There has certainly been a lot of news coverage lately about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its impact on our world.  Much of this has been based upon the recent releases of such things as ChatGPT (incorporated into Microsoft’s Bing search engine), Bard (from Google) and other programs that all allow you to pose inquiries to the program in English sentences and get full sentence replies.  Through back and forth “conversations” you can receive highly complex answers to complex questions. The programs “learn” based on our feedback.

Opinions on AI range from the highly positive (it’s going to change the world for the better, remove more tasks from humans that can now be done by machines, open up new possibilities for us, etc.) to highly negative (it’s going to take our jobs from us, this is the first step in machines taking over the world, etc.).  There’s probably some truth in all of these statements (as well as some hyperbole), but what I want to talk about today is the role that AI may be playing in our spiritual evolution.

Artificial General Intelligence, the Singularity and Consciousness

Before we get to the topic of “our spiritual evolution”, I first want to discuss the idea that many tech writers and pundits like to put forth—that there is some point often called the “singularity” where AI progresses such that we humans can no longer control it. To be more accurate, I should say where “AGI” or artificial general intelligence reaches that level.

The AI that we are using when we type an inquiry into ChatGPT is a highly specific program designed to do one specific task.  The AI programs like DALL-E2 that “create art” based on our requests are again very specific. They are under human control and humans update their programming code.  These are isolated programs doing very smart things and learning to do them smarter based on their interactions, but they are built to “stay in their lane”.  ChatGPT creates text, DALL-E2 generates art.  AI has a role to do and it does it.

On the other hand, AGI (per Wikipedia) is a theory that a more general type of program can learn to accomplish any intellectual task that human beings or animals can perform. It crosses lanes, combines them and learns to do it all better and better.  This is still a theory but one that seems to be reasonable given the fast growth of technology.  There may come a time where we do have AGI that surpasses human abilities and we approach the mythical singularity.

But some people take the development of AGI even further.  They believe that at some point these programs will develop conscious awareness, that they will become sentient just like humans.  I disagree that this will happen.

The belief that computer programming code can develop the level of self aware consciousness that you and I possess is based on (in my opinion) a faulty belief in where consciousness comes from.  This belief is based on viewing the world and everything in it as being physical matter (“materialism”).

In the materialistic worldview, consciousness arose in one of two ways.  The first camp sees it is simply as a natural product of the material evolutionary process.  Somewhere in the “survival of the fittest” evolutionary process, they say, the sense of conscious awareness simply emerged from the physical workings of the human brain due to some potential advantage in staying alive and reproducing. The other camp suggests that this emergence of consciousness did arise materially based upon genetic mutations but offered no advantage to our survival and was simply a byproduct (or “epiphenomenon”).  Both groups agree that consciousness arose from material processes and that “sense of self” that you and I have is physically produced (even though it has yet to be explained “how” that happens).

Many materialists believe that this “sense of self” can and will emerge as AGI reaches some future level of complexity.  Again, I disagree, as I believe that the origins of human consciousness do not arise from the physical brain.

Yes, obviously the brain plays a role in our experience of consciousness. Neuroscience has contributed much to our understanding of the interplay of our brains and consciousness.  There are now very detailed “maps” of the brain which outline what areas “correlate” to which human “experiences”. When new discoveries of these “correlations” are discovered, materialists are quick to erroneously say they have discovered the “areas of the brain that cause” certain experiences. However, we all know that “correlation does not prove causation”.

For me the question is does the brain “create” consciousness or does it “mediate” consciousness which was already “created” and existed elsewhere?  Is consciousness simply something that comes about solely within human skulls (and can potentially arise in complex machines)? Or, is consciousness already in existence and something that we can tap into with our physical brains playing a key mediation role in our human experience?

What do you think?  (And, of course, we have to be open to some other possibility all together!)

Can Machines Have Conscious Experience?

Which brings me back to “can machines have conscious experience”?  A recent article by integral philosopher Steve McIntosh addresses this question quite well (IMHO) and is worth a read.  Here is a link to the full text.

McIntosh first addresses the uniqueness of the human experience when he writes: “The main reason why many essential human qualities cannot be reproduced by a machine, or otherwise delegated to AI, is that these qualities arise from and depend on experience. Human experience is arguably the most significant phenomenon in the universe. Our experience is really all we can ever know. While experience may not be the only real thing, it is certainly the most real thing for each of us. Machines, however, cannot have experiences because there is “nobody home.””

