The late Christopher Hitchens said something to the effect that conversations about religion are always interesting because you find out so much about a person: Their values, their conception of what is real, what matters in this life.
In this podcast we use religious scripture to take us to that base, to that framework, and then with the questions incited from this investigation, we connect it to the future of humanity. Say, to the tech that might enable what the Buddha experienced in meditation. What if instead of devas, there are advanced alien races, who like devas, are not worthy of worship. They die too, and are not our salvation, but may be beings of great knowledge who wield technologies that make preposterous religious dialogue sound like “terms and conditions” read by Spocks.
Where would an artificial general intelligence with consciousness fit. Would it also be a mere deva or would it be a god like that of Abraham? Able to create universes as many physicist believe is possible with sufficient knowledge? Then what would be its values? Could it be that our cultures in inventing their particular god have been preparing for the advent of general AI. And how well has that historical project gone? Are the attributes of Allah or Krishna mere reflections of apish ignorance?
These are the sorts of questions we ask.
In this episode we look at the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta from Buddhist scripture. In which the Buddha converts a wanderer, Vacchagotta, to his way, to the way of the Buddha, to the Dharma.
Have you ever had a walk with a friend, like I have through the nearby shoreline of Lake Michigan and just asked philosophical questions? Not the boring esoteric philosophy questions, but questions like, “Would you rather know the truth of all things or would you rather experience pure pleasure in some machine?”
Back then, I was really unsure. Truth seemed so valuable – to see beyond my eyes conceived of mortal dust, and witness what is at bottom. And pleasure seemed so… unheroic. Yet if I was smart, I knew I would pick that blissful, everlasting, heroin high. But to even say it sounds vulgar. And I think this is because we know that pleasure in our conventional lives is not fulfilling. It fades and leaves us hollow.
This is what underlies the teachings of the Buddha. The concept that life as is lived by those uninstructed in his teachings, the natural way of things is unsatisfying because nothing lasts.
Would knowing the truth be any different? Say you discovered we lived in an eternal multiverse. You had the true theory of everything. You might be ecstatic for a moment, but how long would it take before the ups and downs of life, of samsara, made you think, damn knowing truth is not as important as I thought, I should have picked the other option.
In this sutta, the wanderer is like who I was when I was debating that question with my cousin and craved truth. He meets the Buddha and asks him, “Is the cosmos infinite? Is it finite? Is the body and the soul, the same? Or is dualism, with the soul not the same as the body, the way things actually are? What are the views of Master Gotama on these questions?” And the Buddha replies to each question saying that he does not hold that view.
In our debate walking by the shore, the Buddha is one who picks something more akin to the machine in our philosophical question. But not quite. He introduces the option of a machine, so to speak, that would make you perceive all phenomena of consciousness clearly for what they are. Sight is sight. Sound is sound. Sensation is sensation. Thought is thought. All being perceived closely as they appear and disappear. And you would not form views and stories about it. You wouldn’t even form the story of being a self who is experiencing these things. Therefore in this machine you would not get tired or bored after some time, because you would not perceive yourself as even being there. It doesn’t mean there would be sleep or nothingness. It means there would be a flow of experience so fluid that everything would be a clear stream, and you would be so tripped out in this stream of clear recognition that questions of truth or pleasure or your place in the world would be beyond irrelevant.
At first, the wanderer is confused. Because he views the world conceptually, like a philosopher or scientist or theologian. But the Buddha advocates a very clever way to game the system. And unless you have practiced this kind of meditation yourself for a long time, you too may be confused. So I would recommend that after this podcast you tune into a guided meditation by Sam Harris. He teaches you that operating system which is radically different from the way we normally interact with the world. And you can be sure there’s nothing magical about it, given that Harris has built his reputation on being radically skeptical of unreason.
I say this to my more scientific, atheistic side of the audience. But to the more mystical side, skeptical of things like the material basis of consciousness, I ask that you lay aside that skepticism and consider the possibility of engineering the brain at a molecular level so that all the neuronal circuitry is redesigned to experience precisely what the Buddha describes. Say we had this option in society. Would it be cheating, or would this hacking the system mentality be exactly what the Buddha was all about in the first place. Would there be nothing lost? Isn’t it just as vulgar as the traditional pleasure machine to forsake the quest for truth and enter this state that may just be a purer and nobler and ultimately more pleasurable version of the pleasure machine. Or can we say that the quest for truth as most conceive it is misguided and truth about the cosmos is ultimately as insignificant as truth about a toenail? That truth should be measured as the intensity to which you are in a state of flow?
Most Westerners, even if atheistic, think of truth as Christians do. Nietzche commented on this succintly. Plato to Christianity to Enlightenment thought; it’s all the same in one respect. Enlightenment thought uses the scientific methods, unlike the dogmatic reliance on scripture, which makes it very different, and yet it similar in that it creates a sense that there is some foundation that we can understand through thought to which we all belong. We never stop to see thought as the blip of energy that it is. A transient image or voice. We believe that what we see and think refers to something.
Think of dissecting a frog. That makes sense to you. We have been trained to dissect and expand on concepts. But have you ever stopped to directly dissect an emotion or the sound of these words? The Buddha asks that we turn to dissect truth on that plane, not the plane of concepts.
Unfortunately, I consider this way of existing incompatible with being a highly productive member of society. In order to transcend the human condition, we need more mastery over technology. Meditation can only go so far, and requires great investment of mental faculties in order to actually reach anything that is radically different from the base state of being. If the globe could be transformed into a dedicated community of monks, that would be better for most people living today, but it would forever cap our potential. Transhuman progress requires spiritually-disgusting sacrifice, ambition, and smart people of today being constantly lost in thought. However, it promises to reveal a much greater array of sustainable “higher-pleasure machines,” which, if we are honest, are all we could ever hope for.
*If you like this podcast idea, let me know. I might actually start something like this.*