Spirituality and Transhumanism
New Mexico State University
of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 14 Issue
1 - August 2005 - pgs 39-53
The human experiences, beliefs and behaviors
categorized as religious or spiritual have persisted throughout
history. Despite predictions that religion would fade with the
rise of science, it has not done so in most nations. Recent
research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology point
to the likelihood that in some form both religion and
spirituality will continue to exist. A transhumanist research
program into the functional origin of religion and spirituality
will be proposed under the title Trans-Spirit. Trans-Spirit
researchers seek to achieve a complete scientific understanding
of spiritual phenomena and, based on that understanding, to
develop techniques and technologies for inducing spiritual
experiences at will. The purpose, scope, protocols and aims of
this research program will be outlined in general terms which
other investigators will be encouraged to elaborate upon.
This paper was originally presented at the “Transhumanism, Hope and
Faith Conference” in 2004 on the campus of the University of
Toronto. The author wishes to thank all those at the University, the
World Transhumanist Association, and the Toronto Transhumanist
Association who made this possible.
Traditionally, religion (by which I mean any given religion) has
usually been discussed in terms of its claims to truth, the
credibility of the historical evidence for its purported origins,
and the benefits (or lack thereof) it provides for its adherents in
this life or after death. Spirituality, which often overlaps
religion but is not identical to it, has usually been discussed in
terms of personal beliefs and practices (such as prayer, meditation,
fasting, etc.) engaged by an individual in order to achieve some
desirable transformation, usually in terms of consciousness, but
also very often with the hope of a desirable outcome after death.
The research program I propose, Trans-Spirit, aims to avoid any
extended discussion of the history or credibility of religion and
spirituality, while focusing almost exclusively on the physical
mechanisms that predispose human beings to believe and behave
according to religious and spiritual norms.
For the purposes of Trans-Spirit research, religion shall be defined
as communally-shared practices and beliefs concerning supernatural
beings, magical forces, life-after-death, and even the forces of
nature. Similarly, spirituality shall be defined as personal
practices and experiences of an individual, which may or may not
overlap with religion.
While philosophical considerations are always important, the method
of Trans-Spirit sidesteps many basic metaphysical questions. We do
not consider, for example, how to resolve the philosophical
conundrum of solipsism (i.e., “the view that 'I am the only mind
which exists', or 'My mental states are the only mental states'”
[Thornton 2004]). Nor do we deal with the possibility that we are
immaterial entities existing only in the mind of God (Berkeley
1998), or that we are living in a computer simulation (Bostrom
2003). Trans-Spirit research assumes that physical, physiological
and psychological explanations are preferable to non-physical,
mystical and supernatural ones.
The Trans-Spirit approach I take toward religion and spirituality is
explicitly Transhumanist, with a positive orientation toward science
and technology, and the aim of overcoming hindrances to human
well-being (World Transhumanist Association, Transhumanist
Declaration 2002). This approach precludes the acceptance of many
traditional religious beliefs about the value or necessity of
suffering, for example, while admitting that some degree of
suffering may be unavoidable, but is certainly not desirable. The
Trans-Spirit approach can be viewed as coinciding with the central
thrust of all spiritual seeking, which is to find personal
transformation and blessed happiness, and then share them with
The main tools of Tran-Spirit are neuroscience and evolutionary
psychology, together with the burgeoning new field emerging at the
intersection of these two fields with religion: neurotheology. I
seek to avoid joining those who have entered into the millennia-long
debate over religious claims about God, the soul, life after death,
and similar topics. Looking at the long history of religious
conflict up to the present time, I see little value in watering this
tree of argument that has born so few good fruits. Rather than
debating the truth value or instrumental utility of religious
claims, I would bypass them in silence. Then, using the tools of
science, I would dig into the roots of religion, analyze the type of
soil in which it grows, and try to understand how the best branches
of it might be cultivated and the worst pruned away for good and
Nature of Religion
In the modern era, skeptics and atheists have challenged the ancient
creeds by disputing their historical, cosmological, and supernatural
claims. Such challenges rarely caused any believers to abandon their
faith because their faith did not arise from a rigorous study of
history, or a scientific investigation of the cosmos, or anything
like a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of
spiritual phenomena. Religion arises from a wholly different level
of human experience. Religious faith arises from a particular
interpretation of experience that occurs naturally because of
peculiar aspects of human cognitive systems.
