Here, in our lifetime, we are seeing the rise of intelligent, self-correcting, self-learning artificial brains. They are flying airplanes, driving cars, playing chess and winning jeopardy. We talk to them and they answer back. The other day I got a call from one and it took me nearly a minute to figure out that what I was talking to wasn’t human. We are at the dawn of this age of an emerging form of intelligence, and where it will lead is beyond anything that either we, or these digital intelligences, can anticipate. Welcome to the post-biological epoch!
I’m not interested here in either praising or bemoaning this development. It’s part of a reality I have no real power over. I’m more interested in what I do have power over, or at least appear to have power over. That is why I dedicate the best of my efforts to my spiritual practice, rather than learning about the latest technology. In meditation, I exercise a degree of mental control. I can’t change the world, but I can change how the world affects me.
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In the early development of artificial intelligence, the word “cybernetics” became attached to a range of ideas exploring regulatory and purposive systems. Norbert Wiener, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, defined it as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” At the heart of cybernetics is the simple feedback loop. A thermostat is one of the simplest examples.
According to Wikipedia, the word cybernetics was first used in the context of “the study of self-governance” by Plato in the Republic. It comes from a Greek word for steering or using a rudder. If you think about it, when we steer a car, we use feedback from any excessive veering to the left or right, to automatically correct back to the center.
At the heart of meditation there is also a kind of steering, a governing of the mind’s activities. As we practice this self governing, we come to feel we are operating from a kind of center, steering the ship of our being.
There is an old poem that I had to learn in grade school called “Invictus” written by Earnest William Henley. The poem ends with the lines “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” These lines, inspired by Stoicism, seem rather quaint to the modern ear, even comical (thanks to Seinfeld). But they have stayed with me through the years.
There are times when I genuinely feel that I am master of my fate, when I feel in command of my soul. That is a wonderful feeling. More often I feel like I am just randomly being carried forward by the stream of time.
I think it odd that while we are creating machines with highly intricate and dependable “self-governance,” most of us struggle mightily to govern our impulses, fears, restlessness, lack of focus. Why are we able to apply the principles of cybernetics so effectively to machines but not effectively to our own lives?
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In its most general usage, the word “spiritual” means simply “inner,” it is about the mind and mental things such as ideals, values and meanings. At its most basic, the mind is composed of awareness and the ability to focus awareness. A focused awareness is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is spiritual cybernetics, the technology of inner focus and self governance. This technology has been around for a long time, but it is not natural to humans. Our natural mind, the mind shaped by the necessity of survival and procreation, is often called “the monkey mind” by instructors of meditation. The monkey mind is restless, externally focused, and concerned with such things as nourishment, sex, security, and social status.
Our material technologies, developed by science and put to work by industry, have changed and continue to change the world we live in. In the early centuries of the modern revolution of science and technology, there was great faith that this new technology would make the world more predictable and safer. It would allow us to exploit the world’s resources, to create an abundance for all. Perhaps even end poverty. Many of us are now less hopeful or even fearful about where this technology is leading.
In the millennia before the rise of modern technology, many people turned to spirituality for some of the things that we now look for from technology. Spirituality could not make the world more predictable or safer, but it could help us stay strong amid the dangers and unpredictability of the world. It could not create greater riches, but could make us more content with whatever small riches we did possess. It couldn’t cure disease, but it could help ease us through the aches and pains of illness and help us face our inevitable death with greater equanimity.
Used wisely, both the outer and the inner technologies can greatly enhance the quality of our life. I am thankful to the people of ages past who have made them possible.
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.