Visionary Fiction and Transhumanism, Part 1

I can’t totally rule out the possibility that, if all the external conditions and the karmic action were there,  a stream of consciousness might actually enter a computer.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama Shocks

This startling statement made by the renowned leader of Tibetan Buddhism, as quoted by Dr. Fred Alan Wolf in The SPIRITUAL UNIVERSE: How Quantum Physics Proves the Existence of the Soul, (pg. 92), knocked me off kilter on first reading it.  It had a similar effect on the renowned physicist, who researches the relationship of quantum physics to consciousness, who reported it.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

Wolf The Spiritual UniverseIn the chapter entitled “Resurrection Physics,” Wolf relates a conversation author Jeremy Hayward and ecobiologist Francisco Varela had with the Dalai Lama on topics dealing with science, the human mind, and Buddhism. When asked what he thought about artificial intelligence, His Holiness made this assessment:

It is very difficult to say that it’s [the computer] not a living being, that it doesn’t have cognition, even from the Buddhist point of view. We maintain that there are certain types of births in which a preceding continuum of consciousness is the basis. The consciousness doesn’t actually arise from the matter, but a continuum of consciousness might conceivably come into it…. I can’t totally rule out the possibility that, if all the external conditions and the karmic action were there, a stream of consciousness might actually enter a computer.

When his interviewers were taken aback by this proposition and challenged it, the Dalai Lama doubled down:

Yes, that’s right. [Dalai Lama laughs.] There is a possibility that a scientist very much involved his whole life [with computers], then in the next life… [he would be reborn in a computer], same process! [laughter] Then this machine which is half-human and half machine has been reincarnated.

Initially and quite irreverently, I pictured the eminent physicist Steven Hawking, a quadriplegic due to ALS who functions and communicates almost entirely through computers. But Hawking was born a complete human being and the electronic gadgetry was added later to an already superbly developed human consciousness.

Almost everyone who has seen the Dalai Lama speak or has read his writings regards him as deeply spiritual and undoubtedly visionary. That such an enlightened being would even tentatively contemplate a symbiosis between consciousness and computers seems preposterous, but there it was in Wolf’s book, and I was hooked if only by the seeming contradiction between what I thought this holy man should say and what he did.

I did not set out to directly challenge the Dalai Lama—I’m not quite that arrogant—but I did see his words as a challenge to attempt to imagine a potential future where humans more resemble the machines we are currently designing than the fleshly bodies we now occupy. And as visionary fiction writers, I invite you to join me in this quest since we all are, in the words of Carl Jung, risk-takers by choice:

The disturbing vision of monstrous and meaningless happenings that in every way exceed the grasp of human feeling and comprehension makes quite other demands on the powers of the artist than do the experiences of the foreground of life… [These] primordial experiences rend from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered world, and allow a glimpse into the unfathomed abyss of what has not yet become.
C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “Psychology and Literature,” pg. 157.

In hypothesizing a future ruled by machines inhabited with consciousness, His Holiness was certainly inviting me to tear the current concept of an ordered world to shreds. So, skin crawling appropriately over the prospect of its possible obsolesce, I began the hunt, ironically with Google as my weapon, for this half-human and half-machine hybrid of the future. It was only seconds before I had evidence of the sought-for beast in sight. It already had a very proper name, the transhuman, and a long history and well-developed philosophy called Transhumanism.

What is Transhumanism?

To quote the definition as given in Wikipedia:

Transhumanism is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and creating widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as the ethics of using such technologies. The most common thesis is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label posthuman.

transhuman2Not at all scary or far-fetched, right? Very similar, in fact, to the stated characteristics the Visionary Fiction Alliance and many other groups postulating a higher stage of human evolution. We already have those “widely available technologies”: the computers on our desks, the cell phones in our pockets, the satellites and drones in our skies, the designer drugs in our bodies. Not to mention the numerous inventions on the drawing boards in corporate labs and private garages around the world, poised to enter the marketplace, legitimate and underground.

Technologies, actual and possible, are the practical means we use to shape our future. They are ideas shaped into tools with which we create and destroy our various environments. With them we turn the abstract into the concrete. Inherently neutral as they have no self-regulating ethical code or conscience, technologies are part of the matter from which “consciousness does not arise,” to again quote the Dalai Lama.

