Zen and Artificial Intelligence by PAUL ANDREW POWELL
Crucial topics of modernity from a Zen point of view, book review by Ratnagarbha
Zen and Artificial Intelligence and Other Philosophical Musings by a student of Zen Buddhism.
By Paul Andrew Powell, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019, 156 pp, £58.99 (available from CambridgeScholars.com)
Review by Ratnagarbha
I was so intrigued by this book when it landed in my in-box that I wanted to know more about the publishers, whom I had not heard of before. Apparently Cambridge Scholars Publishing was founded in 2001 by former lecturers and researchers from the University of Cambridge. Their website lists such titles as ‘The Spectre of Defeat in Post-War British and American Literature’, ‘The Militarisation of the European Union’ and ‘The Mahabharata and Dharma Discourse’ – as well as the kind of topical science titles that all academic publishers are rushing out right now: ‘The Psychology of Pandemics’.
I have the impression that this small, independent academic publisher might be more willing to take risks than their colleagues over at the venerable Cambridge University Press – at any rate the title reviewed here seems to suggest as much. Few indeed are the publishers, academic or otherwise, who have brought out titles looking at the interactions of Buddhism and western culture, or for that matter Buddhism and modern global culture. Notable recently has been McMahon’s Buddhist Modernism. The book reviewed here is not, like McMahon’s, an attempt to survey the whole field. Instead Powell offers a series of stimulating essays on various cultural themes, in both the humanities and the science / technology arenas, from a Zen Buddhist point of view. Now, those who have read Buddhist Modernism, may the inclined to question right away to what degree the ‘Zen’ put forward here may be a modern fabrication ‘infected’ or ‘improved’ (take your pick) by all manner of individualist western views and cultural constructs from the Reformation onwards through Romanticism to the latest Post-Modern theories. However, Powell largely sidesteps such questions by offering what is very much the personal take of someone who happens to be a student of Zen. Such wide ranging cultural theorising from a Buddhist point of view is by no means well ploughed territory, and Cambridge Scholars are to be commended for bringing out this book. The further question, naturally, is how does it all stack up? What have Zen, or Paul Powell’s own reflections on Zen and culture brought to us here?
Let me say right away that neither post modern philosophy nor the arcana of artificial intelligence are particular interests of mine so I can only offer here a few layman’s responses from the point of view of another dharma practitioner. The book opens with an account of a mystical or ‘insight’ experience that the author had during an American road trip, and this sets the tone nicely for what is to follow. A blissful experience of pure selfless openness is followed by a vision of the bricks of ordinary consciousness closing in (although in Powell’s vision the bricks themselves are made of glass suggesting that they are not fully real, and will from now on be ‘seen through’ to some extent). The writer realises that he is an insubstantial process – ‘empty in a way’. Or in other words: ‘A semiotic murmuration of signs within a lexical field of consciousness’. Did you find that second form or words added anything? If you did you probably have more of a feeling for the whole field of post-modern linguistic theorising than I do… Be that as it may this opening chapter certainly suggests that these are going to be elegantly crafted, cultured essays, by someone with considerable eloquence (both poetic and cognitive) at his command.
