Spirituality and technology have an uneasy relationship. Many people often think that technology and spirituality are opposed. The more you’re into technology, the less spiritual you are. Or they may even think that technology is anti-spiritual. At the extreme, they think of technology as evil or dehumanizing. But more and more people believe that technology and spirituality belong together, that they help each other and make each other stronger. You can see this positive relationship in several recent conferences and groups, such as the Transformative Technology Conference, the Body Hacker Conference, the Consciousness Hackers, and other groups.
The notion that technology and spirituality are opposed probably comes from old mind-body dualism. Technology has to do with the body, while spirituality is about the mind. The mind is an immaterial thinking substance, some spiritual stuff. This is the ghostly sense of the word “spirit”. The association of spirituality with an immaterial mind gets reinforced by the idea that spirit is consciousness. For mind-body dualists, consciousness is mysterious and cannot be understood scientifically. Dualists say that while science may understand the physical brain, it will never explain consciousness! According to this view, spirituality involves trying to raise your consciousness to some higher level. Your spiritual goal is to become enlightened, to leave the body and its material cares behind, and to enter some realm of pure consciousness.
One of the great dangers of mind-body dualism is that it leads to self-absorption. It leads to the idea that you can learn about yourself through introspection, by somehow looking into yourself. The picture of spiritual practice is a person sitting by themselves with their eyes closed, engaged only with their own minds, and not with the world. They are somehow trying to use thought to purify itself. Enlightenment is a purely interior condition. Close your eyes and look into yourself. Work on your consciousness. If there is something wrong with your life, you can fix it through your mind. This is the old mind-cure, and it’s magical thinking. We can do better than that.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett says consciousness is an illusion. He doesn’t mean that you lack awareness. He means that we deceive ourselves when we think that our minds create our realities or that enlightenment comes from consciousness. Moreover, the slogan that consciousness is an illusion also means that you can’t know yourself just by looking into yourself. Introspection is almost entirely useless. Your brain has very little self-awareness. Spirituality means waking up to the fact that we mostly deceive ourselves about ourselves. It means waking up to self-skepticism. Our selves, such as we construct them, are also illusions. To learn about your self, you need to cut through the illusion that your brain generates. To gain the kind of self-awareness needed to perfect your spirit, you’ll need to use external mirrors. You don’t even know what your voice sounds like until you hear it from a recording device. We need mirrors that reflect more than our visible images. We need mirrors that reflect our numbers.
As a naturalist, I reject mind-body dualism. The mind is just the activity or function of the brain. Or, even more clearly, the mind just is the brain. After all, our brains are alive, so they are what they do. Since the mind is the brain, the mind can be completely understood scientifically. Consciousness and spirit have purely scientific explanations in terms of brain function. The qualities of consciousness are measurable; they can be quantified mathematically. And spirit can be changed by physical interventions into the operation of the brain. Of course, the brain isn’t isolated from the rest of the body. The brain and its body form a single living whole. The brain is affected by many other bodily systems, such as the immune and endocrine systems. If you get a viral infection, your immune system produces a cytokine cascade. And cytokines can drastically alter your mood. So a virus can drastically change your spirituality.
As a naturalist, I don’t identify spirit with consciousness. That’s way too narrow. Spirit is the purely physical power of life in your body. It is the purely natural energy in your molecules and cells. It is entirely open to complete scientific comprehension. Its qualities can be measured and described by mathematical equations. I like thinking of the body as a machine because it reminds me that we have effective scientific ways to understand and change our bodies. Through practice we really can change our selves. The practices and disciplines that we apply to our bodies are spiritual. Spiritual practice aims to cultivate the energy in your body, to arouse it, amplify it, and shape it into a virtuous flow. Spirituality thus aims first at health. But thereafter it aims at the more subtle aspects of health, the aesthetics aspects of bodily activity. If all your parts are working together in perfect harmony, then your spirit is beautiful. Enlightenment comes from your body. It emerges from your molecules.
Spiritual naturalism, as I understand it, aims at the perfection of the body. When the body is perfect, all of its measurable qualities have ideal values. The body becomes healthy, virtuous, and beautiful. The perfection of the body is the optimization of the numbers of the body. You gain enlightenment by finely tuning the parts of your body until they cooperate with maximal harmony. To do this, you need to apply the scientific method to your body. You need to experiment with your flesh. You need to measure, record, and modify the features of your body. You need to apply technologies to your body. You need tools to measure and shape your spirit.
Humans are animals like other animals. And many animals use technologies. Birds and apes and otters and others use tools. Spiders and birds and beavers and apes and others all build structures. Technology emerges from nature; it isn’t anti-natural or super-natural. Kevin Kelly says technology is the seventh kingdom of life – it grows out of earlier life and evolves and strives in its own ways. The technosphere is a living outgrowth of our own bodies, a system of exosomatic organs. Like any organism, it can be healthy or sick, virtuous or vicious. Technology is as good as life is good and as evil as life is evil. Its values emerge from the values of life. Tools can be friends or enemies; they can be used for help and abused for harm. Any naturalistic spirituality has to aim at the health and virtue of the whole technosphere. Spirit works in the total system of machines just as much as it works in the molecular machines in your flesh.
We surround ourselves with artifacts because life surrounds itself with life. Our tools grow out of our bodies. And they become powerful new organs, new growths, that can help us change our bodies and thus become more spiritual. From my naturalistic perspective, we can only increase our spiritual values by using tools as exosomatic sense organs to reveal the numbers of our bodies. These tools reveal our weights, our heart rates and blood pressures, our EEGs, and many other numbers. We can feed these numbers into other tools to record them and analyze them. And we can surround ourselves with tools that change the numbers of our bodies. Our tools are external levers, extra hands and fingers, that we can use to reshape our bodies.
