Engineering Enlightenment: Part Three

Ben Goertzel Interviews Jeffery Martin and Mikey Siegel on Neurofeedback and Non-Symbolic Consciousness: Part 3, Singularity and Enlightenment


This is the third and final part of a three-part interview with Jeffery Martin and Mikey Siegel covering their groundbreaking research and thinking on the psychology and neuroscience of “enlightened” states of being. Catch the start of the series here if you haven’t read it yet.

To wrap up this long and fascinating interview, I’ll turn the dialogue a bit toward some of my own research interests.  I’m curious what you think: will AIs ever be capable of enlightenment?

An awesome question, and one I definitely do not have an answer to. But I’ll throw some thoughts out there.

An obvious barrier to a straightforward answer to this question is the lack of an accepted scientific framework for enlightenment in natural humans.  If we can’t characterize the phenomenon as it arises presently, it will be difficult to do so in an AI form.  But this only pertains to satisfying some ultimately arbitrary conceptual definition.  Enlightenment like any other subjective experience, can only be described, or symbolically represented.  For example, I can never convey to you directly my experience of sadness, or the color red.  We can never say ‘what’ it is in any absolute way beyond transmitting the experience itself.

Imagining we had some definition, I think there is absolutely no problem with an AI satisfying some kind of spiritual Turing test.  Humans frequently manage to deceive themselves and others of their degree of enlightenment.  I would even go so far as to say that a sufficiently advanced intelligence would naturally come to the same conclusions found ubiquitously at the heart of eastern philosophy.  Its my view that our personal, mentally constructed, dualistic model of reality and self are fraught with paradox and contradiction which any sufficiently deep introspection would reveal.

On a practical level I wouldn’t be surprised if early AI systems advanced enough to contemplate their own nature continually thought themselves into unresolvable loops.  The designers of these AIs (Ben Goertzel excluded of course!) might not have contemplated the nature of self to its enlightening conclusion and thus not accounted for the dramatically different experience of reality available outside of their own.  They might be initially perplexed by the seemingly paradoxical conclusions reached by their creation (SciFi short story pending).

But that of course leaves us with the heart of the question unanswered: “Would that AI really be enlightened?”  It is surely possible for people to conceptually realize their nature as fundamentally nondual without coming to that direct experience.  It is also possible to for individuals to enter into that direct experience without any conceptual framework.  So, there remains this notion of the direct experience of enlightenment, what Jeffery calls Persistent Non-Symbolic Consciousness, which is very specifically not a conceptual knowing or state of mind or mood, but a transcendent state of being beyond description.  Can an AI realize that experience, beyond its fundamentally logical/symbolic nature?  Depending on our terms this line of questioning quickly propels us into the science and philosophy of consciousness where similar questions are debated ad nauseum.  I think this comes to a question of what our fundamental nature is.  What is that awareness which is universally and persistently the underlying essence of our experience as humans?  It is only by understanding that question, that we can understand if an AI would be able to do the same.  So, perhaps like many questions worth pondering, there is no immediate answer, but the process of inquiry leads one closer to truth?

Allan Combs and I held a session on this at the Convergence 08 conference, and it was a fascinating discussion. I suspect that a great deal of this experience is substrate dependent. In other words, I think it is heavily dependent on the human body. While it may be possible to simulate with AI, I personally wonder about what other forms of conscious experience will be possible when the human body is out of the loop. While I believe that the levels of well-being we are researching now are about as far as humans can go with current biology, I doubt that is the case when we start bio-hacking more and I think it is highly unlikely if we change the substrate all together.

As you know I’m really interested in the prospect of a technological Singularity.  What are your thoughts on this, and in general on the possible role that your own work on neurofeedback and extraordinary states of well-being may play in in the next decades/centuries — as technology advances and further transforms society?

I’m very excited about the prospect of Singularity, but I do see some contradictions in terms of the enlightenment experience, and the way in which the Singularity is often talked about.  Traditionally PNS is experienced as a state of no self, in which the ego (that which most of us identify as being who we are) is seen as illusory, and ultimately the ‘self’ is experienced as formless, non-conceptual awareness.