In his introduction Powell modestly disavows any high degree of Zen wisdom, and says that he is writing simply as a practitioner of Zen, not offering spiritual advice. He adds that he ‘does not identify as a Buddhist or with any other organised religion, all of which are hierarchical organisations…which by their nature tend to breed dysfunctional power arrangements, belligerence towards the other, corruption, abuses…’ and so on forth I was interested to see here something that McMahon identifies as one of the manifestations of what he calls ‘Buddhist modernism’ – the disavowal of any kind of conventional religious social structure or hierarchy, contra (very much) the structured institutions of sacred objects, rituals and hierarchies of Abbot, seniors, novices, in Buddhist monasteries, Zen or otherwise, across the east. My response here is initially to observe that even Foucault and Derrida, the founders of post-modern theory, were well aware that while there are terrible problems with the abuses of power bound up in all narratives and social structures of meaning, nevertheless human beings, human societies, by and large, are unable to do without them! (1) This of course applies to students of Zen, just as much as anyone else, even if the final aim is to be ‘beyond all structure’. However, to be fair, in chapter three: ‘Infinite Games in the Age of Novelty’ Powell addresses some of these concerns, albeit in the particular arena of issues around the aims and methods of academia. Here Powell suggests that ‘the real work of the academy in the 21st century should not only be the important work of situating the student in the historical and cultural environment which created them, but should as well be to encourage and allow the student to play the ‘infinite game’ of meaning making within the fact of their own impermanence.’ Applying this insight outside academe, to a community of people following Zen, or any other Buddhist tradition, would suggest that some level of social organisation is needed in order to facilitate Sangha (which begins with social situating), and to impart knowledge and experience regarding the cultural, ethical and doctrinal environment that underpins Zen. Otherwise the ‘infinite game’ of meditation proper won’t do its work of allowing us to explore what Powell calls de-situating. To coin a phrase I would say: ‘before you can de-situate yourself, first you need to be situated’ (i.e. culturally grounded – in this case in two cultures – your own and that which underpins Zen – quite a task). As Powell says: ‘I am not suggesting we throw out meaning… The purpose of de-situating anything, be it (as in Zen) the representational self, or (as in literary deconstruction) a work of literature, is not to destroy it: …The purpose… is to detach from identifying with the subject and or object long enough to witness the underlying duality that drives it.’ And at the end of the book Powell, as if in recognition of this implied need for structure, goes so far as to suggest that some kind of community of Zen trained educators, inspired by the example of the highly trained Jesuit order, might be a good idea: an Order of ‘Buddhist scientist, researchers, educators, artists…’ whose work in their fields is also about ‘revealing the living Buddha’. So, there you have it, an organised institution, an Order of highly trained people. And that implies a form of hierarchy, not of worldly power of course, but a recognition that some human beings would have more aptitude to become highly trained in a Zen approach to science, or the arts, or meditation for that matter, and that others could learn from them. I guess that these essays display some evolution in the author’s views over time, this seems likely as the first section is said to contain earlier, previously published material.
I turn now to the first essay on ‘Zen and AI’ and find that this ambivalence about structure does not negatively impact on a wide ranging and stimulating introduction to the possibilities for sentient computers one day being made ‘or making themselves’. Powell covers many possibilities here, including the idea, new to me, that the membranes of living cells may be the only macroscopic structures capable of exhibiting quantum effects. It is also observed that a self conscious machine, even if vastly superior to ourselves in terms of information processing, would be saddled with the same dilemma of the self that we have. ‘No matter how intelligent a computer gets it will never think its way to Enlightenment, because all thought, in fact all information, is the by product of a binary dualism…’ And, drawing on Zen metaphysics, Powell adds that according to Zen ‘reality is not made of matter, it is made of suchness (my spell checker likes to replace this with ‘muchness!’)… ‘in Zen consciousness does not precede matter, consciousness and matter are two prongs on the same fork, they mutually arise in conceptual opposition…’ So, any conceptual structures, machine enabled, or in our own minds, cannot get us all the way there. They are not suchness. Here that anti-structural rhetoric finds its proper philosophical place (in my personal view) as a defence against literalism. I only want to add that in a real, actual human community, Zen, humanist, or anything else, provisional, pragmatic structures will be needed, and amongst these sacred objects and rituals are important for many, if not always for independently minded thinkers! They serve to remind us of that journey towards suchness, of others who have ‘thus gone’ farther than we apparently have so far – ‘Buddhas’ – and of the inestimable, ‘sacred’ value of those who travel with us – ‘Sangha’.
The other essay that particularly piqued my interest here was the one on J. R. R. Tolkien: ‘Hobbits as Buddhists and an Eye for an I.’ Now, I should make it clear that I am a devoted admirer of Tolkien and consider him, in his unique niche, one of the great 20th century authors. So naturally I was interested to see what might be said here from a Buddhist point of view, but also a bit wary that a great hero of mine might be knocked down to size in post-modern fashion, or even mocked – just as he was sometimes at the Inklings reading club all those years ago in Oxford. Well, I need not have feared – this was an interesting, if sadly brief investigation. Clearly one of the great themes of The Lord of the Rings is the nature of evil: the corrupted and corrupting evil will, of supernatural force, as embodied in the dark Lord Sauron. Now, Powell immediately suggests here that Tolkien’s view of evil was not exactly that of conventional Christian doctrine. For Christianity evil exists a priori as a supernatural force, pictured as the Devil. This force tends to corrupt humanity, and the entire natural order, but its temptations may be resisted through ‘self discipline and moral strength and possibly an appeal to the supernatural.’ This is a bit of an understatement. Yes, ‘moral strength’ was always important, but from at least St Augustine onwards, not just ‘an appeal to the supernatural, but an unconditional reliance on the divine grace of the Saviour was considered absolutely vital. As is well known Luther excavated this emphasis on divine grace but he did not invent it, it is there in Catholic doctrine, albeit in a more nuanced way… Now, according to Powell, the fellowship in The Rings, undertake to destroy evil by stratagem (casting the Ring into the Fires of Mount Doom) and this means that for Tolkien evil has an underlying and potentially vulnerable source outside the supernatural – i.e. the delusion of fixed self. Now this may fit in perhaps with his non-supernatural view of Zen, but it is not entirely backed up by a close reading of the book itself.
