In December 17, 2014, T&S Editor-in-Chief Katina Michael interviewed Archbishop of Ottawa (Ret.) Lazar Puhalo, of the Orthodox Church in America. Their discussion focused broadly on transhumanism.
Puhalo is a Fellow of the Chester Ronning Center of the University of Alberta, Canada. His formal studies include physics and neurobiology. Puhalo has traveled widely in the Middle East as a member of the Conversations with Islam project, lecturing in Syria and Turkey. His lecture series in Romania spanned six years, focusing primarily on social issues, and included participation in Templeton conferences on science and religion. He began work with the ecology movement in 1963 and continues to write and lecture on the dangers to our biosphere. Founder and abbot of All Saints Monastery near Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Puhalo is a retired hierarch of the Orthodox Church in America. Puhalo was a speaker at the Global Future 2045 International Congress events in 2012 and 2013.
Katina Michael: Archbishop Puhalo, thank you for speaking with us today.
Can you paint a picture for us regarding the impact of advanced technologies in 30 years?
Fear is the strongest conditioner.
Lazar Puhalo: That is what we discuss at futurist conferences. But it is really difficult to say because so much of the technology we have consists of spin-offs, usually from the military/industrial complex. A lot of the technology has been and is being developed in secret. I think in 30 years, we will have got used to almost continuous surveillance, even on public thoroughfares, and that to me is really one of the most ominous aspects of the element of technology. We will accept it because of fear, and fear is the strongest conditioner. In many cases, technology is developing in relationship to a war on terrorism, both real and imagined, and the fear of terrorism conditions us to accept the surveillance of people in all circumstances. I think probably we will have a lot less personal freedom and there will be technologies that will help to distract us from having these personal freedoms.
KM: We are being distracted by the frequency of instant messages and losing our ability to look up and outside and to see the bigger picture of what all this distraction means. Can you tell me what you think about new innovations like body wearable devices?
Of course, transhumanism is a religion.
LP: You know cameras are so miniscule now. We have things such as small ballpoint pens that can actually record videos. Our freedoms and our privacy are being impinged upon by other individuals, not only by government officials and police, and people you do not recognize. What we will have to get used to is the loss of privacy and the loss of private space. In a way this helps to cripple us because privacy itself and private space are something that are so valuable to us and integral to our emotional well-being. So far we can think and have freedom in the mind, but technology is impacting that as well. New technologies can actually read brain-waves and decipher what is going on in the mind in a general sense. I think that they develop that technology, initially for good purposes, and then we will see mind reading technologies of one degree or another. We can also operate some of the prosthetic devices using brain waves. So these technologies can be very useful but also very invasive. They can be so beneficial and yet they can be so destructive at the same time. All technologies are that way and I worry that these technologies are proceeding along ways that ethics is of no consideration in the creation of them and how they are used. Ethics is one of the first casualties on this side of the road.
KM: Is there a danger of overstating the short-term technological possibilities?
LP: Oh yes, because people make a profit by overstating things. Most of the pop-ups on your computer, and most of the ads on television are always overstated and that is what makes them sell and of course that is what makes us vote for certain politicians as well. The trouble with the electorate is that people will vote for false hope, they’ll never vote for truth. So everything has to be hype and overstated in a society where that is the norm, and it is really the norm. In the case of transhumanism, of course it is going to be hyped and overstated. As an actual construct, transhumanism, doesn’t worry me so much. It’s the people who believe in transhumanism that concern me. It’s not the actual construct itself that is of concern, because it is not going to happen the way they desire it to. I don’t know if you have watched the Star Trek series? Well, all I can say is that what we are trying to do now is imitate the phrase, “we are Borgs; resistance is futile.” Cyborgism is a real concern, but it is a difficult concern because it can develop out of valid prosthetics. Transhumanism suggests an engineered spiritual evolution as much as anything else, and it is very gnostic. Transhumanism presumes that the soul and the body are totally separate entities so that the soul can function outside the body and be downloaded into an avatar and also that it can be evolved to be totally independent of the human body. Of course, transhumanism is a religion. Any movement that aims at affecting the afterlife or the next life, or talks about immortality, must be classed as a religion per se, because just the idea of attaining immortality by some means makes it a religious movement. That is transhumanism, not that I think it can be accomplished, but it can impact mentality and spiritual understanding in a way that removes people’s concept of God. That this can be achieved by human beings through some form of technological means, opens the door to some new spiritual dimension that diminishes the value of humanity and mankind’s relationship with the divine.
