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Buddhism, Politics and the Future of the Mind pt1

Dr. J. chats with IEET contributing writers Kris Notaro and Andrew Cvercko about their working out of the connections between philosophy of the mind, Buddhism, radical politics and transhuman possibilities. Part 1 of 2.

there is a brief moment here where Notaro discusses the need for experiencing existential angst as it is necessary to understand autonomous mind. How do we reconcile autonomy with anatman? Although I am not working-out a better said (better thought) position here, it seems to me that whatever it is to be post-human it could be as simple as understanding the cultural baggage of what it means to be human. While we may be (overly) concerned with autonomy in the USA, we might understand that being human is not best understood as being autonomous, the doctrine of patticcasummatpada (interdependence) would suggest that our uniqueness, our ability to be individuated doesn't have to rest on metaphysical presuppositions such as we find in talk about autonomy
I agree with Paul

Why would AI develop theories of existential angst? I’m not sure supercomputers or AI would care. I think ethics are something we create, in the human realm. We care about taking care of people. The Universe does not care about us. Why would AI, using brute calculation, have to have moral sentiment. I like to think of myself as a moral person. I teach my children to be moral. But I think it is something that we share as humans. We can’t assume that A.I. is going to feel the same way. That’s why we can’t throw the human out with the posthuman bathwater.

“Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.” HAL, 2001
Love the informal intimacy of this interview, (in the closet?) I agree with Kris that any posthuman intellect or superior AGI will incorporate ethical behaviours of non-harm, humans understand these ethical concepts and so will our descendants, either machine or other.

The only dangers I see are from a purely rational and logical intellect that does not value empathy nor compassion, so we won't be building one such as this - yes?

I think anyone with an interest in the deeper contemplations of Buddhist and Hindu philosophies of mind still struggles with their own political views regarding the state of our world, how else are we to achieve any social progress if we shrug responsibility? Yet I do not reconcile my own deeper contemplations and strict ethical position of non-harm with any utilitarian means to an end. Peaceful democratic means to sociocultural change and awareness is still very much achievable?
But rather than talking in terms of responsibility Buddhism would lead us to talk in terms of responsiveness. Cygnus refers to Buddhism and Hinduism in a manner that suggests that they are compatible on this matter but I would point out that Buddhism is an explicit rejection of Hinduism.

Hinduism still holds the centrality of transcendental metaphysics such that there is a part of all sentient beings that reincarnates while the being works out their karma. This part that reincarnates is called atman (or brahman or purusa). Buddhism begins its critique with the idea that there is some part of us that continues after death. This is a tectonic shift because it moves our ethical obligations from resting in an transcendental capital-T Truth to the more pedestrian truth of everday living of immanence.

Central to Buddhism is the concept of anatman (no self) which is a lynch pin concept for making sense of the first Noble Truth: to be alive is to suffer. We suffer because we have a false sense of desire: we believe that we have some metaphysical stuff onto which desire can attach itself. There is no self (anatman) onto which desire could cling because we are interdependent with one another (patticcasummatpada).

Understanding this shifting to interdependence and immanence is necessary to understand the advice given to us by Linji that "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him." That is to say, Buddhism is a practice of constant refining our living in light of the relationships we find ourselves defined by. If we grow attached to a concept of what these relationships ought to be and insist on the primacy of our perspective, it is the duty of the consummate practitioner to kill-off those parts of us that support that false manner of thinking/being.

So how does that relate, then, to posthumanism? I would suggest that to become post-humanist we must kill-off our attachment to our preconceived notions of humanism. This is particularly necessary from a Buddhist perspective if notions of autonomy are interfering with our ability to cultivate compassion and develop techniques of upaya that will enable us to reduce the suffering of those around us.
"The only dangers I see are from a purely rational and logical intellect that does not value empathy nor compassion, so we won't be building one such as this - yes?"

Good question. I believe there are many futures ahead of us, most of which are dystopic, a few of which are utopic, and none of which look anything like business as usual. The decisions we make in the present (such as the decisions I am making with regard to the content of this comment) determine which futures remain available to us.

To steer our way to the utopic futures, we need to define them, imagine them, discuss them and agree on them. We also need to be aware of the dystopic futures, and take steps to avoid them. In some futures we DO build purely rational and logical AGIs that do not value empathy or compassion, I'm afraid. By posting this comment I hope to exclude at least some of these futures, while keeping alive the best ones.
@ Paul

You are correct that the point of departure for Buddhism and Hinduism philosophies is concerning the notion of the transcendental self and whilst these divergent philosophies are not wholly compatible, I do in fact see them as complementary. I venerate the Buddha for his insight towards the "three marks of existence", "the five aggregates" and no self doctrine, (anatta), this insight perhaps founded upon his Hindu religious background as a shaivite Hindu and with regard to contemplation's of change and impermanence, (anicca), and the eternal dance of Shiva?

