In this essay I would like to reflect on Eastern and Western philosophy, their definition of enlightenment, and their connection to transhumanist thinking. How may Buddhist concepts like ‘Bodhi’ and the ‘Maitreya’ relate to the Western ‘Enlightenment’, human enhancement, and post/transhumanism?
According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2011? We’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 12 articles published this year on our blog based on how many total hits each one received.
The following piece was first published here on September 20, 2011, and is the #11 most viewed of the year.
Although this sketch is far from complete at assessing, interpreting, and understanding the depth of each mentioned concept, I hope it will encourage new ways of thinking and stimulate discussions for the further advancement of transhumanist philosophy.
Transhumanism is a socio-philosophical movement that has evolved in the Western world under the influence of secular humanism, the 18th Century ‘Age of Enlightenment’, and finally the vast advancements in science and technology. Interestingly, in Asia, transhumanism is far less known, although Asians tend to be much more positively and easily receptive towards new technologies and innovation than are critical Westerners.
But is it really all about technology? Certainly, transhumanism would not be transhumanism without the technological dimension and the bold visions about nanomachines, advanced medicine, life extension, artificial intelligence, smart implants, and the preservation of one’s neuronal patterns in computer hardware and software. However, I will go back to the aspect of ‘Enlightenment’ as a bridge between East, West, and transhumanism.
Enlightenment, Bodhi, and Transhumanism
The term ‘Enlightenment’ appears in Western as well as Eastern philosophy, but there are differences as well as similarities between those two uses. In Western thought, ‘Enlightenment’ denotes the emphasis on reasoning, advancement in knowledge and science, the break with religious doctrines, and the freedom and liberation of the individual. The European ‘Enlightenment’ paved the way for modern physics, the scientific methodology, as well as democracy, human rights, and individuality – and finally transhumanist philosophy.
In Eastern philosophy, the concept of ‘Enlightenment’ is inseparably connected to Buddhism where it is known by the Sanskrit word bodhi (semantically related to Buddha), which can be translated as ‘awakened’ with the connotation to deep understanding or insight. However, bodhi is far less easy to define and explain than the elements of the Western ‘Enlightenment’ which have been manifested in concrete laws and conventions like the separation of state and church, the European Convention on Human Rights, or the rules of scientific methodology.
Bodhi is described rather vaguely as a spiritual rather than worldly endeavor, with the main goal of understanding the “true nature of the world and the universe” and “realizing the cause of suffering and how to remove it.” Here transhumanism and Buddhism can converge if one regards the attainment of deeper understanding also as the ultimate goal in transhumanism.
As an originally non-theistic philosophy (Buddha’s teachings do not say anything about gods or deities), Buddhism puts prime emphasis on correct individual conduct and actions that represent the main teachings of the Buddha known as the “Noble Eightfold Path.” Those who follow this path and aim for its perfection may develop the necessary insight to achieve bodhi and leave the state of suffering.
Buddhism shows elements of the Western ‘Enlightenment’ stance of emphasizing individual decision making by leaving it to the individual whether to accept the teachings of the Buddha or not. Buddhism also does not have the concept of a judging god—rather, a belief in karma and reincarnation which implies that the state of one’s current life has been determined by behavior in previous lives, and that current conduct determines one’s next life.
But on the other hand, quite contrary to Western thinking, the attachment to the individual’s ego is considered to be one of the major sources of suffering in Buddhist philosophy, since it is considered to be the cause for greed, desire, and ignorance. However, this should be interpreted in the sense that people long for attachments and possessions to only superficially satisfy the ego without causing real fulfillment. This could be comparable to eating junk food that causes appetite for more but actually does not nourish the body.
Looking at this brief comparative outline between Western ‘Enlightenment’ and Eastern ‘Bodhi’, it can be said that a closer look at bodhi could in fact enrich and complement the Western developments, and also could lead to a new understanding of transhumanism that puts human development before technological development or even as its pre-condition. And if one thinks about it, of what use are nanomachines, advanced medicine, artificial intelligence, and smart implants if the human capability of understanding and wisdom is not changing? And of what use would it be to resurrect the minds of dictators and corrupt societies in a computer emulation and attain eternal life while continuing with the social, economic, and political status quo?
The Maitreya Dimension for Transhumanist Philosophy
In order to converge Buddhist philosophy, Western Enlightenment, and ‘mainstream’ transhumanism into a new concept that emphasizes human development in terms of insight and wisdom as the first realization of ‘human enhancement’ and as precondition to a ‘techno-scientific’ transhumanism, we can refer to the figure of the ‘Maitreya’. The Maitreya is the eschatological figure of the future Buddha present in most of the major Buddhist philosophical schools.
