Articles, Exegesis, Reviews

I Sing the Body Electric :: Review

I recently stumbled upon a senior Religious Studies thesis that discussed Syntheism. Naturally, I was thrilled and took a break from my reading of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth to give this thesis a read. Understandably little is written on Synthesim, and some might even be removed. The Wikipedia article for Syntheism says in a helpful little blurb at the top “If notability cannot be shown, the article is likely to be merged, redirected, or deleted.” It’s sad news for me since I first learned about the movement from Wikipedia.

It is not, however, surprising. The Syntheist Movement is less of a religious phenomenon and more of a philosophy project by a few Swedish nerds. It’s for this reason that I don’t consider myself a member of the movement and instead define “syntheism” as an axiomatic position rather than a specific doctrine. By contrast, the thesis in question here takes a different approach. Convinced as it is that Syntheism is a religion, not just a book, it spends over a hundred pages detailing its precedents, metaphysical structure, and organization. The thesis is clear to announce (or perhaps, confess) that it is approaching The Syntheist Movement very differently than it would any other religious group. Its argument is that The Syntheist Movement, being a cyber-religion, follows different rules compared to analogue religion and so must be approached on its own terms. Of course, the real reason is that The Syntheist Movement is actually just a wildly inaccessible book that hasn’t expanded into a religion at all. As a result, this thesis can be understood as a superb book report.

And I loved it. I learned so much and even was given the opportunity to give the Syntheological Pyramid another chance. While I don’t think the thesis was correct in viewing The Syntheist Movement as a religion, I’m so glad it was written.

Quotes

Relatedly, it is important to note from the outset of this project that the communities we will explore, especially the emergent cyberreligions of Syntheism and Kopimism, are “real” religions and will be treated thus. Often when I have attempted to describe the Syntheist movement, even to other religious studies scholars, I am met with a flurry of comparisons to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Church of Google, or some other satirical religious group. Although these groups also offer interesting and productive means for examining the evolving role of religious metanarrative in the post-postmodern age, I would like to stress that the religious movements examined in this thesis consider themselves bona fide religions. Their members co-opt religious terminology, ritual, and community not to mock religious organization, but to reimagine and resuscitate it. (pdf 7)

Cybernetics thus “positioned itself both as a metascience and as a tool that any other science could use.” By doing so, these scientists hoped to dissolve the tensions between the hard and social sciences, as this totalizing theory would be able to explain all phenomena that involved communication between any two, or multiple, entites, no matter the (a)biology of their collocutors. (pdf 16)

Man cannot replace God, since man is every bit as much of an illusion. (pdf 61)

What we now call syntheistic systems assume that all gods are necessary, human constructs; historically determined projections on existence that engender supraobjects that are shaped by and adapted to the social situation. (pdf 69)

Classical atheism and theism do share one negative quality which Syntheism hopes to eradicate—both have a “negative attitude towards immanent life.” Syntheism is, at its most basic account, an attempt to sacralize immanent reality without either relying on the externalized transcendence of theism, or succumbing to the immanent cynicism of atheism. (pdf 72)

Utopias are constructed on, and thus emphasize, the arbitrariness of the universe as it currently stands, blending the normal with the virtual to make us question the seeming validity of reality as it is while inclining us towards how reality can potentially be in the future. Relatedly, utopias are not confined or specific, but experimental and inventive. Utopic thinking, the constructing of social and political imaginaries, produces “a sort of social uncertainty, a wavering of social instinct, a lack of polarization of myth.”  Utopias are not escapist, but constructive: they represent an instability and non-givenness that absolutism usually obscures while fleshing out the coordinates of another possible reality beyond the confines of this one. (pdf 80)

God needs to be placed forever in the future and yet must be rendered immanent, because utopias are predicated on the features (especially the shortcomings) of our current reality. So, God becomes something “virtual rather than potential; neither possible nor impossible, but contingent.” (pdf 81)

Thus, Syntheists take it upon themselves to try to create exactly the kind of contingent theology that thaws the paralysis of atheism based on deconstruction of God/sacrality, without falling into the trap of upholding a utopia that is ultimately inaccessible because it is transcendent. (pdf 82)

