Sunday, August 25, 2013
A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of the popular TV show Fringe about transferring of consciousness, and it reminded me of a popular topic among technophiles over the past few years: the coming Singularity.
The term “Singularity” was first used by John Von Neumann and later by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge as an age of superintelligent computers which were smarter than humans. Whether these future computers will be more like Asimov’s benevolent robots, or more like Skynet (which takes over the world, trying to eradicate humans in the Terminator vision of the future), is entirely impossible to predict. In fact, the term singularity itself implies unpredictability: in physics it refers to a point like a black hole which has an event horizon, beyond which it’s impossible to predict what may happen.
More recently, the term has been popularized by well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil (also an MIT alum), who argues that with advances in computing and medical and nano-technology, we will be able to transfer our brain (and our consciousness) onto a super-human computer (or computer chip, or other computing device), allowing us to effectively live forever on silicon rather than biology!
In the episode of Fringe in question (spoiler alert!), the consciousness of William Bell (played by Leonard Nimoy, best known as Mr. Spock from Star Trek) is able to find its way back after his physical death, and embeds itself into FBI agent Olivia Dunham. In doing so, Bell’s consciousness “takes over” Olivia’s body for a time. In an attempt to preserve Bell’s consciousness, uber-mad scientist Walter Bishop comes up with a scheme that sounds a lot like Kurzweil’s singularity – he attempts to transfer the consciousness of the now dead Bell from its organic host (Olivia) to a silicon-based host – an electronic device set up to receive Bell's neural patterns and thus his consciousness.
If this all sounds like science fiction, Kurzweil predicts that the date of this singularity may be in the “near future”, as in 2045, and many others agree with him that “The Singularity is Near”! Some, like Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen, object and don’t think it’s coming anytime soon, but may occur much, much later. Both do seem to think that that the answer to “preserving consciousness” after physical death of the brain lies in ever more sophisticated technology.
In thinking about this type of projection of consciousness out of the human body to some “other place”, I would say that both Kurzweil and Paul Allen may be looking in the wrong direction – to the technological future rather than the past where human consciousness was a more serious study than it is today.
In science, proposing theories without understanding the existing literature is pretty much a cardinal sin. A few years ago, I went to talk to professor computer science at Berkeley about doing a PhD thesis on a particular subject that I was working on in my startup. She seemed very upset, and made clear, in that sort of academic haughty way, that I hadn’t taken time to review the existing literature and wasn't giving proper respect to what had already been published in this field! I might be surprised to discover, she suggested, that many smart people have trod this path before me and that I might even “learn something” from studying what others have already achieved!
So, is there already existing “literature” about the projection of consciousness outside the human body? Of course there is – anyone who has studied consciousness seriously through meditation and Yoga will note that the “literature” is full of instances of projecting consciousness outside the human body – everything from out of body experiences to near death experiences. Moreover, these have been going on for hundreds (if not thousands) of years so this isn't exactly a rare phenomenon that no one has taken the time to study (except in recent scientific circles, apparently!).
In my opinion, the most promising place to start in the existing “literature” of human cosnciousness is in the Six Yogas of Naropa.
Stories of Naropa, not so well known here in the West, have been carried down through the Tibetan traditions. Naropa was a academic scholar himself, at the ancient Nalanda University in Kashmir, who believed his studies had taught him all he needed to know about consciousness.
According to the Tibetan sources, Naropa was surprised to discover that all of his knowledge didn’t account for much – that the only way to study consciousness and gain “freedom” from the human body was through subjective experience, not study and debate, which he (and his fellow academics) excelled in.
After going through many tribulations at the hands of his teacher, Tilopa (another very interesting and enigmatic figure), Naropa realized the illusory nature of physical reality and finally achieved liberation by seeing the true nature of consciousness and how it attaches to and detaches from the physical body.