At the level of simple, intuitive belief, it seems that most people
tend to be philosophical dualists: they believe in a separation
between the physical body and an immaterial mind or soul.
Psychologist Paul Bloom explains the situation this way:
Some scholars are confident that people will come to accept the
scientific world-view, and reject the notion of an immaterial soul.
I am much less optimistic.
People do believe all sorts of things that violate common sense. …
Some suggest that each brain contains two conscious entities (one
for each hemisphere), and some doubt that consciousness even exists.
We can add to this list of crazy views what Francis Crick called
‘the astonishing hypothesis"—the view that dualism is wrong, that
mental life is the product of a purely physical brain.
People might sincerely believe these things. (I certainly believe
the last one.) But such beliefs exist at a different level than gut
feelings. They are more fragile, and less embedded in our everyday
lives. … People can reject dualism at a conscious level, but the
intuitive sense that body and soul exist is here to stay.
What about the more modest proposal that people will come to reject
dualism at an explicit conscious level? In the domain of bodies,
after all, most of us accept that common sense is wrong. We concede
that apparently solid objects are actually mostly empty space,
consisting of tiny particles and fields of energy. Perhaps the same
sort of reconciliation will happen in the domain of souls, and it
will come to be broadly recognized that our dualist belief system,
though intuitively appealing, is factually mistaken. Perhaps we will
all come to agree with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and join
the side of the "brights": those who reject the supernatural and
endorse the world-view established by science.
But I am skeptical here too. The notion that our souls are flesh is
profoundly troubling to many, as it clashes with religion. Dualism
and religion are not the same: You can be dualist without holding
any other religious beliefs, and you can hold religious beliefs
without being dualist. But they almost always go together. And some
very popular religious views rest on a dualist foundation, such as
the belief that people survive the destruction of their bodies. If
you give up on dualism, this is what you lose (Bloom 2004).
One possible explanation for the continued prevalence and tenacious
staying-power of scientifically implausible beliefs, such as
dualism, is that certain cognitive systems that evolved for survival
purposes will tend to be recruited quite naturally by religious
memes. (A meme is a replicating unit of cultural or informational
transmission; for example, tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothing
fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches [Dawkins 1989].)
The human mind tends to make inferences in which it ascribes agency
and motivation to natural phenomena that lack such attributes, to
believe in personal survival of death, and to experience altered
states of consciousness when under conditions of stress,
exhilaration, awe, passion or the influence of external factors such
electromagnetic fields and certain patterns of light and sound.
While particular interpretations will vary somewhat from one
religious culture to another, in general religious memes will always
involve a tendency to ascribe intelligence, agency and motivation to
natural phenomena that lack these attributes. In addition, as Boyer
points out (2001, p. 300) people often fall prey to such
psychological pitfalls as the:
People tend to adjust their impression of a scene to how others
describe it; for instance, they may perceive a facial expression
as one of anger, but if various people around them see it as one
of disgust, they too will say that they perceive it as
expressing that emotion.
False Consensus Effect:
This is the converse effect, whereby people tend wrongly to
judge that their own impressions are shared by others—for
instance, that other people’s emotional reaction to a scene is
substantially similar to theirs.
Memory for information an individual generates by
himself/herself is often superior to memory for perceived items.
In a particular scene you imagined, the details you volunteered
will be recalled better than those suggested by others.
It is easy for experimental psychologists to create false
memories, whereby people are intuitively certain they did hear
or see some item that was in fact imagined. Also, imagining that
you perform a particular action, if that is repeated often
enough, may create the illusion that you actually performed it.
Source Monitoring Defects:
People in some circumstances tend to get confused about the
source of particular information. (Was it their own inference of
someone else’s judgment? Did they hear it, or see it, or read
about it?) This makes it difficult to assess the reliability of
Once people entertain a particular hypothesis, they tend to
detect and recall positive instances that seem to confirm it,
but they are often less good at detecting possible refutation.
Positive instances remind one of the hypothesis and are counted
as evidence; negative instances do not remind one of the
hypothesis and therefore do not count at all.
Cognitive Dissonance Reduction:
People tend to readjust memories of previous beliefs and
impressions in light of new experience. If some information
leads them to form a particular impression of some people, they
will tend to think that they had that impression all along, even
if their previous judgment was in fact the opposite.
