Filippo Bertoni and Uli Beisel have written an interesting and intriguing essay on the ethical challenges posed by extending person-status to cetaceans: “More-than-human intelligence: of dolphins, Indian law and the multispecies turn” over at Society and Space. I only wish the terms in which their discussion is framed had been clearer. For example, they provide no working conception of personhood – though there are many philosophical candidates – and their passing allusion to sharing “somatic sensibilities” is similarly vague. This is a pity because the philosophical and ethical problem they raise is genuine. Should we regard human-style personhood as the tip of an cosmic moral hierarchy from which the only way is down? If not, then how do we negotiate relationships between beings with lives that are phenomenologically different but perhaps not less valuable than humans?
Accelerationism combines a transhumanist techno-optimism with a Marxist analysis of the dynamic between the relations and forces of production. Its proponents argue that under capitalism, modern technology is constrained by myopic and socially destructive goals. They argue that rather than abandoning technological modernity for illusory homeostatic Eden we should exploit and ramp up its incendiary potential in order to escape from the gravity well of market dominated resource-allocation. Like posthumanism, however, Accelerationism comes in several flavours. Benjamin Noys (who coined the term) first identified Accelerationism as a kind of overkill politics invested in freeing the machinic unconscious described in the libidinal postructuralisms of Lyotard and Deleuze from the domestication of liberal subjectivity and market mechanisms. This itinerary reaches its apogee in the work of Nick Land who lent the project a cyberpunk veneer borrowed from the writings of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
Land’s Accelerationism aims at the extirpation of humanity in favour of an ”abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilisations” (Srnicek and Williams 2013). However, this mirror-shaded beta version has been remodelled and given a new emancipatory focus by writers such as Ray Brassier, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Williams 2013). This “promethean” phase Accelerationism argues that technology should be reinstrumentalized towards a project of “maximal collective self-mastery”. Promethean Accelerationism certainly espouses the same tactic of exacerbating the disruptive effects of technology, but with the aim of cultivating a more autonomous universal subject. As Steven Shaviro points out in his excellent talk “An Introduction to Accelerationism”, this version replicates orthodox Marxism at the level of both strategy and intellectual justification. Its vision of a rationally-ordered collectivity mediated by advanced technology seems far closer to Marx’s ideas, say, than Adorno’s dismal negative dialectics or the reactionary identity politics that still animates multiculturalist thinking. If technological modernity is irreversible – short of a catastrophe that would render the whole programme moot – it may be the only prospectus that has a chance of working. As Shaviro points out, an incipient accelerationist logic is already at work among communities using free and open-source software like Pd, where R&D on code modules is distributed among skilled enthusiasts rather than professional software houses (Note, that a similar community flourishes around Pd’s fancier commercial cousin, MAX MSP – where supplementary external objects are written by users in C++, Java and Python).
This is a small but significant move away from manufacture dominated by market feedback. We are beginning see similar tendencies in the manufacture of durables and biotech. The era of downloadable things is upon us. In April 2013, a libertarian group calling themselves Defence Distributed announced that they would release the code for a gun, “the Liberator”, which can be assembled from layers of plastic in a 3 D printer (currently priced at around $ 8000). The group’s spokesman, Cody Wilson, anticipates an era in which search engines will provide components “for everything from prosthetic limbs to drugs and birth-control devices”.
However, the alarm that the Liberator created in global law-enforcement agencies exemplifies the first of two potential pitfalls for the promethean accelerationist itinerary. The first is that the democratization of technology – enabled by its easy iteration from context to context – does not seem liable to increase our capacity to control its flows and applications; quite the contrary, and this becomes significant when the iterated tech is not just an Max MSP external for randomizing arrays but an offensive weapon, an engineered virus or a powerful AI program. I’ve argued elsewhere that technology has no essence and no itinerary. In its modern form at least, it is counter-final. It is not in control, but it is not in anyone’s control either, and the developments that appear to make a techno-insurgency conceivable are liable to ramp up its counter-finality. This, note, is a structural feature deriving from the increasing iterability of technique in modernity, not from market conditions. There is no reason to think that these issues would not be confronted by a more just world in which resources were better directed to identifiable social goods.
A second issue is also identified in Shaviro’s follow up discussion over at The Pinocchio Theory: the posthuman. Using a science fiction allegory from a story by Paul De Filippo, Shaviro suggests that the posthuman could be a figure for a decentred, vital mobilization against capitalism: a line of flight which uses the technologies of capitalist domination to develop new forms of association, embodiment and life. I think this prospectus is inspiring, but it also has moral dangers that Darian Meacham identifies in a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy entitled ’Empathy and Alteration: The Ethical Relevance of the Phenomenological Species Concept’. Very briefly, Meacham argues that the development of technologically altered descendants of current humans might precipitate what I term a “disconnection” – the point at which some part of the human socio-technical system spins off to develop separately (Roden 2012). I’ve argued that disconnection is multiply realizable – or so far as we can tell. But Meacham suggests that a kind of disconnection could result if human descendants were to become sufficiently alien from us that “we” would no longer have a pre-reflective basis for empathy with them. We would no longer experience them as having our relation to the world or our intentions. Such a “phenomenological speciation” might fragment the notional universality of the human, leading to a multiverse of fissiparous and alienated clades like that envisaged in Bruce Sterling’s novel Schismatrix. A still more radical disconnection might result if super-intelligent AI’s went “feral”. At this point, the subject of history itself becomes divided. It is no longer just about us. Perhaps Land remains the most acute and intellectually consistent accelerationist after all.
