Correspondence with Ray Kurzweil re: Consciousness

From: Stuart Resnick []

Sent: Sunday, June 04, 2006 6:42 PM


Subject: Buddhist perspective of Consciousness


Mr Kurzweil:


I'm writing regarding your debates with John Searle and others regarding the

nature of consciousness, specifically whether biological entities alone can have

this property, or whether a sufficiently complex machine could have it also. For

instance, from page 468 of "The Singularity is Near": "I agree [with Searle]

that chairs don't seem to be conscious, but as for computers of the future that

have the same complexity, depth, subtlety, and capabilities as humans, I don't

think we can rule out the possibility."


My assumption, from reading the book and from hearing you at the recent

conference at Stanford, is that you're aware that Buddhism has a perspective to

offer on this matter, but that you haven't personally studied this perspective

much. I'm writing to communicate this perspective in a few paragraphs, with the

thought that it might be of some interest to you, and because it would be

interesting for me to hear your response to it.


(Throughout, I'm using "Buddhism" to mean not the popular religion in South East

Asia etc, but to the more esoteric teaching pointed to in the "Diamond Sutra"

etc, and transmitted in the Zen tradition.)


Buddhism uses the word "consciousness" as follows. If a factory makes animal

crackers out of dough, you could say that "dough" is a name for the substance

common to all the animal crackers, regardless of their differing names and

forms. In the same sense, Buddhism uses "consciousness" as the name for the

substance of all things without exception. Though this definition may seem

somewhat different from the one you use, it's still adhering to the

understanding that "consciousness" is a synonym for "what you're experiencing

right now."


According to the view of "consciousness" assumed in your debate with Searle,

you could doubt that it's a property of a chair. But you'd hardly doubt that a

chair appears IN consciousness. And in fact, anything you could possibly

perceive, experience, or imagine appears in consciousness. For instance, if you

can "imagine" something, it's (by definition, by both definitions) in

consciousness. You could speculate, "A long time ago, a universe existed in

which consciousness had not yet arisen." That speculation itself would be one

more thing appearing in consciousness.


To say "consciousness is the ultimate substance" is a way of expressing this

conclusion that all things appear in consciousness. It follows that

"consciousness" has meaning only as a name for this substance. That is: since

nothing could be outside of consciousness, there's no meaning to the idea of

"having" or "not having" consciousness. So the Buddhist view is: the very idea

that there are things that "have consciousness" (i.e. "sentient beings") is

along the lines of a dream, a delusion, or mere jugglery conjured up by some



If "consciousness" is understood as a property that can be had or not had, then

it's my suspicion that your debate with Searle is one of those issues that isn't

resolved and can never be resolved. This doesn't make the debate wrong or

useless. But it might also be of some use to draw your attention to the Buddhist

view also, since it provides a perspective in which the issue is resolved



I'll appreciate any thoughts you have to offer.




Stuart Resnick




From: Ray Kurzweil

To: 'Stuart Resnick'

Sent: Sunday, June 04, 2006 4:32 PM

Subject: RE: Buddhist perspective of Consciousness




Is that the picture of you levitating? Looks pretty good. I have dreams like



I am familiar with Buddhist ideas about the nature of consciousness and have

read a good deal of this literature, which I appreciate and think has much



At the risk of oversimplification, the Buddhist tradition that you allude to

regards consciousness as the fundamental reality. These other things about

which we speak, such as chairs and philosophies and ideas are phenomena that

occupy our consciousness. They don't have a reality separate from our conscious

experience of them. I have noted in my writings that there is a congruence

between this perspective and interpretations of quantum mechanics that says

much the same thing. In this formulation, physical reality does not actually

manifest itself until a conscious entity "observes" it, that is until it becomes

a conscious experience. Otherwise is just a possibility not an actual



In Age of Spiritual Machines, I drew an analogy to the simulation of reality in

a computer game. It may appear that the portions of the world that are off

screen exist, but in actuality they are never rendered (and thus don't really

exist) until they are on screen, that is until we until there is conscious

experience them. In other words, there is no reality other than what is

(consciously) experienced.


While I believe that this is a valid perspective, I would caution against taking

the logical implications of this to the extent of denying the validity of the

question "is it conscious?" as applied to various entities (such as people,

animals, machines...).


This question may seem logically inconsistent with the perspective articulated

above, but at this level of abstraction, language and logic can fail us.


This very question is at the heart of human morality and by extension ethics and

law. Because we consider other humans to be conscious (at least those act

conscious), it is immoral and illegal to cause suffering to other humans or,

more seriously, to extinguish that consciousness altogether. Our (collective)

position regarding animals is much more ambiguous, and the issue at the heart of

the animal rights debate boils down to whether or not these "entities" are



I happen to believe that animals, at least the more evolved ones, are conscious,

but this is far from a universal position (among humans). We will have the same

issue with machines. There is not much debate about this issue with machines

like the common toaster, or even the much more complex contemporary personal

computer. But there will be a real issue with the machines that I am projecting

will exist in a few decades, that will actually be more human-like than animals.








From: Stuart Resnick []

Sent: Mon, 05 Jun 2006 23:24:54 +0000


Subject: Buddhist perspective of Consciousness




Many thanks for your response. Yes, that's me levitating at the top of my

personal web page. I have found through experience that I can achieve much

more in this endeavor using my spiritual powers AND a trampoline than I can

with spiritual powers alone.


Things are so simple before you bring up morality, ethics, and law, and so much

less simple afterwards. Still, there's a Buddhist principle that speaks to this.

It's possible to find an absolute perspective which sees "I" as just thinking.

When this isn't the case, in the relative perspectives, one can adopt the

direction of expanding the "I." In other words, if you start out considering

only your own body as a conscious entity worthy of compassion, you can move

towards expanding this consideration to your family, then to your friends, your

community, your country, your planet, and to numberless sentient beings in

infinite world-systems.


In the absolute world, the issue of consciousness is already resolved. In the

relative world of morality etc, it's never resolved, but there's the opportunity

in each new moment to move towards expansion. It appears that this is indeed the

direction you're following, so thanks, keep up the good work.


While my personal karma is such that I have no interest in living forever, your

words have had an effect on me. I'm now resolved to stay alive at least till I

can watch CNN televise the congressional hearings on whether to give voting

rights to strong AI machines. Lawmakers will have to face the fact that once

they give machines the vote, there will be nothing stopping them from

replicating themselves to get multiple votes. We have the same problem with

humans, but since our replication is so much slower and less perfect, we've been

able to avoid the issue so far. Should be interesting.







Back to "My So-Called Spiritual Life"