March 31, 2010

Avatar: A 21st century aspirational cosmology

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Infinition tagged , , , , at 3:01 pm by Jeremy

In most of the world, seeing Avatar in 3D is a recent phenomenon.  But in India, Avatar’s already been around in 3D for about three thousand years.  What I’m referring to, of course, is the original word “avatar”, which meant the manifestation of God in a material form that humans could see and hear.  In a famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna is leading his army, lined up and ready for battle, when he suddenly loses his nerve and asks his charioteer, Krishna, what to do.  But Krishna is no ordinary charioteer.  He is actually an avatar of Vishnu, come to earth to teach Arjuna the nature of the Supreme Being.

Mohini, female avatar of Vishnu... Note the resemblance to the Na’vi?

At first sight, this might seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with James Cameron’s megahit movie.  After all, we all know that an avatar in today’s parlance is just your online persona, how you choose to be seen in the virtual world.  But Cameron takes the technology notion and twists and bends it as far as it will go without breaking, pulling it into a metaphysical world which is strikingly similar to the cosmology of the Jains and Hindus of India.

Even that might not seem particularly noteworthy, until you consider the massive popularity that Avatar has commanded.  I suggest that, in addition to the beautiful 3D effects and the uplifting Pocahontas-style storyline, one of the subliminally powerful attractions of Avatar is that it appeals to an unresolved desire of our generation for the kind of mystical cosmology that’s been on offer in India for millennia.   Only in Avatar’s cosmology, the path to eternal salvation doesn’t require meditation or renunciation, just a plugging into the high tech, organic network of the planet Pandora.  It’s an aspirational cosmology of the 21st century.

Critic Daniel Mendelsohn has written an insightful article in The New York Review of Books where he sees the techno-organic abilities of the Na’vi – the native people of Pandora with “their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself” – as the “ultimate expression” of James Cameron’s “career-long striving to make flesh mechanical.”  Mendelsohn sees in all this “something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.”  Now personally, I don’t care too much about James Cameron’s psyche.  But what I want to explore is whether Avatar’s phenomenal success is partially driven by something “disturbingly unresolved” in the psyche of our modern world.  Something that harkens back to the original meaning of that word avatar, to the roots of an ancient cosmology that lives on to this very day in the longings of our modern soul.

An increasing number of Americans are having mystical experiences.

How could this be?  We typically think of the United States as an overwhelmingly Christian nation.  But a recent Pew survey shows that, in addition to their traditional Christian faith, “significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs.”  For example, 24% of the public, and 22% of professed Christians, say they believe in reincarnation.  And three out of ten Americans have “felt in touch with someone who has already died.”   Half of those surveyed (49%) say they have had a religious or mystical experience, and about a quarter (26% of public, 23% of Christians) believe that spiritual energy exists in natural objects such as trees.

It’s this yearning for something beyond either pure science or traditional Christianity that I believe Avatar has tapped into.  It’s a cosmology ancient in its origins but updated by Cameron to the 21st century.  The key to understanding this phenomenon lies in the central metaphor of the world of Pandora, the flower pistil-like appendage sported by the native Na’vi that critic Caleb Crain has dubbed a “ponytail-USB port.” At the end of the movie, the flesh-and-blood human hero, Jake, permanently crippled in an accident back on the “home planet,” is plugged in to the all-pervading animist spirit of the planet, named Eywa, and his consciousness transferred to what was previously just his avatar.  Through the mystical powers of Pandora’s world-spirit, Jake has transcended his earthly incarnation.  As Crain amusingly described it:

on Cameron’s Pandora … the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, “The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Crain is mocking the same cosmological commingling of themes that leads Mendelsohn to see something “disturbingly unresolved” in Cameron.  But in their critiques, I think they’re glossing over some fascinating cosmological implications of this central metaphor that achieves a fusion of technological motifs (Internet, electricity grid, data transfer) ecological themes (interconnectedness of nature) and spiritual aspiration (immortality).