Let me explain: one of the main moral images in The Rings is the sparing of Gollum. He deserves death for many reasons but as Gandalf memorably says (and the movie brings this out well) ‘who are we to choose life and death for others’. So Gollum is spared, and it is his existence that eventually leads to the destruction of the Ring. At the crucial moment Frodo succumbs to temptation, on the lip of the Fires he does not cast in the Ring but instead puts it on. It is only because Gollum then snatches the Ring, and trips on the lip of the volcano that the Ring is destroyed. A deus ex machina is necessary. Now, this trip is a natural event, it could be seen as a lucky coincidence, but various oblique hints throughout the book reveal that Tolkien considers that some sort of divine providence operates in Middle Earth. Certain things, as Gandalf is prone to remark, are ‘meant to happen, or not happen…’ Events are moving to a certain end. Grace is at work, and one cannot but assume that the critical event, the critical juncture of the whole book, Gollum’s ‘accidental trip’ is not really an accident at all. So this, for me, somewhat undermined the idea subsequently explored of Sauron as an embodiment of the ‘I’ that might by stratagem be overcome. Nevertheless, I felt that there was something in this trope. Sauron is in a sense the destructive, power hungry ego writ large, and monumental human efforts are required to overcome him (especially human mercy as figured by the sparing of Gollum) even if, in the last analysis ‘divine providence’ is also essential. This, by the way, is standard Catholic doctrine, the balance of Grace and good works, not the rather literalistic monomania about ‘Grace alone’ and the predestination by Grace (or its absence) of some to Heaven and some to Hell, as found in Calvin. Furthermore, in order to destroy Sauron the Ring must be returned to its source. Powell finds a zen-like resonance in this, of the turning round to face the source of ‘I’ness within. I must admit, although I doubt very much that Tolkien would have approved, I rather liked this notion. The restless, bubbling fires of Mount Doom as the very source of ‘I’ ness. I was reminded of the Yogacara’s notion of the storehouse consciousness, the Alya, constantly, restlessly bubbling up with new permutations of past perceptual events, and this being mistaken for an objective world. The Rings has many symbolic, metaphysical, moral resonances, not all of them immediately explicable in simple, Christian or humanist terms, and this is perhaps why the many, many tedious imitations, Game of Thrones et al (with the noble exception of Le-Guin’s Earth Sea) are just so shallow, derivative, and frankly, boring. So I was willing to run with the psycho-spiritual resonances of the ‘return to the source at Mount Doom’, – they don’t after-all contradict the more orthodox ‘supernatural evil’ view – and next time I read The Lord of the Rings, I am sure they will be there in the background of my mind.
However, the subsequent equating by Powell of Sauron with the God of the Old Testament seemed like a red herring to me. I see no gnostic tendencies in Tolkien, he was a conventional Catholic, however much we might wish it otherwise. Sauron is equivalent to the devil, who does to a terrible degree rule the ‘fallen’ world, in conventional Christian doctrine. That is it. There are no hints that Sauron might really be Yahweh in the book – this is an interpretation imposed from without, which did not seem to me to reveal anything in particular. Nevertheless, I appreciated an aspect of what Powell builds up on the trope of Sauron “the Eye” equals “the I”. That is Sauron as intolerance write large, the will to enslave the free peoples of middle earth. Here Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits and Men represent an array of natural psycho-social forces that, while they may squabble, can henceforth, post Sauron, live in liberated, organic, fruitful harmony. (Although sadly the elves can only fade, after Sauron is gone, and this reminds us of Tolkien’s essentially tragic vision of the fallen world, which Powell does not really explore.) Further, that they represent a pantheistic universe. Yes indeed. And here I concur that Tolkien was a little bit unorthodox. Middle Earth is after all a pantheistic world. There are many gods, and in the earlier Silmarillion legendarium these are active forces in that world. But medieval Catholicism always had place for the old gods, as allegorical symbols of love, war etc, as astrological forces, recast as Saints, and much else besides. So perhaps Tolkien, like his friend C. S. Lewis, is best understood as simply a medievalist, an atavistic throwback, in his view of the world. As such his pantheistic universe has much to offer, in terms of reminding us of the value, the symbolic wholeness of past world views (even as we see their drawbacks) and no doubt this explains something of his remarkable and enduring popularity.
