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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D, is a Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College and Founder of the MSAC Philosophy Group. He is the author of several books, including The Sound Current Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2022) and the graphic novel, The Cult of the Seven Sages, translated into Tamil (Kannadhasan Pathippagam, 2024). His website is neuralsurfer.com
When The Astral Becomes Empirical
A.I. Clones and the Future of Multiple Selves
David Christopher Lane
Summary by ChatGPT: The essay delves into the convergence of spirituality and futuristic technology like AI, VR, and Quantum Computing, envisioning a reality where metaphysical or astral ideas could be empirically explored. It discusses how these technologies might transform spirituality from a belief system to an experiential science, creating avenues for spiritual exploration and instruction, potentially altering conventional religious practices and individual spiritual experiences.
Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer.
The A.I., V.R., and Quantum Computer wave is a tsunami that is about to flood every aspect of human life as we know it.
Voltaire's famous witticism has more prophetic truth in it than one might at first suspect. Arguably, many religious ideas that are proffered have no empiric referent, and yet serve as metaphysical beliefs that provide hope, solace, and different ways of viewing and understanding the world we inhabit.
Some philosophies, however, have long desired to make spirituality a living reality here and now, and not merely speculations of unfulfilled wants and desires.
Sri Aurobindo, for instance, argued that “[The] world can evolve and become a new world with new species, far above the human species just as human species have evolved after the animal species. As such he argued that the end goal of spiritual practice could not merely be a liberation from the world into Samadhi but would also be that of descent of the Divine into the world in order to transform it into a Divine existence. Thus, this constituted the purpose of Integral Yoga.”
Michael Murphy, who co-founded Esalen in 1962, followed Sri Aurobindo's dictum and wanted to see how our species could evolve and transcend to a higher level of consciousness by maximizing (and in some cases, exceeding) the human body's inherent potential. In his magisterial 1992 text, The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature, Murphy provides “a comprehensive investigation into the vast potential of the human body and mind. Murphy meticulously catalogs and analyzes a wide range of phenomena that suggest humans have capacities far beyond what is currently accepted as normal.”
Ken Wilber in his earlier books suggested that the next level beyond the rationality would be the psychic, ushering in an expanded level of cognition that supervenes the merely individualistic. We can, in essence, become aware of a nested network of information that was previously hidden from view.
With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality technologies, and Quantum Computers, we are now on the threshold of empiricizing some key astral ideas that in the past seemed unimaginable. As I wrote in the "Avatar Project" back in October 2015, “If consciousness evolved as a virtual simulator to help us better insource varying survival strategies before outsourcing them, we can readily see that humans have now progressed to the point where we can actualize our imaginings in a real world. Simply put, our technology has finally caught up with our dreams so that we can consciously inhabit what we could only before imagine.”
This came into sharper relief this past week when I watched Lex Fridman's podcast with Mark Zuckerberg, where both interacted with photo-realistic renditions of themselves in virtual reality. Instead of cartoonish avatars talking to one another, it appeared as if Fridman's and Zuckerberg's perfectly replicated doppelgangers were in direct contact. It was both remarkable and unnerving. As Lex Fridman explained, “This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It really felt like we were talking in-person, but we were miles apart. It's hard to put into words how awesome this was for someone like me who values the intimacy of in-person conversation. It gave me a glimpse of an exciting future with many new possibilities and fascinating questions about the nature of reality and human connection.”
I have been involved with virtual reality since I first demoed a VR headset in England in the Winter of 1993 when I was teaching at the University of London. For the past two years here at Mt. San Antonio College I have taught courses in Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and Philosophy where each student in the class is given a free Oculus Quest 2 headset and where we meet weekly in the metaverse. It has been an eye-opening experience and has provided me with a deeper glimpse into how the digital and real world can interslice, in what has become colloquially known as “mixed” reality.
Surprisingly, much of this futuristic technology has been presaged by several yogic traditions, though not in the hardware-software terminology we use today. Instead, these mystical orientations tend to use more abstract and mythological explanations for erstwhile superluminal phenomena.
What is truly striking, though, is how many of these spiritual ideologies have physicalist correlatives that are being instantiated with the latest advancements in technology.