Although the belief set of any religion can be intellectualized,
acceptance of those beliefs is fundamentally a matter of psychology
(and evolutionary biology) and not of reason. An intellectual
dispute about the ideological content of religious faith is a
category error. It is like trying to debate someone who is madly in
love. One cannot be argued into love any more than one can be argued
out of it. Love is fundamentally not something one decides on the
basis of the intellect. Similarly, religion is not something that
one chooses by studying all the available faiths and choosing one.
Most people are raised in a culture where a particular religion is
dominant. They tend to adopt that faith automatically as part of
their normal acculturation. Then, when they have certain
experiences, such as eerie coincidences, or feelings of a sensed but
invisible presence, or encounters with dead bodies, or dreams of the
recently deceased, their faith in their culture’s religion will
either tend to be strengthened, or else they will seek another
religion that seems to provide better explanations for these
Nature of Spirituality
The cognitive systems that can be recruited by religious memes are
based on brain structures featuring excitation thresholds that vary
from one individual to another. In some people, these brain
structures can be triggered more easily to produce unusual states of
consciousness. The temporal lobe is one such structure that has been
linked to experiences of sensed presence (when no one else is
nearby), feelings of elation, and other states of consciousness
generally categorized as spiritual (Persinger 1987; Murphy 2004).
Other researchers have shown experimental evidence that during
meditation and prayer additional brain structures are affected.
Increased activity in the frontal lobes and decreased activity in
the posterior superior parietal lobe have been found (d’Aquili and
Newberg 2001). The discovery of this neurological activity pattern
prompted researcher Scott Atran to speculate that “this may have
something to do with the most outstanding aspect of mystical
experiences: namely, a vivid but diffusely conceived awareness of a
boundless universe, centered on (joined to, merged with) a self that
has no physical markers or constraints” (Atran 2002, p. 181).
Neurons outside the central nervous system may also play a
significant role in mystical experience. According to researchers
d’Aquili and Newberg (2001, p. 40) “the autonomic nervous system may
be fundamental to religious experience” because different types of
meditation differentially affect its two components, the arousal
(sympathetic) and quiescent (parasympathetic) systems.
Significantly, perhaps, Zen Roshi Gudo Nishijima also asserted that
balancing the autonomic nervous system is essential to spirituality,
especially for understanding what Buddhists call the “storehouse
consciousness” or alaya-vijnana. (The Oxford Dictionary of
Buddhism [p. 8] defines alaya-vijnana as “the
substratum…consciousness” from which all “the remaining seven
consciousnesses arise and produce all present and future modes of
experience” but which “at the moment of enlightenment” is
“transformed into the Mirror-like Awareness or perfect
discrimination of a Buddha”.) Nishijima wrote of his belief that
“the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, which is
ordinarily beyond our conscious control, was none other than the
functioning of the unconscious itself: the alaya-vijnana”
(Nishijima 1992, p 55).
It is not yet clear to what degree this neurological tendency toward
spiritual experiences is genetic or environmental. At this time it
is probably still too early to speculate on which genes might be
associated with a propensity for spirituality, although at least one
researcher claims to have found a modest (less than 1%) correlation
between a personality trait known as “self-transcendence” and a
certain version of the VMAT2 gene (Hamer 2004). No doubt, both
heredity and environment are important factors for the determining
the entire set of individuals who have spiritual experiences to a
significant degree. But such general knowledge is not helpful in the
case of any individual, just as a public health warning cannot
substitute for an individual diagnosis rendered by a competent
Regardless of how much heredity or environment may affect the
propensity for spiritual experiences, however, there is one factor
that clearly works to increase the frequency and intensity of such
experiences: personal spiritual practices. This should not be
surprising, since the promise of having such experiences has been
presented enticingly by the books and teachers of spiritual
traditions since time immemorial. As Boyer suggests (2001, p. 308)
“we will learn a lot about religion by asking mystics or devotees
about their specific experience, about its special features, about
the way it connects with other thoughts.”
