This is a sketch of a partial value theory that I’ve been developing while completing my book Posthuman Life. If there are similar theories out there, I’d be grateful for links to bibdata so that I can properly acknowledge them!
In order to construct an anthropologically unbounded account of posthumans, we need a psychology-free account of value. There may, after all, be many possible posthuman psychologies but we don’t know about any of them to date. However, the theory requires posthumans to be autonomous systems of a special kind: Functionally Autonomous Systems (see below). I understand ”autonomy” here as a biological capacity for active self maintenance. The idea of a system which intervenes in the boundary conditions required for its existence can be used to formulate an Autonomous Systems Account of function which avoids some of the metaphysical problems associated with the more standard etiological theory. The version of ASA developed by Wayne Christensen and Mark Bickhard defines the functions of an entity in terms of its contribution to the persistence of an autonomous system, which they conceive as a group of interdependent processes (Christensen and Bickhard 2002: 3). Functions are process dependence relations within actively self-maintaining systems.
Ecological values are constituted by functions. The conception, in turn, allows us to formulate an account of “enlistment” which then allows us to define what it is to be an FAS.
1) (ASA) Each autonomous system has functions belonging to it at some point in its history. Its functions are the interdependent processes it requires to remain autonomous at that point.
2) (Value) If a process, thing or state is required for a function to occur, then that thing or process is a value for that function. Any entity, state or resource can be a value. For example, the proper functioning of a function can be a value for the functions that require it to work.
3) (Enlistment) When an autonomous system produces a function, then any value of that function is enlisted by that system.
4) (Accrual) An FAS actively accrues functions by producing functions that are also values for other FAS’s.
5) (Functional Autonomy) A functionally autonomous system (FAS) is any autonomous system that can enlist values and accrue functions.
People are presumably FAS’s on this account, but also nonhuman organisms and (perhaps) lineages of organisms. Likewise, social systems (Collier and Hooker 2009) and (conceivably) posthumans. To date, technical entities are not FAS’s because they are non-autonomous. Historical technologies are mechanisms of enlistment, however. For example. Without mining technology, certain ores would not be values for human activities. Social entities, such as corporations, are autonomous in the relevant and sense and thus can have functions (process interdependency relations) and constitute values of their own. However, while not-narrowly human, current social systems are wide humans not posthumans. As per the Disconnection Thesis: Posthumans would be FAS’s no longer belonging to WH (the Wide Human socio-technical assemblage – See Roden 2012).
This is an ecological account in the strict sense of specifying values in terms of environmental relations between functions and their prerequisites (though “environment” should be interpreted broadly to include endogenous and well as exogenous entities or states). It is also an objective rather than subjective account which has no truck with the spirit (meaning, culture or subjectivity, etc.). Value are just things which enter into constitutive relations with functions (Definition 2 could be expanded and qualified by introducing degrees of dependency). Oxygen was an ecological value for aerobic organisms long before Lavoisier. We can be ignorant of our values and mistake non-values for values, etc. It is also arguable that some ecological values are pathological in that they support some functions while hindering others.
The theory is partial because it only provides a sufficient condition for value. Some values – Opera, cigarettes, incest prohibitions and sunsets – are arguably things of the spirit, constituted as values by desires or cultural meanings.
Christensen, W. D., and M. H. Bickhard. 2002. “The Process Dynamics of Normative Function.” The Monist 85 (1): 3–28.
Collier, J. D., & Hooker, C. A. 1999. Complexly organised dynamical systems. Open Systems & Information Dynamics, 6(3): 241-302.
Roden. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Edited by Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart.Springer Frontiers Collection.
 An issue I do not have time to consider is that ecological dependency is transitive. If a function depends on a thing whose exist depends on another thing, then it depends on that other thing. Ecological dependencies thus overlap.
 Addictive substances may fall into this class.
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.
Deep into the morning procrastination ritual – reading two or more blogs and FB instead of the chapter I’m meant to be finishing – I realized that I had forgotten what I had been reading a minute ago. So I let my mouse hover over the IE icon on my task bar and hey presto! I saw a “mouse over” preview of the Discover Post on identical twins I had been perusing. Moral: the extended mind works, but it needs metacognition to patch its resources together.
