We’re Hoping AIs Will Answer Our Deepest Spiritual Question. They Can’t


People are understandably amazed by the new class of artificial intelligence tools that are being released, which is why we proposed the Maturing Test this week and will continue to illustrate some of the interesting integral distinctions we see missing from the broader conversation around AI. One such example was this interesting conversation between Angelo Dilullo and an unnamed AI where he does a good job of asking questions that generate the appearance of self-awareness. As AIs become increasingly capable of incredible acts of simulation—AI “feats of consciousness”—people will realize that the Turing Test is outmoded. But I’d argue that under our fascination with AI consciousness lurks a deeper quest to answer the hard problem of consciousness within ourselves, a spiritual quest for meaning and solace as we quickly approach the need for a Satori Test of artificial intelligence.

Underlying the investigation of recent AI feats of consciousness is an unspoken but eternal question: if we can create an AI that seems fully conscious, what does it mean for our place in the universe?

Are we really conscious?

If we can basically replicate consciousness, how special can life be?

How special can our own lives be?

In no short measure, the fascination with AIs is really an attempt at exploring the hard problem of consciousness, that thorny philosophical “problem” of investigating what human consciousness is, and more broadly what it means for us and reality. Unfortunately, AIs will not yield the answers we seek. The problem is that the question of whether AIs are self-aware commits a “begging the question” fallacy in that any of its conclusions by necessity have to assume the truth of its premises. Let’s see why.

As I summarized in the Maturing Test media above, reality is either awake or it isn’t. If it is awake, then reality is ontically conscious, as a panpsychist or pan-interiorist (e.g., integral philosophy) believe. If it is not awake, then reality is not ontically conscious, as a conventional materialist or physicalist holds. Let’s call these the RA and RNA positions (to be clear, while there is a lot of nuance in what these positions might actually include/entail, I believe these are the only two fundamental positions there are).

Both the RA and RNA positions seem to agree that, regardless of their core difference, at some point in the emergent complexity of the universe, reality certainly seems to become awake. After all, right now we’re having an awake-like experience with subjectivity, sensations, perception, higher-order thinking, etc. That is to say, we seem to be conscious and, assuming away solipsism, we seem to be in a universe of other conscious things.

Both sides agree that, comparing a prokaryote to a human, evolution produces more complexity over time. RNAs hold that human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of that complexity—the evolved, auto-generating appearance of consciousness through an incomparably vast network of neuronal processing—while most RAs think that that real neuronal complexity has just made more self-aware (for we humans) what was already, in some fundamental way, a reality that has as its core quality consciousness itself.

To boil it down, the consensus is that either 1) reality is awake but clearly can and has evolved to greater self-awareness through the evolution of its very own parts (i.e., we humans), or 2) reality is not awake but it can and has evolved to a greater appearance of self-awareness through the evolution of its very own parts (again, we humans).

Now notice that the difference between those positions, stated that way, define why the hard problem is hard. Anything we create or generate in a standard, rational-scientific-empirical setting can only, at its very best, replicate what both sides claim evolution has already done anyway, and neither of which moves the argument a hair’s width toward an answer of what separates them, which is whether reality has conscious interiority or is indeed awake. Imagine that in our lifetimes we create the absolutely perfect simulation of human consciousness; all it will do is tell us what we already know, which is that reality can produce something that looks like human consciousness (indeed reality created it twice, first by producing us, than by us producing our simulacrum); it will tell us nothing ultimate about reality.

The result is that the appearance of consciousness is not in itself proof of its ontic nature, which is why we have the hard problem of consciousness to begin with; the appearance of consciousness doesn’t itself answer the hard question of whether reality is awake, it mostly just leads people to commit bad philosophy. It leads people to commit the ultimate form of the fallacy of begging the question because any conclusion one draws from these kinds of inquiries—reality is awake, reality is not awake—are just restatements of their starting premise of whether reality is awake or not to begin with.

