As a former Buddhist monk, Professor James Hughes is concerned with realization. And as a Transhumanist—someone who believes that we will eventually merge with technology and transcend our human limitations—he endorses radical technological enhancements to humanity to help achieve it. He describes himself as an “agnostic Buddhist” trying to unite the European Enlightenment with Buddhist enlightenment.
Sidestepping the word “happiness,” Hughes’ prefers to speak of “human flourishing,” avoiding the hedonism that “happiness” can imply.
“I’m a cautious forecaster,” says Hughes, a bioethicist and sociologist, “but I think the next couple of decades will probably be determined by our growing ability to control matter at the molecular level, by genetic engineering, and by advances in chemistry and tissue-engineering. Life expectancy will increase in almost all countries as we slow down the aging process and eliminate many diseases.” Not squeamish about the prospect of enhancing—or, plainly put, overhauling— the human being, Hughes thinks our lives may be changed most by neurotechnologies—stimulant drugs, “smart” drugs, and psychoactive substances that suppress mental illness.
“I’m pretty optimistic that, barring giant asteroids or Godzilla or whatever,” he speculates, “we’ll make a lot of progress.”
Hughes is a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut. He is also Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technologies and leads the “Cyborg Buddha” project with two of the Institute’s board members, one of whom is a Zen priest. The project’s mission is to “promote discussion of the impact that neuroscience and emerging neurotechnologies will have on happiness, spirituality, cognitive liberty, moral behavior and the exploration of meditational and ecstatic states of mind.”
I caught up with Hughes by telephone last summer and engaged him in a conversation on topics ranging from neurotechnology to psychopharmacology, from environmental degradation to the possibility that the cosmos itself could become conscious, from beauty pageants to a future full of mind-bending eventualities.
So we might someday live for hundreds of years? Is that good? Accepting the inevitability of death doesn’t mean accepting death at any given moment. So if there’s some medicine that allows you to live longer, that’s up to us. I want to live until I’m so enlightened I don’t really care about continuing my life. And that’s probably going to take me a long time.
But isn’t it greedy to want to live so long? The Australian philosopher Peter Singer suggested that every dollar you spend—beyond the absolute minimum you need to survive— instead of sending it to starving people is a greedy dollar. But if we don’t shoot ourselves and send the money to the Third World, we’ve decided to live and spend. Then why not another year? And if you’re committed to serving others, why not live another hundred years to serve them even more?
What about altering our brains to induce meditative states? You could say that the Fifth Precept against intoxicants applies, that you shouldn’t do anything to your brain except sit with it. But all the different lay and monastic proscriptions, dietary and otherwise, are means for constructing an environment that supports mindfulness. One thing that supports mindfulness is what you put in your brain. Couldn’t it also be true that all of us might benefit from adjustments that would let us meditate better, pay better attention, not be as distracted by our crises?
What if we could just take a pill or receive a patterned electrical charge to the brain and become enlightened? I asked the neurologist and author James Austin, who has meditated in the Rinzai tradition for fifty years, about that. He didn’t really like the idea. I think many Buddhists wouldn’t consider it authentic if you could just pop a pill. But even within the Buddhist tradition we have methods, like Dzogchen, that argue for rapid enlightenment, while others say it has to be a long process of maturation and moral purification through many lifetimes.
Part of the answer is: What would that pill or electrode do to you? Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation temporarily suppresses proprioception, our self-monitoring of where our body parts are. It can happen in meditation, too—a wonderful experience of oneness with your environment, a centerlessness and spaciousness.
It’s not enlightenment. It doesn’t change your moral behavior. It doesn’t make it easier to relate to your kids. It’s just a nice experience that gives you a glimpse of the fact that you may be creating the self-centeredness of your world. It might let you glimpse the fact that you were constructing your own misery.
Many Buddhist Pure Land writings describe a world that seems almost futuristic, with beautiful buildings and long lives and great powers, creating favorable circumstances for enlightenment. I sometimes describe the Buddhist Transhumanist project as a “Pure Land effort.” We want to build an environment that maximizes our capacity for spiritual growth and understanding, or, to use a more secular term, for more flourishing. Our effort would have a purpose different from simple self-gratification.
Last year, on the popular television show Britain’s Got Talent, contestant Susan Boyle emerged from village life in Scotland to become an overnight worldwide singing sensation. A plain woman by conventional standards, she reportedly wanted a beauty makeover. Many objected, fearing she’d become “inauthentic.” Yet isn’t this a metaphor for Transhumanism? Why shouldn’t Susan Boyle look however she wants to look? Or do you think something “authentic” is lost?
This is one contribution Buddhism can make to the debate. Buddhism rejects the notion of “authenticity.” The core idea of anatta is that there is no permanent and abiding or “authentic” self. There is only change and your own conscious process of self-creation. The Abrahamic faiths believe in a soul, which is carried into secular ideas of “authentic self.” But Buddhism doesn’t.
A lot of people don’t want to take psychiatric medications because they don’t think they are “themselves” on drugs. But when we talk to people who have severe depression or ADD, many of them say, “I’m not my true self until I take the drug.” A Buddhist perspective might be “Well, I’m glad you feel that way, but in fact you’re not your ‘true self’ either time.”
There’s research that suggests cosmetic surgery has a more lasting positive effect on subjective well-being and day-to-day happiness than almost any other intervention. And it turns out to be quite lasting.
Isn’t this really a Transhumanist question playing out in the culture? Yes. A Western Buddhist may have complete disdain for plastic surgery, and they have a point. There are better ways to be happy than having plastic surgery or tweaking your brain chemistry. But at the same time, too often we’ve carried this concern to a Puritan extreme.