Roden, David 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Edited by Ammon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.
Srnicek, N.and Williams A (2013), #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/
Sterling, Bruce. 1996. Schismatrix Plus. Ace Books.
Williams, Alex, 2013. “Escape Velocities.” E-flux (46). Accessed July 11. http://worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_8969785.pdf.
Critical Posthumanists argue that the idea of a universal human nature has lost its capacity to support our moral and epistemological commitments. The sources of this loss of foundational status are multiple according to writers like Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles (1999), Neil Badmington (2003), Claire Colebrook and Rosi Braidotti. They include post-Darwinian naturalizations of life and mind that theoretically level differences between living and machinic systems and the more intimate ways of enmeshing living entities in systems of control and exploitation that flow from the new life and cognitive sciences. Latterly, writers such as Braidotti and Colebrook have argued that a politics oriented purely towards the rights and welfare of humans is incapable of addressing issues such as climate change or ecological depletion in the anthropocene era in which humans “have become a geological force capable of affecting all life on this planet” (Braidotti 2013: 66).
On the surface, this seems like a hyperbolic claim. If current global problems are a consequence of human regulation or mismanagement, then their solution will surely require human political and technological agency and institutions.
But let’s just assume that there is something to the critical posthumanist’s deconstruction of the human subject and that, in consequence, we can no longer assume that the welfare and agency of human subjects should be the exclusive goal of politics. If this is right, then critical posthumanism needs to do more than pick over the vanishing traces of the human in philosophy, literature and art. It requires an ethics that is capable of formulating the options open to some appropriately capacious political constituency in our supposedly post-anthropocentric age.
Braidotti’s recent work The Posthuman is an attempt to formulate such an ethics. Braidotti acknowledges and accepts the levelling of the status of human subjectivity implied by developments in cognitive science and biology and the “analytic posthumanism” that falls out of this new ontological vision. However, she is impatient with what she perceives as a disabling vacillation and neutrality that easily follows from junking of human subject as the arbiter of the right and the good. She argues that a posthuman ethics and politics need to retain the idea of political subjectivity; an agency capable of constructing new forms of ethical community and experimenting with new modes of being:
In my view, a focus on subjectivity is necessary because this notion enables us to string together issues that are currently scattered across a number of domains. For instance, issues such as norms and values, forms of community bonding and social belonging as well as questions of political governance both assume and require a notion of the subject.
However, according to Braidotti, this is no longer the classical self-legislating subject of Kantian humanism. It is vital, polyvalent connection-maker constituted “in and by multiplicity” – by “multiple belongings”:
The relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all non-anthropocentric elements. Living matter – including the flesh – intelligent and self-organizing but it is precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life.
‘Life’, far from being codified as the exclusive property or unalienable right of one species, the human, over all others or of being sacralised as a pre-established given, is posited as process, interactive and open ended. This vitalist approach to living matter displaces the boundary between the portion of life – both organic and discursive – that has traditionally been reserved for anthropos, that is to say bios, and the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life also known as zoe (Braidotti 2012: 60).
Thus posthuman subjectivity, for Braidotti, is not human but a tendency inherent in human and nonhuman living systems alike to affiliate with other living systems to form new functional assemblages. Clearly, not everything has the capacity to perform every function. Nonetheless, living systems can be co-opted by other systems for functions “God” never intended and Mother Nature never designed them for. As Haraway put it: ‘No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language’ (Haraway 1989: 187). There are no natural limits or functions for bodies or their parts, merely patterns of connection and operation that do not fall apart all at once.
Zoe . . . is the transversal force that cuts across and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains. Zoe-centered egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the post-anthropocentric turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.
Of course, if anything can be co-opted for any function that its powers can sustain, one might ask how zoe can support a critique of advanced capitalism which, as Braidotti concedes, produces a form of the “posthuman” by radically disrupting the boundaries between humans, animals, species and technique. What could be greater expression of the zoe’s transversal potential than, say, Monsanto’s transgenic cotton Bollgard II? Bollgard II contains genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produce a toxin deadly to pests such as bollworm. Unless we believe that there is some Telos inherent to thuringiensis or to cotton that makes such transversal crossings aberrant – which Braidotti clearly does not – there appears to be no zoe-eyed perspective that could warrant her objection. Monsanto’s genetic engineers are just sensibly utilizing possibilities for connection that are already afforded by living systems but which cannot be realized without technological mediation (here via gene transfer technology). If the genes responsible for producing the toxin Bt in thuringiensis did not work in cotton and increase yields it would presumably not be the type used by the majority of farmers today (Ronald 2013).
Cognitive and biological capitalists like Google and Monsanto seem to incarnate the tendencies of zoe – conceived as a generalized possibility of connection – as much as the” not-for-profit” cyborg experimenters like Kevin Warwick or the publicly funded creators of HTML, Dolly the Sheep and Golden Rice. Doesn’t Google show us what a search engine can do?
We could object to Monsanto’s activities on the grounds that it has invidious social consequences or on the grounds that all technologies should be socially rather than corporately controlled. Neither of these arguments are obviously grounded in posthumanism or “zoe-centricism” – Marxist humanists would presumably agree with the latter claim, for example.