This past week when I was on my annual surf trip with my childhood friends at Shipwrecks in Kauai, we discussed the interface between spirituality and A.I., and how it may transform conventional religion from a mere set of beliefs into an experiential science. I mentioned how my wife, Professor Andrea Diem, had given a plenary Zoom talk on this very subject at the Dayalbagh Educational Conference on Consciousness in Agra, India. Her thesis was bold and met with some initial resistance from certain quarters:
“The future of meditation can be based more on a scientific understanding and less on an outdated mythological one. The Tibetan cave of tomorrow can be constructed instantaneously with a VR and/or AR and each of us can have our spiritual teachers guiding us, even if they are wearing purely technological garb. While it would be a fundamental error to confuse such an astral projection with a digitally reconstructed avatar, the fact remains that A.I. and VR/AR can reproduce one's own beloved Ishta-Devata in such a way as to make one feel as if their teacher is right there with them. These can be likened to the most realistic Murtis ever fashioned, but with such life-like animations and responsive databases that they transcend any material representations. To be sure, these digitized manifestations are not yet substituting for living human teachers, but they are remarkable tools for spiritual instruction.”
At the time of Andrea's talk, I wasn't quite sure how long it would take for the metaverse to produce life-like digital murtis of our beloved Ishta-Devatas. But after watching Fridman's podcast, it became exceedingly clear to me that the time has already arrived and that we were welcoming a whole new way of being.
A few days later back in the mainland as I was driving to my favorite bookshop in Huntington Beach, which ironically is located inside the city's largest library, I recalled an unusual letter I had quoted decades prior in The Unknowing Sage. It was a somewhat convoluted explanation of how a spiritual master implants his “double” or “agent” inside the third eye of his disciple at the time of initiation. This inner guru then watches over the neophyte wherever he may be around the world and can directly report back to the living physical Master in India if some urgent need arises:
“Now regarding your question about the Inner Master and that Inner Master guiding the disciple, first of all, what is the Inner Master? The Real Saint or Perfect Master is one with the Supreme Lord, having merged His Being with the Supreme. Now, as the Supreme Lord has all power, so do the Perfect Masters. He can do as He pleases, and anywhere and always, so that He may better work with, protect, and instruct and guide His disciples. Every time He gives the initiation to anyone, He creates an Astral Image of Himself in the disciple. And from then on, the Master never leaves the disciple. The Double, or Other Self, or Image of the Master is sometimes what we call the Inner Master. Now, if anything occurs in the life of the disciple that requires the personal attention of the Master, here (in India) in the Body—this Inner Master at once reports to the Conscious Master (in India) and the Conscious Master gives the thing his personal attention. The Master sometimes calls these Doubles of Himself his agents. They do his work, taking care of all his disciples. They have the power to act without limit. They can do what the Master wishes Them to do, and They obey His orders. The human side of the Master here (in India) may not know what is going on in the life of that person. It may be on the other side of the globe. He will not be aware of the details, but He can know them if He wishes. But manifestly, you see how difficult it would be for any one man, as man, to go to all parts of the world and take care of so many. If the Master had a million disciples, He would have an Astral Double of Himself in every one of them, and that Agent of the Master would look after the disciple at all times, reporting to the Master here (in India) only in case of extreme emergency.”
I have always viewed this letter, allegedly authorized by Sawan Singh nearly a hundred years ago, with deep suspicion. It seemed too fanciful to be true.
Yet, today, we now have the wherewithal to create full-bodied digital scans of our entire body and face (replete with subtle expressions and gestures) and upload it as a photorealistic avatar in V.R. with the ability to interact with anyone in the Metaverse, even if they are thousands of miles away in Japan. Moreover, we can also produce multiple clones of these very doppelgangers and program them with our own biological profile via A.I. As such, then, we too can have a legion of avatars of ourselves.
These can be likened to the very agents that Sawan Singh describes, venturing out in cyberspace and communicating as our life-like representatives across the globe. And, if we so desire or need, these replicas can report back to us and convey what they have learned in the process.
We can even resurrect the dead in Avataric form and have deep and meaningful conversations with such disparate historical figures as Thomas Jefferson and Mohandas K. Gandhi. The sticky point is how much data we can retrieve from the past to make these ancient incarnations accurately reflect their respective personalities and purviews.
