About digital and spirituality

Love the stranger within us and the strangers with whom we wander.

a conversation with Rabbi Irwin Kula

by Matteo Scanni

“Just like there is no necessary connection between spiritual and moral development – though we would like to believe otherwise – there is no necessary connection between innovation and the public good. Greater intelligence is not the same as greater goodness, and a financially successful innovation that scales may make us no better than we are.
As we develop cognitive enhancements and physical augmentations that make people better at everything we also need to make better people.” As you can sense from his words, Rabbi Irwin Kula is a disruptive spiritual innovator and rogue thinker. A 7th generation rabbi, he is Co-President of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a do-tank committed to making Jewish a Public Good. A thought leader on the intersection of innovation, religion, and human flourishing, Irwin has worked with leaders from the Dalai Lama to Queen Noor and with organizations, foundations, and businesses around the world to inspire people to live with greater passion, purpose, creativity and compassion.

 

As a rabbi, what are our main contemporary dilemmas? Are there any?

The most serious dilemma we face is the intersection of reconceptualizing capitalism, reimagining liberal democracy, and expanding our moral imagination for the Fourth Industrial Age – a networked world characterized by new scientific discoveries and the emergence of new technologies. This requires narrowing the gap between our unprecedented and growing technological power and our psychological and moral development. We need to navigate the loss that comes with immense cultural, demographic, economic, and technological change. We need to evolve new common narratives that include the explosion of new heretofore marginal voices. We need to develop new kinds of bonds and webs of relationships that help us transcend our in-group /out-group hard wiring and enable people to be home in many cultures and languages, to have multiple and fluid identities, and to feel a sense of belonging to one’s own people. We must restore trust between citizens and the trustworthiness of elites. We need to give people dignified opportunities to contribute to the common projects of building a better society.

Just as monotheism/the axial age religions were an explanatory framework for the agricultural age and just like Humanism/Enlightenment/Sovereign Individual/Progress was the explanatory framework for the Industrial Age, we need a metaphysics for the information age, a “network theology” that captures the network reality of our life – that there is no God out there or “I” in here: there are only relations.

Given that religion can encourage both moral and immoral behaviors, can inspire cooperation and cruelty, compassion and crusades we need research on how religious wisdom and practice actually works. We need to filter religion through the sciences and epistemologies of the day to develop “evidence based religion” that helps us in measurable ways to flourish.
We need disruptive spiritual innovation that unbundles practices and wisdom from their particular contexts and creates spaces for the emergence of the next iterations of religion – “post religion religion”, a/theologies that re-enchant life, nurture awe and wonder, and cultivate virtues like gratitude, compassion, reverence, kindness, courage, and love.

The central dilemma is as it has always been: to learn how to love the strangers within us and the strangers with whom we wander.

 

How do we reconcile innovation and spirituality, progress and the common good?

Spirit is the energy of innovation. The question is what problems are we solving with our innovations? What jobs are our innovations getting done in new more efficient and effective ways? Are the problems worth solving, the jobs to be done worthy of innovating? Progress is the dance between innovating and traditioning to solve genuine problems that help people flourish.
We have been innovating since we stood upright and began fashioning tools – an event contemporaneous with the evolution of Homo sapiens. There can be no progress without innovation, but the question is what progress is the innovation helping us make in our life?

We need ethical and moral innovation – ethical innovators and early moral adopters who risk financial, reputational, psychological, and social capital to innovate moral enhancements. The “founder” of every major religion was a disruptive spiritual innovator who developed a venture that challenged incumbents, was good enough to get the job done, and that eventually scaled to become the institutional religions that need to be disrupted today. Every theological and spiritual insight was at one time an innovation – the notion that every human being is an Image of God, sacred, irreducible, a unique reality was an innovation that emerged in history through evolutionary complexity.

The convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science in the coming decades will give us unimaginable technological mastery of nature and ourselves. The challenge is to embed this technological project of improving humanity in questions like: What kind of human beings do we wish to be? What kind of society do we wish to live in? And which ideals, norms, and standards should guide us into the future?

 

The fact that a tiny elite of businesses controls the leading modern technologies seems to have established a new earthly and, in some ways, spiritual realm. Are we in danger of straying too far from what it is to be human?