Prayer, meditation, chanting, fasting, contemplation of sacred
images, and the ingestion of mind-altering substances have been
prescribed for spiritual aspirants for millennia. Countless
individuals have used these means to alter their minds, their moods
and their personalities. (But as we shall see, not all of these
alterations are permanent nor are they without some costs.) Study of
these “spiritual technologies” is ancient. The new aspect of this
study is our present capacity to examine the physiological,
neurochemical and neurological correlates of spiritual experiences.
Trans-Spirit Levels of Analysis
“Game theory is for aliens.”
—Pascal Boyer, RELIGION EXPLAINED
Applying insights from game theory and evolutionary psychology to
our own selfish genes is contrary to what comes naturally. We want
to believe that we act consciously, that we make choices freely
rather than being subtly influenced by biological, psychological and
memetic forces about which we still have but little knowledge and
over which we have even less control. Similarly, viewing our
religious and spiritual beliefs objectively is, in most faith
traditions, considered to be dubious at best and sinful at worst. We
must make a conscious effort to overcome our natural tendency of
self-deception. We must overcome our pre-conscious motives that
impel us to see ourselves in the false but flattering mirror of our
own self-regard. Gazing into this fun-house mirror, we also blind
ourselves to the objective reality of the world around us. Or, as
George Orwell (1946) put it, “To see what is in front of one’s nose
needs a constant struggle.”
As a first step in dealing with these tendencies, I shall
analytically divide religion and spirituality into three levels:
Abstract (A), Basic (B) and Concrete (C) as shown in Table 1.
Table 1: Trans-Spirit Levels of Analysis
(Theology, Theory, Philosophy)
Systems of religion and belief intended to codify doctrines
and to establish official rationales for group practices.
(Daily Life, Social Relations, Spiritual Practices)
Personal practices intended to induce subjective states
characterized by feelings of unity, ecstasy, bliss, etc.
(Physiology, Neurology, Neurotheology)
Explanatory model of spiritual phenomena and the tendency to
create and accept theological systems. Neurotheology employs
scientific understanding of the brain, including all of its
component systems down to the finest level of detail
Level A is practically useless for the purpose of understanding why
most human beings are religious and how spiritual phenomena occur on
a causal basis (unless one assumes that some sort of divine
revelation has indeed taken place, which is an assumption
Trans-Spirit does not make). The explanations given by theology will
differ depending upon which religious group (religion, sect, or
faith community) has created them. These explanations come after
the fact of spiritual experiences, or else in place of
those experiences. Theological explanations are designed to
accomplish at least two things: 1) to give to the experiences of
every individual the grandest interpretations possible; and 2) to
answer people’s questions with the most comprehensive, cosmic
answers imaginable. However, theological systems often fail to
explain adequately or to satisfy completely, which is why members of
many religions are so often encouraged to “pray for faith.”
Theological explanations often fail because they are not causally
linked to the experiences they attempt to explain. In addition,
theology itself is often internally contradictory (if not simply
incoherent) since most world religions evolved organically from the
teachings of one or a few founders and their later followers, few of
whom had in mind the creation of a logical and philosophical or
scientific system. Rather their goal was the creation of a community
Level B practices from different religious traditions (or from human
self-experimentation) are often similar to one another because,
while religions differ, human physiology is highly uniform.
Nevertheless, there are some differences. And both the similarities
and the differences are worthy of careful study. Prayer, chanting,
repetitive movement, meditation, fasting, bodily postures and
gestures, each exploit the possibilities inherent in the human
organism to produce changes of mood, perception and conception.
The aim of Trans-Spirit is to explain the mechanisms of the body and
brain affected by these practices in terms of Level C analysis, not
from Level A.
The reason for seeking Level C explanations is that neither those of
Level A nor of Level B can explain scientifically why a given
spiritual practice yields the effects that it does. Level A
explanations, while perhaps sophisticated and religiously plausible
within a particular faith tradition, do not explain why members of
other religions or no religion can achieve the same, or similar,
effects by employing the same practices. Level B practices are
themselves often given in terms of operational definitions, which
simply instruct individual practitioners to perform certain actions.
Although operational definitions do not require causal explanations,
most Level B practice instructions are embellished with fanciful
ideas that describe psychic energies, mysterious cosmic forces, and
invisible beings. Remove such superfluous packaging and the
practices would still have the same effect, but perhaps would not be
as attractive to potential practitioners.
