Harris Bor. Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021.
Science Fiction is the dominant cultural mythos of modernity. Isaac Asimov, whom I regard as providing the best definition of science fiction, said that the genre is “that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Especially since the 1950s, the specter of technological annihilation has planted itself in our cultural psyche. I have written on the theological and philosophical themes replete in sci-fi in various publications, and among the learned this isn’t anything new—the haunting specter of technology seems to awaken the theological imagination and desire in humans. Harris Bor, in this haunting but hopeful book, equally writes, “The modern visions feature no biblical God but are still religious in character.” Theology must contend “with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” And Bor attempts to do precisely that in his new book.
In Staying Human: A Jewish Theology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Bor assumes that the futurist techno transhumanist vision will become our reality to some degree or another. There is no failure of technological singularity, no dystopia, no pain in the traditional concept of scientific endarkening over life. This isn’t to say Bor’s assumptive acceptance of a techno transhumanist future is an optimistic one. Far from it, the essence of the book is trying to carve out a place for humanness and an ethic of compassion in the face of technological bleakness in the midst of technological transformation and singularity. For Bor, reconnecting with a brand of “rationalist mysticism”—informed by a broadly modernist Jewish biblical synthesis with the better side of Enlightenment rationalism (specifically Spinoza)—offers the path forward instead of succumbing to the transhumanist temptation.
We all sense a troubling problem in our increasingly techno-scientistic world. Many recent studies have indicated that social media and other technological addictions have negative effects on mental health. The techno-scientistic regime is often employed for totalitarian ends, though this is also nothing new and was elaborated upon by numerous twentieth century writers and intellectuals, including Eric Voegelin. The transhumanist ideology, which is gaining momentum, gleefully looks forward to the utter eradication of human nature and biology in its pursuit of transcendence. As Bor notes, to the transhumanists “death is a barrier to be overcome.” Yet it is the reality of death that gives sanctity, meaning, and purpose to life. Love, in its highest form, in both poetry and theology, is almost ubiquitously tied to death.
In the midst of this sea of troubles, Bor attempts to offer a compromising path to remain human while not, on the whole, rejecting the techno-scientistic worldview. The lynchpin, for him, in this effort is “refining Spinoza,” with a little bit of give-and-take from Martin Heidegger as well.
Spinoza needs no introduction. His ideas that God is Nature, reason should control the passions and that the passions are dangerous to human life, and his elevated philosophy of Rationalism wherein rational inquiry advances knowledge, ethics, and even love of God and humanity has reverberated through the centuries. While not the father of philosophical monism, the philosophy that espouses a sort of singularity in which all things ultimately condense in unity and sameness, the implications of his writings helped revive monism which had been relegated to the various medieval mysticisms of the preceding era.
It is obvious that our highly erudite and well-educated author is a fan of Spinoza. He even has an entire chapter entitled “Why Spinoza is Right.” Is Spinoza right, though? In giving a list of the Spinozistic allure of oneness in philosophy and science, it is curious that all the figures are over a hundred years old. The reason is simple, monism is discredited by the current scientific paradigms which makes its assertions currently untenable. Additionally, is passion all that bad? Is reason all that benevolent? The cult of reason, science, and technology unleashed the horrors of the twentieth century and bred the most vile and wicked totalitarian movements the world has yet seen. And deep within the anxious psyche of our AI future, technological terror on purely mathematical and scientific grounds—the unemotional spirit contained therein—run replete through film and literature implying genocide against humans as the logical outcome of techno-scientistic supremacy. There’s plenty of reason, pardon to pun, not to see reason as a saving grace. And that worldview of terror, horror, and tyranny wrought by techno-scientistic powers is, however bastardized, still rooted in Spinoza’s general outlook. This fact is not lost on Bar, who even concedes it, despite also attempting to offer a change of course from within the framework: “Our technological worldview follow’s Spinoza’s lead” and “[we must] acknowledge that, despite Spinoza’s attractiveness, there is a dark side to his ideas.”
The heart of Bor’s contentious question is that in an age of de-humanizing technology that seeks to unite humanity through its artificial transhumanist singularity (which will really disempower and weaken humanity) what can keep us strong, nominally unified in a shared vision of the future, while remaining uniquely human? To answer this question Bor rehashes the tired worn-out answer that has been around since the time of Plato: Reason. “Reason is the language in which we can all share, a bedrock on which humanity should rest, a glue that binds us.” There is a problem with this assertion, however. Whose reason? What kind of reason are we talking about?