The four divinities of Syntheism are “immanent, finite and mortal, rather than transcendent, eternal and immortal, like traditional gods.” This is because Syntheists believe that “mortal creatures in a finite universe can only create mortal and finite divinities,” and so an immortal and infinite god “created by mortals” becomes “an absurdity.” (pdf 83)

Crucially, Syntheos does not represent one specific utopian vision, but the whole category of utopia. It encompasses as many utopian iterations as can be produced. Syntheos is thus itself infinite and infinitely contingent. Syntheism therefore “maintains that it is not the content of the utopia but the utopia in itself that is the divine,” applying Meillassoux’s speculative materialism to show that “the need for the divine is divine in itself.” (pdf 87)

Critchley’s articulation of faith does not entirely fit the Syntheists’ own configuration of their faith, however. More specifically, it does not seem to go far enough in defining what exactly the “infinite demand” is which faith must demonstrate a “lived subjective commitment to.” Syntheism also remains vague on this count, at least in its Syntheology, and does not develop it further until it lays out a Syntheist ethics. (pdf 93)

Returning to cybernetic theory for a moment, Syntheist faith can be described as a commitment to take whatever actions necessary, in the greater context of the network of humanity, to avoid capitalist entropy. (pdf 94)

Maybe because of this non-coercive quality of Syntheist belief, the only kind of faith which fits this metareligion must be wholly indescribable, or at least non-prescribe-able. “Only a faith without assurances is an authentic faith,” according to Syntheism. Thus ultimately in their own view, “syntheistic faith is the authentic faith par excellence.” (pdf 94)

Syntheist faith is ultimately without any assurances because it is contingent, based as it is on both a present and a future characterized by infinite possibility. (pdf 95)

The virtual realm is not, in other words, “a space of transcendence but one of the extension: it is yet another mode or means through which the fundamental organizing features of social life are articulated.” These features are naturally “deeply and inextricably entwined with the ‘offline’ environment,” which motivates Yar’s claim that “the internet should not be seen as a u-topia (a non-space, another space), but rather as en-topia, as a space within the social realm we inhabit.” (pdf 103)

On the one hand, the faith that cybernetics has in the world as some entirely self-regulating and totalizing system might be read as a kind of extreme version of scientific rationalism. Cybernetic theory grants this systems-view of the world a kind of regulatory power that goes beyond human comprehension, because we are biologically incapable of measuring the feedback loops which supposedly animate our experience of the world (and the world beyond humans) without some technological intervention on our behalf.  (pdf 107)

To reiterate, the activity central to Syntheist ethics stems not necessarily from political protest or solidarity, but purely in the act of giving something without any expectation of recompense. An ethically active Syntheist thinks to them self, “I am doing this only because I am the one who is to do this, without the lightest trace of the traditional religion’s at times appeasing, at times calculating, ulterior motives.” (pdf 119)

The figure of the “outsider” is an important ethical component, for “it is to the outsider that the Syntheist agent reaches out on the free and open Internet, and it is together with the outsider that the Syntheist agent can save the planet…Only thus.” (pdf 119)

Thus, the community represents “letting go of the ego fixation and allowing oneself to dissolve into the hierarchically higher collective emergence, where the community stands out as something greater than the sum of its constituent parts, as the most powerful agent.” Self-love, ironically, is rendered the “obvious foundation for all Syntheist rituals and ceremonies,” but since the “self is in constant flux…the act of self-love must be repeated time after time after time.” (pdf 122)

However, Syntheists reject the so-called “myth of sobriety” upon which the construction of these taboos and prohibitions are based: “there is no sober ego: that we refrain from [drugs]…does not mean that a chemical equilibrium prevails in our brain.” Thus, Syntheism represents a coming to terms with the chemical alterability and instability of our own minds, collapsing the false mind/body divide upon which Cartesian subjectivities are produced. (pdf 126)

A cyberreligion which follows an atheist theology and practices a yet-to-be-seen ethics must be treated as a genuine religious movement.  (pdf 143)

I Sing the Body Electric: The Syntheist Movement and Creating God in the Internet Age – Melodi H. Dincer