Historically, Level A analysis was thought to explain Level B in
almost all cases (except, perhaps, for cases of clinical
psychopathology with a religious component, such as may occur in
patients suffering temporal lobe epilepsy). We might say that Level
A analysis was always used in the past because it was the only set
of explanations available. In every pre-modern religious tradition,
the parochial religion provided Level A explanations that seemed to
suffice because a) no other religious tradition was widely available
in that particular time and place; b) science in the modern form did
not yet exist; and c) philosophical explanations were neither widely
known nor easily understood by most people. In addition, we must
acknowledge that many ancient philosophical explanations were in
reality no more accurate than Level A theological analysis.
In terms of their respective degrees of development, Level A is the
most sophisticated, having been refined over millennia of
elaboration in the most ancient religious traditions. Traditions
that have grown over such a long period of time are the work of many
minds and many hands, with large bodies of written scripture and
commentaries, as well as theologies (both systematic and dogmatic),
stories, visual arts, music and ceremonial practices. Altogether,
these comprise a magnificent edifice built by generations of human
effort. Although impressive to behold, this edifice also functions
as an oppressive pyramid of complications. A newcomer to the
religious tradition is overwhelmed by the size and complexity of it,
and confused by the various sects within it, each claiming to be the
sole possessor of right understanding relative to that religion. And
that religion, of course, also typically proclaims itself to be the
one true faith.
Level B exists beneath the pyramid of the past. At this level, most
people simply accept the religious tradition in which they were
raised. They don’t worry overmuch about how religious claims might
be proven. And they tend to be highly resistant to arguments
attempting to disprove such claims. But they will sometimes be
curious about spiritual practices that are supposed to yield
experiential evidence in support of religious claims. If such
practices are engaged intensively, they do indeed produce
experiences of an unusual kind. When these experiences appear, most
experiencers accept them as confirmatory of religious claims.
However, in some cases an experiencer may question whether what has
been experienced is truly related to some cosmic reality, rather
than being a neurophysiologic response that has been colored by a
pre-existing interpretive scheme. Thus, an experiencer may wonder
why, if he happens to be a Christian, he sees a vision of Christ,
while a Hindu undergoing a similar type of experience sees a vision
Some spiritual traditions, especially those from India, Tibet and
East Asia (ITEA), have developed elaborate systems of spiritual
practice (e.g., many forms of meditation, breathing techniques,
yogic postures, t’ai chi chuan, etc.). These practices go far beyond
anything in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) traditions when ITEA
and JCI are compared in terms of the number, and variety, and
complexity of their spiritual practices. The ITEA meditation
practices are far more elaborately detailed, with precise
instructions on posture, breathing and mental focus. The ITEA
traditions also have long lists of experiential phenomena that
practitioners must watch for and engage with (i.e., either foster or
dampen). Scientific study of advanced practitioners of the
techniques developed in ITEA traditions is already underway in
Western laboratories. This is leading to an understanding of how
Level B practices affect Level C physiology.
While the ITEA practices had often been developed to fit into
certain religious niches defined by Level A thinking, the practices
themselves will work with or without a Level A superstructure. In
fact, they can work outside any religion. But the fact that they
rarely do exist outside a religion indicates that most human beings
are not comfortable engaging in consciousness-modifying practices
for the long term without some kind of broad explanatory structure
to support them. For the short term, however, many people are
willing to spend a weekend or even a week undergoing some kind of
intensive regime of spiritual practice. (Similarly, many people
were—and some still are—willing to try psychedelic drugs in an
attempt to reach these altered states more quickly and easily,
albeit with so many drawbacks that relatively few have been willing
to risk their health and sanity by persisting in such dangerous
behavior over the long term.)
The Costs of Discipleship
Traditionally, spiritual practitioners have placed themselves in the
hands of spiritual masters whose guidance and demands were to be
accepted without question. The results of this type of utter
submission have been mixed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brave German
Lutheran pastor who was martyred by the Nazis for his anti-Hitler
activities, gave the title The Costs of Discipleship (1959)
to his memorable book on the responsibility of Christians to live
their faith no matter how high the personal costs. With all due
respect to Rev. Bonhoeffer’s courage and his cause, I will
appropriate his title for broader application. Bonhoeffer called
Christians to their moral duty to oppose evil even at the cost of
their own lives. He saw this as an essential requirement for true
disciples of Christ.