For millennia we imagined a God in the sky who saw everything we did. We experienced a God who knew our innermost thoughts and hidden secrets and still loved us. I call this an “accountability technology”. In the face of the vastness and mystery of the universe we want to be known, we want to matter, we want to count, we want to be accountable. Conjuring up and believing in this Seeing Eye and Hearing Ear for millennia, not surprisingly we now have, with our God-given technological genius, created this capacity ourselves. We projected surveillance from the Heavens as a way to feel valued and now we have created the capacity of god-like surveillance as a way to create value. Rather than a benevolent loving God knowing us, which admittedly did produce guilt and shame that religious authorities too often exploited, now a few companies with unprecedented ability to collect data and with their opaque algorithms can crawl into the way we tick and know us better than we know ourselves. Would we rather be known by a “God who loves us” or by Zuckerberg, Bezos, and a small number of companies whose business models depend on controlling our attention, manipulating our desires to sell us something, and turning our data into a product to sell? History shows that strong, technologically advanced people, businesses, and countries are more interested in using newly acquired advantages to maintain their hegemonies and strengthen their supremacies, rather than to help the human community as a whole. But this is a stage in our evolution.

Jewish mystics teach that in order for the universe to exist, God needed to engage in tzimtzum – to self-limit, to hold back, to self regulate, to constrain his power. As a tiny elite of businesses control leading technologies and therefore wield immense power their challenge is one of tzimtzum. These businesses need to develop ethical norms and guardrails that protect themselves from exploiting their power and society needs to build in correctives and regulations to insure these new forms of human empowerment actually serve the common good.

This is the central human drama: as we become the gods we imagine we need to learn how to exercise our ever increasing power for the good. We eat from the Tree of Knowledge and develop new forms of power – and inevitably, even with the best of intentions, we transgress boundaries that lead to unintended consequences that cause damage and hurt and then we self- correct, repair, and learn how to channel and harness the new power for the good. This is the psycho-spiritual journey. As Spiderman teaches: With great power comes great responsibility.

 

How uncomfortable are your institutions when faced with fundamental issues such as the human-machine relationship, bio-hacking, and regenerative medicine?

As we stand on the cusp of technological advances that give us the power to direct our own evolution and compel us to reimagine what it means to be human, the key for the institutions with which I am associated is to hold together both excitement and discomfort. I want to hear a range of people interacting that spans traditionalists/conservatives for whom these new technologies threaten and caution beckons AND futurists for whom enhancing all aspects of life including creating life itself is a responsibility that comes with our intelligence and freedom. And I want this range of people to see themselves as part of the same community trying to figure out how to wander together towards an ever illusive promised land.

The Jewish ethos is to initially say Yes to discovering, learning, developing all forms of power that can enhance life and then to build in the correctives that mitigate the dangers that come with new power and indeterminacy and insure the new technologies are not exploited and used to destroy.
The fear of taking power – of the unknown – should not hold us back from any scientific or technological pursuit. Instead, as we understand and acquire new forms of power we need to build out paths to use the power in ways that actually enhance life.
The desires to look more attractive, reduce physical suffering, live much longer, think faster, run faster, be stronger, have the freedom to choose such enhancements, and even to become trans/post-human are understandable. As human beings who yearn for the infinite, because we are expressions of the infinite ,we will always pursue these desires. But traditionalists remind us that an understandable desire is not necessarily a good desire.

The best shot we have in creating this dance between saying yes to new technologies and to harnessing those new technologies for the good is to be all in on technological adventure and take seriously the insights of traditionalists who tend to weigh more heavily the wisdom of mortality, the dignity of every human being, and values like humility, modesty, prudence, and acceptance.

Religions at their best teach that we are each ethically responsible for the future evolution of the species and ultimately for the whole fate of the cosmos. “Saving one life is equal to saving an entire world” teach the Jewish sages. Religion when working right is especially sensitive to the trans-generational imperative – the responsibility to future generations for both technological and ethical advance.
Addressing this ethical responsibility may be where the most fruitful dialogue between technologists and innovators and religious leaders and institutions can take place. The conversation should overflow with sacred discomfort.