Transhumanism is a mindset or philosophy that aims to govern how these technologies will be directed to shape humanity’s future. Per its definition, “the ethics of using such technologies” is supposed to be part of its mission. And therein lies a major problem. In our current society, if there is a blueprint for an item that can be made for a profit, it will be manufactured and sold regardless. The ethical use of the product is shunted off to the buyer. In the 1930’s, the German corporation IG Farben synthesized and sold the deadly gas Zyklon B to the Nazi government. That the poison was used to exterminate millions was not Farben’s responsibility, the corporation argued in trials after the war, and the courts largely agreed.

Consider the troubled history of the study and practice of eugenics, the stated aim of which is to improve the genetic quality of the human population. And yet eugenic principles spawned the 20th century atrocities of Auschwitz on one side and Hiroshima on the other. Currently, we have the mental “technology” of Dianetics/Scientology, with its stated goal of a “civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war,” that deteriorated into a destructive cult, which milks the unwary dry as described in Alex Gibney’s 2015 HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

A future under a Transhumanism reverse-purposed by available technologies that are evaluated only by profit margin, is a gray dystopia for a vast majority of human beings. It is telling that the Wikipedia definition uses technologies three times but never the word consciousness.

Given that Transhumanism can develop in opposite directions, it is no surprise that experts’ opinions on the subject are polarized. It is characterized by one critic, Francis Fukuyama (political scientist, economist and author of The End of History and the Last Man ), as among the world’s most dangerous ideas, while Ronald Bailey (libertarian author and editor of books on economics, ecology and biotechnology) lauds it as the “movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity.”

Transhumanism versus Visionary Fiction?

Since “growth in consciousness” is at the core of the philosophy behind Visionary Fiction and the foundation for its optimism, VF’s focus has to be on that “continuum of consciousness” that the Dalai Lama posits “might conceivably enter into matter” (computers or otherwise) from a source that can only be placed in the spiritual realm. One would assume this positions VF as solidly in the ranks of the army of the Light, Spirit, and Consciousness and arrayed against the forces of Darkness, Matter and Ignorance. But is this adversarial position not just a continuation of the war that has raged since the beginning of time with no surcease to date?

Transhumanism1aMy intention in this post is neither to promote the Dalai Lama’s “half-human and half-machine” vision nor to side with his appalled critics. Of it, Dr. Wolf says, “I had a very strange sensation in my gut, when reading the Dalai Lama’s views concerning consciousness,” and concludes that His Holiness “was missing something very important.” Given the complexity of the issues converging here, one would have to be Buddha, Einstein, Mozart, and Shakespeare rolled into one to reach a valid verdict; and, at least so far, human evolution has not produced such a paragon.

So, here I take the role of agent provocateur (agitator or goad in English, but the French sounds cooler). I intend to pry the lid off this Pandora’s Box, suspecting that the emerging critters can sting so deeply that the affected mind will never be able to return to its former complacent state. I fully intend to irritate (those who know me will not be surprised). Discomfort might just drive us beyond the opposed camps of matter versus spirit, black versus white, and right versus wrong to a commons where we can work towards a synthesis that unites both sides of the aisle.

CLICK TO CONTINUE TO PART 2: A deeper understanding of the dual nature of the human condition is required. The dramatic improbability in which “evolution has wildly overshot the mark” in the formation of the human brain. The optimum technology to shape the human future already sits inside our heads.

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About Victor Smith

Victor E. Smith, a lifelong generalist with a diverse resume, sees himself as a scribe of the realm “in-between.” Writing largely visionary and historical fiction, he seeks to observe, absorb, and express those close encounters between the spiritual and material universes that form the unique adventure called human life. Vic is the author of The Anathemas: A Novel of Reincarnation and Restitution (2010) and Channel of the Grail (May 2016). He is a core team member of the Visionary Fiction Alliance. For further information, visit his website, victoresmith.com.
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22 Responses to Visionary Fiction and Transhumanism, Part 1

  1. Esme Ellis says:

    I looked up C G Jung in Modern Man in search of a Soul, and while I was reading it I remembered a story he once told. It registerd strongly with me, although it must have been 30 years or more since I read it. Other than that I feel non the wiser. But I certainly feel shaken!