Unfortunately, such bravery even unto death is not limited to the
side of the angels. There were others, including the Nazis who
persecuted Bonhoeffer, whose discipleship was to a different master.
They, too, were fervent and willing to endure self-sacrifice even
unto death for their cause. The value of self-sacrifice lies not in
the sacrifice itself, but in the rightness of the cause for which a
person chooses to make this, the ultimate sacrifice. The nobility of
the deed is not in the deed itself, but in the cause.
A religiously-motivated terrorist, of the type currently active
among militant Islamists, wraps himself in explosives, walks into a
public place, and detonates the explosives, killing both himself and
many of his so-called enemies. We cannot deny that the terrorist
displayed the courage for self-sacrifice. But we certainly cannot
claim that his action was a morally good form of self-sacrifice.
This is the dark side of religion, lit only by the Luciferian torch
of the fanatic. It is destructive, yet also seductive, as it offers
many of the same benefits to its members that can be had from more
benign religion affiliations: a firm belief structure, group
solidarity, and a higher cause to follow that is greater than
oneself. The terrorist, the suicide-bomber, the assassin, the
murderer of abortion doctors, may belong to different faiths or
traditions, yet they all conform to the same cult of death.
Individual spirituality that includes practices to induce altered
states of consciousness does not usually lead to that cult of death,
and so may seem to be free of dangerous side effects. But
individuals can harm themselves and injure their familial and social
relationships by excessive engagement with these practices. A
teacher of various forms of meditation reports having encountered
several students who were damaged by these practices over the course
of his 25 year career. He writes that:
…psychosis may develop if the student over meditates, say several
hours at one stretch. If the meditation is too intensive and the
focus is on one or two chakras, then ill effects may arise. … Many
lay people in the Far East would like to go to Thai monasteries and
be monks for a month or so. There are no radio, television or books
to read in these monasteries. They meditate about 8-10 hours a day
and stop eating after midday. This monastery practice can drive
quite a few crazy, especially if they are not guided. Most of them
are not properly guided. So the answer is not to meditate unguided
for long periods of time (Khoo 2005).
Practices such as meditation and prayer that may help most people in
moderate amounts could impair other people whose peculiar
neurological structure predisposes them to conditions such as
temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) (Persinger 1987). But even for the
healthy majority for whom these practices are beneficial, excessive
engagement can have deleterious effects. Remember the medical
dictum: “The dose makes the poison.” People who spend many hours
every day in prayer and/or meditation over a period of many months
or years could cause themselves harm. It is also possible that
people who are already neurologically damaged may have a propensity
to engage in such practices excessively as a side effect of their
pre-existing impairment. In other words, overdoing prayer and
meditation (or fasting, chanting, etc.) could either induce, or be
the result of, pathology.
Spiritual Transformation: An Enlightening Discussion of
Are there any genuine benefits to meditation practices? Yes. A
moderate daily practice with only occasional sessions of intensive
practice can have quite salutary effects. I say this based on my own
experience as a practitioner of Soto Zen Buddhism as well as on the
physiological and psychological benefits of meditation that have
been well-documented by reputable scientific researchers (Blackmore
2004). But some meditators are not seeking the kinds of modest
benefits that have been demonstrated. They are looking for something
much, much more grand and cosmic. They seek Enlightenment!
What is Enlightenment? On this question there is much debate. (For
an excellent discussion of this topic, see Blackmore, p. 401-414.)
At one extreme (among those who believe in it at all) are those who
claim that Enlightenment is a radical and permanent transformation
in consciousness that relieves one of all fear, sorrow, anger,
hatred, lust, unhappiness, ignorance and even death. And along with
Enlightenment, these claimants assert, come supernatural powers. But
at the other extreme (where I place myself), there is the Soto Zen
Buddhist view as propounded by 13th century Zen Master
Dogen that zazen meditation is itself “practice-realization”:
The zazen I speak of is not learning
meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the
practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the
manifestation of ultimate reality (Dogen 2005).