However, we can find the traces of a zoe-centered argument in Deleuzean ethics explored in the essay “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible” (Braidotti 2006). This argues for an ethics oriented towards enabling entities to actualize their powers to their fullest “sustainable” extent. A becoming or actualization of power is sustainable if the assemblage or agency exercising it can do so without “destroying” the systems that makes its exercise possible. Thus an affirmative posthuman ethics follows Nietzsche in making it possible for subjects to exercise their powers to the edge but not beyond, where that exercise falters or where the system exercising it falls apart.
To live intensely and be alive to the nth degree pushes us to the extreme edge of mortality. This has implications for the question of the limits, which are in-built in the very embodied and embedded structure of the subject. The limits are those of one’s endurance – in the double sense of lasting in time and bearing the pain of confronting ‘Life” as zoe. The ethical subject is one that can bear this confrontation, cracking up a bit but without having its physical or affective intensity destroyed by it. Ethics consists in re-working the pain into threshold of sustainability, when and if possible: cracking, but holding it, still.
So Capitalism can be criticized from the zoe-centric position if it constrains powers that could be more fully realized in a different system of social organization. For Braidotti, the capitalist posthuman is constrained by the demands of possessive individualism and accumulation.
The perversity of advanced capitalism, and its undeniable success, consists in reattaching the potential for experimentation with new subject formations back to an overinflated notion of possessive individualism . . ., tied to the profit principle. This is precisely the opposite direction from the non-profit experimentations with intensity, which I defend in my theory of posthuman subjectivity. The opportunistic political economy of bio-genetic capitalism turns Life/zoe – that is to say human and non-human intelligent matter – into a commodity for trade and profit (Braidotti 2013: 60-61).
Thus she supports “non-profit” experiments with contemporary subjectivity that show what “contemporary, biotechnologically mediated bodies are capable of doing” while resisting the neo-liberal appropriation of living entities as tradable commodities.
Whether the constraint claim is true depends on whether an independent non-capitalist posthuman (in Braidotti’s sense of the term) is possible or whether significant posthuman experimentation – particularly those involving sophisticated technologies like AI or Brain Computer Interfaces – will depend on the continued existence of a global capitalist technical system to support it. I admit to being agnostic about this. While modern technologies such as gene transfer do not seem essentially capitalist, there is little evidence to date that a noncapitalist system could develop them or their concomitant forms of hybridized “posthuman” more prolifically.
Nonetheless, there seems to be a significant ethical claim at issue here that can be used independently of its applicability to the critique of contemporary capitalism.
For example, I have recently argued for an overlap or convergence between critical posthumanism and Speculative Posthumanism: the claim that descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical augmentation (SP). Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability is pertinent here because SP in its strong form is also post-anthropocentric – it denies that posthuman possibility is structured a priori by human modes of thought or discourse – and because it defines the posthuman in terms of its power to escape from a socio-technical system organized around human-dependent ends (Roden 2012). The technological offspring described by SP will need to be functionally autonomous insofar as they will have to develop their own ends or modes of existence outside or beyond the human space of ends. Reaching “posthuman escape velocity” will require the cultivation and expression of powers in ways that are sustainable for such entities. This presupposes, of course, that we can have a conception of a subject or agent that is grounded in their embodied capacities or powers rather than general principles applicable to human agency. Understanding its ethical valence thus requires an affirmative conception of these powers that is not dependent on overhanging anthropocentric ideas such as moral autonomy. Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability thus suggests some potentially viable terms of reference for formulating an ethics of becoming posthuman in the speculative sense.
Badmington, N. (2003) ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique 53 (Winter): 10-27.
Braidotti, R (2006), ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible”, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2006, pp. 133-159.
Braidotti, R (2013), The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Colebrook, Claire 2012a.), “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.
Colebrook, Claire (2012b.), “Not Symbiosis, Not Now: Why Anthropogenic Change Is Not Really Human.” Oxford Lit Review 34 (2): 185–209.
Haraway, Donna (1989), ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’. Coming to Terms, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), London: Routledge, 173-204.
Hayles, K. N. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roden, D. (2010). ‘Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism’. The Journal of Evolution & Technology, 21(1), 27-36.
Roden, D. (2012). ‘The Disconnection Thesis’. In Singularity Hypotheses (pp. 281-298). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Roden, D. (2013). ‘Nature’s Dark domain: an argument for a naturalized phenomenology’. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 169-188.
Roden, R (2014). Posthuman Life: philosophy at the edge of the human. Acumen Publishing.
In this excellent presentation Saxe claims that Transcranial Magnetic Simulation applied to the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) – a region specialized for mentalizing in human adults – can improve the effectiveness of moral reasoning by improving our capacity to understand other human minds.
This suggests an interesting conundrum for moral philosophers working in the Kantian tradition, where recognizing the rationality and personhood of offenders is held to be a sine qua non for justifications of punishment. We can imagine a Philip K Dick style world in which miscreants are equipped with surgically implanted TMS devices which zap them where an automated surveillance system judges them to be in a morally tricky situation calling for rapid and reliable judgements about others’ mental states. Assuming that such devices would be effective, would this still constitute a violation of the offender’s personhood – treating the offender as a refractory animal who must be conditioned to behave in conformity with societal norms, like Alex in a Clockwork Orange ? Or would the enhancement give that status its due by helping the offender become a better deliberator ?
