Transhumanists are scientific rationalists. We believe in using the tools of science to defeat aging, to amplify our intellects and to phase out the biology of involuntary pain and suffering. Used wisely, artificial intelligence and biotechnology promise a sublime future of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness. In a mature “triple S” civilisation, there can be no place for superstition or religious obscurantism. Granted, one troubling mystery remains unsolved: the Hard Problem of consciousness. Why aren’t we zombies? Yet any explanation of subjective experience must be consistent with the mathematical straitjacket of modern physics. It’s a very tight straitjacket. Within the conceptual framework of modern science, spirituality is naïvely a pre-scientific relic of Darwinian life. Mystical experience is a primitive psychosis. It will die out.
The Dawn of Superspirituality?
However, an entirely different scenario is conceivable.
As a thought-experiment, imagine an alien tribe of congenitally blind rationalists. A few members of the tribe stumble upon a consciousness-altering drug. The drug induces what we would call visual experience – although the tribespeople lack any conception of darkness, let alone vision. The discoverers are shocked. Their drug-induced states are more vividly intense – and hence seem more real – than drug-naïve life. Undrugged everyday existence now seems akin to sleepwalking. Maybe newly-awakened drug users experience nonsensical shapes and colours; but other visionaries undergo full-blown apparitions – angels, spirits, demons, and nameless entities no less beyond their comprehension. What the drug doesn’t do is engineer any new perceptual apparatus. The tribespeople don’t magically grow peripheral sensory transducers. So drug consumption doesn’t confer enhanced sensory powers. All the tribespeople remain functionally blind, including the mystical “seers”. Evolution via natural selection hasn’t recruited (what we would call) visual experience for any information-signalling purpose. Therefore, visionaries are at a loss to communicate the significance of their discovery to the tribe’s drug-naïve intellectual elite. While intoxicated, users are convinced they have stumbled on something truly momentous. But they can’t agree on the nature of what they’ve discovered, or how to explain any drug-catalysed insights to their blind rationalist colleagues. This is because language is a public phenomenon, or at least pseudo-public, and stands in need of (pseudo-)public criteria of use (cf. philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument). In consequence, users are apt to babble nonsense, or talk about the “ineffable”, the “sacred”, the “spiritual” and the “divine”. Some users drop out of society. Others embrace drug-fuelled mysticism and start esoteric cults. Worse for the growth of the tribe’s scientific knowledge is the state-dependence of memory. The state-dependence of visual knowledge means that when the acute effects of the drug wear off, users can’t adequately recapture the properties of their drug-induced visions. Some ex-users wonder ruefully whether it was all just a crazy dream. Indeed, when ex-users listen to recordings of what they said when drugged, their vocalisations sound incoherent. The tribe’s cognitive elite lament how drug-experimentation has messed up the epistemic rationality of users. The learned elders of the tribe complain that drug use is sterile at best. Despite talk of “enlightenment” and vague profundities, drug devotees don’t go on to formulate testable scientific hypotheses, design innovative technology or create cultural masterpieces. Some become philosophers. So the tribe’s intellectual elite ignore heartfelt pleas to abandon scholasticism, embrace the empirical method and become psychonauts themselves. Drug use is proscribed. The counterculture dies out. Rationalist darkness reigns once more.
Does this parable capture the predicament of hard-nosed scientific rationalists today? Is our ignorance quasi-hardwired? Conceivably, could we be the benighted ones?
I don’t know.
Transhumanists pride ourselves on our rationality. We call ourselves members of the “rationalist community”. I suspect that most scientific rationalists reading this thought-experiment will be unimpressed. What is the cognitive content of drug-driven “spiritual” experiences? As described, the revelations are vacuous. Sure, the drug-induced visions are weird (or “mystical” when pleasant), but consciousness is weird. We know that already. True scientific knowledge is publicly accessible, independently replicable and objective.