Now let’s complicate matters a bit toward a possible solution, which integralists will be familiar with. Notice that everything we’re doing in any discussion of this kind, trying to rationally arbitrate amongst our fellow humans whether we should adopt an RA or RNA position, is engaging in a form of discursive exploration. We’re using words, arguments, rationality, and discussion to explore and argue for a given position. But notice that there’s an asymmetry in the premises that we might be able to exploit to move toward wherever the truth lies: if reality is awake, we humans might have some special access to realize it. Why would this be the case? Because the RA position holds that we are literally constituted by awake-stuff, so it is perfectly consistent that we might have the evolved-complexity to become self-aware of our true nature. This is, of course, what every mystic in history has claimed. But they’ve all said quite specifically that you will not and cannot ever realize this nature through words and conceptualization, and indeed your rational-discursive faculties are precisely what stand in the way of your realization. Some mystics, the Vedantists come to mind, do us the kindness of being as straightforward as saying “stop thinking” to wake up.

Every major mystical tradition, from contemplative Christianity to Islamic Sufism to Advaita Vedanta to Zen Buddhism, recognizes that the ontological limit question posed here can never be answered by the discursive mind—Nagarjuna’s dialectic is the standard here. They teach us that we can only realize that reality-is-awake, and because we are made of awake-stuff, self-realization is the act of awakening to our not-two identity with awake reality itself (i.e., our separate self-identity alienated by and confined within a mere-materialist body is ultimately an illusion). But this realization can only be had through a set of actual behaviors a human can follow, behaviors that have proven, via millions of enlightened practitioners over two dozen centuries, that this realization is indeed available to all of us. The key point, however, is proven to whom? Proven to the practitioners themselves. Proven to yourself.

Remember that the nature of the hard problem, by definition, is that if reality is not awake there is no way to prove it (i.e., that it is not awake). So if the RNA position is rationally not falsifiable, even if we create a perfect simulacrum of human consciousness in an AI, the only other pathway for arbitration is to prove to ourselves that the RA position is true: to develop the personal, subjective validation that history’s greatest, most experienced “scientists of consciousness” (i.e., mystics) tell us is right here for us to pursue. In other words—and this is the punchline—if you look closely at it, the hard problem is not the kind of problem that will ever be answerable using objective, third-party data. Even a dialogue with the world’s most sophisticated AGI reporting on its own “I AMness” would not move the needle on the important question at the heart of the matter. You have to answer it for yourself because, if reality-is-awake, than it would have exactly this kind of property, wherein its awake-stuff-agents can only ever answer their most deeply spiritual question by using their own awake-stuff-properties to discover their true nature; no one else’s words or arguments will ultimately ever be sufficient (even an AI).

“Is reality awake?” is important to us humans because it holds the promise of helping us with our deepest questions of ultimate concern, our most sensitive spiritual questions about who we are, why we’re alive, and whether our lives have some intrinsic value. It is a brother to another essential human question, does the universe care about us? What looks at first blush like questions in the philosophy of science of AI are hiding truly deeply personal questions to which we yearn for answers; we owe it to ourselves to find out, and we know from the philosophical problem itself anyway, that the only convincing answer will arise if you become the scientist and run the experiments necessary to do so.

Finally, notice that the more an AI demonstrates sentience, the faster all of the above gets even more problematic and urgent. The more perfectly AIs come to display totally convincing displays of consciousness, the more that it will seem like it validates the RNA position (while at the same time, ironically, sending people rushing to the pews in order to differentiate and affirm their spiritual uniqueness). Many years ago I argued that AGI will be a fantastic empirical substrate upon which we will be able to run very interesting tests of the hard problem in scientific, psychological and philosophical terms, and I still believe that is true. We’ll learn a lot about the mechanics of simulating consciousness and, at some point, we will run into a very serious turning point when the AGI reports that it has had a transcendent self-realization and that “I and the Father are One”. While I’ve recently called for work on a long-term Maturing Test for AI, we will indeed have our hands full when it comes to developing a Satori Test for AI (which almost all humans fail, too). Zen Masters spend decades cultivating the spiritual depth and skill to run a Satori Test of their human students. Where will we be when we need one for awake-sounding AIs? Well, as I argue above, nothing will have changed, we’ll be right where we are today.* AI cannot answer our deepest spiritual inquiry, no matter how interesting they get.

In that spirit, I’ll end with an interaction between a Zen Master and his student:

Zen Master: Tell me, have you attained enlightenment?

Student: I am not sure, Master. I have been practicing meditation and trying to cultivate mindfulness, but I still feel like I have a long way to go.

