Escape To Reality:

Transhumanism, Gnosticism, Pure Land Buddhism, & the Zero State.

Do you know the Gnostic myth? Do you know how that story goes?

The Matrix came out nearly twenty years ago, dragging Gnosticism into the bright light of popular culture. Not only did that movie draw upon many overtly Neo-Gnostic influences directly (such as Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, and Philip K Dick’s entire oeuvre), but more deeply its ideas drew upon a tradition that is at least two thousand years old. The central idea of the Gnostic myth* is that we humans are imprisoned in a false world or reality, living in ignorance of our true condition or nature, and that some great redemptive act is required for us to be released from our invisible chains.

The Zero State (ZS) is a Neo-Gnostic organization of sorts, in that it follows the Transhumanist tradition of treating all limitations as anathema, as no divine or moral imperative to “know our place”, but merely as challenges (technical, moral, and societal) to be overcome. More specifically, ZSers are Singularitarians, in that we (quite rationally) expect the observed acceleration and convergence of global trends to culminate in a period of ultra-rapid, ultra-radical techno-societal change some time around the middle of the 21st Century. The idea of an impending Technological Singularity is particularly compatible with the Gnostic mythos, because it perfectly describes a rupture or discontinuity in the very fabric of reality as people understand it. In other words, people live in thrall to invisible rules, systems, and expectations which have served a powerful purpose in the past, offering survival value in an indifferent world, but which now will melt into air (to paraphrase Marx and Engels) in the face of a vast torrent of radical change.

Furthermore, the ZS narrative is focussed upon the establishment of an intelligent, networked Social Futurist community (the titular Zero State) which has strong and deliberate parallels with the Buddhist notion of a “Pure Land”. For those not familiar with such things, a Pure Land is envisaged as a kind of perfect world which acts as a kind of halfway-house between our reality and the total relinquishment of all attachment (the ultimate Buddhist goal). The idea is that some Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who return to earthly life to liberate others) see that many people simply cannot make the conceptual leap required to escape the “Black Iron Prison”, so instead they are given a chance to discover/create a vastly better world, in which escape from many common limitations helps lift the veil of ignorance (as it were), so that they can see how to continue their journey beyond the Pure Land toward true and total liberation from all constraint.

The mature Zero State is envisaged as a Virtual, Distributed, Parallel (VDP) State, not unlike “The Oasis” from Ready Player One. Such a realm might not only act as an Array of Artificial Intelligences optimizing society’s collective decision making, but also as a panoply of networked virtual worlds, granting its citizens the freedom to explore lives and worlds far beyond the limitations of the historical human condition.

It is of course deeply ironic that a vision of Gnostic liberation would lead its adherents to reach beyond the apparently “real” world to immerse themselves in a virtual one, but there are two very important factors to take into account before you can say the ZS approach is incorrect:

[1] We do not live in the real world. You can take that provocative statement at face value as an expression of the Simulation Hypothesis, as something slightly more subtle such as a reference to the Anthropic Principle or certain interpretations of Quantum Physics, or indeed as a simple observation that humans tend to live in a fog of memory, expectation, fear, hope, abstract ideas and implicit systems rather than living in the moment, raw and real, like an animal.

[2] VR, like art itself, is a lie that tells the truth. In other words, whatever interpretation you favour, the so-called “real” world is not obviously more authentic than a virtual world, on a number of levels. At least the virtual world is honest about its inauthenticity. You know it’s false, you know it’s a game, and in that regard it is less ominous than reality itself, in the Gnostic view. Quite to the contrary, a virtual world’s obvious inauthenticity can be used as a tool to wake people up, to make them aware of their situation.

*In modern English, the word “myth” (from the Greek μῦθος, mythos) implies a false narrative or fanciful tale. I use the word in the original sense, of a narrative which reveals the underlying beliefs and structure of a community. Rather than viewing the features of such a narrative as falsehoods, it is much more instructive to treat them as useful fictions or symbols, standing in for observed phenomena which may not be fully understood, or which may require considerable simplification before they can be used as elements in a broader narrative. Mythos is allegory, mission statement, and user interface all rolled into one.