Assuming the TMS devices could achieve their aim of improving moral cognition, it seems odd to say that this would be a case of “tiger training” which bypasses the offender’s capacity for moral reasoning since it would presumably increase that very capacity. It is even conceivable that an effective moral enhancement could be co-opted by savvy Lex Luthor types to enhance the criminal capacities of their roughnecks, making them more effective at manipulating others and sizing up complex situations. At the same time, it would be quite different from punishment practices that appeal to the rational capacities of the offender. Having one’s TPJ zapped is not the same as being asked to understand the POV of your victim – though it might enhance your ability to do so.
So an effective moral enhancement that increases the capacity for moral reasoning in the cognitively challenged would neither be a violation of nor an appeal to to their reason. It would not be like education or a talking therapy, but neither would be like the cruder forms of chemical or psychological manipulation. It could enhance the moral capacities of people but it would do so by tying them into technical networks that, as we know, can be co-opted for ends that their creators never anticipated. It might enhance the capacity for moral agency while also increasing its dependence on the vagaries of wider technical systems. Some would no doubt see such a development as posthuman biopower at its most insidious. They would be right, I think, but technology is insidious precisely because our florid agency depends on a passivity before cultural and technical networks that extend it without expressing a self-present and original human subjectivity.
In this highly illuminating talk from EXPO1 at MOMA, Ray proposes that there is nothing inherently wrong with the transhuman reengineering of nature on the “promethean” grounds that nature has no ethical dispensation. Thus there is no natural, ontological or theological order violated by the extension of human cognitive powers or by the creation of synthetic life. Such processes are potentially violent and destructive, but that is acceptable as long as we distinguish between “good” emancipatory violence and that which oppresses and restricts the life chances of rational subjects.
I’m wholly in agreement with Ray in his rejection of theological objections to the technological refashioning of human and non-human nature. I’m less convinced that the idea of emancipation is an adequate horizon within which to adjudicate between the new world-engines that might lie before us. But I agree that we need some ethically substantive framework in which to do this. My own leaning is increasingly towards a pluralist moral realism – the claim that there are objectively good or bad locations in Posthuman Possibility Space but no moral hierarchy in which these are enfolded in turn. So to adjudicate these we need to “sample” them by experimenting with bodies, things and minds.
Ray also peppers his talk with some references to J G Ballard’s short story “The Voices of Time”, one of his many narratives of ontological catastrophe. Ballard’s own position on emancipation is profoundly ambivalent, as Baudrillard observes. Something to return to in later post or article, I think.
The Posthuman: Differences, Embodiments, Performativity
Call For Papers
September 11th – 14th 2013, University of Roma 3, Rome, Italy
The University of Roma 3, the University Erlangen-Nürnberg,
the University of the Aegean and Dublin City University
are pleased to announce:
The 5th Conference of the Beyond Humanism Conference Series
The specific focus of the Conference “The Posthuman: Differences, Embodiments, and Performativity” will be the posthuman, in its genealogies, as well as its theoretical, artistic and materialistic differences and possibilities. In order to guarantee a systematic treatment of the topic, we will particularly focus on the following themes:
1 What is the posthuman? Have humans always been posthuman? If so, in which sense? Is the posthuman a further evolutionary development of the human being? What are the implications of gender, sex and race, among other differential categories, for the embodied constitution of the posthuman? Do posthumans already exist? What is the difference between the posthuman, the transhuman, the antihuman and the cyborg?
2 Philosophical issues concerning the genealogies of the posthuman: Which traditions of thoughts are significant to the posthuman theoretical attempt to postulate a post-dualistic and post-essentialist standpoint? What are the differences between the genealogies of the posthuman and of the transhuman? What points do they hold in common? Is the posthuman a Western-centric notion? Could non-dualistic practices such as shamanism be accounted as posthuman?
3 Bioarts, Body Art, Performance Art and the Posthuman: Which kind of art can be seen as leading towards the posthuman? Is the notion of the posthuman traceable in artistic traditions which precede the coining of the term “posthuman”? Can the posthuman be detected in cultures which have not been canonized by Western aesthetics?
4 Ethics, Bioethics, and the Moral Status of the Posthuman: Does the posthuman lead to a new, non-universalist, non-dualist understanding of ethics? Will posthumans have the moral status of a post-person, or will it be possible for them to have human dignity and personhood? Are human rights necessarily humanistic, or can they be re-enacted within a posthuman frame?
5 Emerging Technologies and the Posthuman: Which technologies represent the most significant challenge concerning the concept of the human/posthuman? Are restrictive national regulations concerning emerging technologies helpful in a globalized world? Do mind-uploading, plastic surgery, and cyborgian practices dissolve the border between human beings and machines? Human enhancement is already happening: should morphological freedom be regulated by social norms, or should it stand on individual choices?
6 Materialism and Posthuman Existence: The notion of matter as an active agent has been reinforced through Quantum Physics, on a scientific level, as well as by New Materialisms and Speculative Realism, on a philosophical level. Is the posthuman grounded in a materialist understanding of existence? What are the ontological, as well as the existential implications of the relationality of matter? Can it be related to a Posthuman Agency? What would a Posthuman Existentialism imply?
7. Posthuman Education: The notion of education in a posthumanist world; the transformation of the roles of teachers and learners in a posthuman social environment; what is the concept of a post- and transhumanist school? Which learning activities are central in a posthumanist educational system? Epistemological considerations about knowledge construction in the posthumanist era need to be considered further.
Papers will be selected and arranged according to related topics. Equal voice will be given, if possible, to presentations from the arts, humanities, sciences, and technological fields.
