A general theory of spirituality
It's time for Buddha's to build for good, for each other, together.
Hi, I’m Oshan. This newsletter explores topics around emancipatory social science, consciousness studies, & together, the worlds they might weave. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
A General Theory of Spirituality (GTS) is afoot. The secular West has been trying to figure out how to talk about spirituality for decades, how to bring it into the domain of polite conversation and scientific language and academic research funding and the God-is-dead world. The GTS is the most promising, though incomplete, step I’ve seen.
The GTS I’m talking about is from Shamil Chandaria’s talk at Oxford, and subsequent conversations unpacking how predictive processing and meditation can spiral into a full-blown explanation of consciousness, the perennial philosophy, and enlightenment.
The GTS goes something like this.
GTS, phase I: deconstruction
First, you deconstruct your conscious awareness, which we now like to talk about as a predictive processing system that’s driven by the free energy principle to minimize uncertainty.
You can use various technologies of transcendence to put this system to sleep—meditation, psychedelics, prayer, good therapy, maybe even baking. For example, you can trick your mind to lose interest in its predictions by sitting very quietly and focusing on the tip of your nose, and then dropping that focus altogether and sinking back into the newly quiet and serene mind, all the way until you encounter the ground of that entire generative model, the ground of awareness.
Now, with the deconstructed mind at ease, you’re simply lying on this ground. You can rub your hands along its surface like Jim Carrey when he reaches the edge of the world in The Truman Show.
If you’re familiar with Aldous Huxley’s idea of the Perennial Philosophy, this ground is it. In the introduction, he writes:
“The metaphysic that recognises a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”
But the GTS says that the perennial philosophy is only half the story. Humankind’s final end is not to simply bask in the suchness of the “transcendent Ground of all being.” After the ecstasy, the laundry, as Jack Kornfield wrote. After hitting the absolute ground of consciousness, emptiness, you reenter the marketplace.
In predictive processing terms (the native language of the GTS), you then engage in a process of reconstructing your high-level priors, where very real differences emerge in how that perennial ground is embodied depending on the context of how and why and for what you’re reconstructing the system.
GTS, phase II: reconstruction
Now, you’re no longer stuck together as a single being with the predictions your mind is always making (I should clarify that here, “predictions” means your subjective experience of the world). Chris Letheby described this to me as “unselfing.” You notice how they’re constructed in real time. You are also one of these ongoing constructions, so you can’t just shake them off.
But with this new unselfy ability to notice the ongoing construction, you can participate. You can exert some agency. You can fiddle with the priors that uphold your hierarchical model of the world like someone moving Jenga logs around, reconfiguring the stack.
You can tilt your predictive models — the contents and even textures of your consciousness — towards whatever patterns of perception you’d prefer. Love, wisdom, well-being, agency, or maybe a general sense of Deep Okayness as an organism.
But if you’re wondering whether the GTS has a way of sorting and ranking these various goals, these various different ways of being that you might choose to tilt yourself towards, you will be disappointed. It does not, and this is a problem.
Extracting technologies of transcendence but discarding their ethical contexts leaves a big hole
Here’s where the GTS, a secular and Western spin on one of humankind’s oldest themes, still comes up short. How should we choose what to reconstruct ourselves towards? Whither shall we anneal ourselves?
Answers to these questions tend to exist in the larger cultural and ethical milieu where deconstructive practices are highly developed. The various technologies of transcendence we might use for phase I — meditation, psychedelics, prayer, ritual — all came to us via extraction from rich social, cultural, and ethical contexts.
We’ve taken the tools for transcendence but discarded the ethics, and are left wondering how to make up the gap. We’re deconstructing ourselves without a map.
“THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE from mainstreaming mindfulness can serve as a cautionary tale for psychedelic medicalization: important wisdom is lost when technologies of transcendence are stripped from their spiritual and religious contexts and presented as psychological treatments. Meditation, once a practice of a very select group of virtuoso monks in Buddhist cultures, is now a wellness program offered by schools, prisons, hospitals, and corporate America. Psychedelics are no longer just visionary tools of shamans or sacraments guarded by complex rituals; they are on the way to becoming medical interventions. People will be harmed. How many, how, and why, we don’t yet know, in part because so few are given voice to share their stories, and little research exists.” (Rachael Petersen, A Theological Reckoning with Bad Trips)
Should we reprogram ourselves, or should we reprogram the social worlds that produce our-selves?
Here’s where a somewhat common but quite important critique comes into play, especially if we don’t tread carefully.
The gist of the GTS is this: life can be tough, and you’ll probably acquire some kinks in your generative models of the world that do not serve you, or you would prefer were otherwise. Maybe you still hold back your opinions in public because that one shithead made fun of you in 4th grade in front of the class. Maybe you lived through violence at a young age, and it continues to define how you relate to others. But have no fear, you can deconstruct these priors, sprawl out on the ground of awareness, and reprogram your predictive mind in ways that are kinder, stronger, or wiser than how the world made you.
