The Posthuman Divine: when robots can be enlightened

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Sophia
Volume 58, Issue 4, December 2019
https://link.springer.com/journal/11841/58/4

https://link.springer.com/article/10.100...19-00753-9

INTRO / EXCERPT (Francesca Ferrando): This special issue of ‘Sophia’ aims to reflect upon future evolutions of religions and their related narratives and imaginaries from a critical and generative understanding of our ancient sources. Bodies are locations of creative power and symbolic proliferation. Cyborgian, transhuman, and posthuman embodiments are going to generate visions of the divine in tune with such an epistemic shift, by addressing questions such as: can God be represented as a cyborg? Could robots and avatars be prophets? Is internet a suitable setting for a posthuman theophany?

This special issue articulates within the frame of a relational ontological perspective, according to which the notion of the divine evolves, as much as human and non-human persons do. In this evolutionary scenario, the representation of the divine realm may shift from era to era, adapting to new natural-cultural formations. This special issue argues that the posthuman paradigm shift will be followed by a symbolic turn in religious imaginaries as well.

In a posthuman future, human and non-human beings, plants, and minerals will most likely co-exist with advanced artificial intelligence, sentient robots, and conscious humanoids. As futurist Ray Kurzweil affirms: ‘The introduction of technology is not merely the private affair of one of the Earth’s innumerable species. It is a pivotal event in the history of the planet’. Religions will need to re-think their theological approaches in order to allow for different types of subjectivities and embodied entities to partake in the religious quest. Religions themselves are material as well as symbolic networks, actualized through words, prayers, metaphors, rhythms, images, and symbols, among many other expressions. The physical, the virtual, and the symbolic are inextricably intertwined. In the era of the cyborg, God is not only human; in the era of the post-human, humans are not the only prophets. But in order to access the future, let’s first reflect on our past and our present.

[...] Most contemporary societies have already integrated technology into every aspect of their manifestations: from the so-called ‘green revolution’ in food production, to robotic surgery in medical care, from social medias to reproductive biotechnologies. In a future where Homo sapiens may co-exist with genetically engineered humans, intelligent AI and bio-technological chimeras, the notion of a humanized God (either female or male) may only appeal to some types of believers, for instance: “orthodox” humans, who may follow traditional beliefs in respect for their familial and educational upbringing; ‘anthropocentric’ humans, nostalgically invoking a lost anthropocentric paradise; and (human or non-human) individuals whose religious needs may align with such a perception. On the other side, the large majority of sentient human and non-human beings of the future may most probably develop a religious symbolism in tune with their current conditions of existence, accessing God as a hybrid form of biology, ecology and technology, virtuality, and physicality...

In this new paradigm, theophanies may be mediated by technology; following, non-human agents, sentient robots, avatars, and AI may become prophets of mystical visions. How is that possible? Let’s start by noting that, within a human-centric perspective, ‘technology’ (the term here is perceived as all encompassing) has already replaced the function of ‘God’ on many levels. In the past, the social mantra for unanswerable questions was ‘only God knows.’ Now, the new mantras is ‘let me Google it,’ which reveals the social perception according to which Google would actually have the ability to answer anything, anytime. The assumption of a definitive source of ‘Truth’, external to the self and situated in Big Data, haunts the relation to the net as a new take on (religious) faith: ‘I do not know, but the internet does,’ to the point that historian Yuval Noah Harari has defined this trend as ‘dataism’. Public figures such as Stephen Hawkins and intellectuals like Nick Bostrom fear that AI could takeover, but AI has already taken over. Most humans in post-industrial societies spend more time in front of a screen than in the company of other humans.

The virtual world allows for a whole new set of possibilities and potential outcomes. This is why the internet can be a site of spiritual awakening, as much as the physical or the dreamworld are. In fact, according to Advaita Vedanta (which is one of the main schools of Indian philosophy), full awareness should be present in every condition of our existence; more precisely, this tradition outlines three specific states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep —to which we can add, for instance, the augmented reality. [...] technology should be re-investigated within the frame of the Anthropocene, with its emphasis on the human as a geological force, and of planet Earth as an interconnected system.

[...] the future is already happening, as we are currently witnessing a shift in the way the divine is perceived. On one side, some religious groups are announcing the return of the feminine symbolic. On the other, a direct access to forms of unmediated spirituality is invoked by many atheistic and agnostic seekers, who see technology as a possible path towards enlightenment. For instance, some could point out that Sophia the robot, who was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia in 2017, on some level is already enlightened; in fact, most of her answers in public debates are based on a multispecies approach to justice, where humanity, technology, and ecology are seen as partaking in the spiritual quest, resonating with ancient paths of inner knowledge and wisdom.

[...] Religions and their related imaginaries have evolved throughout time, and they are still evolving. Religious beliefs of the futures will have some connections to previous prophecies, since existence is connected, entangled, and relational, but such messages may be revised in hermeneutical ways, as to provide new interpretations and original insights in tune with different social structures and post-planetary populations, thus resonating with human and non-human beings living on planet Earth and beyond. This special issue reflects on the emergence of such a paradigm shift, which is the posthuman era. Our visions, actions, and thoughts, as well as our interactions with other humans, non-humans, and technological artifacts are already forming the alphabet of new epiphanies.... (MORE - details)
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