 

Is innovation changing the human relationship with sacred and transcendental matters?

Technological advance – specifically our ability and power to shape and control matter or the material world always impacts the way we experience the sacred and the transcendent. We engage in transcendence whenever we investigate the condition of our own experience – whenever we turn a subject into an object. The paradox is as we stripped ourselves of being at the center of things we wound up with greater understanding and power to shape life and a deeper sense of the sacred.
The dilemma isn’t technological innovation versus the sacred and transcendent but how we translate this new experience of the sacred and transcendent into every day.
Jewish wisdom teaches we are not permitted to depend on miracles. Rather than relying on hope in religious claims to guarantee the truth of transcendence we take agency – a sacred mandate to actually realize the fullest dimensions, depths and potential of our humanity – in religious terms of being an Image of God. Instead of hoping in some world to come we develop the tools and capacities needed to create our own transcendence. In other words, technological innovation does indeed disrupt the clear boundaries that exist between human and divine, profane and sacred, and human made and divinely created. But rather than polarize these boundaries, technological innovation at the cutting edge of evolving the human experience narrows the boundaries – which of course destabilizes the way both the secular and religious parse things. Innovation designed to affirm, enhance, augment, and deepen life transforms the secular into the sacred, invites the human to become more divine, and makes porous the distinction between human made and divine created.

 

Another critical issue in the reason-versus-faith debate is that of Artificial Intelligence. What are the substantive questions that AI poses to believers?

There is no reason-faith debate. What takes more faith, given what we know about our capacity for reason, than to have faith in reason and what is more reasonable, given the mysteries of Reality, than taking leaps of faith and trust in people we can never fully know, in ideas that are never exhaustive, and in solutions to our most existential problems that ought never be final solutions. We human beings are a design project and only very recently in the 250,000 years or so of Homo Sapiens have we had the power to be seriously and consciously involved in the design.

There is no greater expression of the irrelevance of the reason vs faith debate than the technological development of AI and its transhuman trajectory. What could take more faith than using our reason to transcend our cognitive, physical, and psychological limitations – to create a better world – to realize the redemptive dream described by the biblical Prophets – our earliest spiritual innovators.

The human quest has always included extending our intelligence in “artificial ways”. Francis Bacon glasses were considered heretical. The telescope, periscope, microscope, radar, sonar, x-rays, MRI, FMRI, etc. all extend our intelligence in artificial ways. The question about cognitive extensions is always the same: How to ensure we use the newly discovered/revealed power to deepen our humanity. Whether we are “believers” or “non-believers”, whether we experience a god outside, a god within us, or no god the challenge is the same – to avoid the hubris that comes with acquiring the power we once imagined only gods could have.

We need to balance techno- utopian faith with an honest assessment of what in religious language is our sinful nature or in a less charged language is simply the reality of our proclivity for “evil” or compromising behavior and the truth that what we feel today is progress and the ethical cutting edge will inevitably wind up looking primitive and backwards in the future. So we should at least be humble about the adequacy of human nature as a moral template.
But, how exciting AI is specifically because it generates ethical dilemmas and compels us to question what human intelligence entails. In this context there are many critical questions AI poses to both believers and non-believers: what sort of AI do we want to create? Something in our image, a new iteration of Adam and Eve, or something transcendent god-like How do we ensure AI is friendly and shares our (human) values? Which human values should these be? What will AI’s relationship with humans be like?

And then there are the “fun” questions that we always ask about the Other: will AI be allowed to join our club? our church? Will AI be allowed to marry a biological human? Our children?
As AI increases in sophistication to the extent it is hard to distinguish between humans and computers will AI come to convert us or we come to convert it? Will AI launch crusades, reformations, and revivals?

 

The pursuit of eternal longevity is one of the most disorienting aspects of scientific research. Many believe in the paradox that if bodies live longer, so will the soul. How do you deal with subjects such as transhumanism?