Summary

Beginning with the evolution of cybernetic theory and the digital pirate movement, the thesis explores the first arguably syntheist religion of Kopimism and the more recent Syntheist Movement. Cybernetics was developed as a “metascience” in cross-disciplinary circles between the sciences and humanities, its purpose to provide a unifying theory for “systems thinking”. Cybernetics centers around three concepts: feedback, entropy, and reflexivity; it framed the universe as a collection of communication systems and interactions rather than discreet entities. The advent of computers inspired this theory, partly because computers provided the computational power necessary to examine large amounts of data, and also because computers reshaped human social structures. While largely forgotten nowadays, the development of cybernetics was the direct precursor for contemporary ecological theory. Indeed, ecology, as we understand it today, is only a small portion of the grand explanatory power cybernetics was intended to have. But, perhaps because of its grandiosity, cybernetics did not stand the test of time in scientific circles because it proved difficult to properly evaluate empirically. There is simply no control group for “everything”.

Despite this, the basic ideas of cybernetics remain a compelling inspiration for various scientific disciplines and other kinds of movements; particularly religious ones. The theory inspires myriad avenues of investigation because, despite its complexity, it is a formalization of the intuition that “everything is connected”. From this foundation comes the epiphany so central to syntheist thought which is, “connection is everything”.

The digital pirate movement has been the testing ground for this epiphany. From it, the now-dead religion of Kopimism was born, and since then the Syntheist Movement as well. Kopimism was never robustly developed, and its purpose was less spiritual and more political, but it nevertheless was a properly formulated skeleton of a functional religion. It considered the internet a sacred space and identified the act of “copying and pasting” as a sacred act. However, this was all in the service of the international pirate movement, in the hopes that they could continue digital piracy as a religious practice. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the religion faded away.

From these ashes, the Syntheist Movement formed. Its most concrete goal was to create a metaphysical structure that could support religions like Kopimism. Indeed, Kopimism was a unique religion in that it was both sincere and rational-atheist. It existed not just as a means to an end, but as an expression of the deeply held belief that copyright was unjust and information should be shared freely. Though not explicitly stated in the syntheist manifesto Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age, the influence of Kopimism is apparent. The authors of Syntheism were interested in developing a structure that could support the needs of a post-atheist faith. The result is a metaphysics that relies on “the Event” to create a “process religion” which believes in the “syntheological pyramid”.

Though not exhaustive, this thesis was written primarily to investigate and critically understand The Syntheist Movement and its most prominent theological positions. It does not try to make an argument beyond the self-justifying statement that The Syntheist Movement is worthy of study as a legitimate religion. The best summary of this self-justification is provided by it on pdf location 143:

  1. A cyberreligion which follows an atheist theology and practices a yet-to-beseen ethics must be treated as a genuine religious movement.
  2. Such cyberreligions are a legitimate subject for any scholar of religion, not only
    through the study of their immediate beliefs and practices, but also in the ways
    they challenge our preconceptions of what a religion “is”, what religions “do”,
    and, thus, what it means to “study” religion.
  3. The incorporation of these types of religious movements into the discipline can
    help expand our expectations of the role and function of religious meaning-production (i.e. metanarratives), simultaneously reflecting and queering the norms which undergird academic discourse and valuation. Doing so might combat the exclusionary, disciplinary processes of normalization, “purifying” an increasingly capitalist nature of academic production.

Thoughts

I knew nothing about either cybernetics or Kopimism before reading this thesis. Discovering both was so enlightening; it provided the academic context for a few other books I’ve found theologically relevant like Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, and Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. Indeed, I can now understand these texts as broadly “cybernetic literature” as applied to technology, economics, and theory of mind respectively. To my mind, these books are evidence of the lasting relevance of cybernetics despite falling out of favour due to the empirical constraints of hard science. They show that cybernetic “systems thinking” still has significant explanatory power, despite its awkwardness in a strictly scientific context.

Of course, I don’t need to worry about remaining in a strictly scientific context; such a mentality would be disastrous for a religious project like Terranism for reasons I’ve discussed before. Cybernetics might even be best suited for a religious context. Indeed, the “why” questions we ask can be understood as a cybernetic question calling attention to the relationship between the universe and the asker. Connection is everything.

Cybernetics, then, is an explicit inspiration for Terranic magic.  However, as the thesis points out (pdf 26 bullet 3), there is a tendency for cybernetic theory to lead to deterministic views of the universe. In my personal estimation, this arises because cybernetics stops at description, implicating a universe of pure mechanisms; if all events are part of a system, where is free will?

