The Physics of Transfigured Light: The Imaginal Realm and the Hermetic Foundations of Science

The Physics of Transfigured Light: The Imaginal Realm and the Hermetic Foundations of Science

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620554821
Publisher: Inner Traditions/Bear & Company
Publication date: 05/07/2016
Edition description: 2nd Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Leon Marvell, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Deakin University in Australia. For more than 30 years he has researched European and Eastern esotericism and the history of science. He lives in Victoria, Australia.

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Chapter 2

Spirit of the Beehive Hermetic Resonances in Cybernetics, AI, and Cyberspace


Artificial Intelligence researchers are unwittingly engaged in a project that is inextricably linked with an imaginary that includes such seemingly disparate elements as the “electrical myths” of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and eccentric eighteenth century theologian Oetinger’s “electrical theology,” as well as the pneumatic anthropologies of Kabbalistic, Neo-Platonic, and Hermetic thought. At the least, the emphasis on psyche or mind at the center of the AI project indicates an unacknowledged desire to transcend the boundaries of a strictly mechanical science.

Mathematician and author of several influential science fiction novels, Vernor Vinge imagines an apocalyptic catastrophe point upon the computational curve that signals the emergence of what he calls the Singularity, a super-human intelligence. This point is actually a break, a disjunctive moment when all that has gone before is irretrievably jettisoned. The Singularity, as the name implies, will be utterly unique and unprecedented. Within the AI project the disjunctive moment of the Singularity signals the idea of, and desire for, the form of psychic transport
particularly associated with the ecstatic. Deriving from the original Greek, ek-stasis, ecstasy literally refers to the experience of “standing outside one-self.” The term is linked with a lexical family of words such as displacement, change, deviation, alienation, or délire. The ecstatic state implies a radical discontinuity of perception, a breaking off from one world to another. There is, as Nietzsche has averred, a world of difference between the Apollonian and Dionysian consciousness, yet the moment when the one becomes the other—in terms of the ecstatic ritual or practice—oscillates around something like the “specious present,” the nonmoment where the two fields are united.

It may at first seem quite odd to think of the studious demeanor of the computer scientist as being in some way equivalent to the aspirations of a participant in the Dionysian cults. I agree that it is a monstrous conceit—but it evokes powerful and useful analogies. The ecstatic state can in part be characterized by the experience of the loss of the self, of subjective consciousness. Implicit within modernist science we observe the same desire: the search for an instrumentality that will erase the subjectivity of the observer and reveal the Real. For both the ecstatic and the scientist, reality is that which is revealed when there is no observer. What is missing from the computer scientist or laboratory scientist’s pursuit however—but ever inheres in the Dionysiac’s quest—is simply the experience of the “open” relationship to the phenomenal that characterizes the ecstatic state: the bodily and intellectual sense of “flow” or “streaming” within a sensory economy that makes little distinction between self and world. At a certain level of description the embodied experience is primarily one of moving through a streaming space, attenuated with sensations/communications produced by an essentially open relationship to the phenomenal field. Accordingly, the boundedness of the human bodily experience—the Cartesian paradigm—is really only a secondary, after-the-fact reconstruction.

The “smuggling in” of incoherent echoes of this pre-modern, pre-Faustian worldview is a signal characteristic of contemporary AI research. Much of the bad thinking associated with this project is the result of computer scientists’ ignorance of the proximity their ideas and aspirations bear to the way of thinking that could illuminate their work: the Hermetic tradition.

The key term in Vinge’s Singularity, a word that simultaneously defines and undermines his visions, is the word awake. According to Vinge, one day a computing machine will simply “wake up.” This implies, of course, that all machines like it had previously only been asleep. Clearly for Vinge all contemporary computing devices are sleeping, their potential powers lying dormant.

What is interesting about the word awake is its initiatic character. The mystery cults, particularly those most influential on Western thought—the Mysteries of Eleusis and the Chaldean Mysteries—had as their central symbol the idea that the initiate would undergo symbolic death and resurrection into a second life. Previous to this death and rebirth, the initiate was considered to be “asleep.”

In the early twentieth century the teacher G. I. Gurdjieff was particularly fond of the idea that most human beings were—despite appearances to the contrary—asleep and that the most urgent spiritual task that could confront the seeker was to endeavour to become awake:

A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake. . . .When a man awakes he can die; when he dies he can be born.

These words of Gurdjieff summarize a long tradition that sees spiritual transformation as depending upon a pivotal experience of awakening or rebirth. Rather infamously, Gurdjieff tried many tactics to shock his followers into this state of wakefulness. According to Gurdjieff most people had no central, supervenient principle that could be called a soul; most people were simply a succession of discontinuous processes (impressions, desires, activities) in time. A central soul could be constructed however, and the key to this construction was first to become awake. He qualifies his conception of being awake in this manner:

It is impossible to awaken completely all at once. One must first awaken for short moments. But one must die all at once and forever after having made a certain effort . . . [after] a certain decision from which there is no going back. This would be difficult, even impossible, for a man, were it not for the slow and gradual awakening that precedes it.

Gurdjieff ’s model of becoming spiritually awake is clearly modeled on phenomenal experience. Before fully waking up individuals usually experience a period of hypnopompic activity; before being fully asleep they usually pass through the hypnagogic state. We gradually accede to consciousness, as Gurdjieff says—we do not abruptly attain instant consciousness under any circumstances.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Arthur Versluis, Ph.D.

Preface to the New Edition


1 Ideal Objects and Their Forebears

2 Spirit of the Beehive: Hermetic Resonances in Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, and Cyberspace

3 Body Doubles

4 Metaphysical Geometry, Alien Attractors, and the Shape of the World Soul

5 The Gnostic Alchemy of Robert Fludd

6 The Gnostic Leibniz, or What Is It Like to Be an Atom?




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