In our western monotheistic tradition, the absolute duality of body and soul doesn’t permit the kind of metaphorical fusion that Cameron accomplishes in Avatar.  Souls are immaterial and eternal.  God is infinite and separate from the changing world.  We humans are a schizophrenic creation with both bodies and souls.  “With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin,” said St. Paul in a foundational statement of Western dualism.[1]

In contrast, the same Indian tradition that gave us the word “avatar” offers a different take on hard-core body/soul Western dualism.  Hindu and Jain cosmology posits a soul or jiva that’s more like the electricity that runs through the grid.  Here’s how the great classical Indian scholar, Heinrich Zimmer, describes it:

Jainism regards the life-monad (jiva) as pervading the whole organism; the body constitutes, as it were, its garb; the life-monad is the body’s animating principle.  And the subtle substance of this life-monad is mingled with particles of karma, like water with milk, or like fire with iron in a red-hot, glowing iron ball.[2]

Unlike the abstract Christian soul (inherited from Platonic dualism), the Jain/Hindu jiva (which comes from the same Indo-European root as the Latin word vivus “alive”) is what makes dead matter come alive.  What’s more, this life-principle jiva pervades the whole cosmos:

According to Jaina cosmology, the universe is a living organism, made animate throughout by life-monads which circulate through its limbs and spheres; and this organism will never die.  We ourselves, furthermore – i.e., the life-monads contained within and constituting the very substance of the imperishable great body – are imperishable too…[3]

Now is this beginning to sound more and more like the world of Pandora?  For the Jains, Indian scholar Arthur Basham tells us, “every plant is the home of a soul or a colony of souls and, moreover, there are souls in rocks, water, and air.”[4] As the avatar Krishna tells Arjuna on the battlefield, “I pervade the entire universe in my unmanifested form.  All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them.  Behold my divine mystery!”[5]

Now, in the traditional world that sourced these ideas, it wasn’t too easy for a regular guy to gain access to this transcendent world.  “Every being dwells on the very brink of the infinite ocean of the force of life,” Zimmer tells us, but diving off that brink required a lifetime of devotion to the intense spiritual practices of traditional yoga.  The Katha Upanishad gives a sense of how difficult this journey could be:

The Self is not to be sought through the senses… This self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing… Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can it be apprehended.  There the eye goes not, nor the mind; we know not, we understand not how one can teach this…

When the five senses, together with the mind, cease from their normal activities and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state… This they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses….[6]

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very appealing journey to our 21st century mindset, does it?  After all, for us moderns, instant convenience is the gold standard of value.  And that’s where Cameron swoops in to perform his technological wizardry, substituting arduous Yogic austerity and self-discipline with the wonders of the pistil-like USB port.  Wouldn’t that be so great, if technology could do for transcendence and immortality what it’s already done for calculations, picture-taking and music?

The thing is, there are people out there who really believe this notion of immortality through technology.  Futurist Raymond Kurzweil longs for the “singularity,” when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than the human variety.[7] Danielle Egan reports from a convention of so-called “transhumanists,” who “plan to bypass death” through technology, “eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal.”[8] Respected biologist Lynn Margulis, a leader in proposing the theory of endosymbiosis – which tells us that every cell in our bodies evolved from a fusion of different single-celled entities – speculates about a future “superhuman” organism:

individual humans should not be surprised if the aggregate of planetary humanity shows unexpected, emergent, seemingly purposeful behaviors.  If brainless bacteria merged into fused protists, which cloned and changed themselves over evolutionary time into civilization, what spectacle will emerge from human beings in global aggregation?[9]

But wait a minute… Let’s get back to that “disturbingly unresolved” issue that Mendelsohn mentioned.  This is our world we’re talking about now, not the world of Pandora.  A world that’s digging deeper for the last of the oil, that’s turning rainforests into palm plantations, that’s emptying the oceans of fish, that’s on an unsustainable, accelerating collision course with environmental disaster.  How can that be resolved with the notion of technology as spiritual salvation?

Plastic rulers bend… but they can also sometimes snap.

Remember those flexible plastic rulers we used back at high school?  Some of them were bendy enough that you could take one end and bring it round to touch the other end.  But occasionally, one would be made of a more brittle plastic, and if you tried that maneuver, the ruler would snap into two parts.  In a sense, Avatar offers us a vision of a world where the two poles of technological progress and spiritual transcendence bend around and meet each other, closing the circle.  But is our world flexible enough that this could in fact be achieved?  Or will the center snap while we’re putting all our energy into bending the ends together?  Avatar may offer an aspirational cosmology for the 21st century, but whether our world will actually get there without the center snapping may turn out to be the biggest question facing humanity in this century and beyond.  No wonder Avatar beat all the box office records.


[1] Romans 7:25.

[2] Zimmer, H. (1951/1989). Philosophies of India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 227-9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Basham, A. L. (1989). The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, New York: Oxford University Press, 127.