Think about it. Imagine Hal in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey (assuming you have seen it).  Did Hal have human like experiences or was “he” simply following his very complex and internally evolving computer coding?  Was “his” display of emotions as he was being turned off towards the end of the movie a real indicator of an experience of emotions or simply a product of his coding to display emotions?  Is there really anybody “home” inside a computer code like the same sense you have of being home inside your body?

McIntosh goes on to accurately point out the issue facing materialists that I was describing above, explaining how physical matter gives rise to conscious experience:   “Philosophers have identified a key aspect of conscious experience that cannot be fully explained with reference to the physical activity of the brain. This is what they call qualia—the subjective first person point of view, the sense of what it is like see or feel something. Those who ascribe to the philosophy of reductive physicalism, which appears to be the dominant view in the tech community, are vexed by the phenomenon of qualia. It creates what they call the “hard problem” of explaining how the physical brain generates subjective consciousness.” (Note that what McIntosh calls “reductive physicalism” is essentially what I am terming “materialism”.)

Tapping into many sources (again, read the full article!), McIntosh points out that we cannot assume that machines will develop conscious awareness as humans did when we don’t fully even understand the process whereby human consciousness emerged. Furthermore, he adds we must consider that the arc of evolution is ripe with examples of evolutionary “leaps” that are in and of themselves unexplainable.

McIntosh reaches the conclusion that although the growth and evolution of AGI may have its own unique and as yet unknown emergent properties, there is no reason to believe that conscious awareness or qualia will be among them.  The reason, he cites, boils down to the uniqueness of humans, our “specialness”.

Among these special characteristics are our vast imaginations which can always picture a positive future and couple it with a creative ability to bring it into existence.  Added to this is the characteristic that comes with life itself (human and otherwise), the ability to create intention, something not possessed in non-life forms like computer codes.

To this point, McIntosh writes, “With the emergence of life comes intention—unlike nonliving physical systems, biological organisms strive to survive and reproduce. Then with the appearance of humanity, a higher-order form of self-conscious intention emerges. Nonhuman animals may have purposes, but we humans have purposes for our purposes. In fact, the emergence of the ingenious and endlessly imaginative capacities of human purpose creates a new kind of evolution—the psychosocial domain of development wherein we transcend our biological origins through cultural evolution.”

Obviously, I agree with McIntosh and do not believe that physical machines and computer code will ever experience what we humans have: conscious awareness with both the ability to imagine a positive future and the ability to manifest the intentions to create it.

Our Spiritual Evolution

Which brings us finally to the original topic of the connection of AI and our spiritual evolution.  But what do I mean by our “spiritual evolution”?

This is a topic that weaves through all of my writings and was the key point of one of my books around 10 years ago (click here for more on that book)—we humans are on a spiritual evolutionary journey.

What do I mean by that?  Here’s a very quick summary based upon my years of study, reflection and reading the gleanings of mystics and others:

  • “The All” (God, Spirit, Source) created the universe (or multiverses) as a means to better experience Itself.
  • The All “involved” Itself into Its creation via a process we call involution. One aspect of this involution is that at the ground of all being, everything contains (or “is”) something we call consciousness. Hence, at some level we are all “moving and having our Being” within a Big Mind.
  • The All also included within Its creation certain “divine characteristics” such as a desire and ability to create, an intention to grow and evolve, the sense of love and connection and much more.
  • This universe plays out on different levels (or a sliding scale gradient or multiple dimensions or whatever description is useful for you). At the “highest” level is the realm of The All or Spirit which we might also call “The Absolute” or Oneness. At the “lowest” level is the realm of form which we might also call “the relative”.
  • Our physical world is the world of the relative. The All has allowed the world of the relative to forget its source in Unity with The Absolute.  Hence, the original experience by any entity at this level is one of separation from all other entities. Each form sees itself in relationship with (or “relative” to) other forms. This could be labeled as “the multiplicity within the unity”.
  • All forms contain the unifying consciousness at the ground of the universe. However, each form experiences that consciousness in its own unique way.  The more complex the form, the more complex the consciousness and the resulting experience.
  • Humans crossed a threshold at their level of consciousness where they became “self aware” and can “think about their thinking”. Such awareness brings about the ability to consciously begin creating their world and impacting their future evolution.  Awareness of thought also takes them higher up the scale from the relative to the Absolute; the use of thought can be seen as our consciously transcending the physical.
  • Our spiritual truth continuously flows through us from The Absolute. However, we live simultaneously in both the relative and The Absolute (or along the sliding scale gradient between the two extremes).  In other words, we are spiritual beings having human experiences.
  • When we are captivated by the world of form, we dwell upon our sense of separation and see our relationship with others as being about competition and survival. What matters is “me”. As we move up the scale closer to the Absolute, we let go of our sense of separation and move to a greater sense of connection and unity.  What matters is “we”.
  • Ultimately, our spiritual evolution is our movement in consciousness from separation to unity, from focusing upon the material world and to a realization of the spiritual world. Certain divine embedded characteristics play a part in pushing and pulling us along our “upward” journey. These include the desire to grow or evolve, the desire to express our creative abilities and the power of love to break down our sense of separation so as to feel the underlying reality of our interconnectedness.
  • Simply stated, our evolutionary journey is that we started from The All in unity, we forgot that unity and we are moving through the material experience in a quest to remember our unity. We are ultimately returning home to The All.

