This is an abstract for a presentation that I will be giving in a roundtable discussion on posthumanism and aesthetics with Debra Benita Shaw and Stefan Sorgner at the University of East London on May 18 2015. Further details will be made available.
Posthumanism can be critical or speculative. These positions converge in opposing human-centred (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas. Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.
CP is interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition. Speculative Posthumanists propose the metaphysical possibility of technologically created nonhuman agents. SP states: there could be posthumans – where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration.
In Posthuman Life I elaborate a detailed version of SP. Specially, I describe what it is to become posthuman in terms of “the disconnection thesis” [DT] (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5). DT understands “becoming posthuman” in abstract terms. Roughly, it states that an agent becomes posthuman iff. it becomes independent of the human socio-technical system as a consequence of technical change. It does not specify how this might occur or the nature of the relevant agents (e.g. whether they are immortal uploads, cyborgs, feral robots or Jupiter sized Brains).
Posthuman Life argues that the abstractness of DT is epistemologically apt because there are no posthumans and thus we are in no position to deduce constraints on their possible natures or values (I refer to this position as “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” [AUP)). AUP has implications for the ethics of becoming posthuman that are generally neglected in the literature on transhumanism and human enhancement.
The most important of these is that there can be no a priori ethics of posthumanity. Becoming posthuman can only be substantively (as opposed to abstractly) understood by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I argue that, given the principled impossibility of a prescriptive ethics here, we must formulate strategies for speculating on and exploring nearby “posthuman possibility space”.
In this paper, I propose that aesthetic theory and practice may be a useful political model for such technological self-fashioning because it involves styles of thought or creation that discover their constraints and values by producing them. This “production model” is, I will argue, the only one liable to serve us if, with CP/SP, we reject an anthropocentric privileging of the human. I finish by considering some examples of aesthetic practice that might provide models for the politics of making posthumans or becoming posthuman.
Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Continuing the “dark” posthumanism strand from recent blog posts and from my book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Routledge 2014), I argue that we cannot extend our moral thinking to certain portions of “posthuman possibility space” because our folk psychology and parochial norms of practical reasoning might not apply to “hyperplastic” posthumans. I conclude that there are no good ground to reject the possibility that there are non-persons every bit as morally considerable as persons. Paper on academia.edu here.
I feel like a humanist fellow traveller because I am quite obviously some sort of humanist. Many who call themselves “humanists” support ethical positions I sign up to. A slack religious schooling has left me with a distaste for sublimated theocrats who attack secularism on grounds of cultural autonomy. The slick misanthropy of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a turn off. I think those in the ecology movement who believe biomass is worth dying for should act on their principles.
The default humanism that I’ve owned is (something like) a claim for the singularity and intrinsic value of human life. As John Appleby observes in his 2010 piece for the New Humanist “Man & Other Beasts”, this is defensible anthropocentrism. If humans have distinctive moral capacities like biographical self-awareness and autonomy they have a claim to special treatment:
One of the grounding principles of humanism, agreed upon by both its supporters and detractors, is some form of anthropocentrism. However, anthropocentrism is not the same thing as speciesism and while the latter may well be ethically dubious, it is not at all clear that the former is necessarily so. For example, if her apartment block was on fire, who would Donna Haraway rescue first: her dog or her neighbour’s baby? From a humanist perspective, the answer seems obvious. Yet posthumanism and some branches of animal studies would seem to advocate the dog and you don’t have to be a Kantian to find that grotesque.
Speciesism is wrong for the reasons that racism and heterosexism are wrong. They refuse the protection and recognition due to those possessing capacities like autonomy and self-awareness on morally irrelevant grounds like skin colour or sexual preference. Discriminating in favour of the baby is not arbitrary. A human baby has a claim that the dog (for all its moral or cognitive virtues) lacks because it has a distinctive capacity to acquire distinctive moral capacities.
So is my so-called posthumanism pusillanimous or just horribly conflicted?
It is preeminently “speculative” rather than “critical” (or so I’ve claimed); focused on the contingency and limits of the human rather than its philosophical integument. Still, there are certain variants of anthropocentrism to which it is opposed.
