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.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.