Digital shamanism and non-physical worlds

Advancing technology raises not only human ethics issues but also issues of self-hood

I was inspired to write this article after listening to James W Jesso's podcast with his guest, artist Sander Bos, "Virtual Reality and Digital Shamanism". During the podcast, Sander spoke of how art and creative potential can transcend into virtual realms. In his work, he impressively captures artistic worlds in 360-degree virtual reality (VR) as a means to inspire people to connect with expanded states of consciousness.

Much like the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, the prospect of VR lends itself to explore altered states of human consciousness and psycho-spiritual experiences, but from a rather different perspective — one that does not require directly altering one's state.

When we think about technology and spirituality, these two concepts can almost appear polarised. Our seeming techno-obsession can take us away from real emotional and spiritual connection, and instead into a flurry of cognitive activity and action-response thinking. However, new technologies based on neurofeedback allow us to use technology to enhance meditation, mindfulness, and to work with expanded states of consciousness. This raises the question of whether technology could facilitate a deeper connection with our inner self.

Do we hide from ourselves in marvel of new technologies?

For better or worse, our relationship with technology has been forever transformed. VR has become much more legitimised than it has been in the past. What we see in our world is not so much a techno-obsession but rather an enmeshment in technologies to the point that these become part of our native ground of experience. We've reached a saturation point where augmented reality, VR, and even artificial intelligence (AI) have begun to reach widespread acceptance. Indeed, many of these new technologies have slowly but critically challenged our fundamental worldviews of reality and self-hood.

A myth of progress

The technology to build a website, to transact money, or to order a pizza online was available and fully functional even as early as the 1990s, but despite its availability hardly anyone in our society was engaging with it. There was not much debate over AI at this time, and limited consideration of virtual realities. The impact of modern technology on our lives is therefore not only a reflection of the technological advancement of our times, but perhaps even more so due to legitimisation.

We see this widespread legitimation in call centres which have drastically switched from human interaction to chat bots, even though this same technology was available well over 20 years ago, but not used. We see this same legitimation with Saudi Arabia granting citizenship to an AI robot just this October, even though it's questionable whether we have evidence of 'strong AI' to date. We also see it in all facets of our interactions with technology throughout the last decade or so.

As an aside — another phenomenon has also occurred — the transformation of the face of the internet over the previous decade. What was envisioned as a platform free and open to sharing knowledge has now become a commercialised network, representing and acquiring many of our seeming social values that we've imposed on the world-wide-web. The purpose of the internet, how we engage with it, and how we monopolise it has changed to an almost irreconcilable extent.

We tend to look more often to technology to solve our limitations as human beings

Jason Reza Jorjani remarked on our relationship with technology in his 2016 Parapsychological Association award winning book, "Prometheus and Atlas". He explored the idea that we so easily immerse ourselves in technology because we are far more willing to confront what is possible "out there" rather than facing our inner world. This conjures images of a bold Prometheus stealing the flame from the gods, but pursuing a very outer-worldly journey and adventure, rather than an inner quest for psychological knowledge.

The inherent danger in this myth is that when we reach for the stars, we can inadvertently forget the value of introspection and inner knowledge. Some of the fringe phenomena Jorjani explores in his book, such as telepathic communication, are studied as psychical events in the field of parapsychology. Yet, as Jorjani points out, people tend to argue that these abilities are impossible across minds, at least as a human phenomenon.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – A C Clarke

On the other hand, we're far more willing to embrace such ideas when it is technology, rather than psychology, that facilitates an extension of our mental potential. Elon Musk's organisation, Neuralink, endeavours to facilitate communication across minds via computer/brain integration, for example. Although the idea may seem far-fetched, it is far easier for most people to accept, due to the current widespread embrace of modern technology. It seems far more far-fetched to consider that human beings may possess telepathic capabilities without the use of external technologies, however.

Transpersonal or transhuman?

Let's consider again concepts such as creativity, art, and emotion, which we inherently ascribe to human experience, rather than the artificial or technological.

We can consider two avenues to ponder those human experiences that allow a temporary transcendence of our current limits of self. One is the transpersonal approach and the other a transhuman approach. In transpersonal psychology, the notion of achieving self-transcendence is explored via inner work. In transhumanism, on the other hand, the notion of transcending our mind comes from an integration between technology and humanity.