To sort these out it’s necessary to do some distinction mongering. We can refer to the claim that humans are morally distinctive entities as “Simple Humanism” (SH). Simple Humanism (SH) distinguishes in kind between humans and nonhumans by ascribing separate capacities or values. The worst accusation that can be leveled at SH is that it attributes falsely. If it turns out that protists feel pain, joy and humiliation or exercise autonomy, current programs for the eradication of Malaria will need to be re-evaluated.
The second-worst accusation one can level at SH is incompleteness. Perhaps there are capacities of equal or greater weight than autonomy or self-awareness that humans downgrade or lack but which actual or possible nonhumans such as Meillassoux’s inexistent God or Charlie Stross’ Jupiter-sized Brains might possess. In The Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that contemplation of eternal truths is a higher good than the exercise of practical reason and, while humanly attainable, is characteristically divine rather than human. So Aristotle counts as a Simple Humanist but one who hedges his anthropocentrism in important and defensible ways.
The humanisms that provide the critical target of modern posthumanisms and their precursory anti-humanisms tend to be inheritors of Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”. Kant explained the possibility of a priori knowledge by proposing that human minds construct or constitute the world rather than passively represent it. Kant does not just distinguish humans and nonhumans but makes the distinction central to his theory of objectivity and value. The most entrenched versions of this modern anthropocentrism are Instrumentalism and Transcendental Humanism (TH) which assert that the agency or being of nonhumans asymmetrically depend (a-depend) on that of humans:
- Instrumentalism claims that only humans or persons are authentic actors while the agency of nonhumans like animals or tools is constructed by or derived from the agency of humans.
- TH claims that the objectivity or being of nonhumans a-depends on humans.
Both positions are clearly defensible. In Philosophy of Technology instrumentalism (tool function a-depends on tool use) is the one that all critical theories of technology have to flog; and those (like Brandom and Davidson) who think that intentionality is “an essentially linguistic affair” ought to be instrumentalists about the putative intentionality of nonhumans.
Likewise, TH is extraordinarily well placed to legitimate a critical function for Philosophy because it can found its methodology on mooted invariants of human rationality or experience.
However, both place humans (or persons) in the position of “transcendental organizers”: implying a fundamental dualism, which defies natural or historical explanation – an accusation leveled at proponents of human exceptionalism by thinkers as otherwise disparate as Latour, Dennett and Delanda.
They are ethically problematic to the extent that they discount modes of being, affect or agency that are not paradigmatically human or wholly inhuman. Simple Humanism on the other hand merely asserts human distinctiveness and intrinsic worth rather than any constitutive role for human rationality or phenomenology in delineating the differences and values of others. It is entirely compatible with recognizing the distinctiveness and intrinsic worth of nonhumans. Thus it is possible for a philosopher to be a rigorous posthumanist, a simple humanist, and not a wuss.
Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (filmed back in 2009 by Zack Snyder) is an anti- superhero tale about super anti-heroes. Some of these ‘costumed adventurers’ are obsessives driven by the thrill of dressing up and breaking heads; others are co-opted by political interests or have shadowy agendas of their own. The Watchman known as ‘The Comedian’ is an amoral killer on a fat CIA remittance. The only one with actual superpowers, the glowing blue god Dr Manhattan, casually maintains US nuclear Hegemony, but sees humanity as a lower order of being than the inert desert of Mars.
Watchmen honours superhero tradition by sheathing these vigilantes in improbable tights and by culminating in a desperate battle to prevent a maniac killing lots of Americans. Here, though, the balletic combat is futile. As snippets of broadcast TV testify, the Americans are long dead before the first blow lands, and the architect of the plan, Ozymandias – AKA the ‘Worlds Smartest Man’ – is just a Watchman with a self-prescribed remit to usher in an era of global peace.
Ozymandias informs his fellow Watchmen that he has saved the world from nuclear annihilation by gulling the US and USSR into uniting against an illusory alien menace (the story is set in an alternative 1980’s during Nixon’s third term). To simulate this threat convincingly, though, he has had to kill half the population of New York with a vile artificial life form.
Ozymandias seems like an obvious candidate for villain (This is a comic book after all). Yet whether this is so, turns on the solution to the classic philosophical problem of ‘dirty hands’.
Ozymandias’ provides a consequentialist argument for his actions. Pure consequentialists believe that actions must be judged according to the value of their outcomes. Thus if the murder of a million New Yorkers is preferable to the death of billions in a nuclear war, it is better to murder a million New Yorkers.
