Stephen T. Asma

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy and Founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. Asma is the author of ten books, including Why We Need Religion (Oxford University Press, 2018), The Evolution of Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2017), On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford, 2009), and The Gods Drink Whiskey (HarperOne, 2005). He writes regularly for the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Aeon. He has also written for the Sunday Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Nautilus, and many others.

In 2014, he was a Fulbright Scholar, teaching philosophy in Beijing, China. In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, and in 2007 he lived and studied in Shanghai China. Asma also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. Asma has been an invited lecturer at Harvard University, Brown University, the Field Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Fudan University (Shanghai), Aarhus University Denmark, University of Macau, and many others. Stephen Asma is also a blues/jazz musician who has played onstage with many musical artists, including Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy.

Funded Project: Living Online: Isolation, Disembodiment, and the Challenge of Friendship

The quality and depth of our friendships are crucial elements in human happiness. From Buddha and Aristotle to the latest scientific studies of happiness, strong social ties are considered essential for human flourishing. Increasingly, however, we are choosing to live online, in apps, games, and social networks. This project seeks to better understand the impact of online life on friendship, especially for Millennials and Gen Z, since they are now spending the majority of their days online.

In dialogue with interdisciplinary experts, the study will first define the basic forms of friendship. Drawing from our wisdom traditions (e.g., Buddhism, virtue ethics, Confucianism, Christianity), the project will delineate friendships of pleasure, of utility, of magnanimity, of altruism, of love, and so on. There are functional and motivational differences between these forms of friendship, but also prerequisites for forging such relationships. Some types of friendship, for example, require shared histories of embodied interaction (e.g., teens sharing rough and tumble play, or companions sharing a hug, or a cry, or a challenging physical adventure, etc.), whereas some types can be sustained by remote interaction (e.g., mutual gaming communities, social networking interactions, etc.).

Current social networking is relatively disembodied interaction, in the sense that images and video clips can be offered up to contacts for approval, disapproval, or some other form of social evaluation, but real-time shared space with shared activity and emotional contagion is negligible. However, online virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) have much more potential for embodied, emotional, shared experiences, and these may foster real friendship bonds of the deeper variety—the kind that serve as ingredients in long-term human flourishing (eudaemonia).

As a species, Homo sapiens are extremely socially dependent and vulnerable, compared with other mammals. We come into the world prematurely—in terms of synaptic mapping and physical ability—but this allows us to tether our bonds on more caregivers than just mom (the usual mammal imprinting default). Human biochemical and psychological roots of bonding reach out and wrap around siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other caregivers. If the bonding system is not stimulated at an early age, then it atrophies and the child grows into an adult who suffers from attachment disorder.

Since we are offloading more of our social interactions to online domains, it is reasonable to study whether there are antisocial consequences akin to attachment disorder on the horizon. We are more connected than ever online, but the connections are weaker than ever. That is to say, we have many more people in digital reach (e.g., our lists of “friends” and “followers”), but these frictionless connections have none of the juice that makes up deeper friendship.

This research project looks to correlate the latest tech trends in online social interaction with the needs and demands of friendship, and by extension the needs of the good life. The hope is that certain technologies (e.g., merged reality, AR, etc.) may turn out to be more conducive to strong friendship formation, and this project will seek to better articulate the underlying mechanisms for such formation, and make recommendations about the responsible use and development of such technology. The resulting findings will be organized into a scholarly book that will be widely distributed and available.

Project Outputs:

Friendship in the Age of Social Distancing (in-progress)

The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition, with Rami Gabriel, Harvard University Press (2019)

“Adaptive Imagination: Toward a Mythopoetic Cognitive Science,” in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture (forthcoming)

“Friendship and Attachment in the Digital Age,” in Technology and Presence: Searching for Meaning in a Digital Age, edited by I. Delio and N. Herzfeld (in-progress)

“Imagination and Psychedelics” at Mind Foundation Insight Conference (September, 2021)

“Phantasia: Imagination is the Sixth Sense” in Aeon (March, 2021)

“Digital Intimacy in the Age of Social Distancing: Fungible Friendships and Attachments,” at Public Theologies of Technology and Presence Capstone Conference (May, 2021)

“Music and Embodied Cognition,” in Evolutionary Perspectives on Imaginative Culture, Edited by J. Carroll, M. Clasen, and E. Jonsson, Springer Books (2020)

“Monsterology: Technological Hauntings, in Religion, Technology, and Human Presence (host, B. Onishi)

“Loyalty, Loving and Distance,” on ABC Australia’s Counterpoint (host, A. Vastone)

 “Does the Pandemic have a Purpose?” in The New York Times (April, 2020)

“Ancient animistic beliefs live on in our intimacy with technology,” in Aeon (February, 2020)

“This Friendship has been Digitized,” in The New York Times (March, 2019)

“As-if We Were Friends: Pretend Intimacy and Artificial Intelligence,” at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (October, 2019)

“Axial Age Friendship for the Digital Age?” at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (October, 2018)