The Shortcut to EnlightenmentPosted: August 26, 2013
I’m not a transhumanist, and to be perfectly honest I don’t strive to be. While most of the transhumanists I have met have been perfectly nice people, I’m a little too invested in the cyberpunk movement to really believe that science can save us. I also have too keen an appreciation of history, and for all the good that scientific progress has brought (and I’m no Luddite who will claim that science is inherently bad), there is a strong tendency to find ways to misuse and abuse technology, even setting aside the very human tendency to weaponize any scientific advance or discovery that is made. For a couple of examples from recent history, consider either the Fukushima accident or the NSA domestic spying program.
The frontier to which many transhumanists I know are currently looking, and the one that I agree we are most likely to see the next great revolution in human interaction, is the virtual world. The virtual world is already intellectually indistinguishable from the real world, except to the extent that it is superior to the real world (data exchange, etc.) If you don’t believe me, consider how fast conversation happens, how good memory is, how suitable fact checking is without access to the virtual world. Yes, there are issues with the virtual world, but those are issues of emotion, not intellect. When the virtual world becomes physically and emotionally indistinguishable from or superior to the real world, that is the point of singularity. That is also the point at which, lacking other systems, the race will cease to exist, certainly as we know it.
So why would I worry about this? To be honest, I like things more or less as they are. I’ve studied more than a few philosophies and religions to try to understand the world and my place in it, and I’ve had a lot of fun, even if I’ve ended up with more questions than answers. One in particular seems especially relevant to the point at hand.
I’ve come to the decision that I am unlikely to ever be a Buddhist. Buddhism, as I understand it, involves deliberately attempting to let go of earthly pleasures, as pleasure is a source of desire, and desire is the root of suffering. The ultimate goal is the extinguishment of the self, and achievement of nirvana. While I certainly understand and respect that point of view, I happen to feel differently about it. I lean more in the direction that self-understanding is the path of enlightenment, and understanding comes from embracing your passions. Note that I do not necessarily counsel over-indulgence, as that is more often caused by a misunderstanding of some deeper issues, but a true understanding of one’s passions is not necessarily a bad thing, and to understand them you need explore them, and to explore them you must indulge them, at least to an extent. Of course, there was a time in his life when nobody would have expected Siddhartha to achieve enlightenment, much less to be the Buddha, so it may be possible I will change my mind.
But if we somehow do achieve this technological singularity and embody the virtual world (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the virtual world would embody us), I don’t believe we would have the same passions, the same desires, and in some very real sense we wouldn’t even be the same selves. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be better (as the transhumanists might argue, that’s the whole point of it), but in some ways it seems like abandoning our bodies for a virtual existence would be like a shortcut to Nirvana. Even worse, like any shortcut we would be missing the main road and everything along the way, which is kind of the point of the journey. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment, no matter what your version of enlightenment is.