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.
In 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.
Not 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?
My 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.