But Terranism is not academic, nor scientific, so it should not confine itself to descriptions. By utilizing the concept of “magic”, Terranism reintroduces agency through the practice of sorcery. The opportunity for a person to practice sorcery allows them to not just be acted upon by the universe, but to act upon it. Crucially, this opportunity occurs in the abstract, or aetherial plane. This is important because intuition readily reveals that we can be the physical cause of an event. What is not so clear is the spiritual cause of an event; whether your intentions can be reduced to physical phenomena. Since cybernetics was developed as an academic theory, it cannot comment on whether you have a soul and whether that soul is capable of exhibiting free will. Terranism, by contrast, can, and does so through the doctrine of the soul and of magic; you are a soul, which enables you to change yourself; you can practice sorcery, which enables you to change the world. The totalizing descriptions offered by cybernetics are not absolute. Since Terranism recognizes the “computer’s eye view” or “God’s eye view” as constructions in themselves, agency is restored to the soul. Faith in the “God’s eye view” of cybernetics is a willful act, an act potentially undone or redone. Thus, through the practice of sorcery, a soul is not just a physical agent, but a spiritual one too.

Magic and souls, or mechanisms like them, are elements I felt were sorely lacking from Syntheism when I first read it. The book had fallen into the rut of explaining the universe without giving ways to change it. It had taken all the insight provided by cybernetics but did not build upon it in any meaningful way. After reading Syntheism I found there was no ritual, no practice, no myth available to enact faith. The movement lacks any sort of active quality beyond metaphysical speculation; “Because it is experimental, Syntheist ethics can’t be concretely articulated in a prescriptive manner beyond its active quality” (pdf 118). This is a severe problem which is part of the reason why this religion is a stillbirth. Religion is not a philosophy, nor is a religion “everything” as the Syntheist Movement so boldly claims in the opening pages of their book. Religion is a faithful community, so if there’s no way to be faithful, there’s no religion.


I think there could be value in the framing of the earth as a spacecraft where harmony, balance, and good function are maintained by cooperation between people, computers, and animals. Maybe that’s something worth exploring.


All this talk of utopia gave me an idea for a ritual; to communally imagine alternative worlds.  It would be to “wayfind through the aether” to put it in Terranic terms.  Creativity, imagination, and even drug use could be important to such a ritual (though I don’t think drug use is scalable).  The point is to open up possibilities, provide opportunities for participants to not only consume visions as received but to create them.  It could be a basic exercise in sorcery. Maybe it would look something like D&D or a dynamic meditation of some kind. Perhaps the Guide would ask everyone to “imagine the world with ______ changed” and then ask those willing to give a one-word description of that vision.


For Terranism, perhaps instead of aiming for an all-encompassing utopic “eternal solution” as befits a transcendental theology, I should aim for many little utopias, a model that says to achieve a utopia is to annihilate it and move on to the next.  Again, this doesn’t strike me as utopia at all, the redefinition is so drastic that the concept is better served by terms like “better”, “dream”, “vision”, or “goal” rather than “utopia”.  In fact, I think “dream” works quite well.  Or perhaps “mystery”.


In reference to the quote cited from pdf 93, I wonder what the “infinite demand” of Terranism might be? Maybe it is the demand of cybernetic harmony; the demand of being one with the body of Terra; the demand of preserving and multiplying love; the demand of being available for kinship.


In reference to the quote cited from pdf 94, syntheist faith makes no sense without Terranic magic.  You must believe first that you can shape reality in order for the syntheist ex nihilo faith to make any sense.  Traditional religions use submission to the divine to generate an agency sapping faith.  Syntheism uses exaltation of the divine to generate an empowering faith, but has no robust theology for how that process works.  By founding my theology in magical craft, I simultaneously provide a method and reason for generating gods; through the soul and for the soul respectively.  The soul is primary where a god is secondary.

Conclusion

Though I am deeply grateful this thesis exists, it has not convinced me that the Syntheist Movement is a functioning religion and deserves to be treated as such.  The Syntheist Movement is an elegant stillbirth that has no leadership.  What it does have is an inflated and articulate philosophy which is interesting, and in my case, inspiring.  The Syntheist Movement broke ground without building anything, which, happily, leaves room for me.

Further Study

I Sing the Body Electric: The Syntheist Movement and Creating God in the Internet Age – Melodi H. Dincer

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