    He was in his room, studying, with the door half open to the dining room, where his widowed mother was knitting by the window, when a loud report sounded, like a pistol shot, and the circular walnut table beside her split from the rim beyond the center—a table of solid walnut, dried and seasoned for some seventy years. Two weeks later, the young medical student, returning home at evening, found his mother, his fourteen-year-old sister, and the maid in high agitation. About an hour earlier, another deafening crack had come from the neighborhood of a heavy nineteenth-century sideboard, which the women had then examined without finding any sign. Nearby, in the cupboard containing the breadbasket, however, Jung discovered the breadknife with its steel blade broken to pieces: in one corner of the basket, its handle; in each of the others, a fraction of the blade…

    A few weeks later he learned of certain relatives engaged in table-turning, who had a medium, a young girl of fifteen and a half, who produced somnambulistic states and spiritualistic phenomena. Invited to participate, Jung immediately conjectured that the manifestations in his mother’s house might be connected with that medium. He joined the sessions, and for the next two years, meticulously took notes, until, in the end, the medium, feeling her powers failing, began to cheat, and Jung departed.”

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    • Victor Smith says:

      Fascinating, Esme. A bit off this topic, but mediumship is fair game, too, for VF authors to explore. Have had several synchronicities involving it in the past several months that included a couple of well-known mediums, Suzanne Giesemann and Mark Anthony–and the whole concept of mediumship used to make me snicker but not any more.

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  2. Eleni Papanou says:

    Fascinating post! The Daili Lama’s perspective on a continuum of consciousness is logical, and Unison is based on a similar theory.

    In my opinion, consciousness doesn’t need an organic basis when you consider that the firing of neurons are electrical in nature. By that definition, perhaps we are already part machine! If true, then transhumanism has always been with us. However, the dark side of human nature has always written the pages of history books via wars and conquests. As such, there’s no doubt that technology intended to enhance human performance will also be used to defeat it. I use the latter perspective in Unison in that technology does not determine one’s drive to evolve. If anything, it keeps the focus on the materialistic aspect of life, which keeps people from looking inward to deal with challenges. I know that I like to spend time in nature because it helps me reconnect to my true being. And while the Internet has brought humanity together, people are still isolated, and face to face communication is diminishing.

    The question we need to constantly ask ourselves is whether humanity is mature enough to pull the kill switch when technology has moved in a dangerous direction. That is a theme that many of us VF writers tap into, one that I strongly focused on in Unison. One thing is certain…technology is evolving at a faster rate than human consciousness. What type of outcome will that lead to? The question is perfect fodder for a VF writer!

    Certainly interesting times we live in!

    And your teaser is intriguing! Can’t wait to read.

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  3. What an interesting point of view from the Dalai Lama, and what a fascinating article. I'll hold off commenting for the time being and look forward to the next installment.

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  4. This is such an interesting topic. I know there's a Transhumanism movement, because my son, Charley, told me about it years ago. He'd listened to some podcasts about it. Apparently millennials are not the least freaked out about this, or at least the ones he knows. I think even Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at least hints at this when he says that one of the qualities of God and consciousness is to explore every nook and cranny of its potential with indifference to all that is not future. (I'm paraphrasing, obviously.) Vic, are you familiar with him? I expect you are. Makes me want to reread everything he wrote. This will require new books since the old paperbacks I have are fragile and nearly every phrase is underlined.

    Anyway, thanks for this. Your posts are always so erudite and fascinating.

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    • Victor Smith says:

      Thanks, Rea. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin played a very important role in my life. His works were my north star when I wanted to leave the Catholic seminary (traditional religion) and needed a new direction. The route I followed was circuitous but I often came back to him. Should have more to say about concepts like the noosphere (the real Internet) in Part 2.

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  5. Ellis Nelson says:

    Agree with Eleni. If it turns out that consciousness is the fundamental "stuff" of the universe, then the receiver might not have to be the body. The question becomes what kind of device can receive and hold the signal. Science has been trying to determine which animals (and plants) have consciousness. A never ending game that may well have a hidden agenda as man seeks to elevate himself. I think it may also be important to understand the Dalai Lama said he can't rule out the possibility and not that it has or will happen.

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    • Victor Smith says:

      I should have known that these concepts would not be as frightening to VF writers as they may be to some segments of the population. It makes for fascinating discussion and goads the imagination to visualize the previously unthinkable.

