Science and spirituality in Western civilization began to go their separate ways centuries ago, when astronomy, biology and other observational and experimental disciplines showed in no uncertain terms that the religious world-view inherited from the Bronze Age religions of the Middle East did not correspond to the world that could be measured. The Earth most definitely revolves around the Sun, and not the other way round.
Prayer, meditation, chanting, fasting, contemplation of sacred images and the ingestion of mind-altering substances have been prescribed for spiritual aspirants for millennia. What’s new is our present capacity to scientifically examine the physiological and neurological correlates of spiritual experiences. Until scientific studies had been conducted, spiritual states were often dismissed by much of the scientific community as being unhelpful to leading the good life as reason understood it. At best, prayer and meditation might have been allowable as some sort of coping mechanism for dealing with stress, fear and depression. So these practices were deemed to be something akin to autohypnosis or merely comforting self-delusion. They certainly could not produce physical changes or long-lasting psychological improvement. Or could they?
Today there is a growing volume of hard scientific evidence that contemplative practices produce measurable, benign changes in the brain as well as in subjectively reported moods and observed behaviors of practitioners. Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, increase the ability to focus attention, and make people feel happier. All this can be achieved with or without any supporting framework of justifying religious beliefs. Atheistic philosophers and scientists such as Sam Harris and Patricia Churchland practice meditation regularly.
Machines to measure brain activity as well as other physiological processes were crucial to proving the case that meditation has real value. The next step is to develop technology that can facilitate or even induce the states that meditation produces, but without the need for years of patient practice.
Can a machine deliver bliss? Can technology induce Enlightenment? And can a man-machine hybrid, a cyborg, become Buddha?
My answers are: Yes. Maybe. And… of course!
The blissful states exist in a range. Everyone has experienced at least the lower levels of this range, whether by accident or design. The higher levels are not so easy to reach, although instructions for doing so have been available for millennia. Pharmacological substances grant temporary access to some bliss states, but with significant cost to the body in the form of side effects and aftereffects (not to mention certain legal issues). Learning to meditate your way to bliss takes longer but is more controllable, yet it also takes a toll on one’s brain chemistry with consequent after-effects. In any case, easy access to the bliss states via machines projecting targeted electromagnetic fields will soon be widely available. However, even there, side effects and after-effects still warrant caution.
Post-Modern Koan: Does a cyborg have Buddha-Nature?
Post-Modern Response: Well, duh!
Enlightenment (which should actually be called Awakening) also comes in a range of levels. Essentially, it is like a fourth state of consciousness beyond normal waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Enlightenment/Awakening is a special type of understanding, analogous to what occurs when you understand anything: a puzzle, a theorem, etc. Except in the case of Awakening, one understands the nature of all possible experience and the hollowness of the egoself idea.
The gradual enhancement of the human body through mergers with machines will yield a hybrid: the cyborg. Any sufficiently complex system (like a human or an advanced AI computer) that exhibits awareness can realize Enlightenment. So I believe. This claim must still be tested for AIs. Cyborgs, however, can certainly attain anything accessible to humans and even more.
Working toward understanding how these developments may be brought about, and what impacts they may have, are goals of the Cyborg Buddha Project of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Our project aims 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. All are welcome to participate in this great adventure.
IEET Board member Michael LaTorra [email@example.com] is an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico State University, a Zen priest a the Zen Center of Las Cruces, and author of A Warrior Blends with Life: A Modern Tao. He runs the Trans-Spirit list promoting discussion of neurotheology, neuroethics, techno-spirituality and altered states of consciousness.