KM: What do you think the consequences of such a belief are? What will be some of the short-term consequences?
LP: Well, consequences would be some very foul experiments involving humans. You know we have these things taking place in secret anyway. It is like in the 1930s when various people were being sterilized under the influence of the eugenics movement. This did not take place only in Nazi Germany, but in America and in other Western democracies. People are willing to carry out very harmful, concrete experiments on other human beings to achieve the imagined ends of some ideology. I do think that transhumanism downgrades human beings. I think that some of the people that get involved in transhumanism are in the highest levels in industry or associations, and that their reasons for it have to do with power. At that level many of the people are sociopaths anyway. They get there by crushing and destroying anybody that gets in the way. When they get a hold of something like this it’s very difficult to predict what they might do with it. The idea of posthumanism, in which we have gone from a kind of directed evolution to a condition in which we no longer can be defined as human, in the present day sense of the word, anyway, is floating around in the transhumanist world. Some of these people believe you can download the contents of the brain into an avatar, essentially, the memory, which means our knowledge and consciousness of self, and that may very well become feasible in the future. However, there is also a concept that one could actually download the human soul into an avatar. There is even the idea that you may, with future technology, be able to transplant the human brain into one of these avatars, which is seen as a way to keep it alive and functioning artificially. People will try that, they will try to transplant the human brain while the person is still alive, or at least not brain dead. This sounds like something from a Nazi concentration camp. Let us remember that we are humans, but Nazis were also human beings just like us. But we also see people like Mother Theresa, and we realize that human beings are capable of extremely positive behavior, and also very evil behavior. We should not delude ourselves that we are not capable of such things in either direction. Any one of us is capable of either one or the other extremes, or any degree in between them. We will have people who will do what the Nazis did in their experiments and even worse, trying to develop new technologies with which to accomplish them. They can do these things in secret of course, almost like the rituals of a technocratic religion. People are going to try to affect these ideas and they are going to do it at the expense of other human beings. Even these ideas in and of themselves can change the technocrat’s vision and understanding of what it is to be human. That is the real proximate. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and in our understanding, that is what identifies us as humans. So what identifies us as humans in a transhumanist era with that mentality? It is the degrading of the vision of what makes us human that worries me most.
KM: I see this corruption visibly, as surveillance devices invade the home. Now we are seeing large search engine giants investing in infrastructure inside the home like sensor-rich DropCams, and smoke detectors and thermostats that are connected to the Cloud. And there are devices we can interrogate using our voice, and expect to receive an intelligent response to act on. For example, “add this or that to the shopping list,” or “how do you spell this word,” or “what should I feel about this piece of global news.” And the contradiction here is that instead of us saying this is a surveillance device, i.e., Amazon Echo, we are saying this is a life-saving device, a device that will help our family and provide the ultimate convenience. But we are blind to the fact that it is another source of infiltration.
It is the degrading of the vision of what makes us human that worries me most.
LP: The experiments with microchip implantation were conducted to test their acceptability in certain circumstances, and the results were interesting. These tests included a system in which you could go shopping in a market where microchips had also been attached to all the merchandise. The microchip implanted in the finger or back of the hand of the consumer contained all their banking information, but perhaps also information that the wearer was not aware was there. The convenience factor was obvious. You could fill your cart and proceed through the check out without stopping. One would just walk through the checkout stand, and a receiver reads the chips in all of the items, reads the chip implanted in the consumer, and transfers the money from your bank account to the store’s bank account. People will probably go for such a system. It is rather ironic that people will sell their souls for convenience. For example, it is just so hard to type that question into Google, when you will be able to just say it, and the program will come back with the answer. Why do your own homework, when you can ask for the answers from a computer program, and it will give you all the answers. That is one of our tragedies. Convenience is marketed in such a way that it seems like, well this is a normal thing for people to want and they will actually trade any amount of our privacy or initiative, and ultimately sell our freedoms for convenience. It is a form of conditioning. Like Pavlov’s Dog, we are being conditioned to trade freedom for convenience. We will also trade freedom and privacy for security if we are frightened enough, and we’re being conditioned in that direction also. Fear is a great conditioner. One is reminded of the movie version of H. G. Wells, The Time Traveller in which the Morlocks have conditioned the Eloi to enter an underground shelter when sirens sound. The Morlocks, of course, pick several of the Eloi which they will butcher and eat. The siren is an air raid or storm warning siren. Much of our spiritual struggle is toward de-conditioning ourselves from the passions and desires that are born of our egoism and self-focus. Ironically, we think that through the conveniences and comforts that we have been conditioned to seek, we will have more time. The reality is that we have less time than we did fifty years or a century ago without our technologies and conveniences. But even this lack of the expected extra time is a result of conditioning about our expectations.
