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Spirit Tech: The brave new world of consciousness hacking and enlightenment engineering by Wesley J. Wildman and Kate J. Stockley

by
11 March 2022

A game-changer? Mark Vernon is doubtful

WE ARE often told that technology is changing everything and that we need to catch up. Spirit Tech wants to persuade you that the same revolution is under way when it comes to God, via “brain-based technologies of spirituality that carry the potential to be game changers for the way we practice religion in the twenty-first century and beyond”. The authors examine half a dozen areas of current research and experimentation, including psychedelics, brain stimulation, and the use of neurofeedback to inform meditation.

The tone is optimistic, coupled to an honest consideration of recent findings. The book is also not only about personal experiences. One chapter considers how virtual-reality technology might foster “engineered togetherness”. Another looks at the growing demand for spiritual directors who can help people to integrate peak experiences. The upbeat message, however, came across to me as hiding shadows.

For example, each of the chapters looking at specific technologies ends downbeat, as tell-tale phrases creep into the narrative. Take the science. It turns out that it is “poorly understood”, “incredibly complex”, or “not working in the way we think it is”. Alternatively, long-term effects of spirit tech have not yet been studied, though it is already clear that no intervention is a magic bullet.

In common with other techno-optimists, the authors write promissory notes: setbacks are the stepping stones that scientific investigation not only requires, but loves. But I suspect that there are deeper issues at play which are particularly important when it comes to spirituality.

One is the positivism that underpins the book’s confidence. This is the conviction that knowledge accumulates progressively, with the implication that the wisdom of the past will inevitably be superseded by insights now. I have no doubt that the conditions of life change, at times dramatically. Pandemics and wars come to mind. But spiritual adepts for millennia have been telling us that awareness of life’s eternal simplicity is the key to awakening. The best are still saying so.

This explains why the new science tends to confirm old insights. Gratitude is good. Love matters. The difference is that nowadays a brain scan can be produced in evidence, which might help some, although I have yet to hear a neuroscientist reveal a truth that wasn’t already thoroughly explored in the teachings of yesteryear.

It also illuminates why novelties and innovations engaging the human psyche can initially make an impact arguably for the good, only for the effect to wear off in time. For example, millions took LSD in the 1960s, and a visionary revolution was promised. Look where we are now.

I say this not because I’m a techno-pessimist. The printing press was the spirit tech of the Reformation. Rather, it is because I suspect that we already have the main insights that we need.


Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is
Dante’s Divine Comedy: A guide for the spiritual journey.

 

Spirit Tech: The brave new world of consciousness hacking and enlightenment engineering
Wesley J. Wildman and Kate J. Stockley
St Martin’s Press £29.99
(978-1-250-27493-9)

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