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  6. Esme Ellis says:

    MY 16 year old granddaughter is studying robotics at Kings College, London, where she has also signed up to travel to Mars. I think she's crazy, because it involves staying there indefinitely. Hope she grows out of it.

    Turning to another subject, I was reading Teilhard de Chardin, 40 or so years ago, and lapped it all up. As a Christian priest, (Catholic) I was fascinated by all he wrote. I saw him even then as 'out on a limb' regarding his brilliant and creative mind.

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  7. Esme Ellis says:

    Strangely enough, I was listening to a video only today, from Adamus, St. Germain of the Crimson Circle, who said, and I quote; 'Robots have intelligence, as also does the table and the chair that you're sitting on.' The body, i.e. biology is trying to figure out what is happening as it shifts from one phase to another. It has always been the goal of the physical body to evolve and rebirth itself. You are allowing the divine consciousness to evolve when it sees that it can trust you, then it stops struggling and begins to adapt and adjust itself.'

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  8. Astonishing, Victor. While I was reading, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason we're so frightened by artificial intelligence is that we feel it is utterly foreign–disconnected from the continuum of consciousness. But the Dalai Lama is suggesting that this would not be the case, that universal consciousness would still be the seed of the awareness that would incarnate into the machine. Wolf's reaction (and others) is interesting, but who says the incarnating humans are always so evolved?

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  9. In response to the following: "Not at all scary or far-fetched, right? Very similar, in fact, to the stated characteristics the Visionary Fiction Alliance and our many other groups postulating a higher stage of human evolution." When I as a VF author speak of reaching a higher stage of human evolution, I'm taking about evolution via our life journey, a slow unfolding and discovering, a series of epiphanies that result in changes within and from within rather than through outside technologies, such as computers, cell phones, and designer drugs. I'm talking about change earned through the choices — good and bad– that we make, not change that is awarded us without the accompanying lessons (failings and victories, pain and joy). Yes, we as VF writers attempt to offer a "glimpse into the unfathomed abyss and what has not yet become," and thereby we often "tear the current concept of an ordered world to shreds." But we do so with the hope of inspiring, maybe even helping to usher in, spiritual (rather than physical) transformation.

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    • Vic says:

      Perhaps in Part 2 we can bridge the gap between physical and spiritual a bit better. What, I think, the DL was hinting to. Other than that, I certainly agree with you, Margaret, but you know that.

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  10. This one took me by surprise (Dalai Lama's perspective) and caused me to ponder the matter more deeply. I couldn't help but think of the movie 'Terminator." 🙂

    I agree with Theresa – ' that universal consciousness would still be the seed of the awareness that would incarnate into the machine.'

    I wonder – who says the machine, being a 'creation', isn't inherently conscious to some degree, of course depending on the definition?

    You say, Vic, that -"One would assume this positions VF as solidly in the ranks of the army of the Light, Spirit, and Consciousness and arrayed against the forces of Darkness, Matter and Ignorance." There is an assumption here that matter is not conscious, and that pitted against 'spirit', is not divine. So, I ask, and wonder, if physical matter does have a seed of divinity deep within, if it has the substance of creation, if there is divinity within matter…well then, the Dalai Lama's comment makes more sense to me.

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    • Vic says:

      Your wondering "if physical matter does have a seed of divinity deep within, if it has the substance of creation, if there is divinity within matter" is right to the point. Part 2 coming up!

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  11. A few random additions to the thread:

    1) Ever since Karl Capek's play R.U.R, which coined the word robot, speculative literature has wondered if machines could become conscious, and what disturbing consequences that might suggest. What intrigues me here, Vic, is your jumping off point that a human might ensoul a machine with his/her consciousness.

    2) Perhaps, Theresa, we are also frightened by humanoid or AI machines because they resemble us, that this foreign thing might be closer to us than we dare believe. There was an interesting New Yorker article years ago theorizing that the source of tension between Jewish- and African Americans might not be difference but quasi-similarity, a shared history of oppression that threatens as well as unites them. A bizarre analogy perhaps, but maybe we're afraid of becoming like machines.

    3) I couldn't accept the burden of writing 1001 past life stories without the premise that everything has life, at least the potential for consciousness, including animals, inanimate objects, even ideas. If I require that for 1001 tales, maybe the world requires for all its complexity.

    4) Yes, the Dalai Lama was being as much an agent provocateur as you, Vic, but let's not forget, people, he was laughing.

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