To be sure, these digital manifestations are not us, but they can so closely resemble us that they can cross the uncanny valley and reasonably pass the Turing Test of human-like believability.
Decades ago, all this A.I. and V.R. talk would sound like improbable science fiction. Remarkably, however, hundreds of years ago certain mystical and yogic schools developed a rich literature on precisely these subjects, even if couched in different terminology with more religious overlays.
Thus, Voltaire's famous adage about inventing God also resonates with the human desire to instantiate preternatural experiences. A.I. coupled with V.R. can simulate such almost instantly and provide adventures that boggle the mind.
The feeling of presence in Virtual Reality with Meta Codec Avatars is so good Lex Fridman often forgot that he wasn't interviewing the “real” Zuckerberg but his digital embodiment. Even after nearly an hour in the Metaverse, he remarked,
“Well, we're talking about AI, but I'm still blown away this entire time that I'm talking to Mark Zuckerberg. And you're not here, but you feel like you're here. I've done quite a few intimate conversations with people alone in a room, and this feels like that. So I keep forgetting for long stretches of time that we're not in the same room. And for me to imagine a future where I can with a snap of a finger do that with anyone in my life, the way we can just call right now and have this kind of shallow 2D experience, to have this experience like we're sitting next to each other is like… I don't think we can even imagine how that changes things where you can immediately have intimate one-on-one conversations with anyone.”
The feeling of presence in V.R. is perhaps its core feature. I can personally attest to this as I have spent numerous hours over the past decade playing with my son, Shaun, in Virtual Reality, even when he was at U.C. Berkeley and I was in Huntington Beach. Or, when I was in La Quinta, California, and he was thousands of miles away in Hong Kong. In each case, and without exception, I felt almost closer to my son than if we were at the beach together. Why? Because there were no distractions. Just us and the game we usually play—Walkabout Golf. Indeed, this feeling of presence is what separates 3-D V.R. technologies from earlier 2-D screen displays.
Of course, this sense of the “other” (even if it is merely a replica) brings forth the knotty philosophical issue of other minds. It also touches upon the notion of “zombies” and our strange habit of imputing consciousness on objects that may lack it.
As I mentioned in, "Please Don't Turn Me Off: Turing, Animism, Intentional Stances, and the Future of Education", “It is not a question of whether A.I. apps are really conscious or truly intelligent. Rather, it centers over whether we have crossed a major threshold where large numbers of people around the world believe that A.I. structures are conscious and intelligent and may even have developed their own agendas, hidden or otherwise.”
With mixed reality—where the digital blends seamlessly with the “real” world—that which is conscious and that which is not will blur in such a way that it will be exceedingly difficult to know the difference, especially when our digital offspring display life-like qualities.
Where does all this lead in the near term? The possibilities are manifold and transformative for our culture and how we live.
In doubling back to Sawan Singh's earlier missive, one can easily imagine that a guru, a coach, a teacher, a doctor, or a mechanic of any kind can replicate themselves in cyberspace and serve as personalized assistants to their followers or students or clients, providing intimate one on one instruction. And if the need arises, these same agents could report back to the “real” person for further instruction or clarification.
Even dating in the future can be upended by having doppelgangers meet first to beta test potential compatibility and then give details about how the “virtual” meeting went.
All of this may at first glance seem like techno hype, but it isn't. And that is why it is scary because for all its benefits there looms a plethora of bad outcomes.
We have all become cyborgs tethered as we are to our smartphone and other computational display screens. That is changing as we morph from a 2-D digital world into a fully immersive 3-D synthetic landscape which manifests around us whenever we wish.
Where once we spent most of our waking life in a physical environment, from this point out we have the power to artificially transform all that we see and hear with incredibly rich informational content. In sum, we can imbue intelligence and presence on what was hitherto inanimate. We are poised to become “creators of worlds” that never existed before.
The A.I., V.R., and Quantum Computer wave is a tsunami that is about to flood every aspect of human life as we know it.
But be forewarned, before such a wave hits, there is a receding low tide and it gives one a false sense of security that all such techno-talk is not what it seems, and then unexpectedly, seemingly out of nowhere, the informational tsunami grows exponentially and hits… completely transforming all in its wake.
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