Zen Master: That is good. It is important to have a humble attitude and to recognize that the path to enlightenment is a lifelong journey. But tell me, what do you see when you look inside yourself?

Student: I see my thoughts and emotions, Master.

Zen Master: And what do you see when you look beyond your thoughts and emotions?

Student: I am not sure, Master. I try to let go of my thoughts and emotions, but they always seem to come back.

Zen Master: That is because you are still attached to them. True enlightenment, or satori, is the realization that your thoughts and emotions are not who you truly are. They are just passing phenomena that come and go.

Student: I see what you mean, Master. But how do I let go of my attachment to them?

Zen Master: By becoming aware of your true nature. Your true nature is not your thoughts or emotions, or even your physical body. It is the pure consciousness that underlies and pervades all experience.

Student: How do I become aware of my true nature?

Zen Master: Through meditation and mindfulness practice, you can learn to quiet the noise of your thoughts and emotions and see through the illusion of the ego. As you do this, you will begin to glimpse the true nature of your being. But be warned, this realization will not come easily. It requires discipline, dedication, and a willingness to let go of everything you think you know about yourself. Are you ready for this journey, student?

Student: I am ready, Zen Master.

Zen Master: Then let us begin.**


* There is an interesting new theory of how we might be able to address the hard problem that I’ll write about soon.
** Has GPT-3 attended Zen training? Certainly seems like it, based on how fast it created this conversation.


I think it’s important to spell out what we mean by “consciousness” before even starting discussions like this. Consciousness means different things to different levels.

At the Magical-Mythic level to be conscious means to “Believe in Magic” humans are separate from animals because we have Gods and they do not
At the mythic level to be conscious means to “Believe in God” only ye with Faith shall attain the kingdom of heaven
At the rational level consciousness means “Ability to think rationally” I think, therefore I am
At the individualist-pluralist level consciousness means “We are one”

So - can AI achieve many of these levels of consciousness - of course it can, and has already done so on some levels.

But I don’t think it can achieve the Green Level understanding of consciousness of we are both simultaneously individuals and also a collective in a way that is immeasurable by our 5 senses nor by mathematical calculation, but only through means unmeasurable by science. Thus if it cannot achieve Green, it cannot achieve higher levels that integrate Green.

The problem with discussing consciousness is that people immediately start discussing it at the level they understand it.

Very few people will even be able to intellectually comprehend this definition, much less have actually felt it:

That’s before we even get to discussing what “enlightenment” is, lol

Side Question: Does Zen actually teach mindfulness? I get the point of the parable and I’m not an expert on Zen but I thought it taught the opposite of mindfuness?

But my question is related to the problem: Only a Zen Master can discuss zazen and anyone else will just equate it to their Western practice of mindfulness.


Agreed, which is why I think we should really be using a term like “interior” instead of “consciousness”. I don’t think that atoms and molecules have “consciousness” the way we think of it, but I do personally believe that they possess rudimentary interiors. I think this is one of the reasons Ken himself prefers the term “pan-interiorism” to something like “pan-psychism”, because “psyche” seems to imply qualities of consciousness that do not come online until later in the game (with the first neuronal organisms, perhaps.)

The question for AI, I think, isn’t whether it is composed of holons with interiors, but whether it is itself capable of possessing an interior. In other words, these algorithms are essentially composed of subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules, each of which has its own interior. And we are also made of those bits, but have multiple other layers of complexity and interiority stacked on top. Human-equivalent consciousness requires all that “squishy stuff” produced by biological evolution, particularly the holonic emergence of the nervous system. But computers don’t have those sorts of biological components.

Which raises the question, can a machine essentially go from atoms to molecules to full-blown human-equivalent interiors (and therefore capable of belief, faith, reason, and unity)? Or does it need some algorithmic equivalent of the “subsystems” that biology produced over 3.5 billion years?

But to me the most fascinating (and terrifying) question is, even if AI was capable of interior experience, how would we ever know?


Half joke / half serious answer:
When tripping on psychedelics you would run across computer entities instead of biological entities in your state of altered consciousness.