Major areas of interest include (in alphabetic order):
Animal Studies, Antihumanism, Heritage and the Arts, Postmodernism, and Conceptual Art, Bioarts and Performance Art, Bioethics, Cosmology, Critical Race Studies, Cultural Studies, Cyborg Studies, Deconstructionism, Disability Studies, Ecology, Informatics, Emerging Technologies and Ethics, Enhancement, Evolution, Existentialism, Gender Studies, Intersectionality, New Materialisms, Philosophy, Physics, Posthumanism, Quantum Physics, Science and Technology Studies, Singularity, Spirituality, Speculative Realism, Transhumanism
Other possible topics include, but are not limited to:
· Bioethics, bioconservatism, bioliberalism, enhancement
· Posthumanist anthropology, aesthetics, ecology, feminism, critical theory
· Representation of human performance in technology and the arts
· Enhancement and political discourse, regulation, and human rights
· Humanism, posthumanism, transhumanism and antihumanism in philosophy
· Poststructuralism, postmodernism, and posthumanism
· New Materialisms, speculative realism and quantum physics
· Existentialism, relational ontology, posthuman agency
· Transhuman and posthuman impact on ethics and/or value formation
· Phenomenology and postphenomenology
· Embodiments and identity
· Transhumanism and/or posthumanism in science fiction and utopian/dystopian literature
· Non-dualism in spiritual practices, mysticism and shamanism
· Globalization and the spread of biomedicine and transhumanism/br> · Economic implications of transhumanist projects
· Popular culture and posthumanist representations
· Theology, enhancement, and the place of the posthuman
· Technology, robotics, and ethics
· Cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality
· Cyborgs and democracy
· Humanity, human nature, biotechnology
SUBMISSIONS & DEADLINES
We invite abstracts of up to 500 words, to be sent in MS Word and Pdf format to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Files should be named and submitted in the following manner:
Submission: First Name Last name.docx (or .doc) / .pdf
Example: “Submission: MaryAndy.docx”
Abstracts should be received by May 15th 2013.
Acceptance notifications will be sent out by June 15th.
All those accepted will receive information on the venue(s), local attractions, accommodations, restaurants, and planned receptions and events for participants.
*Presentations should be no longer than 20 minutes. Each presentation will be given 10 additional minutes for questions and discussions with the audience, for a total of 30 minutes.
FEES & REGISTRATION
A reduced registration fee of €50 (65USD) will apply to all participants.
SERIES “BEYOND HUMANISM”(site)
The Conference is part of the Series “Beyond Humanism”. The 1st Conference took place in April 2009 at the University of Belgrade (Humanism and Posthumanism), the 2nd Conference in September 2010 at the University of the Aegean (Audiovisual Posthumanism), the 3rd Conference in October 2011 at Dublin City University (Transforming Human Nature) and the 4th Conference in September 2012 at the IUC in Dubrovnik (Enhancement, Emerging Technologies and Social Challenges). This year, the conference “The Posthuman: Differences, Embodiments, and Performativity” will be held at the University of Roma 3, Department of Philosophy, Rome, Italy, from the 11th until the 14th of September 2013.
Charles Stross’ science fiction novel Accelerando provides a vivid and blackly funny portrayal of a transition from a merely transhuman to a genuinely posthuman world.
In Accelerando, the Singularity has arrived by the 22nd Century (Vinge 1993). The self-improving AI’s that now run the world are “wide human descendants” of human corporations and automated legal systems, which achieved both sentience and a form of legal personhood back in the 21st. As Stross’ narrator observes, the phrase “smart money” has taken on an entirely new meaning.
Eventually, these “corporate carnivores” – known as the “Vile Offspring” – institute a new economics (Economic 2.0) in which supply and demand relationships are computed too rapidly for those burdened by a “narrative chain” of personal consciousness to keep up. Under Economics 2.0 first person subjectivity is replaced “with a journal file of bid/request transactions” between autonomous software agents. E 2.0 is so remorselessly efficient that it comes to dominate not only the Earth but also the majority of the solar system. Whole planets pulverized and diverted to fast-thinking dust clouds of smart matter “blooming” around the sun (Stross 2006, 208-10):
This post-singularity scenario certainly seems bad for humans. Even their souped-up transhuman offspring prove equally incapable of functioning within E 2.0 and can only flee to the outer solar system and beyond as their worlds are “ethnically cleansed”.
At the same time, it is not clear that E 2.0 is really “good” for posthumans in a way that might conceivably outweigh its bad impact on humans.
If the posthuman entities – such as the Wide Descendents eating up the inner solar system of Stross’ novel – lack a linear, narrative consciousness, can their form of existence be worthy of ethical consideration?
Well, it might be argued that any being with conscious awareness – even one that does not involve rational subjectivity or personhood – is worthy of some moral consideration. Most accept that nonhuman animals are conscious of pains and pleasures and it is plausible to argue that their interest in avoiding pains and having pleasures are identical to humans.
However, many humanists claim that the reasoning prowess of humans distinguishes them radically from nonhuman animals. Responsiveness to reasons is both a cognitive and a moral capacity. For Kant, this capacity to choose the reasons for our actions – to form a will, as he puts it – is the only thing that is good in an unqualified way and is the most important distinguishing characteristic of humanity as opposed to animality.
