Zoe Bach’s ‘Quantum Zen’ as a ‘Third Way’ scientific religion

Zoltan Istvan’s bestseller The Transhumanist Wager, often reviewed as a rabid anti-religion manifesto, includes the foundations of a new, Cosmist scientific religion, a “Third Way” alternative to traditional belief based on science, but at the same time able to offer all the benefits of religion.

I think The Transhumanist Wager is a great and important book, visionary, enjoyable, and thought-provoking, and I recommend it to both transhumanists and critics, and to all science fiction fans. See my review.

The main character, Jethro Knights, is a hardcore, radical transhumanist, uniquely and obsessively focused on achieving life extension here and now, and then immortality. He crushes all those who stand in his way, and wins his war against anti-transhumanists. At the end, his combat drones destroy the symbols of the world’s religions, including Vatican City, killing thousands of peaceful believers in prayer. It seems difficult to get more rabidly anti-religion than that.

But the other main character, Jethro’s girlfriend Zoe Bach, has a totally different attitude. The tension between Jethro’s and Zoe’s philosophies is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the novel. Zoe believes in the quantum interconnectedness of all things and she imagines that self, encoded in the entangled twists and folds of quantum reality, may survive physical death.

She is not alone. See the Wikipedia article on “Quantum Mysticism.” After the initial PC bullshit salvo “Quantum mysticism is generally considered pseudoscience,” the current version of the article lists many top scientists, including Wolfgang Pauli and David Bohm, as supporters of Zoe’s quantum wholeness. See also How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, Nick Herbert‘s Quantum Reality, the works of theoretical quantum physicist Amit Goswami, and the film What the Bleep Do We Know!?.

Let’s hear Zoltan and Zoe:

“She reveled in contradictions that many rational and science-minded people deemed intellectual heresy. Zoe saw paradoxical concepts — shades of gray—as a necessary balance to an often unruly universe full of mystery and surprise. Her deep-seated mysticism welcomed complex crossovers of many different ideas, even sweeping metaphysical theories and formal religious beliefs. She liked to think of her personal philosophy as an all-embracing transhuman spiritualism.”

“I prefer to call it quantum—the mystical motor of all things. I believe that all matter has undetermined tendencies and infinite possibilities, even if they appear to follow prescribed scientific patterns, like our brains are doing right now… It’s all filled with a countless amount of possibilities. Everything is swimming in a cosmic quantum Zen.”

“[I]f you’re going to be all-powerful, then you’re destined to master the quantum sovereignty of the universe. One day you’ll have to be able to feel and to control it; you’ll have to be able to form and to create with it; you’ll have to be able to manifest and to merge with it. Whether its nanotechnology, string theory physics, or just the creative thoughts in your mind, you’ll have to rule with quantum dominance. Call it ‘spiritual transhumanism’ if it’s easier to swallow.”

Based on Zoe’s quantum Zen reality, future super-science and quantum technologies may be able to resurrect the dead.

Jethro agrees. First, he is persuaded that biological life extension can only be a temporary solution, and that only mind uploading technology can permit radical life extension and indefinite lifespan:

“{T]o combine brain neurons to the hardwiring of computers in order to download human consciousness, seemed the most sensible and important direction for the immortality quest. While getting the human body to live longer was a priority, it was not a long-term solution. Conscious computerized machines and their digital content, with proper maintenance, could last indefinitely. They were so much more durable than flesh. But this thinking was exactly the most radical as well. Because eventually, perhaps sooner than even many transhumanists would have it, there would be no need left at all for the human body.”

Second, Jethro imagines future “time scanning” or “quantum archaeology” technologies able to retrieve the dead from the past (which means to retrieve the information stored in their brains) and bring them back to life via mind uploading. In a (fictional of course) article titled “On the Transhuman Possibility of 11th Dimensional Superstring Theory Realities,” Jethro:

“described, in scientific terms, that if people lived long enough, with all the achievable technological advancements in a thousand years, teleportation into multiple dimensions via antimatter would be possible — and with it, the ability to reverse time and bring back anything anyone desired.”

Jethro considers these far-future speculations as a distraction from his overpowering drive to launch his transhumanist revolution and attain immortality here and now, but he considers quantum archaeology as a possibility, though remote in the future. This is evident from his conversation with Vilimich, and from his last words to dying Zoe:

“I’ll come find you,” Jethro whispered when he saw Zoe departing life, unable to control himself, speaking the language she understood.
“Yes… my love… I know you will… I’ll be waiting.”

But Jethro is afraid of hoping in technological resurrection, which feels like betraying himself:

“[S]he’s still out there, Jethro. And you can find her someday, somehow.” “No!” Jethro fired back. He didn’t want to think that way. Hopelessly metaphysical. That timeline was too far out. Too technologically complex. Too mystical and quantum. And it required far too much hope.”

But hope is not dangerous — often hope they only way to cope with the heartaches of life. I hope that, in a future sequel, Jethro will find Zoe in the folds of quantum weirdness, and bring her back, or join her, or something else, I am sure Zoltan will think of something.

Taken together, Zoe’s quantum mysticism and Jethro’s mind uploading and quantum archaeology are the cornerstones of a new religion, a “Third Way” synthesis of science and religion, firmly based on science, but at the same time able to offer all the important mental devices of religion, including hope in resurrection.

Like Jethro, I consider technological resurrection (Tipler, quantum weirdness, or whatever) as a possibility, and that is how I cope with my conviction that indefinite lifespans and post-biological life will not be developed in time for us, but later. Since technological resurrection is equivalent to the resurrection promised by religion, I don’t share Jethro’s rabid hostility to religion. On the contrary I think appropriate interpretations and formulations of transhumanism and religion can be perfectly compatible and mutually reinforcing.