Technology isn’t unnatural or alien. It’s life extending itself further into new forms of life, new ways of being animated by spirit. And so spirit flows out of my body, into the organs in my exosomatic network, and back into my body. My tools reflect my body back to itself, so that it can see itself reflected at a distance sufficient for action. And so I use tools, of all kinds, from shoes to smartphones, to change my body. Better bodies make better technologies. And through this feedback, through this positive reinforcement, this loop that spirals outwards and upwards, life grows in all its myriad ways.
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4 thoughts on “Technology and Spirituality”
I will be making several comments on this article on the Spiritual Naturalist Friends website which will, hopefully, generate some robust discussion.
Thank you John!
Thanks for this Eric – I love the idea of approaching technology as a part of spirituality. This topic is one we greatly need more writing and talking about, thanks. I also agree that there is no duality between mind and body.
I don’t personally envision ‘raising your consciousness’ as being related to leaving the body behind in any way. In a naturalistic context, it means to me simply, becoming more conscious of things going with your thoughts and feelings, and with the world around you. Here, the definition of consciousness is the more narrow “awareness of” and not the phenomenon of consciousness as qualia or first-person experience (the many different variants of meaning for ‘consciousness’ is part of the challenge we face in communicating about it).
Also, the notion of introspection described here is strange to me. It’s true that anything and everything about one’s life that may be an issue cannot be ‘fixed’ through meditation and the like. But I’m not sure that was ever the claim. It’s also true that the brain doesn’t have consciousness of its own structure and physical operation. This is why brain research is so important. But that is also not very relevant to what meditation is about or for.
The brain is like a computer in some ways, but not others. Even with our entirely monistic and physical understanding of the brain, it is still incorrect to imagine it like a machine than can only be understood or modified productively from the outside.
The unique thing about how the brain works is its ability to physically modify itself through thought and perceptive actions and patterns. One can literally, by thought of various kinds, increase the physical matter (weight on a scale after dissection) of various parts of the brain. Plasticity can rewire our brains. Mental practices alone, and over time, can alter our levels of neurotransmitter production. While the physical leads to the mental, we must also recognize the mental leading to the physical, or we have ignored a part of why the two are the same thing – another form of dualism. Not all modifications need come from outside introductions of material or modifications. In fact, introspective, contemplative, and meditative techniques have shown to be as effective or more effective than other treatments in the proper circumstances.
Another important distinction is that our brains are perceptive things, and while we cannot perceive internal physical operations or structures, we can perceive our own thoughts, memories, feelings, etc. And we can perceive what kinds of things arise after which, and under what conditions. The proper techniques can reveal to us things that were on our minds, which we had not given proper attention. They can reveal the source of our thinking and unconscious judgments that lead to various emotional triggers. It can help us to learn how to differentiate when we are receiving a stimulus and when we are making judgments about that stimulus, and examine more closely the veracity of those judgments. Contemplative practice also includes internal mental habit-building that can greatly transform our deep reactions and responses in different life situations. Meditation is not about going into some room alone and sitting. All of its work is about changing the practitioner to affect how they operate in the worlds, and what they can do in and for the world.
These techniques have had monumental results for countless practitioners, transforming their lives and their life experience. To say that introspection is ‘almost entirely useless’ flies in the face of a huge body of objective evidence that strongly says otherwise.
The problem is in confusing the proper role and place for both first-person introspection and third-person analysis of the brain-mind. There will never be an amount of information about the brain, or an amount of technology to affect it, which will make introspection and mental habit building not have an important role. But it is also true that technology and modern understanding of the brain should and must be a part of our spirituality going forward.
I see the general idea. However, there are few things which caught my attention. “The brain is alive”. Alive or dead, that is simply a definition. We like to think of it as something special because we know one day it will stop working.
But won’t the sun burn? Won’t the stars fade? Won’t the winter ends and summer starts?
See, for the longest time people had an idea of what “life” is. Then came the scientists. They discovered the cells and defined life biologically in terms of cells dividing and consuming energy. All is good… until they tell you that what you always meant by life is what they have recently defined, and if you disagree you are against science.
Hence, I see life as a definition, which must imply death due to its definition.
I also think there is lots of value gained by introspection. See, the fact that you walk the path and realize that you cannot find information about the “locality” of you helps you to understand that that there is no value in introspection 🙂 You are correct that there is no value, but that is only after you realize that (versus told that), which gives it value!
Also, regarding consciousness, it is a tricky subject. I like to think of it as gravity which arises due to mass. It is a “thing” in nature. Sure it goes when there is no mass, but its potential to exist is everywhere. Same for consciousness. Electrons fire up in specific pattern and there it goes, it appears.
The thing is, if we think consciousness is amazing, we should also think everything else is amazing! Only the humans in us like to make it special because we like to think we are special. Heck, how do you know that the immense activity in the sun doesn’t cause some form of consciousness to appear, even for split second? Why we think the brain is special to create consciousness? There is no reason to believe that. But then one may ask, if consciousness appears in the sun for example, to who? And that will lead to the Aha moment.
See, can one write an equation which describes the color Red subjectively, as the color, not the number? That is the limitation of “objectivity”. Scientists claim color is only in our head, but according to their logic, everything should be in our head only. They fail to realize that there are simply electrons firing up, and the “red” appearing, same as mass existing and gravity appearing.
I came upon pantheism because I came into many realizations and was talking about them until someone told me I am pantheist. To my shock, it was as if somebody was reading my thoughts! After further investigation, I was amazed to see that many people also discovered it alone and later they found more about it. The way changes, but the result is the same.