Even humanists for whom the human capacity for self-shaping is one good among many, here, claim that “autonomy” confers a dignity on humans that should be protected by laws and cultivated.
Beings with the capacity for autonomy the moral status that goes with it are commonly referred to as “persons”. Locke defined a person as “a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places”. If Locke is right about the psychological preconditions for personhood, then beings such as the Vile Offspring cannot count as persons because, as Stross puts, their phenomenology lacks the “narrative centre” that a being needs to consider itself the same thing at different times. The practical rationality described in most post-Kantian conceptions of autonomy might not be accessible to a being with non-subjective phenomenology. Such an entity would be incapable of experiencing itself as having a life that might go better or worse for it.
If humanists are right to say that persons have special moral worth and we add to this the claim that there could be no nonpersons with greater or equivalent moral worth than persons, then very weird and very non-human posthumans such as Vile Offspring who lack personal phenomenology would not be as worthy of moral consideration as humans or transhumans.
Posthumans lacking personhood and the capacity for pleasure and pain would not be sources for any kind of moral claim. Posthumans lacking personhood but possessing functional equivalents of pleasure or pain could be granted an equivalent status to non-human animals that also lack the psychological prerequisites of personhood.
Posthuman singularity ethics would then be possible only in an etiolated form though it would not be applicable where our wide human descendants departed radically from human phenomenological invariants.
Perhaps it this is what accounts for the “vileness” of the Vile Offspring. That they are not conscious subjects with plans for life and conceptions of the good but churning clouds of super-intelligent matter driven by inchoate drives – like H P Lovecraft’s blind, idiot God, Azathoth.
However, this analytic of the vile is premature. For it assumes that there is a moral hierarchy mapping onto a psychological or phenomenological hierarchy. But the fact that there are beings – persons – with the distinctive mental properties described by Locke and Kant does not entail that all beings lacking these properties must be morally inferior, or even vile. For it is conceivable that there could be intelligent beings whose experience lacks some perquisites for personhood but have phenomenological attributes that are different but not morally inferior.
We humans might find it hard to conceive what such impersonal phenomenologies could be like (to say of them that they are “impersonal” is not to commit ourselves regarding the kinds of experiences they furnish). However, this difficulty may simply reflect the fact that our phenomenology constrains our grasp of phenomenological possibility and necessity (Metzinger 2004: 213; Roden 13b).
In particular, our phenomenology may be characterized by variable degrees of what Thomas Metzinger calls “autoepistemic closure”.
A phenomenology is autoepistemically closed if the processes that generate it are inaccessible within it. According to Metzinger, human personal experience is a dynamic and temporally situated model of the world, which represents the modeller as a distinct component. The phenomenal world model thus includes a phenomenal self-model or PSM. However, neither model represents the subpersonal cognitive processes that implement them. To borrow a phrase from Michael Tye: the phenomenal world-models and self-models are “transparent” – we seem to look through them into an immediately given world out there and a self-present mental life “in here” (Metzinger 2004 131, 165).
Both immediacies, according to Metzinger, are epistemic illusions generated by the model’s insensitivity to its computational underpinnings. There is no self or subject doing the looking. The experienced self is, rather, the simulated content of the PSM rather than the subpersonal process that generates it.
If, as Metzinger claims, we are not self-intimating Cartesian selves or Kantian transcendental subjects but self-models, it is little wonder that our phenomenology affords limited insight into the space of possible minds. For example, our subjectivity seems to exist in a spatial-temporal pocket: a situated, embodied self and an ever evolving present. It is characterized by a bivalent distinction between self and other, non-mine and mine and a sense of temporal newness – or presentationality – “a virtual window of presence” that gives us a baseline with which to distinguish actuality and simulated possibility (Ibid. 42, 96). But this representational scheme may depend on the fact that our sensory and motor systems are “integrated within the body of a single organism”. Other kinds of life – e.g. “conscious interstellar gas clouds” or (more saliently for us) decentred post-human “swarm” intelligences like the Vile Offspring – might have experiences of a quite different nature (Metzinger 2004: 161).
A physically distributed entity with computing power to burn might support a “multi-threaded” and “multi-level” phenomenology that tracks the adventures of distributed processing sites while providing high-resolution models of its own cognitive processes. Such a distributed consciousness might have a very different functional structure to human consciousness.
A multi-threaded phenomenology might employ different strategies for modelling relationships between the modeller and its environment. We cannot easily imagine what such a phenomenology would be like – but inability to imagine it is not a demonstration of its impossibility.
So it is at least conceivable that a nonhuman phenomenology could be impersonal, but have representational characteristics no less sophisticated than “higher order” moral properties such as autonomy in humans. If personhood and autonomy are not unique “higher-order moral properties” and we are not yet in a position to compare them with posthuman modes of being, then we have no grounds to assume that they trump other candidates for ethical consideration. So we have very weak grounds for believing that persons (or autonomous human subjects) stand at the moral summit or centre of creation.
If that is right, then a person-relativist humanist ethic should be rejected along with a species relativist one. There may be non-personal modes of existence following a singularity (or posthuman-maker) no less valuable than those accessible to persons. This is compatible with the claim that persons have some intrinsic moral worth – though it does not entail this. If this value is genuinely intrinsic it is presumably unaffected by the existence of different modes of existence with their own intrinsic worth.
I think this possibility implies a form of posthuman justice. This is not the postmetaphysical, procedural justice described by Rawls and other liberal anti-perfectionists. Posthuman justice cannot be predicated on “fair terms of co-operation” between citizens of a state since any human-posthuman disconnection would, arguably, preclude a republic of humans and posthumans (Roden 2013a).
