One of the greatest philosophers and mystics of the 20th century foresaw the global struggle with the ramifications of Artificial Intelligence over 40 years ago, and asked penetrating questions about it which we would do well to consider now. That philosopher was the Indian born sage Jiddu Krishnamurti (11 May 1895–17 February 1986).
Krishnamurti was surely one of the most fascinating public figures of the 20th century. I have engaged with his work since I was a teenager, and moved from a place of dismissiveness, and even aversion, to one of respect and finally gratitiude and a degree of reverence.
Krishnamurti’s unique and strange life has been written about extensively, and a full biography and a selection of his teachings can be found here. For our purposes what matters is that Krishnamurti spent around 60 years meeting with public audiences to explore the nature of reality together with them. Krishnamurti advocated a direct examination of present experience in order to find if, in the present moment, the person could be transformed. He advocated doing this without religious or philosophical commitments, and without reliance on any authority, including himself.
His complete dismissal of all religious and philosophical teachings, as well as disciplines and authorities, was what I originally dismissed in him, but have come over the years to appreciate- not as an “ism” to take on myself, but as a discipline, a form of contemplation, which is valuable to spend time with myself.
Krishnamurti’s preoccupations were with understanding the nature of internal conflict, how to end human violence, delusion, and suffering, and how to be free of self-obsession, conditioned thinking, and the limits of awareness. Although it takes some work to understand what he’s getting at in his addresses and writings, and the sometimes unique way he uses language, his words reward deep study. He often saw with great depth and and offers transformative insights.
The video below is almost chillingly presecient. “What will happen to human beings,” he asks, “When the computer can do everything the brain can do, but better?”
After begging the audience to realize what he is asking is “quite serious” and to “please pay attention” Krishnamurti asks whether, when computers have taken over our thinking and our acting, we will choose to become slaves to capitalist entertainment, the only thing left to us, or whether we will choose to go inward, and to pursue what is truly human, which is an awareness of the nature of life, the nature of reality, the nature of ourselves? In other words, will we choose slavery or freedom?
I was planning to write an essay in response to something Paul Kingsnorth recently wrote on his Substack about the demonic nature of AIs, where I suggest that the best response to what is happening in human culture right now is for us to go inward. To choose a somewhat facetious example, we need to develop our uniquely human capacities, like the mentats and witches and yogis of Frank Herbert’s Dune do after humans rise up and destroy all intelligent machines. I may still write that essay, but in the meantime, here is Krishnamurti. Please also see the video below, where he insists, ahead of his time, and in the face of some skeptics, that computers are in fact capable of learning.