In the transpersonal approach, outer progress is not too relevant, as we're concerned for the most part with deepening our spiritual and emotional understanding, rather than external feats and accomplishment. In a transhuman approach, on the other hand, a widespread belief is held that we must integrate the human brain with certain technologies to make the most of our potential. Although these approaches might seem similar in some respects, each leads us down a rather distinct road.

Psychedelic VR

The notion of non-physical worlds and journeying is critical to understanding whether some of these new technologies can facilitate a deeper connection with our true self, or whether they serve to take us even further from what makes us human.

The concept "non-physical world" (NPW) has been around long before the advent of VR, and it has traditionally referred to an inner experience that is not physically grounded in one's external environment, yet often one that contains rich imagery, emotion, and conceptual detail. When we sleep and dream of places that do not exist, this serves as one example of exploring inner, or non-physical, realms. Likewise, the traditional psychedelic experience is another example of encountering and interacting with NPWs.

VR allows a similar feat, via a periscope of pixels. But one of the biggest questions that our exploration of VR raises is: Can we use it to explore the furthermost reaches of our inner world, or does it serve as a form of distraction — much like a magic trick?

I'm not quite sure how to answer the above question. But, perhaps there is a point of boundary between the transpersonal and transhuman where we can walk the that fine line between inner and outer worlds of what's conceivable and possible. Just as we can connect with a seemingly chaotic tapestry of pattern and imagery in a psychedelic substance-induced state, pulling them together at the tethers and connecting with a more profound, transcendental meaning, perhaps VR will provide a similar scope for "digital tripping". Such a scope could see the emergence of a new psychedelic revolution, one in which we venture into the capacities of the mind not just for entertainment, but for inner knowledge and to broaden our human experience.

If art and creative potential can unfold in virtual worlds, inspiring and moving us towards a broader understanding of self and mind, then perhaps a middle ground between the spiritual aspects of human growth and the technological drive towards a new future is indeed possible.

Do we embrace technology at the risk of losing ourselves?

Rather than finishing this post on a definitive note, I'd like to open it instead to discussion and comments. There are numerous questions raised by the use of modern technologies such as VR. Many of these can help us better understand ourselves and the capacities of our mind. Perhaps, at this stage, we are merely scratching the surface of possibilities. Certainly, a total immersion in new technologies can also serve as a distraction or even inhibition to the development of art, culture, and spirituality in our modern world — but it all depends on how we envision this progress.

Perhaps one of the more interesting points to come out of the debate about VR and AI in the last decade is a reassurance of the simulation hypothesis. This hypothesis argues that there is a high likelihood that we are already living in a virtual simulation, perhaps one controlled by a more advanced AI. In certain cases, it is the realism of VR that has led scientists to question whether computers could generate a simulation as realistic, or even more realistic, than our experience of waking life.

If we look back across the centuries, we can see several emerging cultures and civilisations embrace a worldview of animism — the perspective that the entire world is inhabited by souls, including plants, animals, and even the earth itself. In the industrial revolution, on the other hand we can see a distinct embrace of Descartes' mechanistic worldview, which considered the universe as a giant machine, with countless moving parts, devoid of soul or life force. Perhaps, now, with the information revolution and the rise of some of the technologies I have written about here, we will see more people embrace the notion that the universe is a giant computer simulation of sorts.

As we can see from a historical perspective, such sweeping assumptions are not prudent to make. Our ideas about the fabric of the universe are not necessarily related to how close we are to the truth of things, but rather reflect the major popular ideas of our time. What's most critical to this discussion though, is that technologies such as immersive VR have definitely prompted us to question the fundamental nature of our reality, the foundations of person-hood, and the intrinsic value of the human experience. The fact that we are thinking and dialoguing about these topics is perhaps a good sign that we are moving towards a more integrated and holistic view. In such a view, let's hope that the foundations of our human experience are not compromised, but rather complemented, with technological evolution.

Further reading:

Virtual reality and digital shamanism:

Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom, Philosophical Quarterly, 2003