The essays in the second half of the book, written more recently, are somewhat more technical and specialist in their language. Chapter Four is titled ‘What Dreams May Come: Eternal Near-Death Experience in Subjective Time and its Implications for Christian and Zen Metaphysics.’ Its central idea is that just before death the brain may pass into a state of hyper stimulation, which feels like eternity. In fact, Powell suggests: ‘subjective time in the mind’s near death experience expands to the point of extinction due to a mediation, radical conflation and linear expression of near-infinite, nonlinear information encoded in the spreading depolarisation of neurophysiological activity’. Those with interest in neurophysiology and the study of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness may find this chapter stimulating. I think it is worth observing that the more sober researchers in this field admit that we do not yet have a proper testable, detailed theory that solves the ‘hard problem’ of how brain activity gives rise to conscious awareness, so anything that purports to explain exalted states of mind, or even just ordinary perception, must remain for the moment in the realm of speculation.
Chapter Five ‘Zen, Free Will and the Authentic Moral Self’, revisits some ago old philosophical dilemmas around free will and moral agency. I found this to be a stimulating and wide ranging discussion, which did seem to cast some new light, albeit in language that was not easy to assimilate immediately. There are some new terms such as replacing ‘free will’ with the ‘free won’t’. This seems to mean conscious detachment from the stream of ordinary thoughts and desires, thus opening up a space where an authentic moral selfing might emerge. One is not directly willing an improvement in oneself, but setting up the conditions for it. Through intuitive realisation of the interconnected flow of things, one can see what conditions will be necessary. For example instead of trying to will oneself to be more cheerful and less depressed one takes up some kind of sporting activity that sets up the conditions to be more cheerful and engaged with life. Free will is here an illusion perhaps, but a necessary provisional construct. Ultimately both free will, and determinism are seen to be illusions. This was all quite revealing and thought provoking. The references to such things as ‘Semioisis of Being’ left me cold, but the explanation of this was intriguing: ‘I call this psychic event completion; that is, when one becomes thoroughly complete with one’s immediate, felt sense of Being. One cannot will this completion, one can only indirectly achieve completion by allowing it to reveal itself, by allowing oneself to simply feel one’s ever-changing, never changing being that was there all along…’ A fine evocation of mindfulness – although I always like to experiment with replacing the term Being (often found in modern Zen books) with ‘becoming’ and see what the effect is… The dips into brain research in this chapter were also intriguing. Especially the famous experiments of Libet (1983) which seemed to show that decisions are made subliminally in the brain, crucial milliseconds before we consciously own them. This research was explored in a revealing and thoughtful way, allowing for several different points of view on these controversial findings. The crucial point here, perhaps, is that the way we have consciously cultivated the mind in the past, including, hopefully the detachment of ‘free won’ting’, will determine how we respond in the moment, when split second decisions are required that, arguably, only feel like a decision ‘I made’!
There is so much more that could be said about this stimulating book but I will leave it there. If you like to explore contemporary cultural issues in contemporary language, but would appreciate the flavour of Zen and non-duality, instead of the sometimes turgid refractions of standard post-modern theory, then this is a book for you.
Note 1. See for example Foucault and Derrida, the other side of reason, Roy Boyne, Unwin Hyman, 1990, where Boyne presents a nuanced account of the (largely anti-Marxist!) political implications of post-modernism, always questioning hierarchies of knowledge and power, but realising that they are inescapable. Boyne stresses that finally Foucault arrived at the unavoidable need for self knowledge: ‘step by step, one must confront what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing, with what one is… what interests me is much more morals than politics… or in any case politics as ethics’ (p. 168)