Interdependence or interconnectedness, (connectedness)? It really is just a point of debate as these imply the same thing? The "whole" of creation appears as intertwined and interrelated and the ancient vedic scholars, even before Buddhism, resolved these ideas into monism, (advaita), whereupon the Self is illusion and veil of ignorance, (avidya). Yet it does depend upon which school of Hindu philosophy to which one aligns oneself? None of the schools of Hindu philosophy, (vedanta), are exclusive, and depending upon one's contemplation's, a change of perspective is all it takes to resolve the personification of God, the realisation of a soul, (purusha, jiva), into pure monism, (nirguna brahman).

The key word is "consciousness", which, as far as I know, (I am not a practising Buddhist monk nor Hindu – as yet?), the Buddha falls short of explaining, or indeed avoided giving any explanation for the origins of creation or existence of the cosmos/universe? Whilst Buddhism philosophy, for myself, is an ideal expression of existentialism and guide to self-understanding, both phenomenological and psychological, it does not attempt to explain creation or the perpetuation of existence, whereas the ancient Hindu philosophies do attempt to resolve this.

What was metaphysical, ("beyond" physical), speculation yesterday is in fact often embraced as physical scientific fact today, as will be the case for tomorrow, (the elusive Higgs Boson, dark energy, string theory but yet some examples?) Cosmology still leads astronomy, so we should not cast aside metaphysics or its discussions. Metaphysics is of value, how else are we to transform the future, without the creative thinking that leads to insight and human transformations of the physical?

Yes, we can resolve all of these aspirations into cravings and grasping, and thus the Buddha would shun them all, even creativity itself? Yet this is where I feel we need to surpass, and where Buddhism halts, and where Hinduism excels. All is "potential", perhaps the only term reasonable to explain "that" (nirguna brahman), which is undeniable and real, it's expression as existence, consciousness, bliss, (sat-chit-ananda).

Your points regarding the posthuman are important. Should we in fact even dare to speculate and explain that which prescribes itself as non-human? Or should we speculate that there is gradual progression from human to the posthuman via the transhuman? The Hindu philosophy already incorporates and accepts both the transhuman and posthuman as merely more diverse expression of the ineffable "potential of creation", and this is where I feel Buddhism falls short?

Some links for those interested in the divergence of Buddhism and Hinduism..

"Essentials of Buddhism"
Ven. Pategama Gnanarama Ph.D.

"Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy"


"Schools of vedanta"

"Ashtavakra Gita"

Well, if nothing else, this discussion provided a couple interesting male examples of what linguists call "creaky voice."
It should be remembered that the main religions developed well before the scientific method was identified, formalised, and separated (at least for moral subjectivists like myself) from ethics. They thus provide an amalgam of pre-scientific (in the sense of "not rigorously tested") theory and partially incoherent ethical principles. That they persist despite the emergence of the scientific method and more coherent ethical systems is testament to the power of ideas to persist and evolve. All the major religions have both splintered and evolved, thus adapting to the needs of modern life and thus continuing to attract adherents. Even anti-modernist fundamentalisms are themselves adaptations to modernity.

It is also testament to the fact that, for most people, most of the time, being logically precise, perfectly coherent and scientifically accurate is neither necessary nor helpful, whereas religions, those imprecise amalgams of different ideas, associated with psychologically potent symbols, can be very helpful. And as CygnusXI alludes to they can also provide a cauldron for the various wacky theories on which later scientific developments depend. The history of science is replete with religious nutter wackos (think Pythagoras) who came up with theories that were later tested against experiment and massively enhanced our understanding of the universe.

Conclusion: creaky voice is fine with me, as long as we understand and accepts its limitations.
"creaky voice is fine with me, as long as we understand and accepts its limitations."

It's "limitations" are laryngeal, physically speaking. wink

But you rightly surmise that I tire a bit of the frequent religious component in these discussions.
@ Peter

Not only ethics, but existential philosophies are also intrinsic to all religions that attempt to answer the "Big questions" concerning existence and creation. The philosophies of Hinduism include some of the most comprehensive and unifying ever contemplated.

And regarding the importance and notion of Consciousness as fundamental and Universal phenomenon - we know that conscious observation is enough to break down the quantum wave function in a physical experiment, which implies this is a "conscious" two-way exchange of mutual awareness, (not information!) What more proof do we need that consciousness is all encompassing and permeates the "whole" of existence, and is, totally impartial. Layers of quantum consciousness interactions thus builds complexity in a system, yet the processes that substantiate Self awareness, (ego) in the mind are no greater in size, it is all merely illusion - "consciousness of Consciousness", thus there is no "centre" of intellect to uncover?
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