Theory & Religion Series: “Spirituality” as the Creative Self in the Digital Age

Theory & Religion Series: Ting Guo


“Spirituality” as the Creative Self in the Digital Age

This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

by Ting Guo

For this post in the Theory & Religion Series, I’d like to talk about my article “‘Spirituality’ as reconceptualisation of the self: Alan Turing and his pioneering ideas on artificial intelligence”, which is a summary of my doctoral project. It looks at Turing’s personal trajectory in life and asks to what extent his search for artificial intelligence (AI) was inspired by considerations other than purely technical ones. To make AI is to reproduce what is the essential “us,” what Pamela McCorduck refers to as an “odd form of self-reproduction”. The desire for such machines, I argue, is a desire equally rooted in fear and allure, and reflects not only the drive for knowledge and human progress, but the discovery of the human self, driven by fundamental problems of being human. Ultimately, my fascination lies in individuals’ struggle for identity, how they define themselves amidst radical social changes or against political, ideological or religious contexts.

In the study of religion, arguably since the 1990s, there is a scholarly trend of placing the enquiry into “spirituality” within a framework of unchurched beliefs and praxes with emphasis on affective experience. In particular it was manifested through the countercultural movements in the 1960s-80s. This view of spirituality is offered most notably by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s “spiritual revolution” thesis, according to which traditional forms of religion are giving way to “holistic spirituality”, sometimes still referred to, in the parlance of the 1970s, as “New Age”. Proponents of holistic spirituality advocate “seeking out, experiencing and expressing a source of significance” which lies within “the process of life itself”, categorised by Heelas as a framework of “spiritualities of life”.

This framework, however, remains vague, as it lacks a clear theoretical account, substituting “spirituality” with an equally ambiguous notion—“life”. Furthermore, by placing spirituality within “unchurched” experience, this “spiritualities of life” framework has neglected the changing human conditions in the current time – the Digital Age.

In contrast, my paper relates the question of spirituality to the underlying agenda of the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—the central problem of computer science, aiming precisely to complement the understudied aspect of spirituality in the Digital Age. Few existing studies have taken into account the impact of technological advances on people’s understanding and concept of themselves. Most have considered religious sensibilities or affective experience, giving little attention to the rational aspect of spirituality and how it is manifested in the modern era. Retrieving a lost meaning of the term “spirituality” that is concerned with the human intellect, this paper proposes a conceptual model of spirituality as a process of self-reconceptualisation as exemplified in the life and ideas of Alan Turing (1912-1954)—who tragically committed suicide in his prime—and his pioneering theory of AI.

The new model of “spirituality” presented here denotes an active process of self-reconceptualisation, with the search, adaptation and transformation of self-knowledge as three main components. My etymological analysis of spirituality shows that the origin of this term includes a meaning regarding the human intellect. In ancient Greek, Latin, French and Middle English, the etymological origins of spirituality all contain meanings of the “power of knowing,” the “rational soul” and “the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides.” This aspect of meaning contrasts with the ubiquitous reference to feelings, institutional criticism, and personal experience in current scholarship and public discourses. This model focuses on how the modern person conceptualises him or herself through the faculty of reasoning, its central components indicate a dynamic process as follows:

1) the search for self-knowledge

2) adaptation of that knowledge; which, in turn, stimulates

3) the intellectual aspiration for self-transformation.

Each component is a manifestation of the rational mind, which continuously thinks and reflects, whereby the three parts are interrelated. The first component, “search,” emphasises the endeavour of actively looking for meaning and understanding of one’s self.

“Self-knowledge” is used here as a philosophical term that connotes knowledge of the ontological nature (that is, nature of being, identity conditions and character traits) of the self. In this project I choose to focus neither on the immediate mental states nor on the singular or multiple arguments of the self but, rather, on the endeavour and process of reconceptualising one’s sense of self (multiple or singular)—which encompasses various stages of pursuit and adaptation of self-knowledge—and on how such pursuit and adaptation amount to a rational aspiration for self-transformation. It is this rational endeavour that constitutes my model of “spirituality”, and differentiates it from the majority of scholarship on “spirituality” in the study of religion.