Once they learn that nothing can prevent the deaths, all but one of the Watchmen agree they are ‘morally checkmated’.
Only Rorschach – so-called for the mutating inkblot concealing his face – contests this. He holds that some actions are intrinsically wrong and must be condemned irrespective of any beneficial outcomes they may produce (the philosophical term for this position is deontological ethics).
Let’s assume for that Ozymandias is factually correct in believing that humanity would have been destroyed had he not acted. This is the kind of thing we might expect the World’s Smartest Man to know. But Ozymandias has committed murder on the scale of a Hitler or a Pol Pot. Surely, his actions are wrong, no matter what?
So is Rorschach right?
Well, if he is, then Ozymandias should be killed or punished and the plot revealed. But Rorschach’s insistence seems wrong-headed. As Dr Manhattan points out ‘Exposing this plot, we destroy any chance of peace, dooming the Earth to worse destruction’.
Moore reinforces this impression by portraying Rorschach as a moral fanatic obsessed with punishment for its own sake. Ozymandias, by contrast, appears reasonable and genuinely pained by the deaths he has caused. So we seem confronted with four alternatives.
Ozymandias is right to sacrifice millions to save billions.
Or Rorschach is right.
Or they are both wrong.
Or they are both right.
The last possibility can be discounted if their positions are genuine contraries. However, there is another way of interpreting these moral claims. In his famous work, The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli argued that canons of moral right have little place in politics. When deciding the future of a state (or a planet), we should be prepared to commit evil acts to secure the paramount goal of political order.
Machiavelli’s position is a kind of consequentialism. However, he does not claim that conventionally evil acts cease to be bad when performed for worthy political ends. If judged according to the principles of public morality they are necessary and bear testimony to the prowess of a Prince (or a Superhero). But they’re still wrong according to the standards of personal morality.
Thus, adopting Machiavelli’s position, we can regard Ozymandias as having performed a very ‘dirty’ but necessary act. Both his position and Rorschach’s can then be affirmed on different grounds. Is this a satisfactory resolution of the dilemma? One could object that any claim that an act is politically necessary must involve an appeal to moral grounds if it is not to be merely cynical – and Ozymandias, unlike the Comedian, is no cynic. Thus it remains troublingly uncertain whether this anti-superhero tale contains a genuine super-villain.
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References: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon, Watchmen, New York: DC Comics, 1987. Zack Snyder, Watchmen (2009).
Just had time to peruse the programme for the Transforming The Human Conference, Dublin City University Oct 21-3. It has less mainstream analytic bioethics than I expected and more stuff on the ‘metaphysics’ of transhumanism and posthumanism. I think this emphasis is correct. We can’t take folk notions of personhood, embodiment or mind for granted when mapping and evaluating paths through ‘posthuman’ possibility space.
Forthcoming in The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart (eds.), Springer Frontiers Collection.
In this essay I claim that Vinge’s idea of a technologically led intelligence explosion is philosophically important because it requires us to consider the prospect of a posthuman condition succeeding the human one. What is the “humanity” to which the posthuman is “post”? Does the possibility of a posthumanity presuppose that there is a ‘human essence’, or is there some other way of conceiving the human-posthuman difference? I argue that the difference should be conceived as an emergent disconnection between individuals, not in terms of the presence or lack of essential properties. I also suggest that these individuals should not be conceived in narrow biological terms but in “wide” terms permitting biological, cultural and technological relations of descent between human and posthuman. Finally, I consider the ethical implications of this metaphysics If, as I claim, the posthuman difference is not one between kinds but emerges diachronically between individuals, we cannot specify its nature a priori but only a posteriori. The only way to evaluate the posthuman condition would be to witness the emergence of posthumans. The implications of this are somewhat paradoxical. We are not currently in a position to evaluate the posthuman condition. Since posthumans could result from some iteration of our current technical activity, we have an interest in understanding what they might be like. It follows that we have an interest in making or becoming posthumans.
Here’s a link to an intriguing blog post and paper by Professor of Law at the Brookings Institute, James Boyle on the implications for prospective developments in AI and biotechnology for our legal conceptions of personhood. The paper opens by considering the challenges posed by prospects of Turing-capable artificial intelligences and genetic chimera.