Now, we could try to express a formal principle of justice on the basis of the assumption that there could be valuable posthuman forms of existence: for example:
We should give equivalent consideration to such modes of being, whatever they may be.
I use “equivalent” in favour of “identical” since it would be presumptive to describe a nonpersonal intelligence as having identical interests to a personal one.
However, this substitution does not achieve much. It does not tell us how these interests are equivalent or what duties might flow from the principle. As a guide to action or to life, the formal principle is not worth the pixels it is written in.
To invert Rawls’ famous disclaimer: the theory of posthuman justice is metaphysical, not political. It does not tell us what to do or how to coordinate our institutions. It just allows, (for want of countervailing arguments) that potential posthuman lives could support modes of existence that are not less than ours.
We could choose not to acknowledge these potential lives – were it possible to do so – but this refusal to acknowledge posthuman “otherness” would arguably be a kind of failure. It would be equivalent to the claim that something into which our insight is really very limited – “normal” human subjectivity and personhood – has a superior claim over the nonpersonal and potentially vile occupants of posthuman possibility space. This position might be warranted if our place in posthuman possibility space were not under consideration – e.g. if we were comparing the higher order moral properties of actual humans with actual nonhuman animals. But our attitude to our nonhuman Wide Descendants is at issue. Refusal to consider this possibility would be an intellectual failure as well as a kind of injustice.
Now, I think some would object that this capacious metaethical statement simply fails to do justice to the difficulty and danger attending an actual disconnection scenario. How, for example, could it guide us in an alien post-singularity environment of the kind described in Accelerando? There the remaining humans cannot communicate or interpret the “radically other” posthumans eating up the mass of the inner solar system (Near the end of Accelerando, the Vile Offspring start to resurrect every human who ever existed. Nobody finds out why.)
So we might concede the metaphysical principle that radically alien posthumans could merit some interpretative efforts on our part; but only if these were not futile.
No ethical principle should exhort us to act in vain, it seems. In cases where posthumans could be very radically alien, a Xenophobic Bias in favour of humans or fellow persons would appear to be the only ethical option that humans or persons could realistically pursue.
However, the idea of “radical alien” that is in play here is philosophically problematic.
Firstly, we should distinguish between kinds of alienness. The autoepistemic closure of human phenomenology may make it hard to imagine or understand some alien minds; it does not imply that such understanding is impossible.
Autoepistemic closure is not cognitive closure. The fact that our self-model does not represent itself as representational or computational does not entail that we could not acquire a theoretical grasp of its representational or computational structure – this is precisely the point of Metzinger’s work and of others working in the science of consciousness.
This argument applies generally. The fact that a being might have a very different experience of the world to ours does not entail that we could not come to understand how that experience is constituted. Nor does it entail that such beings would be uninterpretable. Ethologists and pet owners regularly apply what Dennett refers to as the “intentional stance” to nonhuman animals – cats, dogs or monkeys, say – without worrying about the minutiae of their phenomenology.
To take up the intentional stance to a system is to impute to it the beliefs and desires that it should have – given the kind of system it is – and then seeing whether its behaviour can be predicted on this basis. Dennett describes how we might apply the IS to racoons:
One can often predict or explain what an animal will do by simply noticing what it notices and figuring out what it wants. The raccoon wants the food in the box-trap, but knows better than to walk into a potential trap where it can’t see its way out. That’s why you have to put two open doors on the trap–so that the animal will dare to enter the first, planning to leave by the second if there’s any trouble. You’ll have a hard time getting a raccoon to enter a trap that doesn’t have an apparent “emergency exit” that closes along with the entrance (Dennett 1995).
The racoons’ responses to the one-door trap and its propensity to be seduced by the two door trap justifies the following interpretation of racoon mental life: that racoons have beliefs (or “beliefs”) about the numbers of doors in traps and that they are averse to traps with only one door. Thus racoons are intentional systems. This act of interpretation does not entail understanding what it is like for the Racoon to experience an aversion to one-door traps. Thus phenomenological similarity does not seem to be a necessary condition for interpreting nonhumans.
However, similarity of conceptual frameworks might be such a condition. If the racoons acted in a way that made it impossible to identify conceptual distinction such as between one and two-door traps, then this particular intentional stance interpretation would not be possible.
So could posthumans be radically alien by virtue of having concepts or conceptual schemes that no human could have?
At this point an objector might become suspicious of my talk of “alien” minds and phenomenologies, for there are well-rehearsed philosophical arguments against radically incommensurate or alien conceptual schemes or languages which give cause to be suspicious of the ‘very idea’ of the radically alien intelligences. The most famous of these is advanced by Donald Davidson in ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’.
In ‘Idea’ Davidson claims that theories of conceptual incommensurability must construe conceptual schemes one of two ways: in terms of a Kantian scheme/content dualism; or a relation ‘fitting’ or ‘matching’ between language and world.
However, he argues the Kantian trope presupposes that the thing organized – experience, say – is composite in a way that affords comparison with our conceptual scheme after all (Davidson 2001a, 192). Since incommensurability implies incomparability, the propositional trope – fitting the facts or the totality of experience, or whatever – is all that is left. For Davidson, this just means that the idea of an acceptable conceptual scheme is one that is mostly true (Ibid. 194). So an alien conceptual scheme or language lights would be largely true but uninterpretable (Ibid.).