In other words, the GTS can shift focus towards learning how to reprogram your-self, rather than reprogramming the world that produced the very kind of self that called for reprogramming in the first place.
It might actually draw people and energy away from the project of building a social reality that helps foster flourishing for all, rather than only for those who manage to undergo regimes of spirituality.
If we can just reprogram ourselves with greater and greater degrees of skillfulness, why reprogram the social world, which is comparatively far more difficult?
There are a number of things to say here. One: the idea that one can only focus on either themselves or the social world is wrong. These two are of course interwoven and available for simultaneous action.
Two: it takes a great degree of luck, privilege, and favorable circumstance to find yourself in the kind of life where you can undergo the full regime prescribed by the GTS. And our lives are all hitched together—for every tech entrepreneur with millions in the bank going on meditation retreats and ayahuasca journeys and diets and various gizmos measuring their metabolic age, there’s an entire subnivean world of poor, laboring Americans whose lives allow very little time, bandwidth, capital, or energy for daily guided meditations with Rob Burbea’s talks (which are excellent) and ayahuasca sessions (not to mention the global tangle of souls who sustain our lifestyles).
Evan Thompson has a nice take here:
“It strikes me as more consumerist, capitalist appropriation of meditation as a kind of narcissistic personal experience,” he said. “It’s about my enlightenment attained through techno-enhancement. Call that enlightenment if you want, but enlightenment in a richer sense is about a profound transformation not of yourself just as an isolated individual but of your relationship to other human beings in the world. It’s social.”
- (From Sigal Samuel’s piece on new neurotechnologies)
We flourish together, or not at all.
So what to do? I believe that GTS could be a force for good, and may continue to grow in its power. But it’s unfinished. It needs an ethical framework, a cultural container, and a social dimension to expand beyond the atomized individualism of late modernity.
Consciousness is social (I mean this literally, as in it arises from a fundamentally relational substrate, and makes no sense as an atomized, isolated thing), and we need a General Theory of Spirituality that recognizes and reconstructs it as such.
An ethics of Care
Since GTS uses the language and ontology of cognitive science, we might as well look for an ethical framework with the same language. So here’s one option, why not.
A really surprisingly diverse group of academics wrote a paper titled Biology, Buddhism, and AI: Care as the Driver of Intelligence. The basic idea is that “care,” defined in highly specialized terms, offers an approach to ethics that can fit not only humans, but the incoming world of highly diverse and novel living systems, from hybrid beings that are part-human-part-machine to AI’s that pass the Turing Test.
“We propose a central concept as a key invariant across these fields: Care (a metric focused on motivation, stress, and goal-directedness of agents). If stress is the manifest discrepancy between current and optimal conditions, ‘Care’ can in turn be defined as concern for stress relief, and ‘intelligence’ as the degree of capacity for identifying and seeking such relief.”
The big idea here is that intelligence (the capacity to close the gap between a living system’s present state and desired state) is not confined to the individual. Instead, care drives intelligence outwards, which actually expands the scope of intelligence itself (by expanding the spatiotemporal scale of the goals that an intelligent system pursues).
“Whereas the drive to reduce one’s own stress is a primitive and universal ingredient in cognition and intelligence, the inclusion of others’ stress as a primary goal necessarily increases the cognitive boundary of an individual and scales its intelligence.”
And tying it all together (also I spoke with Michael Levin on the podcast, one of the authors, if you’d like to dig deeper):
“Above all, the concept of Care provides a strong and fundamental link between practical strategies that will enhance engineering capacities and a way to develop a mature system of ethics that will be essential for a future in which highly diverse sentient beings must coexist and thrive together.”
An ethics of care is nothing new (great Philosophize This episode if you want another angle). But the paper begins to translate the ethics of care into the same cognitive science language as the GTS.
I’m not sure how well they might fit together, or whether they’d have any gravitas beyond the walls of academia. But before we become a writhing mass of deconstructed organisms with no collective schema for whatever is worth reconstructing ourselves towards, it might be wise to find out.
Because this is another paperclip maximizer threat—the drive to deconstruct could overtake humanity before we develop an ethical map that motivates any shared direction of reconstruction, leaving us all unbound and wandering along the ground of awareness, roving an eternal present like wraiths tracing the surface of the void. We’ve seen there’s nothing intrinsic to these technologies of transcendence that bend them towards inherently virtuous ends. Greatly accomplished meditators still sexually abuse others. Psychedelics pose no intrinsic threat to capitalism—they can just as well be great productivity boosters.
A matured GTS will require real Buddha’s to learn how to build up from the ground of Being for good, for each other, together.