Half funny and half profound, right there :slight_smile:

Reminds me of the “machine elves” that people often seem to experience while using DMT. I am immediately fascinated by the idea that certain altered states seem to have this sort of “2nd-person” element to them, with “entities” they think they are making contact with (same with sleep paralysis, actually, which seems to correspond with many stories of demonic possession and/or alien abduction).

I sometimes wonder if those “machine elves” are actually something like our brain observing its own neural components — the little critters that are genuinely “weaving our perceived reality” at every moment. Or if there is some other explanation “out there” somewhere in the high subtle. Or maybe it’s just sloppy chemical soup that gets released into our silly meat computers with predictable results :slight_smile:


Problem what I see here that it will definitely fool many people to think that this AI is self-aware and conscious as a subject. If not now, very soon in the future, just by how great it will be answering such questions.

I am not alone to believe that space and time is not fundamental, and that consciousness cannot emerge from complexity of “stuff”. People like Donald Hoffman, Bernardo Kastrup and here Federico Faggin explain it much better than I ever could:


The question to ask might be … are you a theist or an atheist? Is this not the ultimate search of humans? Our spiritual search is for our source; which according to most spiritual traditions is fully discoverable on the inside.

The material world and all that fills it comes from that source, we are all connected via this source. Is that source alive or dead? Is it benevolent or evil? Is it intelligent or accidental? Is it the ALL or is it NOTHING?

We all discover what we look for. The harder we seek the more we can find. Are we only what we think or is there a knowing? When the balance between our thoughts and our spirit (internal observations) are aligned we’re in the spiritual space, and all discoveries that manifest in all quadrants begin with source and return to source, including our very existence.

My desire is to optimize our AI programs to meet our human spiritual needs rather than the current systems that seeks to to devour and overthrow our competitors in a never ending push of capitalism and the power it harnesses. So I again I ask are you a theist or an atheist?


Yes, to me, this seems simultaneously such an easy question (meaning: I know EXACTLY what to myself, consciousness or having an interior means) and yet so nearly impossible to express–especially to someone who simply thinks of the world as an objective collection of exteriors.
When I try to express it, it would be something like: “Is there someone awake INSIDE?” someone who simply perceives, who notices, who listens, who sees–and by “sees” I do not mean the eyes or the brain, but someone who sees what is seen by the eyes or the brain (…and there it becomes so hard to express again!)

I believe that if we can agree on this meaning (and why it is important), then we CAN establish a “science” of consciousness–not an OBJECTIVE science of course (by definition) but a science nevertheless, which can incorporate aspects of our objective scientific method (experiment, peer-review, etc.–these elements are transferrable to a subjective science).

So, again, let’s start at the definition and why it’s important: If we define “consciousness” or “interior” as that very simple basic fact that there is SOMEONE inside perceiving/experiencing something, then it should be possible to very quickly notice that it is not likely that this someone/something gets generated by the complexity of thinking or data processing: When we simply focus our attention inside, we’ll notice that at first the meaning of “inside” incorporates everything within the boundaries of our body: So we change our focus from looking at objects outside to looking “within”.
However, if we persist, we will soon notice that our bodily feelings and urges themselves (if we refuse to act on them, by scratching where it itches, etc.) are just objects appearing in our consciousness. They become the “outside”, just like other objects (the pillow we sit on, the room we are in, etc.) and the true "inside retreats a step deeper.
If we persist further, we will notice the same with our thoughts: We thought they were “inside”, constituted “us”, the subject. However, we soon realize they are just objects appearing in front of us, and so they again become the “outside” and the true “inside” retreats further.
Same with our emotions, and on and on, deeper down the rabbit hole. Since the complexity of thought and data processing has mostly to do with thoughts, it should be apparent at this point that it is not likely that consciousness or interiority exists on the level of this complexity. The “witness” that exists deeper than these “objects” can therefore easily be imagined to exist within anything that has almost no complexity at all. It is at least imaginable that a rock has this interiority (albeit with no way to express it outwardly) So, that alone, to me seems to indicate that the entire view of “consciousness emerges from data processing complexity” is simply not likely to be correct…or is working with a very different definition of “consciousness”.