KM: Do you think we need to be cautious about putting electro stimulators in the brain?
LP: The idea of stimulating various parts of the brain or body as medical treatments sounds very good. It is being used for Parkinson’s Disease and clinical depression as well as experiments in neurological areas. Neuroscientists are trying to figure out the locus of human consciousness, and whatever else one can discover with the use of probes that are implanted into the brain. Overstimulation is a possible problem with some of them. Allow me to speculate that we could create psychiatric illnesses in people using these or similar devices because one can artificially stimulate parts of the brain that are not normally stimulated in this manner. This could surely become a dependency after a while. I do not see how this could continue in the brain like that without having unforeseen side-effects. Part of the experiment is to discover to what degree one could actually control the brains of human beings. All of these brain stimulation devices work on brain chemistry and electrical circuits. We have little idea, and only guesses as to what experiments are taking place behind the scenes. You have people with clandestine interest seeking how such developments can be used in national intelligence services and interrogation, of those who are simply interested in to what degree one can control the human brain. That is part of the issue; what else will these things be used for? Well we have enough experience throughout history that we know they’ll be used for nefarious things as well as for positive. No technological device will ever be used exclusively for good. Evil can be very subtle and, to borrow Hanna Arendt’s pithy expression, quite banal. So electro-stimulation for pain, say in damaged nerves in the spine, has been developing and is at stages where we can do considerable benefit, and this beneficial use is increasing. These devices will become so commonplace. If we can catalogue reasons to use them, we may, for instance, be able to interject into the depression and despair loop in the Brodmann 25 area of the brain, or use stimulators on so many other medical ways. Perhaps we will be able to change or level off dopamine when it causes problems, or activate the medial prefrontal cortex in sociopaths and elicit empathy or an active conscience, who knows? That is why in the short-term we can use these things for medical and prosthetic uses, but we might also be able to create mental illnesses, or forms of schizophrenia so people start hearing voices, or they are overstimulated in ways that can resemble bipolar syndrome. They [the mentally ill] could, perhaps, be controlled like Sergeant Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate. Others might simply like to develop robots to carry out their will.
KM: Do you have a personal human fear of the future you might live in?
LP: I won’t be around much longer but the concern I have is this idea that the fallen human nature is the best form of the human nature. Remember that it is “through fear of death” that mankind is held in bondage… Transhumanism is, in many ways, motivated by fear and a desire to conquer death through technology. That is just a reality. But for the future, if we continue in such a way that the fallen human nature is seen as a kind of perfection then the world can only become less livable. That is my real concern about the future, since food and water shortages and other aspects of global climate change will test our humanity and moral concepts to the limit. Think of these crises taking place in a world where the human in the pursuit of the fulfilment of the passions is thought to be the best possible mode of existence. The loss of the concept of a moral conscience and the idea that the passion of the moment is the ultimate reality is surely a definition of a hell on earth.
KM: Can you tell us about your forthcoming book?
LP: I call it “The Ethics of the Inevitable.” I hope to explore the ethical aspects of those developments that are surely coming, that we might consider best left undone. What are the ethical implications of developments such as artificial intelligence, robotics, life extension methods, avatarism, etc. Most of these developments take place in the military-industrial complex, and most of them have a primary function in more sanitized and less public killing. We need to look at the ethics regarding all these matters; they are all inevitable.
KM: When will the book come out?
LP: I hope to finish it by January of 2016.
KM: So I deduce from that that there can never really be a spirit in machinery. There can never be a God-breathed spirit in a machine.
LP: There can never be any kind of spirit in such devices. No matter what we do with artificial intelligence, they will always do what we program them to do and what we tell them to do. We want mechanical slaves, so we would not want them to be sentient, have emotions or a soul.
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Katina Michael