Clarke’s Third Law
One of the first questions to ask about spirituality and technology is whether technology has an equivalent of the theological entity referred to as the spirit, soul, sentience, anima or consciousness.
Philip K. Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep and its film adaptation, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, explore the kinship between humans and machines. Among the questions explored in the texts are: What makes an entity human? Dick has devised his own version of the Turing Test – the Voigt Kampff machine, which measure pupil dilation and the emotion of particles from the body, as a measure of whether a being experiences empathy as a response to questions designed to evoke an emotional response. Can a machine experience love? Can a human love a machine? Explored in the relationship between a human and a Replicant (cyborg) who is not self-aware, i.e. she thinks she is human. Do we achieve a sense of purpose and meaning through our memories?
Both humans and machines in the texts achieve meaning and purpose through memories which may or may not be implanted. What is real? If and when we can create a virtual reality, holodeck or implanted memories that erase the lines between real and simulated experiences. What happens when a machine retires? The last question is posed in a poetic scene in the film when the main antagonist, Roy Batty, a Replicant (cyborg) ruefully recounts the unique experiences in his life and reflects on what it means to die: “I have… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like… tears… in… rain. Time… to die…” As the force of animation leaves his body, his grip on a pigeon he is holding in his hand loosens and the pure, white bird flutters into the sky. The spirit has has left the body. The machine is no longer animate. Is the human body more than an animated set of organisms and the force of animation what we call the spirit? This theme has been explored in other classic science fiction texts such as Frankenstein where the created seeks validation from a creator who is unwilling to acknowledge that a being that thinks, feels and loves can be alive.
I believe that we will never find a universally acceptable answer to this question because the spiritual aspect of a being is, by definition, intangible and elusive. If we find a criteria for measuring or establishing a definition for consciousness and distinguishing the living from the machine, there will always be disagreement about whether the criteria measures all possible attributes, tangible and intangible and whether the assessment criteria is suitably objective and comprehensive. Since we can never measure all tangible and intangible attributes with an objective, comprehensive assessment criteria, that which remains undefinable and therefore invisible, will continue to be the intangible spiritual. The known and the unknown. Mystical and elusive. Moreover, the results of the assessment depends on who measures whom.
Erik Davis takes the discussion on spirituality and technology in an interesting direction. His historical accounts of magicians and those dealing in the occult (the hidden) is reminiscent of pioneers in scientific research. What Dee called demons dwelling in the ether, we call daemons dwelling in the ethernet. What they called magic spells and invocations, we call programming languages and what they considered talismans, jujus and zemis, we call hardware. Davis sees spirituality and technology as an interface that allows us to experience those aspects of nature that we cannot experience through unmediated sensory perception. Technology, therefore is a medium, and just like a conjuror’s medium it gives us powers to connect with and influence that over which we cannot exercise natural powers. It makes us supernatural in that we can hear voices and see images from thousands of miles away. However, we are so inured with these supernatural abilities that they have lost a spiritual dimension. Davis’ arguments remind me of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Davis makes an interesting argument that those seeking spiritual experiences learn to live with ambiguity and often become dismissive of scientific knowledge. However, those on a spiritual journey must accept science as one dimension of a multi-dimensional experience.
Another question about spirituality and technology is regardless of whether technology is an embodiment of a spirit, soul, sentience, anima or consciousness, can it invoke or facilitate a spiritual experience.
One manifestation of technology facilitating religious and spiritual experiences are televangelists of all creeds who have jumped on the opportunity to reach a wider audience through the miracle of television. I won’t share any pejorative judgements about this phenomena, but I will share some examples of this spiritual experience mediated through technology:
Other technology mediated spiritual experiences include the meditation and mindfulness apps and websites that have proliferated the technology space over the last couple of years. These sites represent a common agenda – to remind users to slow down and mediate the onslaught of technology. This is a great space for spiritualism to interface with the individual because it is talking to you through the technology that takes us away from mindfulness.
And the final question is whether the technological imperative has a spiritual dimension
The social and economic objectives of technological development are always the most obvious. However, the spiritual imperatives of technological development include the movement for sustainable development and the desire to connect. When technological development considers the impact on living things, be they plants, animals, humans or the planet, it is incorporating spiritual considerations into development. However, another aspect of technological development that demonstrates spirituality is the desire to connect. Davis’ consideration of spirituality and technology as interfaces are at play here. Whether it is Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), Gibson’s cyberspace, the occultist notion of connecting to the noosphere and elusive bodies of knowledge through spells and incarnations, or simply the adoption of technology to connect with distant friends and family across space and time. Technology empowers us with supernatural powers in the ability to interface with all these inaccessible entities and the spiritual desire to connect with knowledge and life is a critical component of the technological imperative.
The following Global Consciousness Project website from Princeton University studies meaningful correlations in random data:
The project defines its objective as:
Our purpose is to examine subtle correlations that may reflect the presence and activity of consciousness in the world. We hypothesize that there will be structure in what should be random data, associated with major global events that engage our minds and hearts.
The Global Consciousness Project assumes that we do not consciously pursue global consciousness, but this meaningful connection is apparent ex post facto.
Spirituality in educational technology
I recently discovered that the word Enthusiasm has its origins in theology. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defines Enthusiasm as “a vain belief of private revelation; a vain confidence of divine favour or communication.” Do some of these spiritual connotations of the word Enthusiasm carry into its contemporary usage. When we fervently debate with our colleagues on discussion boards, read the material for our course and connect with our peers, is this enthusiasm a spiritual experience? As theorists and practitioners in the field of educational technology, can we infuse spirituality in our theory and practice by invoking enthusiasm in individual and group experiences?
Davis, Eric (2015) TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. North Atlantic Books (March 17 2015)
Kurzweil, Ray (2002) Are We Spiritual Machines? Discovery Inst (March 31 2002)