Distracted from distraction by distraction T S Eliot, Burnt Norton
I’m currently using Davidsonian radical interpretation as a model for understanding the obstructions presented by very alien minds and phenomenologies – posthumans, aliens, cats, etc. However, much as I admire Davidson’s writings I don’t really want to be a Davidsonian. For example, I don’t think that content is constituted by how others might interpret it in ideal conditions. Entertaining or having a certain content is at bottom a power or disposition – it’s a state that makes a difference to what one can do, it exercises influence on actions, etc..
Ray Brassier refers to humans animals “with the capacity to be gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). I find the implicit analogy between concept use and possession suggestive, though it does not incline me to his view that concepts are inferential roles or articulations. If contents are real powers with “grip” then “uninterpretable content” is an oxymoron – for it would be a causally inert property whose possession makes no difference to the possessor or to anything else (Heil 2003, Ch8).
Such properties need not be identical to inferential roles because inferential roles are manifestations of powers and powers are not identical to their manifestations. Nonetheless, assigning inferential roles ( interpreting) may be a good way of predicting and manipulating the behaviour of the possessed.
If one is a Davidsonian radical interpreter, interpretation can be thought of as using a sentence with a familiar role in some interpreting theory or metalanguage – e.g. “The box is a trap” – and proceeding as if a state of the interpretee (an utterance or mental state) has the content which manifests this role. I suggested this approach in 2004 back when I was more sympathetic to the interpretationist cause. At that point, I was only dimly aware that this was a way of instrumentalizing interpretation and divesting it of its pretensions to constitutive status (I’m slow this way). Interpretability is just a spinoff of the fact that concepts and contents exert influence and have results we can track and use.
Thus understood, radical interpretation is semantic modelling as extreme sport. We create an artificial idiom that means something for us – the interpreting “theory” – and consider the degree to which another being shares that idiom (Roden 2004, 200-1). Success in interpretation need not depend on mirroring the content of the alien state we wish to understand. For example, the state by virtue of which the raccoon is able to represent the fact that a box is a trap will presumably differ from “The box is a trap” in not being a grammatically structured sentence in a public language but a brain state of some kind. However, if the modelling procedure helps us to shape and cope with cat, raccoon, posthuman behaviour the interpretation can be warranted on purely pragmatic grounds.
In Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language, Bjorn Ramberg imagines an idealized hard case involving people who are solely concerned with events that happened two days ago (Ramberg 1989, 120). We might not be able to appreciate what is it like to be entirely preoccupied with two day old events, but this does not mean that we cannot detect this temporal fixation and interpret those who have it. For example, we might have a theory that says of a temporal displacee that s (an utterance in the displacee’s language) uttered at time t is true if and only if p – where p reports some event two days prior to t. Of course, realizing that use value in the form of fluid communication might require more than just a helpful simulation. It would require the interpreters to become sensitive to the point of view of the displacees. So from radical interpretation we arrive at the threshold of cyborg becomings. But that’s another story.
Brassier, R. (2011). The view from nowhere. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, (17), 7-23.
Autonomous systems of the kind that we can conceive as emerging from our technology are liable to be modular assemblages of elements that can couple opportunistically with other entities or systems, creating new assemblages whose powers and dispositions are transformed and dynamically put into play by such couplings.
The best way of representing modularity is in terms of networks consisting of nodes and their interconnections. A network is modular if it contains “highly interconnected clusters of nodes that are sparsely connected to nodes in other clusters” (Clunes, Mouret and Lipson 2013, 1). In autonomous assemblages modules support functional processes that make a distinct and specialized contribution to maintaining the conditions necessary for other interdependent processes within the assemblage.
Modules may or may not be spatially localized entities. They may be relatively fragmented while exhibiting dynamical cohesion. An instance of a software object class such as an “array” (an indexed list of objects of a single type) need not be instantiated on continuous regions on a computer’s physical memory. It does not matter where the data representing the array’s contents is stored is physically located so long as the more complex program which it composes can locate that data when it needs it. Thus while it is possible that all assemblages must have some spatially bounded parts – organelles in eukaryotic cells and distributors in internal combustion engines come in spatially bounded packages, for example – not all functionally discrete parts of assemblages need be spatially discrete in the way that organelles are. Cultural entities such as technologies or symbols may consist of repeatable or iterable patterns rather than things and may be conceived as repeatable particular events than objects (Roden 2004). Yet in systems – such as socio-technical networks – whose components cued to recognize and respond to patterns, such entities can exert real causal influence by being repeated into varying contexts.
