through a graded series of rituals and spiritual teachings, the adept could hope to make it across "The Abyss," which he defined as "the gulf existing between individual and cosmic consciousness." It is an image that Hubbard would evoke in his Bridge to Total Freedom.
Although Hubbard mentions Crowley only glancingly in a lecture — calling him "my very good friend" — they never actually met. Crowley died in 1947 at the age of seventy-two. "That's when Dad decided that he would take over the mantle of the Beast and that is the seed and the beginning of Dianetics and Scientology," Nibs later said. "It was his goal to be the most powerful being in the universe."
It would be easy to dismiss Thelema as a weird, marginal product of its era, one only of interest to modern readers as a curiosity. However Crowley’s ideas seem to cast a long cultural shadow whose influence is not always obvious. For example, it’s interesting how much contemporary focus is put into the notion of ‘finding your passion’, a concept that seems almost identical to Crowley’s assertion that the purpose of life is to find your Will and then do it. It seems likely that the Sith in George Lucas’s Star Wars are based at least in part on Thelema. A skeptically inclined reader could probably dismiss any modern similarities as general secularization, which Crowley merely forecasted rather than caused. Perhaps more important to our current analysis is that these ideas were ‘in the water supply’ among science fiction authors during this period. Someone who makes a habit of reading sci-fi from that time would at the very least be indirectly exposed to them.
Conclusion: Pulp Sci-Fi As Occult Fomite
The easiest way to explain the direct influence this had on transhumanism is to give an example. In his post Is Clickbait Destroying Our General Intelligence? Eliezer Yudkowsky writes about how when he was growing up he read many books from the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940’s and 50’s (Yudkowsky, 2018). This is the same Golden Age which believed that psychology would eventually come to dominate the sciences in prestige. This is evident for example in the works of Isaac Asimov who wrote in his Foundation trilogy that the greater of the two civilization-restoring ‘Foundations’ would be the one which dealt with matters of the human mind. This theme also appears in the work of A.E Van Vogt, who based his World of Null-A on the notion of a future where General Semantics eventually becomes the foundation of world government.
In fact one of the key reasons for the overall failure of General Semantics as a movement was it gambled very hard on the future prestige of psychology, which did not materialize. This can be seen in Korzybski’s insistence and dedication to getting mainstream psychology to take him seriously, but it can also be detected in the sort of person that populated the General Semantics movement. For example Bruce and Susan Kodish, the authors of Drive Yourself Sane are both therapists (Kodish & Kodish, 2011). I suspect that this was directly related to the expectation that psychology and psychiatry were rising stars, and that being eminent in these fields would be a ticket to widespread success and awareness.
The World Of Null-A is also interesting in that Yudkowsky cites it as the first time he was exposed to General Semantics (Yudkowsky, 2009). Remember, A.E. Van Vogt was very about mental superpowers one step removed from magick. In Yudkowsky’s post on rationalist fiction he says the book was a direct inspiration for Harry Potter and The Methods Of Rationality. Of course we shouldn’t imagine science fiction is the only thing going into Eliezer’s cosmology, it’s mostly made of science-fact (this is after all the entire point). [Yudkowsky once cited Ed Regis’s Great Mambo Chicken…] as the book that pulled him away from a career in physics towards transhumanism (Yudkowsky, 1999). He later walked this back and gave Drexler’s Engines of Creation a larger role (Yudkowsky, 2009). It should also be noted that any influence from the likes of Crowley on Yudkowsky is almost certainly indirect. In fact, Eliezer says that until sitting down to write his rationalist fiction post he hadn’t been aware Korzybski invented the phrase ‘the map is not the territory’ (Yudkowsky, 2009). This can be forgiven, Bruce Kodish’s excellent biography of Korzybski was not available until 2011. However if Eliezer isn’t even familiar with Korzybski, who is directly relevant to his notions of rationality, it’s unlikely he would have any interest in the Romantics or their descendant subcultures.
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