Thursday, July 29, 2010

Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism

Seriously geeky . . . .

Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism

David Roden

Journal of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 21 Issue 1 – June 2010 - pgs 27 - 36


I distinguish the ethics of transhumanism from a related metaphysical position which I refer to as “speculative posthumanism.” Speculative posthumanism holds that posthumans might be radically non-human and thus unintelligible in human terms. I claim that this transcendence can be viewed as analogous to that of the thing-in-itself in Kantian and post-Kantian European philosophy. This schema implies an impasse for transhumanism because, while the radically non-human or posthuman would elude evaluation according to transhumanist principles such as personal autonomy or liberal freedom, it is morally unacceptable for transhumanists to discount the possible outcomes of their favoured policies. I then consider whether the insights of critical posthumanists, who employ a cyborg perspective on human-technology couplings, can dissolve this impasse by “deconstructing” the opposition between the human and its prospective posthuman successors. By exhibiting its logical basis in the postructuralist philosophies of Derrida and Deleuze, I show that the cyborg perspective is consistent with both cyborg humanism and a modified speculative posthumanism. This modified account treats the alterity of the posthuman as a historically emergent feature of human and posthuman multiplicities that must be understood through their technical or imaginative synthesis, not in relation to a transcendental conception of the human.

Contemporary transhumanists argue that human nature can and should be altered through technological means where such enhancements are likely to lead to the majority of individuals leading better lives. This ethic is premised on prospective developments in Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science – the so-called “NBIC” suite. One of the areas of particular concern for transhumanists is the use of such technologies to enhance human cognitive functions such as learning, memory, and attention. For example, such pharmacological agents as Modafinil are currently used to enhance learning and working memory. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation of areas of neural tissue may, one day, be routinely employed to increase the neural plasticity associated with learning and memorization (Bostrom and Sandberg 2006). More speculatively, micro-electric neuroprostheses might interface the brain directly with non-biological cognitive or robotic systems (Kurzweil 2005, 317).1 Such developments could bring the day when all humans will be more intellectually capable, whether because of enhancements of their native biological machinery or through interfacing with artificial information processing systems.

However, some transhumanists such as Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec argue that a convergence of NBIC technologies will not only enhance human intelligence, but give rise to beings with superhuman intellectual capacities. Since designing intelligence is, itself, a feat of intelligence, a super-intelligence could design a still more super intelligence, and so on through an unbounded series of recursive improvements. Beyond this threshold, there would be an exponentially fast change in the level and quality of mentation. Vinge refers to this point as “the technological singularity,” claiming that such a singularity could occur with the creation of a single super-intelligent machine (Vinge 1993; Bostrom 2005, 8). Vinge is sensibly agnostic about the precipitating causes of such a singularity: the super-intelligence in question might result from some targeted biological alteration in human beings, from the use of “human/computer interfaces” of the kind anticipated by Kurzweil, or from an emergent property of large information systems (Vinge 1993).

Since such a situation is unprecedented, the best we can do to understand the post-singularity dispensation, Vinge claims, is to draw parallels with the emergence of an earlier transformative intelligence: And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind (Vinge 1993). If this analogy between the emergence of the human and the emergence of the posthuman holds, we could no more expect to understand a post-singularity entity than a rat or non-human primate – lacking the capacity for refined propositional attitudes – could be expected to understand such human conceptions as justice, number theory, and public transportation.

Vinges position nicely exemplifies a generic philosophy of the posthuman that I will refer to as “speculative posthumanism.” Speculative posthumanists claim that descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration. The notion of descent is “wide” insofar as the entities that might qualify could include our biological descendants or beings resulting from purely technological activities (e.g., artificial intelligences, synthetic life-forms, or uploaded minds).

Speculative posthumanism claims that an augmentation history of this kind is metaphysically and technically possible. It does not imply that the posthuman would improve upon the human state or that there would exist a scale of values by which the human and posthuman lives could be compared. If radically posthuman lives were very non-human indeed, we could not assume they would be prospectively evaluable. For example, Vinge suggests that a super-intelligent machine might lack awareness of itself as a persistent subject of experience. For a modern tradition exemplified in the transcendental philosophy of Kant and later phenomenological philosophers, this possibility is problematic. For Kant, this is because the subject is not a bare locus of identity but has a transcendental function of synthesizing or unifying sensory information given under the subjective forms of space and time into experiences of a common, objective world.

However, Kant allowed that there could be thinkers whose mental life does not entail the synthesis of sensory representations. In the Critique of Pure Reason, he speculates about non-sensory intellectual intuition that produces objects rather than, as in humans, imposing a synthetic unity on their sensory affects (Kant 1787, B 307). A being with intellectual intuition could have unmediated knowledge of things as they are-in-themselves (noumena) rather than as represented under the sensory forms of space and time (phenomena).

If Kant is right, then the presence of first-person subjectivity in humans does not preclude a radically non-subjective phenomenology in non-humans. Most of Kants successors in the idealist and phenomenological traditions have rejected both the in-itself and the possibility of intellectual intuition, claiming that a thing is nothing other than an object for a possible subject. Subject and object would then be indissociably related (Meillassoux 2006). Correlationism, as the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux christens this position, has dominated post-Kantian European philosophy, morphing into a slew of postmodern idealisms. However, as Meillassoux argues, correlationism has the absurd consequence that the cosmic emergence of subjectivity or language becomes inconceivable; for, since nothing exists outside the correlation, it has no history. If we reject correlationism, however, we must hold that reality is not exhausted by any system of correlations: the unconditioned thing-in-itself must be admitted and so must the possibility of different modes of access to it. Thus even if our way of accessing the real requires a subject, others may not. Given this minimal realism, Vinges speculations about posthuman non-subjective intelligence are conceptually coherent, irrespective of their technical possibility.

It seems, then, that a posthuman reality could be, as Vinge (1993) avers, “too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil.” Our public ethical frameworks arguably presuppose that candidates for our moral regard have phenomenologies similar to humans, if only in the sentient capacities for pain, fear, or enjoyment. Moral conceptions such as autonomy or responsibility would be inapplicable to a subjectless posthuman. The central value that modern liberal theory places on liberty and democratic legitimacy would be likewise unintelligible.

How should transhumanists respond to this possibility? Should they simply discount it, confining their attention to the evaluable outcomes of transhumanist intervention? Discounting the posthuman is morally irresponsible, though, given the possible role of transhumanist intervention in producing it. Thus transhumanists should try to evaluate the emergence of an incommensurate posthuman alterity. However, if we recognize evaluation as a non-starter, any attempt to do so would be incoherent. Thus it appears that transhumanists are morally obliged to evaluate the unevaluable. We can refer to this impossible demand as the “posthuman impasse.”

However, this formulation of a transhumanist aporia invites a critical riposte from a position distinct from speculative posthumanism or transhumanism: critical posthumanism.
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