The quest for Enlightenment is the great spiritual lure that draws
some people to overindulge in meditation, prayer and often unwise
discipleship to any of a large number of questionable gurus who
populate today’s spiritual marketplace. Indeed, the biggest lure
leading into the cultist trap is the promise of Enlightenment. Many
poor unfortunates have lost their money, their friends and family,
their careers and even their minds to these insidious groups. A cult
may deliver the security of group membership, the confidence that
comes from adopting dogmatic beliefs, and the comfort of
self-righteousness. But the one thing a cult can never deliver is
Enlightenment. Detailed first-person reports and documented evidence
of cultic abuse are not difficult to find (see for example Falk
2005, and the online Daism Research Index).
Properly understood, Enlightenment is nothing more than the simple,
unobstructed awareness that one is alive in this great universe.
There is no informational content to it, no secret knowledge
suddenly revealed about the origin and destiny of the universe. It
is not “the secret of life” —as if life even had such a secret.
Enlightenment is simply being awake and knowing that you are
awake. Therefore, Enlightenment is a sort of cognitive
realization. Enlightenment is the re-cognition of experience
from a different perspective.
Meditation can be helpful in preparing one for this realization.
Again, as Master Dogen said, zazen meditation is
practice-realization, which may be more intense for some individuals
than for others. But meditation does not guarantee that one will
have that extra, more intense experience of Enlightenment. And that
more intense form of the re-cognition called Enlightenment often
does not occur during meditation. (For first-hand reports of
Enlightenment, see Merrell-Wolff 1994 for realization outside formal
meditation, and Morinaga 2002 for Enlightenment during meditation.)
So the attempt to reach Enlightenment by means of relentless,
self-punishing, excessively intensive mediation may succeed in some
cases, but is more often either futile or dangerous. The Buddha
taught the Middle Way. Excessively long and frequent periods of
meditation are not the Middle Way, nor are greed for any experience,
or for what is conceived to be Enlightenment itself, conducive to
Transhumanists may choose to engage in spiritual practices. But
there is no compelling transhumanist reason to do so. Transhumanists
are practical, scientifically-oriented, rational beings who seek to
enhance themselves and bring about benefits for others who
voluntarily accept them. So transhumanists are already fulfilling at
least one of the religious vows of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism,
which is the Bodhisattva vow to “save”—or bring about abundant good
for—all beings (Kalsang 1995, p. 83).
Many transhumanists are atheists or agnostics who tend to reject
spiritual practices because of historical linkages with religion. I
would point out to atheists/agnostics that spiritual practices such
as meditation can be engaged without any religious component
whatsoever. We can study the practical guidelines for meditation
that have been handed down by religious traditions and use these
guidelines for their empirically-tested value. But we should not
stop there: we must use the best current scientific techniques to
test the usefulness of the ancient guidelines. Where possible, we
must improve on the old ways of doing things.
One of the signal failures of traditional spirituality was its mass
character: it was a one-size-fits-all set of practices for most
people. Transhumanist spirituality can overcome this limitation. It
can be highly personalized, thanks to our growing scientific ability
to distinguish individual differences in psychology and
neurophysiology. In the past, only a spiritual master was said to be
able to give correct individual instruction in spiritual practice,
telling one person to use one technique and instructing another
person to use a different one. This required a lot of faith on the
part of the spiritual practitioner who possessed few intellectual
tools for distinguishing between competent spiritual masters and
cunning frauds. Unfortunately, as we know so well from the record of
modern cults, such faith is all too often misplaced. A
scientifically-based, transhumanist spirituality would not require
such unquestioning obedience. The reasons for recommending any
spiritual practice could be explained rationally based on empirical
data and scientifically verified techniques. The effectiveness of
the practice could be measured. Guesswork and faith could be reduced
to arbitrarily low levels if not eliminated completely.
Will there be a transhumanist religion? Probably not in any sense
that corresponds to the traditional definition of religion as a set
of propositions accepted without evidence. Rationally,
transhumanists cannot accept the myths and religious dogmas of the
hoary past. Yet at the same time we must acknowledge the findings of
evolutionary psychology that explain how and why these beliefs arose
and persist. Crucially, we must not fail to see that for very many
people these beliefs and their power to motivate human behavior are
unlikely to diminish significantly in the near future. If we
seriously want to achieve our transhumanist goals, we must
acknowledge that we are not likely to do so by turning the majority
of religious believers against us.
to Be Done?
