Spirituality as Reconceptualising oneself

“Spirituality” as Reconceptualising Oneself:

Alan Turing, Transhumanism and “Spirituality”

This post is written by Ting Guo (http://ting902.com/), one of the PhD students at Edinburgh, who explains her PhD thesis.

The attempt to understand human intelligence, or how the mind works, has long been a philosophical pursuit throughout human history. As a matter of fact, not just philosophers but for every individual, to understand oneself is the foremost question from which meanings of life extend and develop.

Self-understanding requires a rational reflection on one’s own being and sense of self, and rational reflection is an activity concerning the mechanism of the mind. This is precisely the pursuit and task of Artificial Intelligence (AI), as the most widely used textbook of Artificial Intelligence begins as follows:

Humankind has given itself the scientific name homo sapiens  the wise human  because our mental capacities are so important to our everyday lives and our sense of self. The field of artificial intelligence, or AI, attempts to understand intelligent entities. Thus, one reason to study it is to learn more about ourselves. But unlike philosophy and psychology, which are also concerned with intelligence, AI strives to build intelligent entities as well as understand them.[1]

According to this, the principle of AI sees our mental capacities to be essential to everyday life and the sense of self.[2] This underlying stance of human identity also echoes the discourses of the study of spirituality, which often focuses on “what it is to be ‘truly’ human”, though chiefly through experiential and affective expressions.[3] In particular this type of spirituality was manifested through the New Age Movement in the 1960-80s, with its countercultural nature, the “intense moral indignation”, “a deep suspicion of established institution” and hippies.[4] The proponents of holistic spirituality advocate “seeking out, experiencing and expressing a source of significance which lies within the process of life itself”,[5] later categorised under the framework of “spiritualities of life” by Heelas.[6] This framework, however, remains vague in the absence of a clear theoretical account by substituting “spirituality” with an equally ambiguous notion “life”. Furthermore, by chiefly regulating “spirituality” within affective “unchurched” experience, this New Age framework has also ignored the changing human conditions in the Computer Age.

My thesis, however, investigates the etymology of “spirituality” and shows that “spirituality” can also refer to the human intellect, i.e. abstract thinking and reasoning, a meaning which has been marginalised in religious, scholarly and everyday discourses. Furthermore, the Computer Age for many societies, in particular the “secularised” Western countries, is guided by the rationale of “instrumental rationality” as most famously interpreted by Max Weber.[7] To recover the meaning of “spirituality” relating to the human intellect therefore, will not only offer a clear theoretical framework of “spirituality”, but also respond aptly to the current time.

Based upon this of understanding of “spirituality”, my doctoral thesis proposes a conceptual model of “spirituality” as self-reconceptualisation which specifically focuses on the human intellect. This model has three central components: 1) one’s search for and 2) the revision of self-knowledge which usher in 3) the intellectual aspiration for self-transformation. This conceptual model is demonstrated by applying a biographical method which examines how one’s sense of self is constructed over a life span. In this thesis, it is the life and ideas of Alan Turing (1912-1954), commonly regarded as the father of AI and computer science, in order to display this concept of “spirituality” as adequate to both his scientific and personal reflections upon the self. I argue that historically, Turing’s idea of intelligent machinery – a conceptual idealisation of the human calculator – was driven by his personal and scientific reflections upon the extent and the limitations of the human mind. Furthermore, this specific pursuit for self-understanding also indicates a self-reconceptualisation, in the sense that to design and build intelligent entities like us, we are first treated as mechanical in order to be to be studied and modelled upon, instead of not as emotionally embodied “superior” beings.

More importantly, it is not only a scientific reconceptualisation but an ontological one, as it changes our understanding of the nature of our own being. As some AI scholars have pointed out, to make artificial intelligences is to reproduce what is the essential us; such action bears the trace of myth and reality as we have engaged for a long time in this “odd form of self-reproduction”.[8] The desire for such machines, a desire equally rooted in fear and allure, reflects not only the drive for knowledge and human progress. As a matter of fact, early AI work laid emphasis on the discovery of the “self” and a more differentiated understanding of human minds, driven by problems of being rather than technical questions of need.

Furthermore, Turing’s endeavour to seek, revise and transform the existing knowledge of human limits not only formed the theoretical foundation for AI, but also inspired avant-garde fields of science, technologies and philosophy, including theories of human enhancement technologies, transhumanism and post-humanism. By aiming to alter and advance certain characteristics and capacities of humanity, scientists and theorists in those fields claim that human nature can be reinvented. This endeavour to reflexively seek, revise and transform self-knowledge reinforces the model of “spirituality” that this thesis intends to invoke, and indicates the broader cultural values of AI-based sciences and technologies in the Computer Age.


[1] Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig, “Introduction”, in Russell and Norvig, Artificial Intelligence, a Modern Approach, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice, 2009), 1. Available online: http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~russell/intro.html, last accessed 1 Oct. 2013; Russell and Norvig’s emphasis.

[2] Russell and Norvig, “Introduction”.

[3] Paul Heelas, Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 1-2.

[4] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), quoted in Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 226.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] See Heelas, Spiritualities of Life.

[8] Pamela McCorduck, Machines Who Think (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1979), xiii.

2 thoughts on “Spirituality as Reconceptualising oneself

  1. Interesting research. It seems that by appealing to etymology, you’re finding a historical / linguistic basis for this unique understanding of spirituality. One issue that comes to mind is the problem of meaning over time. The meaning of words like ‘spirituality’ changes as the centuries roll by. On one hand, this presents a challenge to an etymological approach. On the other hand, it seems that the definition you’re advancing is one that reflects the day we’re living in. Therefore, it seems to me that your research benefits not only from an etymological approach, but also from the phenomenon of changing definitions, which also legitimizes your conceptualization of spirituality and makes it uniquely relevant for our time. That is not to say I completely agree with the conceptualization you advance. However, I think it’s fresh, creative, and relevant. Thank you for sharing and best wishes on your research!

  2. I am skeptical of using biographical methods to analyze concepts like spirituality and I agree with the above comment that the conceptualization you put forth is probably as vague as theirs in the sense that it denies other ways of conceptualizing it.

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