It was understandably celebrated when two people got face transplants after being terribly disfigured. But cosmetic surgery is often considered frivolous. Help us think through what’s frivolous and what’s isn’t.It’s a Buddhist Middle Way problem. On the one hand, we have to be compassionate with people and their suffering, their need to become comfortable enough to work on life’s problems. If that means taking Prozac or having their face done, we need to acknowledge that. On the other hand, we live in a materialist, patriarchal, “lookist” culture. Part of achieving serenity is becoming comfortable with who you are and the fact of your embodiment, however it appears.
Many people feel we need to be more skeptical about technology. They’re afraid of a techno-boosterism that advances the notion that it can solve all our problems, when in fact, technology has caused so many of them.There’s the undeniable hubris in many of the ideas that emerged during the European Enlightenment. We can master everything, understand everything, we don’t need to take any precautions because we’re so smart. But there’s also the notion that somehow we’re going to fix environmental devastation by withdrawing from nature. We’ve been profoundly affecting the ecosystem for five to ten thousand years. We can’t just “withdraw.” Some deep ecologists want to see us get back to a world population of one hundred million people, but this is not tenable short of genocide. We need to think about a sustainable, abundant future for our children. There’s a responsible, sustainable, abundant technology path that is ethical. Some call the approach “Technogaian.”
I’ll confess to a certain attachment to the pastoral view. I imagine a premodern landscape with twenty-first century medicine and communications. The problem with a lot of affluent pastoralists is that they think a lot of people around the world should just embrace their voluntary simplicity. But it’s not voluntary. They would love to get off the farm as quickly as possible. They vote with their feet as soon as they can. Yes, pastoralism has its appeal. We’re driving ourselves crazy with our pace of life. But this was true twenty-five hundred years ago. There is a reason Buddhism arose with India’s increasingly complex societies. The problems of materialism and life’s distractions are ancient.
Isn’t there a clinging quality to some aspects of Transhumanism? Isn’t it just ego trying to perpetuate itself? Transhumanists speak of “the Singularity,” an envisioned time when technology makes people so godlike that they’d be incomprehensible to today’s humans. We want to extend ourselves into our physical and computational environment. We want to lengthen our life span and amplify our brain power. Isn’t there a lot of me in Transhumanism? In seeking to expand ourselves, some people think we could destroy our “selves.” A colleague of mine, Susan Schneider, recently wrote a paper that asks, “If you believe, as many Transhumanists say they do, that the self is a pattern, then doesn’t a radical transformation of that pattern mean that you destroy yourself? Isn’t it therefore contradictory to say that you’re striving to become a ‘radically enhanced person’? In fact, you’re expressing a suicidal intention.”
But there is a way out of that, which is to adopt the Buddhist view of nonself, or self as process, not essence. If you want to be immortal, you may not understand what “you” really are. If you see yourself dancing at the heat-death of the universe in your artificial adamantine body, you haven’t yet grappled with this fundamental problem.
There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.” You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. As soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self. What happens if I can back up all my memories and share them with my wife? If she can remember my life as well as I can, has she become me? Am I her?
The Tibetan teacher Gelek Rimpoche has suggested that sufficiently developed artificial intelligence could be a reincarnated being. In other words, a former being has taken up residence in a machine. The Dalai Lama said that too, I think offhandedly. There are Christian theologians who argue for an almost Buddhist understanding of the self as an embodied experience of relationship to the divine.
And there’s the notion of Corpus Christi: we’re all organs in the body of Christ, digits on his fingers. That gets pretty close to the Borg [the alien collective from Star Trek that absorbs entire races, turning its individuals into elements of a mechanical hive identity.] Right. The idea that there is not necessarily an eternal existence to the self as a separate entity.
Not too long ago, you posed this question in a survey on your website: “Does your ethical code advocate the wellbeing of all sentient beings, whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non-human animals?” That sounds like the metta [lovingkindness] prayer, calling for the happiness of all sentient beings without exception. It’s what we call non-anthropocentric personhood theory. Some people don’t see personhood in viruses or bacteria or even fish or chickens, but we think that wherever there is personhood—if it’s in any of these platforms—it should be equally respected.
The early Jains described little “life lights” or “soul lights” in everything—animals have a lot of them, trees or grass have a few, even a rock has a couple. And people have the most twinkling lights of all. It turns out that quite a few Transhumanists are “pan-psychics,” who believe the whole universe is alive in some sense. People asked Ben Goertzel, a wellknown Artificial Intelligence researcher and writer, “How will I know if a computer really becomes alive?” He answered, “That’s hard for me, because I think everything’s alive.” If you start thinking about the fact that intelligence is just patterns of energy engaging in complex behaviors, then a certain way of thinking leads you to a very spiritual understanding of the universe.
Here’s my fear: I’ll merge with machines and live forever. Our minds will be networked. We’ll communicate telepathically. And the result will be explosive growth in the power of … the advertising industry. [Laughter] They’ll project ads into my thoughts, my dreams. My greatest dystopian fear is that all human existence will become a vehicle for reproducing spam. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and Transhumanist author, said, “you would know the Singularity was here when you had a million emails in your inbox.” And yes, they might all be spam.
Are there dystopian possibilities? Sure. Early Transhumanists were naively Utopian, but few are anymore. The turning point came when a ‘blueprint’ of the 1918 influenza virus was put up on the Web. Most people now accept that new technologies bring catastrophic possibilities. Someone could make a terrible virus with a DNA printer and wipe us all out.
There will always be people with amoral goals. We can’t be naive. But it’s all a part of the tapestry of creating a just, responsible world order that can deal with the presence of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Then we can try to reduce it and make it a slightly happier world for everybody.
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