While a gross oversimplification, reason comes in two identifiable schools, one ancient, one modern. Classical reason was united to the concept of the Good and Truth from which a teleology of eudemonistic virtue was possible. Classical reason was about knowing the transcendental moral order to which one would manifest in life and, therefore, be happy in living a fulfilled virtuous life. But Bor argues the opposite, Truth isn’t the concern of religion, or even philosophy, but simply another language of practical human well-being is that arose as medicine for a time of trouble (and since we live in an age of trouble now is the time for a renewed philosophical-theology of sorts).
Bor therefore rejects the ancient conception of reason and accepts the modern conception of reason with its ultimately materialistic and practical/pragmatic disposition that the transhumanists equally embrace, “If we understand through science the mechanism that promote or undermine our physical and mental well-being, and how such mechanisms impact our sense of self-worth, community, and relationships, then science earns the right to guide us on how we ought to live” (emphases my own). Just put a picture of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, or John Stuart Mill next to that statement. The modern understanding of reason, from Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, mediated now to the transhumanists as its exhaustive logical conclusion, is a world free of (bodily) harm. Since death is harmful, death must be overcome. Reason is about manifesting the most efficient means to obtain material needs and avoidance of material harm. This is a far different reason than offered up by the classical tradition in which reason is the mediating bridge of the phenomenological to the transcendental(s) wherefrom a virtuous life in unity with Truth is possible through knowledge of good and evil.
Furthermore, why should science “earn the right to guide us on how we ought to live?” Additionally, whose conception of science? Science was the overriding ideology of some of the worst genocidal movements of the twentieth century: eugenics, Nazism, and scientific communism to name a few. To argue otherwise is to obfuscate the obvious fact that science can be employed for horrendous ends on the same grounds that it is often promoted and celebrated (something that shill apologists like Steven Pinker, who is briefly lauded in this book, never want to acknowledge). The No True Scotsman fallacy is the typical retort for ideologists of scientism, whatever brand and flavor they may appear, to fall back on when confronted with this problem. It is a failure to accept the honest fact that science is not intrinsically benevolent. There is a science of practical advancement, a science that has given us the benefits of comfort and health security. Then there is a science of control, tyranny, and Big Brother intrusion that also risks annihilation of the planet let alone our souls. They often go together.
This is the problem that Bor finds himself wrestling with. He admits, openly and regularly, of the dark side of technology and the transhumanist ideology (he devotes an entire chapter to this problem). Yet he doesn’t want to accept that the very axiomatic framework he is attempting to utilize to preserve a sense of humanness is what spurs the transhumanist deceit he is worried about; he wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wishes to salvage the cornerstones of the temple of transhumanism and replace it with a temple of humanism, as if the cornerstones won’t influence what is built.
The rationalist, mechanical, and ultimately reductive materialist Enlightenment philosophy of Spinoza necessarily leads to the crisis Bor is trying to avoid. No amount of rationalist mysticism and offering up a God of “being and becoming” will save us; it is more of the old nineteenth century modernist theology updated for the twenty-first century. The simple fact is this: modernist theology, like traditional theology, has run its course. The task is not to refine or augment a past tradition (despite its name, progressive or modernist theology is a past tradition) but to embrace something new (Bor claims to be doing so but really offers a revived and revised process theology). The effort to offer a “being and becoming theology” will simply medicate the pain of accepting the transhumanist victory as we rationalize the inevitable AI-as-Deity ideology that will come from modernist theology.
The second half of this work presenting that refined Spinoza within Jewish terms, but ecumenical enough to give sustenance and insight to other monotheistic traditions (Christianity especially), offers a theology of “being and becoming” and is a breathtaking feat of scholarship and synthesis. Bor takes up the challenge we find ourselves in, however imperfect his construction, and makes us want to believe. Any sensitive and educated person will certainly gain from what Bor has provided. There can be no mistaking that our author desires to be a friend of humanism even if his idols are, ultimately, enemies of humanity.
Yet it is love and death, not reason and practical ethics, that is the language that unites humanity and gives us reason to live. The problem with love is that it is intensely particular and jealous. This is the hatred of the rationalists. Mind you, Spinoza was spurned in love and never married. So many of the great rationalist philosophers of the so-called Enlightenment were of the same stock. Unmarried, unloving, unromantic men who looked upon married, loving, and romantic men as the problem with the world and this undoubtedly influenced their negative view of the passions looking over cavaliers, generals, and marauding pirates with contempt, disdain, and disgust. A world without passion is a world without love, and a world without love inevitably leads to the dark side of technology we are currently contending with. This is the problem of intellectuals. So obsessed with reason and rationality they miss what actually motivates and moves the vast majority of human lives: love, passion, heat of the moment emotion.