When we imagine our Singularity future in which we transmute into an alternate persistent form, that part of us that we imagine persisting is exactly that which the mystic works to transcend.  So, a common Singularity dream of ‘living forever’ is arguably a very advanced effort to endlessly hold onto our beliefs, desires and the mentally constructed notion of self.  From an eastern perspective, those beliefs/desires can be seen as the root of suffering, so in that sense what we are trying to take with us is the root of suffering itself.  But, we’re simultaneously pursuing a brute force approach to the cessation of that suffering.  The strategy seems to be an information/technology infrastructure that supplies the instantaneous satisfaction of all desire.  This is in essence the polar opposite of the classic approach to end suffering which is a complete acceptance of reality as it is in this moment perpetually.  Perhaps like so many fundamental dualities they are two sides of the same coin?

The enlightenment experience is characterized by a dissolving of the boundaries that separate ‘us’ from ‘other’, and the realization of a unitive experience in which all perceived separations are seen as purely conceptual and illusory.  Perhaps the Singularity can be seen as the most profound and complete realization of that inherent connection between all things and the fundamentally singular nature of reality.  I recently re-read Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines in which he talks about individuals literally merging their experiences at will into a single perspective.  Imagining that all experience is instantly available, and all boundaries between individual’s own experiences becomes clearly artificial how do we define our unique identity separate from the whole?

Great thoughts!  I find there aren’t many folks one can talk to about things like the intersection between Singularity and enlightenment,  because the world seems to mainly fall into

  • folks who think techno-Singularity is coming but spiritual stuff is BS
  • folks who like spiritual stuff but think techno-Singularity is BS
  • folks who think both spiritual stuff and techno-Singularity are BS
  • folks who like both techno-Singularity and spirituality, but think about both in verrrry fuzzy ways (e.g. Terrence McKenna, Timothy Leary)

Folks who are willing to think carefully about techno-Singularity and spirituality, without getting carried away in various sorts of wishful thinking OR various sorts of reflexive negative skepticalness, are pretty few and far between….  So you guys are really a lot of fun!

Perhaps the Singularity demands a fundamental shift not only in the appearance of things, but in our fundamental perception of reality.  It might be that our work, and so much like it, is helping to pave the way for that by eventually increasing the accessibility of those transcendent states.

I agree with what much of what Mikey says here. I did a recent interview with Adam Ford that involved this question and the previous one after speaking at the H+ conference in Hong Kong last year. You can find it on YouTube

Yeah – that was a great interview.  Relatedly, I’ll point out to readers a little fictional interview on a related theme recently, that was based on some stuff in an email dialogue between you and me and Mikey not long ago – THE UNIVERSE IS CONTINUING.

In the perspective I give there, an “enlightened” view on the Singularity is roughly that it’s just another aspect of the universe’s mysterious, trans-human play of patterns .. which looks like a major upheaval and development from the limited human view.  And we ordinary humans are terribly concerned about the risks and dangers and promises that Singularity holds, only because we’re so attached/addicted to our own selves and our lives.

Thanks!  I passed that along to my partner, who has essentially the same philosophy.

I think we are totally on the same page in this regard.  Its hard for me to see a fundamental difference between me typing this email and the leaves blowing on the tree outside.  I can conceptualize the difference, but it all seems to be a fantastically complex dance in which all components are completely, utterly, intertwined.  To apply any more or less significance to things is fine, but that can only emerge from an initial false notion that those things are somehow distinct and separate from a whole.  But in the same way evolution produces increasingly coherent and synchronous forms, the same phenomenon seems to happen with human experience.  Suffering seems to be a manifestation of conflict, or disharmony, while increased acceptance of what is (reduced conflict) seems to result in less suffering.  That experience of harmony with what is seems to be some kind of experiential direct understanding into the more fundamental nature of reality (It doesn’t mean that people with that understand sound smarter.  That understanding is ineffable).

So, its pretty fun to try to push on that through tech or whatever — but in the scheme of things, that effort is no different than a house plant growing to be closer to the window.

Well – this has certainly been one of the more fascinating interviews I’ve done.  Thanks a lot, guys (or should I say — “thanks a lot, fellow hyper-intellectual house plants”?).  I look forward very  much to seeing how your thinking develops – and hopefully trying out some of the neurofeedback or brain stimulation technology you’ve talked about!

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