Importantly for our purposes, dynamical cohesion should not be conflated with functional stability. An entity can retain its dynamical integrity and intrinsic powers while subtending distinct wide functional roles in the systems to which it belongs. To use, Don Ihde’s term: such entities are functionally “multistable”. An Acheulian hand axe – a technology used by humans for over a million years – might have been used as a scraper, a chopper or a projectile weapon. Modern technologies such as mobile phones and computers are, of course, designed to be multistable; though their uses can exceed the specifications of their designers, as when a phone is used as a bomb detonator (Ihde 2012). It seems as if the decomposability of cognitive systems also confers multistability upon their parts thus contributing to the functional autonomy of the system as a whole.
In cognitive science, the classical modularity thesis held that human and animal minds contain encapsulated, fast and dirty, automatic (mandatory) domain-specific cognitive systems dedicated to specialized tasks such as kinship-evaluation, sentence-parsing or classifying life forms. However, it is an empirical question whether the mind is wholly or partly composed of domain-specific cognitive agents and, as Keith Frankish notes, a further empirical question whether neural modularity also holds: that is, whether domain-specified cognitive functions map onto anatomically discrete brain regions in the human brain such as Broca’s area (traditionally associated with language processing) or the so-called “Fusiform Face Area” (Frankish 2012, 280). Neither the classical theory of mental modules nor the neural modularity thesis follows from the fact that human brains are decomposable in the network sense presupposed by assemblage theory.
We should nonetheless expect autonomous entities such as present organisms or hypothetical posthumans to be network-decomposable assemblages rather than systems in which every part is equally coupled with every other part because modularity confers flexibility on known kinds of adaptive system. For example, in biological populations modularity is recognized as one of the necessary conditions of evolvability “an organism’s capacity to generate heritable phenotypic variation.” (Kirschner and Gehart 1998, 8420). Some biologists argue that the transition from prokaryotic cells (whose DNA is not contained in a nucleus) to more complex eukaryotic cells (who have nucleated DNA as well as more specialized subsystems such as organelles) was accompanied by a decoupling of the processes of RNA transcription and subsequent translation into proteins. This may have allowed noncoding (intronic) RNA to assume regulatory roles necessary for producing more complex organisms because the separation of sites allows the intronic RNA to be spliced out of the messenger RNA where it might otherwise disrupt the production of proteins. If, as seems to be the case, regulatory portions of intronic DNA and RNA are necessary for the production of higher organisms, then this articulation in DNA expression may have allowed the ancestor populations of complex multi-cellular organisms to explore gene-regulation possibilities without disabling protein expression (Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa and Moreno 2012, 39; Mattick 2004).
The benefits of articulation apply at higher levels of organization in living beings for reasons that may hold for autonomous “proto-ex-artefacts” poised for disconnection. Nervous systems need to be “dynamically decoupled” from the environment that they map and represent because perception, learning and memory rely on establishing specialized information channels and long term synaptic connections in the face of changing environmental stimulation. This entails a capacity “for cells to step back from the manifold of ambient stimulus and to be prepared to pick and choose which stimulus to make salient and thus in so doing a capacity to enjoy an unprecedented level of internal autonomy” (Moss 2006 932–934; Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa and Moreno 2012, 44).
Network decomposition of internal components also seems to carry advantages within control systems, including those that might actuate posthumans one day. Research into locomotion in insects and arthropods shows that far from using a central control system to co-ordinate all the legs in a body, each leg tends to have its own pattern generator.
A coherent motion capable of supporting the body emerges from the excitatory and inhibitory actions of the distributed system rather than through co-ordination by a central controller. The evolutionary rationale for distributed control of locomotion can be painted in similar terms to that of the articulation of DNA transcription and expression considered above – a distributed system being far less fragile in the face of evolutionary tinkering than a central control architecture in which the function of each part is heavily dependent on those of other parts.
This rationale plausibly applies to human beings and as well as to our immediate primate ancestors, especially in the case of sophisticate cognitive feats that require the organism to learn specific cultural patterns – such as languages – which would not have been stable or invariant enough to have selected for the component abilities that they require over evolutionary time (Deacon 1997, 322-334 – the Visual Word Form Area is a particularly spectacular example of such “cultural recycling” – see below). While this is compatible with network decomposition it may not tally with the classical modularity thesis since it suggests an evolutionary rationale for the promiscuous re-use of functionally multistable components.
