It was my pleasure to briefly participate in Giulio Prisco's Turing Church Online Workshop 1, on Saturday November 20 2010 in Teleplace -- a wonderfully wacky and wide-ranging exploration of transhumanist spirituality and “Religion 2.0.″
The video proceedings are here.
I didn't participate in the whole workshop since it was a busy day for me, I just logged on briefly to give a talk and answer some questions. But I found the theme quite fascinating.
Giulio said I should assume the participants were already basically familiar with my thinking on transhumanist spirituality as expressed in my little book A Cosmist Manifesto that I wrote earlier this year, and he asked me to venture in some slightly different direction. I'm not sure I fulfilled that request all that well, but anyway, I'll paste here the notes I wrote as a basis for my talk in the workshop. I didn't read these notes with any precision, so if you want to know what I actually said you'll have to watch the video; but the talk was a more informal improvisation on the same basic theme...
"The relation between transhumanism and spirituality is a big topic, which I've thought about a lot -- right now I'll just make a few short comments. Sorry that I won't be able to stick around for this whole meeting today, I have some family stuff I need to do, but I'm happy to be able to participate at least briefly by saying a few remarks.
"Earlier this year I wrote a book touching on some of these comments, called "A Cosmist Manifesto" -- I'm not going to reiterate all that material now, just touch on a few key points.
"The individual human mind has a tendency to tie itself in what the psychologist Stanislaw Grof calls "knots" -- intricate webs of self-contradiction and fear, that cause emotional pain and cognitive confusion and serve as traps for mental energy. Ultimately these knots are largely rooted in the human self's fear of losing itself --- the self's fear of realizing that it lacks fundamental reality, and is basically a construct whose main goals are to keep the body going and reproducing and to preserve itself. These are some complicated words for describing something pretty basic, but I guess we all know what I'm talking about.
"And then there are the social knots, going beyond the individual ones… the knots we tie each other up in…
"These knots are serious problems for all of us -- and they're an even more serious problem when you think about the potential consequences of advanced technology in the next decade. We're on the verge of creating superhuman AI and molecular nanotech and brain-computer interfacing and so forth -- but we're still pretty much fucked up with psychological and social confusions! As Freud pointed out in Civilization and its Discontents, we're largely operating with motivational systems evolved for being hunter-gatherers in the African savannah, but the world we're creating for ourselves is dramatically different from that.
"Human society has come up with a bunch of different ways to get past these knots.
"One of them is religion -- which opens a doorway to transpersonal experience, going beyond self and society, opening things up to a broader domain of perceiving, being, understanding and acting. If you're not familiar with more philosophical side of the traditional religions you should look at Aldous Huxley's classic book "The Perennial Philosophy" -- it was really an eye-opener for me.
"Another method for getting past the knots is science. By focusing on empirical data, collectively perceived and understood, science lets us go beyond our preconceptions and emotions and biases and ideas. Science, with its focus on data and collective rational understanding, provides a powerful engine for growth of understanding. There's a saying that "science advances one funeral at a time" -- i.e. old scientific ideas only die when their proponents die. But the remarkable thing is, this isn't entirely true. Science has an amazing capability to push people to give up their closely held ideas, when these ideas don't mesh well with the evidence.
"What I see in the transhumanism-meets-spirituality connection is the possibility of somehow bringing together these two great ways of getting beyond the knots. If science and spirituality can come together somehow, we may have a much more powerful way of getting past the individual and social knots that bind us. If we could somehow combine the rigorous data focus of science with the personal and collective mind-purification of spiritual traditions, then we'd have something pretty new and pretty interesting -- and maybe something that could help us grapple with the complex issues modern technology is going to bring us in the next few decades
"One specific area of science that seems very relevant to these considerations is consciousness studies. Science is having a hard time grappling with consciousness, though it's discovering a lot about neural and cognitive correlates of consciousness. Spiritual traditions have discovered a lot about consciousness, though a lot of this knowledge is expressed in language that's hard for modern people to deal with. I wonder if some kind of science plus spirituality hybrid could provide a new way for groups of people to understand consciousness, combining scientific data and spiritual understanding.
"One idea I mentioned in the Cosmist Manifesto book is some sort of "Confederation of Cosmists", and Giulio asked me to say a little bit about that here. The core idea is obvious -- some kind of social group of individuals interested in both advanced technology and its implications, and personal growth and mind-expansion. The specific manifestation of the idea isn't too clear. But I wonder if one useful approach might be to focus on the cross-disciplinary understanding of consciousness -- using science and spirituality, and also advanced technologies like neuroscience and BCI and AGI. My thinking is that consciousness studies is one concrete area that truly seems to demand some kind of fusion of scientific and spiritual ideas … so maybe focusing on that in a truly broad, cross-tradition, Cosmist way could help us come together more and over help us work together to overcome our various personal and collective knots, and build a better future, and all that good stuff….
"Anyway there are just some preliminary thoughts, these are things I'm thinking about a lot these days, and I look forward to sharing my ideas more with you as my thoughts develop -- and I'll be catching the rest of this conference via the video recordings later on."
Fun stuff to think about -- though I don't have too much time for it these days, as my AGI and bioinformatics work seems to be taking all my time. But at some future point, I really do think the cross-disciplinary introspective/scientific individual/collective investigation of consciousness is well worth devoting attention to, and is going to bear some pretty fascinating fruit....