In response to such scepticism, I can only answer that I am not equipped to understand the cognitive significance of radically altered states of consciousness. Recall how the blind tribal drug-takers can’t even begin to grasp the ramifications of what they’ve discovered. They’ve no visual concepts. They’ve no word for blindness. So they just gibber, or use feeble auditory metaphors, or talk of their experiences in spiritual terms – where “spiritual” is a placeholder for something they can’t comprehend. However, as visually intelligent humans who have evolved over hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, we can grasp that the mystical babblers of the tribe are right to believe they have discovered something earth-shattering. The tribe’s dismissive scientific rationalists are mistaken. For sure, the “spiritual” label is apt to mislead. But sighted humans recognise that the existence of visual experience is profoundly cognitively important – though sadly our visual worlds can yield ugliness, stupidity and insanity too.
In future, maybe spirituality will indeed die out, as it did in the hypothetical alien tribe, and as scientific triumphalists predict for spiritually-minded humans. Maybe the future of sentience in the cosmos lies in disenchantment and demystification. Compare how the computer revolution and the growth of artificial intelligence is marked by the progressive separation of consciousness from intelligence – or at least from behavioural intelligence. On the other hand, tomorrow’s neuroscience may isolate the molecular signature of spiritual experience, then enrich, purify and genetically overexpress its substrates. Future neuroscience can create modes of spirituality richer than anything physiologically accessible to spiritually unenhanced human minds today. For sure, pop-science talk of the “God gene” is poetic license; but some human genotypes demonstrably predispose to hyperspirituality, just as other genotypes predispose their bearers to find life mundane. The impending reproductive revolution of “designer babies” could even lead to the creation of superspiritual beings. Such a scenario is implausible; but it’s technically feasible. Even now, mystical experience can be artificially amplified – or dampened – via brain stimulation: excitatory stimulation of the right inferior parietal cortex, for instance, tends (reversibly) to extinguish spirituality. So do neuroleptic drugs. Conversely, so-called “entheogens” awaken a sense of the divine. Accordingly, transhumans will be able to choose spiritual enhancement – or disenchantment – technologies no less than tools of sensory enhancement, morphological freedom and intelligence-augmentation via neurochips. Perhaps some transhumans will enjoy lifelong superspiritual ecstasies every moment of their quasi-immortal lives. Indeed, the pioneering work of psychopharmacologists from the scientific counterculture (such as Alexander Shulgin) suggests that billions of uncharted state-spaces of consciousness may exist that haven’t been harnessed by natural selection. Even if human minds could access these alien state-spaces, their significance would be as incomprehensible – and as inexpressible – to archaic humans as is visual experience to the blind tribespeople.
A disclaimer is now in order. My own inner life is a spiritual wasteland: I’m not hinting at any kind of personal enlightenment. In fact, I’m more likely to quote physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." To my mind, pain-ridden Darwinian life is monstrous. The biology of suffering will be abolished throughout the living world via biotech, not mystical insight. I see no evidence of transcendent meaning or purpose. I discount revealed religion. Nor do I know whether posthuman experience will take spiritual guise, or belong to categories of consciousness that do not yet exist. Emotion, volition and cognition may just be primitive types of experience among a multitude of unknown state-spaces of consciousness. Indeed, posthumans may reckon the generic state of mind humans call “waking consciousness” is itself psychotic in ways we can’t fathom. Therefore, I’m sceptical of scientism as understood by scientific materialists. Recall how with the triumph of the Standard Model, and the reduction of the special sciences to physics, some physicists and science writers have trumpeted the end of science, or even (heaven help us) a new era of “post-empirical science”. However, I think empirical investigation of the intrinsic subjective properties of matter and energy has scarcely begun. The nature of the elusive “fire” in the equations of physics is almost entirely unexplored. Posthuman scientists will be psychonauts. And ethically most important of all, mastery of our reward circuitry means that all posthuman consciousness – whether spiritual or otherwise – can be blissful beyond the bounds of human experience.
David Pearce (2020, 2021)
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Interview with DP
Social Media (2023)
The End of Suffering
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers (2015-23)
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
Interview of Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
Interview of DP by Sentience Research (2019)
Interview of DP by Immortalists Magazine (part one)