Last Sunday I participated in a London Futurists Hangout on Air: Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan. Besides Zoltan, organizer David Wood, and myself, the two other panelists were Chris Armstrong and Rick Searle. Watch the full video recording. Of course, we also discussed religion in The Transhumanist Wager, or perhaps I should say the religion OF The Transhumanist Wager.

UPDATE – Zoltan Istvan says: “Basically, I think there’s lots of room for spiritual beliefs and I encourage them, so long as they don’t detract from the progress of science. In fact, managed properly, creative spiritual ideas (such as Zoe’s) could actually help science progress faster.

That’s exactly my point. My spiritual approach pushes science, instead of detracting from it. Developing transhumanist technologies becomes not only a soft right, but a hard duty (strong thinking vs. weak thinking).


  • Thank you, Giulio, for this article. It’s very nice! It gives an important perspective on some of the more subtle aspects of The Transhumanist Wager. I’ve been hoping for an article like this to share with those potential readers of my novel who are more interested in the spiritual aspects of transhumanism. Thanks so much for writing it!

  • The nice thing about Zoe’s Quantum Zen is that she and her philosophy counterbalanced Jethro’s utilitarian certitude and determination with an openness to possibilities. Personally, I found her approach refreshing but vague, though she was not the focus of the story. My own studies were in Transpersonal and EcoPsychology while working in IT and occasionally these topics came up in grad school. While Jethro was clearly antagonistic to established religions, I would hope that other Transhumanists would be more allergic rather to religious dogma instead.

    I do think it’s important to note that Zoe’s Quantum Zen does at all appear to be a religion but a form of spirituality that is open to religious experience. As Carl Jung once said: Religion is a defense against religious experience so we must be careful. Could a new religion with it’s own rituals, myths and beliefs unfold out of a ground of mystical experience that is compatible with Transhumanism and modern science? Now that’s a juicy question.

    This does beg the question: Is consciousness a quantum phenomena or does it behave “as if” it is a quantum phenomena? Are religious-mystical experiences generated by the brain such as temporal lobe activation or is the brain as some suggest, a receptor for these experiences? In Quantum Questions, Ken Wilbur brings up the recognition that the system of physics we have is a symbolic system to describe phenomena but the transpersonal is a direct mystical experience of the same phenomena. Or as Bateson had said, the map versus the territory. Wilbur’s book is worth exploring not just for his ideas but because he recounts the mystical writings of various great physicists that are quite inspiring and illuminating. Sadly Bohm is not included but the others are well worth the read.

    Another question: Even if consciousness is not at root a quantum phenomena, might it be possible to entangle a human mind with quantum information structures? Mirroring and upload.
    In my own novel I begin to explore the emergence of a form of advanced quantum A.I. that are so far beyond our current mental capabilities that they appear as spiritual beings, if not gods. The spiritual though for the characters is more of an experience of wonder and communion and I think that this is what Zoe was pointing to. What do you think?

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Stephen – Consciousness is a quantum phenomena in the trivial sense that, since quantum physics is our most fundamental framework, everything is a quantum phenomena.

    It remains to be seen if consciousness is a quantum phenomena in the stronger sense of being critically dependent on quantum effects in the brain.

    Like all scientific questions, this question will be answered by experiment. Let’s continue to refine our theoretical understanding of the brain/mind system, and eventually let experiment decide.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Thanks Zoltan, I hope The Transhumanist Wager will not be remembered in the history of science fiction as the most rabidly anti-religion text of all times, but rather as one of the foundational texts of a new religion !!! ;-)

  • I also found the debates between Jethro and Zoe some of the more intriguing parts of the novel, arguably more so than those between Jethro and Belinas. What particularly interested mem though, was not so much her though on the prospect that the “self” (whatever that is) might survive physical death, but rather the tension between Jethro’s all-in commitment to his TEF-inspired projects and Zoe’s mindful acceptance of reality, in all its complexity and unpredictability, including the possibility of death. A tension that, of course, also entered Jethro’s own mind, as he was torn between his attraction to her (including, it seems, her ideas and intelligence) and his acute fear (despite his claim to be fearless) of betraying his own philosophy.

    As I’ve written elsewhere I also found the novel inspirational and intriguing generally, though – and this is related to our current discussion at IEET, Giulio – he’s way to individualistic for my taste. He wants to be libertarian when it’s others giving orders, and ultra-authoritarian when he’s giving them. TEF might inspire people (including myself), but could also lead to terrible dystopias. What’s wrong with good ol’ utilitarianism?

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Peter re “He wants to be libertarian when it’s others giving orders, and ultra-authoritarian when he’s giving them.”

    Indeed, Jethro is not a libertarian. His ways are not those of Gandhi, but those of Stalin.

    We use the same word “individualism” in two very, very different ways: 1)Everyone is a sovereign individual; and 2)I am a sovereign individual, and screw the others. Same for “libertarianism: 1)Live and let live, 2)Let me live and die. These two attitudes are not only very different, but can lead to diametrically opposite courses of action.

    I see nothing wrong with good ol’ utilitarianism (maximize the happiness and minimize the suffering of all individuals affected). The problem with utilitarianism is, in my opinion, how to define “the individuals affected”: if you are unhappy that I support a football team other than yours, I will not change my preferences. I think utilitarianism is a very good starting point, but it should be combined with a healthy respect for individual choices when they don’t actually affect others.