Updates: — Next episode of the podcast is set! I'll be speaking with Eran Fisher, author of Algorithms and Subjectivity: The Subversion of Critical Knowledge. If you have any questions or thoughts around how the influx of algorithmically-created knowledge is transforming consciousness, reach out & let me know. — LEP is finally set to launch this month. I'm fiendishly excited about this. If you have your own platform/newsletter you'd be willing to help spread the word on for our launch, please reach out. You can hop on LEP's newsletter if you want to stay tuned. — I'm working on a long-form piece for Vox on 'psychedelics beyond psychiatry.' There's been plenty of attention, funding, and legalization efforts looking at the potential psychedelics hold for treating mental illness. But of course, psychedelics can offer something more to our lives than the next generation of psychiatric medicine. As Huxley put it, it is “to be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception,” to experience consciousness not as “an animal obsessed with survival,” or “a human obsessed with words and notions,” but to “directly and unconditionally” apprehend the “burning brightness of unmitigated Reality.” If you have any thoughts around this, I'd love to hear.
Until next time,
Seeing the ‘self’ as a constructed prediction of the generative model helps explain why the Ramana Maharshi meditation prompt, “Who am I,” can be so potent. You just repeat it over and over, constantly turning attention towards the I asking the question, and you begin to disassociate from this I (who are you when not identified with that I?), and render it opaque as a construction, which gets trippy fast.
I suspect the general tendency of real, non-superficial engagements with ‘technologies of transcendence’ might lean virtuous in the outcomes they’re associated with, but even if so, the edge cases can range from innocuous to really terrible, and the magnitude of harm that really terribly oriented deconstructed agents can do is not pleasing to stew over.
Many big and inspiring questions here. I feel I've been working on similar questions recently myself.
One thesis I've been slowly working my way through works its hypothesis as (from what I understand) the ethical as coming before the ontological, rather than vice versa. If the ethical comes after the ontological - after Being, after human existence - does that mean that the ethical is man-made, subjective, and must be created and then implemented? If this is the case, then the ethical is also trial and error, and must come after the deconstruction, after stage I and either during, or even after, the reconstruction of stage II. If this is the case, then can it really be a basis for reconstruction?
If the ethical comes prior to ontology, then one must already ethically be to truly be at all. Here, the process of reaching towards the 'Ground of Being' in deconstruction is also a process of entering the ethical realm. Then, in exercising the capacity to participate from that Ground of Being in the phase of reconstruction, there is also a participation with a higher ethical force guiding a person's actions and the whole of phase II. This might even imply that the ethical was there before stage I as well, establishing an understanding of entering a spiritual path from the beginning to be an ethical endeavor and not a egoic one, although both are necessary because the former is overwhelmed by the latter in manifestation.
To me, this would make sense because the spiritual path is an endeavor to enter a greater participation with conscious life, which as you already mention is necessarily social from the start. It's already there. It doesn't have to be made, just participated in. The cancer comes when there has just been enough deconstruction where the reconstruction can occur, but it comes from the prior ego instead of the Ground of Being - black magic. It doesn't come from the ethical, but the surface and artificial.
I'm reminded of a story told about a monk who was begging in the local town, away from his ashram. There, a man came and harassed the monk, spit on him, and hit him, but the monk (thinking he was doing his rightful duty) just sat and observed and didn't react to this. Later he left the town and went back to his guru at the ashram and told him of how great a student he was for passing this trial. However, the guru admonished him and rebuked his lack of action, and told him to go back to the town to see what was happening. So, the monk went back to the town and saw that the community members had all gone to that man's house and set it ablaze, destroyed all his belongings, and set him and his family out onto the streets for assaulting a 'pious' monk. When the monk returned to the guru and told him what had happened, the guru told the monk that if he had simply hit the man back, none of the rest of that would have happened to the man. It was the monk's own egoic righteousness that caused the greater harm done to man in the town and his family.
I share this story as an interesting anecdote for the pondering of what ethics really is and where it comes from. I don't really know how to take it. Where's the edge between a person's egoic righteousness dictating what the ethical is, and what the ethical actually is? This isn't to say that the abuse these "accomplished meditators" are guilty of isn't truly abuse and that they aren't guilty of it. More so, for me, I wonder if the ethical is created before time and enters into the world through a person's participation with the Ground of Being in each moment, rather than some sort of 10 Commandments given as a prescript. Also, who is the 10 Commandments really for?
Sorry about the essay of a comment. Much more I question and could write and ponder on these topics. Thanks for the inspiration in this. I appreciate your writings.
Hey Joshan, just wanted to say that I really appreciate your contributions in this space. I think Michael Brooks would be proud of your ability to continually weave together spiritual awareness and material analysis. Much needed in these times!