The creative capacity of self-knowledge is based on the notion of human intelligence as a progressive and evolving dynamic, put forth most notably by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). In Creative Evolution, Bergson refutes the Western tradition of metaphysics, which sees abstract conceptions as a timeless unchanging ultimate reality underlying the world of sense-perception. His understanding of intelligence is not something thought, but something lived. For him, intelligence can be understood as a “dynamic formulation” of one’s life, in the sense, first, that intelligence constantly creates new ideas and new needs, driving us further into unlimited fields, and frees us from constraints, thanks to the creativity and potentials that our intelligence can offer. Moreover, in progressing and evolving, intelligence reconstructs concepts, including concepts of life. As new knowledge of ourselves comes to light, we also need to create new concepts and even new methods of thinking to conceptualise the self. The reconstructions of concepts of self, for Bergson, can be understood as the means that an intelligent being bears within him or her to transcend his or her own nature; in my paper, the continuous self-reconceptualisation comprises the adaptation and transformation of self-knowledge, which is my conceptual model of “spirituality”. “Self-knowledge” here denotes personal knowledge of the ontological nature of one’s own self and the scientific knowledge of the human mind and consciousness. Accordingly, the significance of a biographical study of Turing’s life and ideas lies in unpacking his reconceptualisation of himself as an individual as well as of himself as a member of humanity: 1) Turing as the forefather of the Digital Age sought, adapted and transformed the understanding of the human mind as scientific knowledge, and 2) Turing was a man whose pursuit, adaptation and transformation of ontological self-knowledge motivated his scientific studies of the nature of the mind and how the mind could be simulated and reconfigured into a machine. His scientific quest to discover the mechanism of the mind aided him in his quest for ontological self-knowledge. In short, Turing’s ontological and scientific self-knowledge complement one another in his lifetime quest to discover both “truths.”

In order to render a vivid account of how AI best manifests this conceptual model, I apply a biographical method to examine the scientific and personal reflections upon the self of Alan Turing, the founder of AI, as he conceptualised the key notions for this field. By further analysing the ways in which these reflections are valued and integrated into contemporary studies on AI and AI-based technologies after Turing’s death, this project seeks to illustrate the relevance of “spirituality” for the current Digital Age and to crystallise a fresh meaning of this term.

Historically, as I argue, Turing’s core idea of intelligent machinery, which is derived from an idealised conception of the human calculator (literally a “person who calculates”), was driven by his personal and scientific reflections on the extent and limitations of the human mind, including a drive to surpass these limitations. Furthermore, Turing’s endeavour to seek, adapt and transform the existing knowledge of human limits not only formed the theoretical foundation for AI, but has also posthumously inspired contemporary avant-garde fields of science, technology and philosophy, including theories of human enhancement technology, transhumanism and post-humanism. By aiming to alter and advance the intellectual and cognitive characteristics and capacities of humanity, scientists and theorists in those fields seek to show that human nature is not fixed and determined, but can be reinvented. This reflexive endeavour to seek self-knowledge and use it to adapt and transform the self underpins the model of “spirituality” that my project sets out to invoke, underscoring the broader cultural values carried by AI-based sciences and technologies in the Digital Age.

Guo, T. “Spirituality’ as reconceptualisation of the self: Alan Turing and his pioneering ideas on artificial intelligence”. Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal Volume 16, Issue 3, 2015:

Ting Guo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University. She obtained her PhD from Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh. Prior to joining Purdue, she worked for the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She is interested in critical theories of religion, religion and culture (food, cinema and art), and the broad constitution of religion and identity in social changes and political movements.  She is currently working on a co-authored book on global immigration, nostalgia and food to be published in Taiwan in 2016, refining her PhD thesis into a monograph on the meaning of being human in the Digital Age, and a new project on left-wing Christians in Republican Shanghai. As an active academic and writer, she contributes for BBC ChineseOpenDemocracy, Los Angeles Review of Books and other media platforms. She can be reached at @tingguowrites and

About ting

from SHANGHAI to the WORLD

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