For Davidson’s interpretation-based semantics, this is equivalent to a language recalcitrant to radical interpretation. For interpretation-based semantics, to have content or meaning just is to be interpretable as having that content or meaning; whether by “native speakers” or by uninformed outsiders (“radical interpreters”) who start out with no knowledge of the idiom at all. Thus an uninterpretable conceptual scheme would not only be intelligible to “native insiders”. It would not have any content or meaning at all and thus would not be true or false of anything at all.
To re-state this in terms of the current problematic: interpretation-based semantics states that if alien posthumans had minds, they would have interpretable representational states capable of reliably tracking truths.
So Davidson’s position implies that, regardless of variations in phenomenology, there cannot be any radically uninterpretable minds: whether alien, animal or posthuman. Thus any posthuman mind should be interpretable, in principle, by any human mind. This suggests that Virnor Vinge’s concern that the singularity might take us beyond good and evil, into a world in which human ethical frameworks simply lack applicability are unfounded (Vinge 1993). Strictly speaking there could be no such thing as a radical alien.
In presenting the Davidsonian argument against radical aliens, I’ve skirted some difficult technical issues about the nature of interpretative theories: e.g. whether a theory of truth for a language can capture what a native speaker grasps when they understand the language.
I have also ignored the distinction between interpreting public utterances and interpreting mental contents. Davidson assumes that they are part and parcel of the same activity, but he might well be wrong. Paul Churchland, for one, argues that human and animal concepts are fundamentally non-propositional in structure and thus imperfectly captured in public language. If so, Davidson is wrong to assume that any adequate conceptual scheme must thereby be true, since only sentences or semantic contents of sentences (propositions) can be true.
It thus conceivable that weird posthumans such as the Vile Offspring would not think in sentences and thus would not deal in truths at all. Admittedly, the same could be true of racoons and other non-human animals. Even if radical interpretation Davidson-style would not be an appropriate interpretative gambit, something like Dennett’s intentional stance – which makes no assumptions about inner or outer representational format at all – might be an option in a semantic emergency.
However, even if we assume that the intentional stance or radical interpretation could work in such situations, it does not follow that it will work for arbitrary interpreters. In particular, there is no guarantee that it will work some arbitrary human descendent of current humans. Thus Davidson’s and Dennett’s interpretationist approaches to content provide some grounds for believing that a Vile Offspring would not be a cognitive thing-in-itself sealed off from minds of a different kind. But this just means that if we could learn to follow whatever passes for inferences among the Vile Offspring and track the recondite facts that concern them we would understand vilese.
Yet vilese could as beyond any wide or narrow human capabilities as human-inference is beyond any racoon. Moreover, phenomenology could be a limiting factor here: a Vile Super-Intelligence might be exquisitely sensitive to perspectival facts that are fully objective, yet don’t show up for beings with a different kind of Dasein.
This problem does not seem to arise for humans interpreting Racoons because, I take it, we are much smarter than they are. We can easily mimic the inferences that they draw and we can easily reconstruct what is important for them. In the case of world chomping clouds of smart matter, we might not be so fortunate.
What are the implications of this for a Posthuman or post-Singularity Ethics?
Well, we have considered interpretationist grounds for believing that there could be no posthuman minds recalcitrant to interpretation in principle.
At best, we can infer that posthumans won’t be utterly transcendent – like the God of Negative Theology or Kant’s thing in itself. Thus a post-singularity existence might be interpretable in principle – if not by human successors of humans. However, it is important bear in mind that I’m not using “human” to designate beings with some essential biological or cognitive nature here. According to the disconnection thesis, being human is a matter of belonging to one of two historical entities: the Wide Human – a socio-technical assemblage – or the Narrow biological species that keeps it going. Neither has been defined in terms of necessary or essential properties.
If this is right, any barrier to interpretation liable to hamper human attempts to evaluate or explore posthuman modes of existence will hold contingently. For a given set of posthuman minds – like the Vile Offspring – to be radically uninterpretable by humans, it would need to be a necessary truth about humans that Vile Offspring minds could not be understood by humans. But if belonging to the Wide Human is the only condition on humanity, no being could be debarred from Wide Humanity on the grounds that it could understand weird posthumans like the Vile Offspring. Thus any interpretative barrier would be a contingent matter rather than a consequence of some human cognitive essence.
This does not imply that an interpretative blip will not occur; but that it is not inevitable. But what is not inevitable is, as Dennett quips, “evitable”. There is something someone (or something) can do about it.
Davidson, Donald (1984). “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Dennett, D. C. (1995). “Do Animals Have Beliefs?” Comparative approaches to cognitive science, 111.
Metzinger, Thomas. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press 2004.
Roden, David (2013a). “The Disconnection Thesis”, in Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart (eds.), The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Technological Assessment , , Springer-Verlag: Berlin Heidelberg, 281-298.
Roden, David (2013b). ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology’, in Human Experience and Nature, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 72. London: Cambridge University Press.
Stross, Charles. 2006. Accelerando. London: Orbit.
Vinge, Vernor. 1993. “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”, Vision-21:Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace. Accessed 8 December 2007. http://www.rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html.
 In contrast to the transparent multi-modal phenomenology of experience, human verbal thinking is relatively opaque since we are able to recollect earlier stages of processing to represent the syntactic and semantic properties of linguistic symbols.