Afterwards, he systemized the Six Yogas of Naropa and taught them to, among others, Marpa the Translator, a famous Tibetan seeker who had trudged over the Himalayas to Kashmir to lean from him. Marpa, in turn, taught Tibet’s most famous Yogi, Milarepa, the ropes.
So what do the Six Yogas of Naropa have to do with this episode of Fringe and the Singularity?
A lot, actually. The Six Yogas, which have been taught primarily in secret over the years, are all about what happens to our consciousness when we go to sleep and when we die. Lest modern scientist dismiss these as simply “religious anecdotes”, the Tibetans have developed elaborate descriptions and models of how this process works, which in my opinion rivals in sophistication the models of the natural and electrical world that I learned at MIT (though they are much less reliant on mathematics and more on “conscious experience”).
Two of the Yogas, that of Consciousness Transference and Forceful Projection, are directly related to transferring the consciousness of a person who is dying \out of the body to “somewhere else” so that it can "live on" in the physical world. Interestingly, many modern listings of the Yogas of Naropa edit out “forceful projection” because it was considered “too dangerous” for all but the most adept Yogis.
According to the literature, adepts at this Yoga were able, at exactly the time of their death, to “transfer” their consciousness out of their body and “forcefully project” it into another living "host" nearby. Usually this was practiced with various creatures (birds, chickens, foxes, etc.) in the beginning. As they became more adept, in scenes that are reminiscent of modern horror films, Yogis would practice forcefully projecting their consciousness onto fresh corpses. They would re-animate the dead bodies, while their “original bodies” would be sitting in a state of suspended animation until they “returned”.
According to the Six Yogas of Naropa, written by Tsongkhapa and translated by Glenn Mullin, the Indian and Tibetan texts were filled with such anecdotes, and the tradition continued in Tibet for some time with gurus repeatedly demonstrating it for their pupils, though usually only under the strictest terms of secrecy.
In one of the most famous stories of this kind, Marpa’s own son, who had learned this art from his father, had an accident on his horse and his neck was broken. He supposedly used the Yogas of consciousness transference and forceful projection to leave his body and “transfer” his consciousness into a pigeon that was flying nearby. He then had the pigeon fly to the outskirts of the next town (where there were many dead bodies, since only the rich cremated their bodies at that time), and found a young man who had recently died and transferred his consciousness into this recently dead body. In this new, youthful body, he then took on the name Tipupa (the Pigeon saint) and began to teach the Six Yogas. In an interesting twist of events, years later Milarepa sent one of his students to go study this particular Yoga with Tipupa, who was, understandably, the expert!
Which brings us back to the episode of Fringe in question and the prospect of “digital immortality” by transferring consciousness after a singularity.
Could it ever be done?
In considering this we might learn a little wisdom by looking into the past (the Six Yogas of Naropa).
If we consider our “consciousness” as able to be separate from our brain, then in order to transfer the “software” of consciousness from one piece of hardware (our brain) to another, it seems to me that we would need to find a “compatible” hardware. We might even need one with a similar operating system. And this is exactly what the Yoga of force projection is all about - finding an organic host that can carry on our consciousness, even after the physical body is dead.
On this, both the lineage descendants of Naropa and the writers of this particular episode of Fringe agree: forget the computer and learn to project consciousness to another, organic host first. In the episode of Fringe in question, consciousness was successfully transferred to an organic host (Olivia), but completely failed and was lost when attempting to transfer it to a technological device.
So, it seems to me that before we barge ahead trying to transfer our brain's neural patterns to a physical device, we might want to invite in the experts at consciousness (Tibetan and Indian Yogis) and see if we can learn something from them about how consciousness works both while we're alive and when we die. Once we can reproduce the Yoga of forceful projection in a laboratory setting, we could then move on to how we might project our minds onto a superintelligent computing device.
To those awaiting the singularity, I might suggest, as that professor of computer science at Berkeley reminded me a few years ago: it pays to study what others have done before us...we might even learn something!