Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Turing Church, Religion 2.0, and the Mystery of Consciousness

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....


LukeStanley said...

I found out about Transhumanism and yourself, years ago via the somewhat left-brained 'Church of Virus', which your friend Bruce Klein was also part of. Eli would also frequent/taunt the IRC ;D

Since CoV (7 years ago), I discovered the term Evolutionary Spirituality.
Integral and Evolutionary Spirituality types, have a predisposition for Cosmism.
I have seen the embrace of Science and introspective Ego transcendence on Integral Enlightenment, which has a virtual community.
Can you imagine 60 year old women who were previously interested in New Age stuff, now getting excited about exploring Complex Systems, Transhumanism, Accelerating Change and the Singularity as they do 'ego work'?
This actually happens, and is not a lone occurrence in these circles.
Recent people like Carl Sagan, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, Ken Wilber, Craig Hamilton, are highly regarded as well as the lasting wisdom from the great traditions, Buddhism, Christianity - all contextualised by latest Scientific knowledge of Evolution (credit to Darwin!).
Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin and others were key figures also.

We all meditate daily and have shared agreements on what is acceptable conduct. Even with a high diversity of perspectives, coherence is very high, argument is very low. I find myself often surprised by levels of agreement.

"I don't know, but I want to know"
Talking of which I'm about to check out the Turing Church Online Workshop links!

Sean Strange said...

Is it just me, or is there something in the air? Everywhere I look these days I see a new interest in spirituality, mysticism and consciousness exploration. Maybe this is a normal reaction after a period of material excess, maybe it’s an unconscious response to our looming global challenges, or maybe we really are entering some kind of new age of human consciousness for reasons we can only guess at. I myself have become quite mystical in recent months for no apparent reason; formerly I was a mathematician and a Singularitarian who attempted to turn transhumanist transcendence into some kind of faith, but I found it unsatisfactory when I realized that the human mind is still far more interesting and powerful than any machine we can conceive of. So I have turned inward, and begun studying the incredibly rich esoteric and scientific traditions of consciousness expansion.

I’m still with the transhumanists in spirit, and agree completely that a new cosmic-religious sense is urgently needed by our species. But I think we shouldn’t be so quick to give up on the untapped potential of the human brain (and the global matrix of brains) in our attempts to build superintelligent golems out of silicon -- there is a whole universe of mysteries yet to explore within our minds. It may turn out that the real route to an intelligence explosion is through our global network of minds, each improving upon itself and sharing its discoveries with the collective. For me, this vision of transcendence is the closest thing I have to a religion.


Hey Ben,

I think I've got consciousness pinned down good now (on the level of principle anyway, but of course not at a technical level).

Consciousness is basically a computational language (or representational system) used by the brain, which serves as the interface (communication system) for all our conflicting sub-agents, allowing them to coordinate and integrate their activites into a single narrative. The whole thing is simply categorization applied to the task of minimalizing the cognitive complexity of decision making sub-agents. Simple as that really.

Very clearly, physical entropy is simply a special case of informational entropy. And, decision theory is simply a special case of information theory. Finally, Bayesian induction is just a special case of categorization in an informational feature space.

Why no one but me but see the blinking obvious after all this time I'm at a loss to explain.

Surely at least some of you AGI guys can at least *pretend* for entertainment purposes that I'm right, and simply *try* to make the derivation of Bayes theorem from the mathematics of categorization?

The math of categorization is here:

The math of Bayes is on wikipedia:

All you have to do make a mathematical mapping between them. It's just a hop, a step and a jump...

Giulio Prisco said...

@Sean - I see engineering and spirituality as complementary means to achieve transcendence. Our universe is a very big place with lots of undiscovered and unimagined "things in heaven and earth" which science will uncover someday, and perhaps in this mysterious and beautiful complexity there will be room for what we wish to find.

Wes Hopper said...

For an extended discussion of the intersection of consciousness, science and spirituality from a real quantum physicist, see Amit Goswami's two books "The Self-Aware Universe" and "God Is Not Dead." He's also the author of a quantum physics textbook and is a professor at the U of Oregon.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the Holographic Principle and Fractal Cosmology can act as the "foundation" for a Scientific Spirituality.
These ideas can bridge cultures, as they are specific to none, but at the same time are inclusive by nature, so they don't alienate anyone.

Mark Waser said...

May I suggest that you read Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology). It's a comprehensive solid body of work that is the culmination of a brilliant career and proposes and provides a solid scientific groundwork for much of where you appear to be attempting to go.

Ben Goertzel said...

Thanks Mark, I ordered the book. This is not my main area of interest or focus, but it's still fascinating to me...

LukeStanley said...

Reading the last chapter of Roy's book, Integral Science seems more fitting than Post-Modernist Science (or Post-Post Modernist Science, if you are less generous with your definition).

Roy Rappaport died before Integral became more common as a term, thanks to people like Ken Wilber, who kind of continues where Rappaport left off, and other sociologists / ethnographers.

I'm confident you will find Wilber quite a trip, there are a bunch of great videos and audios online too, and I'd love to know what you think, especially any pointers or experience.

Ben Goertzel said...

Luke -- I know Ken Wilber's work quite well, and my good friend Allan Combs worked with Ken for a long time.

Ken's work is deep and fascinating, but I find his strict hierarchical view of the cosmos -- and of the levels of spiritual advancement, etc. -- a bit off-putting....

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