According to Buddhist beliefs, the Maitreya will appear in a very distant future when the teachings of (the historical) Gautama Buddha have been forgotten:
[T]he event will also allow the unveiling of the “true” dharma to the people, in turn allowing the construction of a new world. The coming also signifies the end of the middle time in which humans currently reside (characterized as a low point of human existence between the Gautama Buddha and Maitreya.).
Some people may be reminded here of Nietzsche’s philosophical work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the (current) human is also seen to be on the way towards degeneration and as a intermediate phenomenon between the animal and the so-called ‘Ubermensch’: “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss.”
Although in some Western perceptions the ‘Ubermensch’ has a negative connotation, it may be better understood by illustrating its counterpart, the ‘Last Man’, who is described by Nietzsche as passive, lazy, shallow, mediocre, comfortable, and without ambitions. Thus, the ‘Ubermensch’ can be interpreted as the entity who overcomes these characteristics of the ‘Last Man’. In parallel, the appearance of the Maitreya also is associated with a general degeneration of human civilization through an overemphasis on shallow pleasures.
In a way, the Maitreya can be interpreted as a posthuman whose intention is to enable other human beings to attain a superior state of existence in “abundance, joy and happiness”—which may remind us of nano-futuristic prospects that might be realized through controlled cheap self-replicating nanotechnologies. In contrast to, for example, Christian messianic concepts, the Maitreya’s focus will be much more on real life than on salvation in an afterlife.
Certain texts found on the Internet describe a Maitreya future in a quite ‘transhumanist’ way—in contrast, again, to some descriptions about the earthly future in Christian texts. The Earth where the Maitreya will reside is a world of longevity, health, and human enhancement:
Human beings are then without any blemishes, moral offences are unknown among them, and they are full of zest and joy. Their bodies are very large and their skin has a fine hue. Their strength is quite extraordinary. Three kinds of illness only are known—people must relieve their bowels, they must eat, they must get old. Only when five hundred years old do the women marry.
In this sense, the Maitreya can be used as a metaphor to reflect on the dimension of character traits of a potential trans/posthuman. On the other hand, the ‘Cyborg’ as the technologized human being depicts the material dimension of a potential trans/posthuman. A complete realization of a trans/posthuman existence may, however, only be possible by transcending one’s state of character (Maitreya) as well as ones physical limitations (Cyborg), whereas the first determines the ultimate outcome of the latter.
These parallels to the Maitreya concept are only intended to highlight the less discussed dimension of the post/transhuman character traits and connect Western with Eastern philosophy. The reference to the Maitreya for transhumanist philosophy has been used to direct the attention toward the importance of human growth in character and wisdom alongside scientific and technological progress. But it should also be noted in the transhumanist context that a reliance alone on spiritual development is also unlikely to solve real worldly problems. In the same way as the Western Enlightenment and the Eastern Bodhi can be seen as secular and spiritual complements for human development, the Maitreya and the Cyborg can be viewed as complements of future (trans/post)humans.
Transhumanist philosophy, however, departs from the assumption that human development will be the result of active human decisions, deeds, innovations, and activities. This stands in contrast to the messianic expectations that are present in the Maitreya belief but also in some transhumanist interpretations about the coming of a ‘Technological Singularity’. This philosophical reflection is not intended to encourage messianic beliefs of any kind or to give any credit to self-proclaimed Maitreyas.
Nonetheless, the concept of the Maitreya and elements of Buddhism that emphasize the human individual’s effort towards further evolution, wisdom, and finally bodhi could enrich transhumanist philosophy. Also the Buddhist concept of ‘Nirvana’ as the supreme goal of human existence could be worth further reflection.
Nirvana describes a state of transcendental happiness and knowledge, as well as the ending of suffering, which are also mentioned as goals in transhumanist philosophy. However, can this state of being be achieved in real life through spirituality alone, and will emerging technologies alone necessarily lead towards this goal? Will transhumanism require any leadership as the Maitreya is considered to be the guide of future humanity, or do concepts like leadership stand in opposition to the ideas of an intrinsically intelligent, wise, interconnected, and individualistic trans/posthuman?
Transhumanism seems to lack deeper and practical considerations about codes of conduct and desirable character traits of post/transhuman entities as compared to the highly elaborated concepts related to technological and mental capacities.
Will this future super-human entity be arrogant, conquering, and striving to attain individual advantages, or will this entity be humble, respectful, and serve the community? How will such an entity be able to distinguish between right and evil, or are such concepts actually an illusion?
Paragraph 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration states: “We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.” This can be supported by Buddhist and humanist philosophy and many other world views and religions, but we need more concretization that goes beyond mere advocacy.
Maybe it could be just a starting exercise to think how the Noble Eightfold Path could enrich transhumanist philosophy and how envisioned transhumanist science and technology could enable humans to improve their progress along this path. Could the Maitreya be a posthuman?
Resources for Further Reading