[5] Easwaran, E. ed. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita, E. Easwaran, translator, Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 132.

[6] Cited in: McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press, 190-192.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Egan, D. (2007).  “Death Special: The Plan for Eternal Life”, New Scientist, 13 October 2007.

[9] Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 235.

February 19, 2010

Animals Suffer? Lobotomize Them!

Posted in consciousness, Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , at 4:20 pm by Jeremy

Adam Shriver, no doubt driven by kindness and goodwill towards other animals, has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times today that is chilling in its implications.  Shriver notes the unnecessary and often cruel suffering that farm animals undergo as they’re being prepared for our supermarket freezers.  But then he offers hope of salvation from their suffering in a bizarre and frightening direction: apply genetic engineering to create new breeds of animals that don’t experience suffering all.  They would continue to experience pain, but a crucial part of their brain – the anterior cingulate cortex – would be genetically modified to stop functioning, and as a result they would no longer suffer from the consciousness of that pain.

At first sight, this might seem like a humane research direction, and I’m sure Shriver has nothing but the best intentions.  But this approach carries with it some sinister implications and augurs threateningly for a new and disturbing potential outcome of the intersection of neuroscience and genetic engineering.

Like so many stories on the subject of animal feelings, this one begins with René Descartes (1596-1650), the guy most famous for his declaration of “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes applied the same logic to animals.  In his view, they didn’t think, therefore they weren’t.  Or, to be more precise, only humans, with their immortal souls, have the capability to think and feel.  By contrast, animals are mere instinctual machines, with no more capacity for feelings than vegetables.  “We should have no doubt at all,” he wrote, “that the irrational animals are automata.”[1]

Descartes’ view of animals as automata justified vivisection.

Strange as we may now view this, it was taken seriously at the time… to the great detriment of animals.  An observer at the time wrote of the gruesome torture administered to animals through vivisection, in the name of Descartes:

The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain.  They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling.  They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy.”[2]

Descartes had kicked off a long and powerful tradition which remains influential to this day.  It enjoyed its heyday in the behaviorism predominant in psychology throughout much of the 20th century, where the metaphor of “animal as machine” continued to be taken literally.  “Behaviorists tested the capacities of animals not through naturalistic observation but through highly controlled stimulus response experiments. Speculation about the subjective experiences or thought processes of animals seemed unscientific: animals didn’t think, they reacted.”[3]

Turns out, though, Descartes and the behaviorists were wrong.  Animals do suffer.  And over the past couple of decades, neuroscientists and ethologists have discovered multiple pathways of experience shared by both humans and other mammals.  Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin, which play crucial roles in our experience of love and bonding, turn out to have similar impacts in rodents and other mammals.[4] Evolutionary research shows that we share with other mammals “perhaps the most momentous achievement of evolution,”[5] the subjective experience of core consciousness.  This core consciousness is tied directly with a sense of self and of feelings.  As neuroscientist LeDoux puts it, “I will say that capacity to have feelings is directly tied to the capacity to be consciously aware of one’s self and the relation of oneself to the rest of the world.”[6]

As Shriver is no doubt well aware, the anterior cingulate cortex (“ACC”) plays a central part in this glorious process.  The ACC, in the words of one research team, “is primarily involved in assessing the salience of emotional and motivational information.”[7] The ACC acts like a super-sensitive, multi-faceted feedback mechanism for a creature’s moment-to-moment existence.  It monitors competing demands, detects unexpected changes in the environment and within the creature, funneling this information to the appropriate parts of the brain to prime a response.[8] In short, it has a key role in monitoring the self and directing attention.[9] In fact, it’s likely that without a fully functioning ACC, a creature would no longer have a self.  That’s probably why, in the experiments that Shriver discusses, rats without a functioning ACC withdraw their paws from a painfully hot area, but they don’t learn to avoid that area like normal rats.  Because they’ve lost a self to perceive the salience of an experience.

So Shriver’s proposed genetic engineering program would breed something never before seen on this earth: a mammal without a self.  Descartes, in his dualistic speculations, bizarrely proposed that the pineal gland might be the seat of the human soul.[10] Based on current neuroscience, if the soul of a creature has any one locus in the body that is an absolute prerequisite for its existence, that would be the ACC.

We now know that lobotomies destroy an individual’s sense of self.

