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.

November 10, 2009

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , at 5:27 pm by Jeremy

More Than Human Cover - SmallestMore Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

By Ramez Naam

New York: Broadway Books

Johnny Ray was a healthy Vietnam vet who, one day, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him from the neck down.  In More Than Human, Ramez Naam describes the miraculous intervention of technology, whereby Ray, in 1998, received a neural implant, permitting him to move a cursor on a computer monitor using nothing but his own thoughts, imagining he was moving his hand.  As time went on, Ray stopped having to even think about his hands: he simply willed the cursor to move, and it moved.  As Naam describes it, “In some sense, the computer had become a part of him.”

This, to me, is the crux of Naam’s book about the promise of re-engineering the human organism.  Who could possibly deny someone like Johnny Ray the ability to regain some small part of his existence?  But then, where does the line get drawn?  The unthinkable possibilities of one generation become the avant-garde of the next, and the mundane realities of the generations to follow.  As Naam would have it, this is a good thing.  A very good thing.  In fact, he sees future biological enhancements as the next step in the great human tradition of using technology to improve our lives, from the Stone Age onwards.

In a recent post, I’ve traced the near-mystical vision those who believe in the benefits of a merged cyber-human future, back to the mind-body dualism of Plato and his followers.  Naam is clearly in this camp, but he deserves a considered hearing.  He writes his book with humanity and sensitivity.  He’s interested in the improvement of people’s real human condition in the here-and-now, and believes he’s simply exploring the path that we’re destined to take to a benevolent future.

But what a future!  Naam describes in some detail a sci-fi type of scenario where getting a neural implant becomes the de rigeur activity of the time, a bit like getting a smartphone in 2009.  The neural implant essentially puts your conscious mind on steroids, improving your power over your own bodily drives in addition to turning you into a power-web surfer simply by thinking your queries.  But then, when you and your implant communicate with other equally-empowered individuals, you’re in a whole new world.  In just the way that the network of the Internet transformed the power of an individual computer, so neural-implant communication with others would transform the very definition of being a human.  As Naam puts it:

You routinely trade memories and experiences with other implanted humans.  You learn to view the world through other people’s eyes.  You let others see through yours… You can no longer imagine a disconnected life.

What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that it’s really the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) and its “conceptual consciousness” that’s being enhanced.  (You can see the pfc’s unique attributes summarized in another post.)  Ever since the rise of what neuroscientist Merlin Donald describes as “external symbolic storage”[1] – humanity’s entire collection of symbolic constructs ranging from cave art and necklaces to writing and computer code – each individual consciousness is structured from birth by what I can the “external pfc”.  In Naam’s future, this external pfc breaks down the barrier between external and internal and begins to morph into a gigantic superorganism.  Here’s how Naam describes it:

We individuals are, in a sense, like neurons in a global brain – a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and innovations.  The more power we gain to communicate with one another, the more integrated that aggregate brain becomes.  In the last few centuries, we’ve taken tremendous steps, from small isolated pockets of computation in individual tribes and civilizations to the World Wide Web… The next step is the integration of our biological brains: unlocking the inner ideas and experiences we have, and allowing us to share them with one another, to weave them together into thoughts in a world wide mind.

The pfc’s “tyranny” over our consciousness transforms, in this scenario, into utter domination.  “L’état, c’est moi,” in the immortal words of Sun King Louis XIV – “The state?  It is me.”

To me, what’s most interesting is to see how people like Naam eliminate the distinction between our humanity and the attributes of the pfc.  If you think of yourself as a pfc housed in a body, then of course you’ll be delighted to consider a future world where your pfc is enhanced.  To understand what I mean, consider this passage, where Naam quotes from bio-ethicist Leon Kass:

The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some conditions, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life.  Our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us.

Here, Kass is describing “our soul” purely in terms of pfc-mediated functions: forward planning, aspirations, abstractions.  This is to be expected, since our Western notion of “soul” is so closely interlinked with the Cartesian, dualistic notion of “mind” (as described in another post.)

But now let’s see where Naam takes this idea:

This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world.  It has produced our art, our music, our philosophy.  It has built our deepest understanding of the mysteries of the universe.  Never to say enough, always to want more – that is what it means to be human. (My italics.)

Now, here’s where I profoundly disagree with Naam.  What he’s describing is not “our humanity”; it’s one of the consequences of the dominance of the pfc in our human consciousness.  As I’ve argued in another post, even this seemingly defining human characteristic, roughly comparable to what the Buddhist name dukkha, may have emerged in its current form only with the development of sedentism, agriculture, and the consequent rise of the notion of private property and hierarchy.

Have you ever experienced moments when everything seemed just right?  After making love, perhaps, or in the middle of playing sports, or hiking in the countryside?  Have you ever looked at a sunset and lost yourself in its beauty?  Did you stop being human during those moments?  Or did you, perhaps, experience the sensation of what life feels like when the never-ending grasp of our pfc quiets itself, and harmonizes with the rest of our consciousness?

I would argue that our humanity is, in fact, the result of the dynamic interaction between our animate and conceptual consciousness.  When we’re taking a piss or enjoying a meal, we’re still human.  These are just aspects of our humanity that our pfc-dominated culture tends to ignore, because they’re, well, like all the other animals.  What’s going on is that Naam – along with most people in Western culture – has conflated the features that make humans unique among animals with the definition of our humanity.  And those things that make humans unique are, by and large, incorporated in our conceptual consciousness, the attributes of the pfc.  The result of this conflation is that humanity becomes defined by the pfc.  And if we humans are our pfc, then what’s wrong with biological enhancement, neural implants, and the full-blast acceleration to cyber- immortality that (in another post) I’ve called “infinition”?

Naam chose an interesting title to his book: More Than Human.  If you think about it, it gives the game away.  Our humanity is implicitly defined as a collection of attributes that differentiate us from our animate consciousness: our rationality, our will-power, our intelligence.  Therefore, permitting technology to enhance those attributes makes us “more than human.”  But if, in fact, our humanity also incorporates our animate consciousness, then what do these enhancements make us?  Less than human?  Dehumanized? New form of human?  Human 2.0?  This, I think, it the crucial issue we need to delve into as we debate the implications of biological enhancement.  Are we as a species making ourselves extinct in paving the way for Ramez Naam’s future?  And if so, is that a good or a bad thing?

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


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.


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.