Since we became conscious beings we have sought to transcend our present human condition. Humans have always been becoming transhuman. Transhumanism is our version. If we described our way of being human to people living 1000 years ago —from electricity, to indoor plumbing, skyscrapers, flying, curing disease, the Internet, the Iphone, they would think we were transhuman. While it is important not to underestimate the power of our age’s technology it is also important to see the continuity in the human desire to transcend death which has been a mainstay of every religious /wisdom tradition. The transhuman vision of society in which individuals will prosper and flourish because human physical and mental abilities will be augmented, that social ills such as poverty, sickness, pain, and suffering will be eliminated, and even death will be perpetually postponed is a profoundly religious, salvific, redemptive vision.
Re-creating ourselves in such a way that we might live longer, healthier lives, doing everything possible to avoid death and allow further flourishing is to embody the sacred call to Choose Life, to Affirm Life. But there are questions we need to keep at the forefront as we challenge humanity’s limitations—biological, intellectual, and psychological—by expanding human capacities through new technologies.
What is the higher transcendent good that trumps the human standard? What is the source of the trans of transhumanism? What are the operative values of transhumanism?
We need a techno-gospel of transhumanism to ensure that transhumanism is good news not only for the powerful and elite but that everyone gets into the kingdom of transhumanism.

Wisdom traditions across cultures have examples of human beings who transcended conventional human standards. Can the transhuman be really better, wiser, more aware, more compassionate, and even holier than the Jewish tzaddik, the Buddhist llama, the Confucian sage, the Christian saint, the Sufi mystic? Will the transhuman become a real hope for the human race?

 

Where does one encounter God today?

Wherever we let God in at whatever level of development we are at. God is just a code word, a name for Reality/Life itself experienced at its most intense. Think of all the times we reflexively say OMG – moments of terror, beauty, danger, joy, horror, generosity, danger, safety, sadness, happiness, fear, compassion, hate, love. This is all of life. Wherever and whenever we say OMG there is a hint, a signal of transcendence, immanence, wholeness, connection – an inseparable seamless never ending flow of Life.

Another way of encountering God is to take all the dreams of every one of the 7.3 billion people —all the fantasies, hopes, visions, nightmares, and project them all in one spot. That’s God.
In moments of transition old images of god die and new images are born. In today’s networked world we are reimagining god in an evolutionary context. God isn’t before us as some creator, rather God is emergent ahead of us in the future. We are evolving toward an emergent God- toward ever greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, greater elegance and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love.

 

How can one be a believer today without seeming to be a stickler concerning technological and digital evolution?

There are fewer people “believing” on the planet than those at the forefront of the technological revolution. They actually believe death will be transcended, algorithms can eliminate uncertainty, that we can evolve to another species. What is more faith driven than this? What is singularity if not a secular Promised Land?
How can one not be a believer when we see the technological innovation and possibility for good and human flourishing? The challenge is to realize the other side of the miracle of the power we are assuming and wielding. Sticklers are actually non-believers in the gift of knowledge and they confuse our “god given” yearnings and ability to know more and more about the world and to have more and more power over matter as usurping some imagined god’s role rather than realizing our role. Sticklers confuse the inevitable transgressions that come with acquiring and exercising technological power with something intrinsically wrong with power. But just like the God we imagine in Scripture needs to learn, evolve to self limit and not use power to the fullest extent lest he destroy worlds so we need to learn and build in limits when our power destroys rather than creates. The manipulation of nature does not necessarily need to lead to the manipulation of people, but we are responsible to narrow the techno-cultural-ethical divide and to upgrade our human hardware to manage our new technological power. And as we become the God, we imagined we need to make our Gods bigger.

 

Further Reading
Digital ethics

Our digital lives, a pollution nightmare

In the digital sphere, waste products are not poured into the environment around us but end up stored in giant server towns.

by Riccardo Coluccini

Digital ethics

What is technological utopianism?

Science is capable of leading humankind to a new condition. This faith may be techno-utopian thinkers’ only common attribute.

by Alberto Tundo

Digital ethics

A state of independence from The internet

How can we manage a World Wide Web that is inherently separate from reality, where our usual rules do not apply?

by Philip Di Salvo

Culture & Society

Plowing the fields of our community

Matteo reflects upon the sense and meaning of words and the importance of acknowledging micro moments, which compose our lives.

by Matteo Scanni