We’ve gone down this path before, only with humans rather than animals.  In the first half of the twentieth century, neuroscientists found that frontal lobotomies seemed to miraculously cure symptoms of agitation and mental suffering.  Neurologist Walter Freeman promoted this procedure in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to the extent that by 1951, nearly 20,000 individuals had been lobotomized in the United States.[11] As we now know, as a tragic consequence of these procedures, these unfortunate victims lost not only their anxieties, but their sense of self.

I suggest that Shriver is proposing a 21st century, sanitized version of a lobotomy.  Only in this case, the lobotomy is already prefabricated through genetic engineering, and the zombie creatures formed would never even have had a self to lose.  In a ghastly irony, Shriver’s program would put Descartes right back in the driver’s seat.  Descartes said animals had no soul, no feelings.  He was proved wrong.  Now, Shriver wants to create a breed of animals that would make Descartes’ grotesque fantasy of “automata animals” come true.

I agree with Shriver that unnecessary farm animal suffering is a grievous aspect of our modern world, and that much more needs to be done to alleviate it.  But his proposal threatens an inner sanctum of nature which even we humans have not yet ventured to desecrate: a creature’s subjective sense of self.  We’ve trained, tormented, killed and eaten other animals from time immemorial; but we’ve never genetically engineered a creature to be a zombie.  Along with the powers brought to us by the discoveries of neuroscience and genetic engineering, we must establish a set of principles that incorporate a sense of what is sacred in the natural world… before we create a true Cartesian nightmare where all that’s left are we humans and our own artificially constructed environment, engineered for our consumption.


[1] Letter to Marin Mersenne, 13 July 1640, cited by Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 37-8.

[2] Quoted by Masson, J. M., and McCarthy, S. (1995). When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delta, 18.

[3] Talbot, M. (2008). “Birdbrain: The woman behind the world’s chattiest parrots.” The New Yorker(May 12, 2008).

[4] de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). “Darwin’s last laugh.” Nature, 460(9 July 2009), 175.

[5] Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 211-12.

[6] LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 125.

[7] Bush, G., Luu, P., and Posner, M. I. (2000). “Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6: June 2000), 215-222.

[8] Kerns, J. G., Cohen, J. D., MacDonald, A. W. I., Cho, R. Y., Stenger, V. A., and Carter, C. S. (2004). “Anterior Cingulate Conflict Monitoring and Adjustments in Control.” Science, 303(13 February 2004), 1023-1026.

[9] Gallagher, H. L., and Frith, C. D. (2003). “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2: February 2003), 77-83.  Note: while this study focuses on ACC’s role in the human sense of self, (including “secondary self,”) the role of the ACC in forming a mammalian sense of core self would appear to homologous.

[10] For a detailed discussion, see “Descartes and the Pineal Gland,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] Wikipedia entry on “Lobotomy.”

November 4, 2009

Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite

Posted in Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , at 6:07 pm by Jeremy

“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.”[1] So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago.  He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out.  By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain.  But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.

Atlantis_taking_off_on_STS-27

Infinition: our prefrontal cortex-driven conceptual consciousness is taking off

What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology.  But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity.  Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed.  I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.

In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a  soul or mind[2], that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away.  It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,)  is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.

Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans.  With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine.  In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,

Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature.  The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history.  Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.[3]

the rapture

"The Rapture" as envisaged in the Christian tradition

I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism.  In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians”[4] believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.”  In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”

And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” [5]

These observations are not just metaphors.  Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created.  In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”[6]

Cultured neurons

Cultured neurons placed onto a multi-electrode array (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine.  A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.”  It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.

There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.”  Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil.  For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear.  Bodies die.  That’s bad.  If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can.   As he sees it:

Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view.  It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability.  I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.[7]

Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself.  For him,

…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.  Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.[8]

In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe.  “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[9]

It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically.  And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”[10]

This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about.  And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back.  English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:

There is a clear incentive to go down this path.  Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital.  Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling.  It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”[11]

I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.)  It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”[12]

So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints?  It really depends on how you define your own humanity.  If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express.  But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned.  In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,

Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species.  So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.[13]

the organic worldview

The natural world: cornerstone of the "organic" worldview

There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition.  The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony.  The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc.  Its very nature is non-organic.  Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control.  It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world.  And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power.  This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc.  It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity.  And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors.  We are all on the front line.

Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching?  I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness.  Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.”  Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between.  Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.


[1] Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.

 

[2] What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

[3] Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.

[5] Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.

[6] Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[9] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[10] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.

[11] Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.

[12] Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).

[13] Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.