Let me now briefly digress on the superiority of art imagination, which Spinoza denigrates, in contrast to the totalitarianism that philosophy always leads to, but which Bor does nobly try to defend within his refined reconstruction and should be commended in doing so. Imagination is superior to cold rationality, art superior to philosophy (I say this as a now primarily arts and literary critic with six years of education in philosophy). Many of our great cultural creations of the last fifty years have been unconsciously and subconsciously aware of the same problem that Bor is trying to redress in this book. It is the problem of love in a techno-scientistic world, the threat that the techno-scientistic world poses to love and the spirit that love embodies.
The most obvious case example of this is Star Wars. What is the dark side? It’s the evil of the techno-scientistic Galactic Empire (singularity anyone?) and the genocidal power it holds as a result of its techno-scientistic imperium. How is it defeated? Through love. The love of a father (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker) for his son (Luke Skywalker), the love of a man (Han Solo) for a woman (Princess Leia). That is what breaks the Empire. More recently, blockbuster films like Avatar and Interstellar also reveal the same concern and give us the same answer in their own imaginative and artistic ways: love redeems and saves while technology and science destroy. Spinoza is ultimately on the side of the Galactic Empire, the RDA, and Professor Brand and anyone who sides with Spinoza will either end up on that side or must defect and give him up. Trying to maintain a compromise of Spinozistic humanism, laudable as it is, is a bridge to nowhere. In fact, it is a bridge to techno-scientistic totalitarianism. Spinoza is the idol of modernity among the sophisticated. You will either embrace the idol or reject the idol. Bor’s attempt to salvage a poetic theology of the imagination for modernity is laudable, but it won’t be through refining Spinoza.
Humans are creatures of love. It is from love that reason sprang, trying to explain the interior emotions that move the human heart. Placing reason ahead of love ultimately kills love. To stay human, one must love. And love is messy, particularly, jealous, and, in the words of Johann Hamann, Höher als alle Vernunft (that which is higher than reason). Love is metaphysical. And because modern reason and science doesn’t deal with the metaphysical and only the pragmatic and practical, it cannot keep us human because humans are also metaphysical creatures on account of being creatures of love with the capacity to “know” love.
Harris Bor is engaged a monumentally heroic, but as I see it, flawed, rearguard action against the dangers and excess of modern rationalism and scientism while still clinging to the axiomatic foundations which has brought the techno-scientistic cult to the brink of absolute power and terror over human life. While recognizing the danger in that power and terror of techno-scientism, the inability to embrace a different metaphysic and paradigm dooms the appeal to failure. Lastly, who really cares about Spinoza? Your average person of faith certainly does not. It’s the same problem Catholics have with Saint Thomas Aquinas. The laity doesn’t care and will not care and the only people who do care are generally isolated from the masses. In my years as a student and now working with students, I have met only one student (while attending Yale) who was enthused by Spinoza and Spinozistic theology or philosophy. I meet plenty of students, by contrast, excited by the implications of art and imagination with theology. If staying human is the goal, one must meet the people where they are at.
Bor has given us a remarkably erudite and well-written book, one that deals with the true problems we are facing which stands above the more ephemeral attention-grabbing problems that flow in and out of television and social media monopolies and algorithms. One will certainly learn a great deal about Spinoza and his influence and the dangers and prospects of transhumanism, while also reading a well-intentioned attempt to salvage the common spirit and heart of humanity in this maelstrom of epochal transformation. As someone immensely sympathetic to the efforts of those seeking to retain humanism in the face of de-humanizing AI, technology, and transhumanist, I applaud Harris Bor’s heroic work. It is a phenomenal read even when you are not ultimately persuaded by it despite sympathy with the overall humanist tilt of the book. I remain, however, unconvinced that Spinoza and “rationalist mysticism” is the pathway forward. One might say that rationalist mysticism—following a certain emendation of the insight of Eric Voegelin—is what motivates and moves the very transhumanist/de-humanist singularity that Bor is wrestling with. But in wrestling with this problem Bor is fulfilling the highest theological calling.
Staying Human is a work that any thinking person concerned with the problem of transhumanism and the future of humanity will benefit from by picking up and reading. I know I did. And it was fun to revisit the very discipline of my education I have since rejected precisely because it is just a pathway to cold, sterile, totalitarianism and offers nothing as remotely meaningful, and human, as the world of art and imagination. If philosophy has a future apart from being the handmaiden of the cult of rationalist totalitarian science—which it has been since Spinoza—it will be from philosophers defending the primacy of art and imagination against the implicit totalitarian rationalism of the philosophers. That ultimately means leaving Spinoza behind.
This review was first published at VoegelinView, 12 June 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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