Trans-Spirit researchers have two goals: 1) to achieve a complete
scientific understanding of religious and spiritual phenomena, and
2) to develop techniques for inducing and controlling these
phenomena for the good of individual practitioners and for society
as a whole. I believe that these goals should comprise an important
part of the transhumanist program for human advancement.
In proceeding toward these goals, we must begin by deciding how to
deal with the phenomena I have categorized in the Trans-Spirit
Levels of Analysis. I assert that we should:
1) Ignore Level A analysis for the medium term. It offers little to
investigators who seek a neurological explanation for spiritual
2) Examine Level B practices using the best available scientific
methods, especially by employing brain scanning equipment and
biochemical analysis (i.e., monitoring changes in hormones and
neurotransmitters, electrical patterns of neuron firing, etc.).
Also, Trans-Spirit researchers should conduct experiments aimed at
inducing spiritual experiences. We should consider all available
technologies for these experiments, including (but not limited to)
transcranial electro-magnetic stimulation of the brain, visual and
auditory stimulation to induce altered states of consciousness, and
where allowed, chemical agents.
3) Focus on Level C as it relates to spirituality. Very few of the
first-hand reports of spiritual events in consciousness have
included detailed information about the physical circumstances
surrounding such events. The person who experiences spiritual
transformation of some kind naturally tends to focus on that
subjective event. He or she either ignores, or is literally ignorant
of, the surrounding weather, geomagnetic fields, alterations in
diet, changes in brain chemistry, etc. that may have contributed to
the subjective experience. Events at this most concrete level of
physical reality may be causative of the spiritual phenomena that
manifest at the next highest level (and probably beyond that, as
well, to Level A). In essence, this means trying to understand
Level B in terms of Level C. (See Appendix: Trans-Spirit
Science is still far from having a complete understanding of how the
brain functions neurologically. A complete understanding would
extend from fundamental phenomena, such as the actions of calcium
channels in individual neurons, all the way to the highest levels of
conscious awareness. Once these are understood concretely as
mechanisms, they can be monitored, manipulated and managed
benevolently as a living art.
Before we reach that level of control and beneficence, we must deal
with the present confused and dangerous state of human affairs.
Transhumanists cannot ignore the evolutionary psychological reasons
for human religious beliefs and the organic reasons for spiritual
practices. We must work to cool the fires of tribal passions and
cultic zeal, while we seek to understand the mechanisms that give
rise to these phenomena so that we can both explain and utilize
them. The human propensity for religion and spirituality, if
understood and properly used, can become part of a benign,
progressive and truly liberating way of life.
In keeping with the transhumanist spirit of free inquiry, the
Trans-Spirit research program will not proselytize. Trans-Spirit
researchers will not engage in theological or metaphysical disputes
with the proponents of any religion. Rather, Trans-Spirit seeks to
cooperate with people of religious and spiritual orientations who
wish to better understand the phenomena associated with those
Transhumanist spirituality will be possible without mythology or
religious belief. It will be highly personalized, and based on
spiritual practices that have scientifically verified value.
Transhumanist spirituality will be the ultimate fruit of the
Trans-Spirit research program.
Appendix: Trans-Spirit Protocols
Ignore the person’s interpretations of his/her spiritual
Focus on the circumstances in which spiritual experiences
Look for information about patterns and frequencies of light,
sound, motion in each case
Investigate possible influences from magnetic fields
Consider possible effects of diets, diseases and drugs
Note reports of side-effects on balance, perception and
Look for admissions of other negative after-effects*
Consider self-reports of feelings that occur during some
extreme self-confidence (arrogance of authority)
absolute certainty (unquestioned intuition)
sensation of floating
disconnection from external reality (“It’s all a dream”)
sense of mission (“It’s vital to spread the word”)
sensation of internal energy flows (“current”)
apparent capacity to “induce” similar experiences in others
who are receptive
Of particular interest are sexual side-effects. Many deeply
interiorizing experiences will cause a loss of libido. An exception
is the so-called kundalini experiences (generally associated with
the sensation of energy rising up the spine). These may cause
Coordinated surveys of spiritual practitioners who engage in
different types of meditation and prayer
Functional magnetic resonance imaging of practitioners
meditating or praying
Transcranial stimulation of the temporal lobes under controlled
Long-term follow-up studies of practitioners of meditation and
prayer which track psychological, physiological and social
Tests based on the latest discoveries about brain functioning
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