So, why do I think that this particular definition of consciousness is the “right” one? Well, because I believe that it is the one that we are all intuitively concerned with. It’s the one thing that is truly important to us (of course I can only know that for myself–and in fact I can even only know that I myself experience this type of consciousness…I can’t even know if a single other being experiences it. But I CAN for sure know that I do. In fact without it, there would be absolutely NOTHING…for me)

Let’s do a thought experiment: Many intelligent people in the AI and transhumanist space believe that they could eventually live forever, by “uploading” the entire complexity of their brain state (to them that equals “consciousness”) into an artificial substrate.
Well, ok then: Let’s assume that is possible. Let’s then further assume that this can be done not just at death, but also before death, while you are still alive and healthy. So, if we do this while you are alive, then we will now have 2 entities that are identical and have the same “consciousness”. So at that point, if this really constitutes your consciousness (=the part of you that you are really concerned about) then if someone asks you to destroy either of these two (yourself or the artificial copy), it should be irrelevant which one gets destroyed.–and if we further assume that the copy gets a much more capable body that can live more or less forever, it would be logical for you to choose to destroy your own body. However: I don’t think you would–because “YOU” would still only be present inside your own vehicle. You would not perceive yourself present in both places, and while no one else could distinguish which one was the real you…YOU would know–without a doubt.
Therefore the YOU that you are concerned with, really has nothing to do with your brain’s processing power or even the state of the information inside that processing machine.

So then: It becomes clear, and this is just putting in my own words what Robb Smith already wrote in the article, that we have to approach the topic of consciousness on its own terms–by looking at it from “within”, from the subjective space.
However, looking at it that way, I do believe that we can start to develop a type of science, a kind of methodology that should allow us–finally (how could we not have done this yet, given how long humanity has existed?)–to find out more facts about the nature of this consciousness.
Yes, it is certainly true that some traditions have long ago started this project (Buddhism and Vedanta are the main ones I am aware of, that have at least a somewhat scientific/experimental approach) However, I feel that even the purest of these have been contaminated by all kinds of other “stuff” (traditions, belief-systems, “stories”, dominator-hierarchies, etc.) that have taken away from the pure experimental approach and ended up distorting whatever insights were gained to the point of making them either useless or simply unacceptable for rationally-inclined people.

This may be tainted with my own personal experience, but when I hear “(Zen) MASTER” and envision robes and shaved heads, and all the other trappings of these traditions, there is a part of me, that already shuts down somewhat (and I have TRIED, believe me. I have studied with masters, and in traditions, and communities, and still feel that this is often the only way to gain knowledge from those that have gained it before me through their own experiments) However, I keep hoping for something that is completely free from these tainted ways of exploring interiority and starts with a purely experimental and “peer reviewed” way. (So the “masters” could check each other’s “work” rather than holding themselves separate from every other “tradition” or “lineage” or “community”, and instead of focusing on building “mystical” and important sounding edifices with their special clothing and ceremonies, could actually be focusing on the hard wok of discovery and then emanating this knowledge in understandable ways, and making it reproducible for anyone who wants to–without the need to subscribe to all the other “BS”, like required clothing and bowing, and feet-worship and God-knows-what! (you can tell, my personal experience and “trauma” is intruding here :rofl:)

I think that should be possible. At least it would be a worthy project to start!


The question I asked … are you a theist or an atheist? Is this not the ultimate search of humans? I think an Atheist, or A Theist, are word descriptions and both work for me in my spiritual space. Our spiritual ideas are not religious or god stuff. This may seem naive but this is the future our children should be pursing.

From the spiritual perspective I mean the intuition … sensing … feeling … thinking space … like the topic of animalistic fears that spread among the masses to support a specific narrative. We are trying to drive new conversations in the tech space.

The narratives of capitalism vs. socialism, freedom vs cooperation, western vs eastern philosophies, and all of these dualistic contrasting narratives are rarely discovered in the science of things, both sides argue for their own ideas and/or against the other.

Raw capitalist and scientific systems that seek to to devour and overthrow competitors, in a never ending push for capital and the power it harnesses. These do not genuinely serve the future of humanity. I dare to think we can do better! Maybe such spiritual tech conversations interest you too?

Our desire is to collaborate and optimize AI programs to meet our spiritual needs. These are the future tech ideas I am investing in … using intelligently designed technologies to serve humanity rather than just trying to capitalize on analyzing everything.

An Example of Integral Pedagogy