AI’s Role in Our Spiritual Evolution?

So the next question is — what does the development of AI and AGI have to do with this journey?  Well, here are few thoughts for our contemplation.

Our human specialness to imagine a positive future, to set the intention to create it and then follow through on that intention has consistently fueled our technological growth.  From fire and the wheel to AGI and every advancement along the way, it is our human desire for understanding and to improve the world that has been a driving force.  Most every technological advancement has contributed to our evolution by freeing our time to pursue the truths of the world and increasing our standard of physical life.  So it is our human specialness that has brought us to the “gifts of AI”.  And there are many gifts that it can potentially give us.

However, every human technological advancement has always allowed us to experience the negativity of unintended consequences.  The new “good” generally always comes with the emergence of a new “bad”.  AI and AGI will no doubt have their challenges and potential for harm. However, earlier in our evolution we embraced many new technologies without consideration of such risks. Let us stop and acknowledge that we have evolved such that we now consider the downside of new tech before it is too late.  That’s a big positive.

To me, the false assumption that AGI can develop consciousness is a good thing because it makes us stop and contemplate just exactly what “self awareness” is.  Outside of philosophers and spiritual teachers, most people don’t really take time to think about the glorious gift of conscious awareness that we all possess.  The more we talk about “can AI be conscious” the more we think about our own consciousness.  In doing so, many will be led to the same conclusions as I have (as well as McIntosh and others), that humans are indeed somehow “special” in the big scheme of things.

I believe that this realization of human “specialness” will not come from a limited ego idea of “I’m special”, but from a greater realization that all humans are special.  Such a realization will point us to our underlying unity and move us more along our journey from the world of the relative to the Absolute.  This sense of our interconnectedness can result in our using our imaginations to truly envision a world where everyone is seen as valuable and to be protected and supported. Our intentions can lead us to creating that world.

The more we shift from being egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric via our recognition of the uniqueness and immense value of all humans, the more I believe we will all ask questions about meaning and direction.  Is there a purpose to the universe and the human place in it?  Yet the multiplicity of the human experience will lead many of us to different conclusions, no doubt.  Yet more and more of us will begin to acknowledge that we humans play an essential role in facilitating the next steps on that path, wherever it may lead.

As McIntosh writes, “As we find the limits of artificial agency, and the concomitant uniqueness of relatively free human will, those who deny that there is a purpose of evolution overall may at least have to admit that there is authentic purpose in evolution. That is, as we come to discover that machines cannot become conscious and thus cannot become independently intentional, this will help us better appreciate that the free will we all take for granted is an important part of what makes humans special.”

And what is that “purpose of evolution”?  Maybe it is that path that I outlined above (or something similar).  Maybe it is our becoming more and more aware of our evolutionary journey, not only in how it plays out in the physical world but also in our individual consciousness.  Maybe it is also in how as our individual consciousness expands to higher levels of care and concern for other humans (and the world itself), that such shifts changes our “relative” consciousness to one another, that is, it shifts our culture and how we treat each other.

Does AI and AGI offer humanity a threat? Yes, of course, there are vulnerabilities to our employing any new technology.  But we humans are on a sacred spiritual journey from separation to unity. We are ultimately moving from the realm of the relative to the Absolute, we are ultimately returning home.  Will AI assist us on moving forward on that journey or will it be a temporary speedbump causing us to move back 3 spaces on the game of Life before we continue forward again?  That’s up to all of us and how we use our free will choice, just like it always is. Each of us plays a role in the next steps in our evolutionary journey.  How can we ensure that any new tech such as AI furthers us along our spiritual path? What do you think?


Mark Gilbert