Evidence from functional imaging suggests that anatomically discrete regions like Broca’s or the Fusiform Area are co-opted by evolutionary and cultural processes in support of functionally disparate cognitive tasks. For example, relatively ancient areas in the human brain known to be involved in motor control are also involved in language understanding. This suggests that circuits associated with grasping the affordances and potentialities of objects were recruited over evolutionary time to meet the emerging cultural demands of symbolic communication (Anderson 2007, 14). In a recent target article on neural-reuse in Behavioural and Brain Sciences Michael Anderson cites research suggesting that older brain areas tend to be less domain specific and more multistable – that is, that they tend to get re-deployed in a wider variety of cognitive domains (Anderson 2010, 247). Peter Carruthers and Keith Frankish likewise argue that circuits in the visual and motor areas which have been initially involved in controlling and anticipating actions have become co-opted in the production and monitoring of propositional thinking (beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.) through the production of inner speech. A an explicit belief, for example, can be implemented as a globally available action-representation – an offline “rehearsal” of a verbal utterance – to which distinctive commitments to further action or inference can be undertaken (Carruthers 2008). Andy Clark cites experimental work on Pan troglodytes chimpanzees which comports with the Carruthers’ and Frankish’s assumption that cognitive systems adapted for pattern recognition and motor control can be opportunistically reused to bootstrap an organism’s cognitive abilities. Here, an experimental group of chimps were trained to associate two different plastic tokens with pairs of identical and pairs of different objects respectively. The experimental group were later able to solve a difficult second-order difference categorization task that defeated the control group of chimps who had not been trained to use the tokens:
The more abstract problem (which even we sometimes find initially difficult!) is to categorize pairs-of pairs of objects in terms of higher order sameness or different. Thus the appropriate judgement for pair-of-pairs “shoe/shoe and banana/shoe” is “different” because the relations exhibited within each pair are different. In shoe/shoe the (lower order) relation is “sameness”; in banana/shoe it is difference. Hence the higher-order relation – the relation between the relations – is difference (Clark 2003, 70).
Interestingly, Clark notes that the chimps in the experimental group were able to solve the problem without repeatedly using the physical tokens, suggesting that they were able to associate the “difference” and “sameness” with inner surrogates similar to the offline speech events posited by Carruthers and Frankish (71; See also Wheeler 2004).
This account of the emergence of specialized symbolic thinking and linguistic thinking via the reuse of neural circuits evolved for pattern recognition and motor-control illustrates a more general ontological schema. Assemblages – whether human, inhuman, animate or inanimate – inherit the capacity to couple with larger assemblages from their structure and components and are similarly constrained by those powers. Carbon atoms have the power to assemble complex molecular chains because their four valence electrons permit the formation of multiple chemical bonds. Simpler prokaryotic cells may lack the capacity to evolve the regulatory networks required to form multicellular affiliations because their encoding process is insufficiently differentiated. Likewise, although specific neural circuits may be inherently multistable it does not follow that each can do anything. Each may have specific “biases” or computational powers that reflect its evolutionary origins (Anderson 2010, 247). For example, Stanislas Dehaene and Laurent Cohen review some remarkable results suggesting the existence of a Visual Word Form Area, a culturally universal cortical map situated in the fusiform gyrus of temporal lobe, which is involved in the recognition of discrete and complex written characters independently of writing system.
As Dehaene and Cohen observe, it is not plausible to suppose that the VWFA evolved specifically to meet the demands of literate cultures since writing was invented only 5400 years ago, while only a fraction of humans have been able to read for most of this period (Dehaene and Cohen 2007, 384). Thus it appears that the cortical maps in the VWFA have structural properties which make them ideal for reuse in script recognition despite not having evolved for the representation of written characters (among the factors suggested is that the VWFA is located in a part of the Fusiform area receptive to highly discriminate visual input from the fovea – 389).
Coupling an assemblage with another system – e.g. a transcultural code such as a writing or number system – may, of course, increase the functional autonomy of system by allowing it to respond fluidly and adaptively to the demands of its environment – enlisting new affiliations and resources which, then, come to be functional for it. Literacy and numeracy have become functionally necessary for economic activity in advanced industrial societies – clearly this was not always so! However, this is only possible because both the assemblage and its parts are open to functional shifts that, in effect, allow the creation of new social “megamachines” which extend beyond the coupled individuals. Thus while complex assemblages articulated into lots of functionally open systems may be more functionally autonomous than less articulated ones – are more capable of accruing new functions –they are more apt to be “deterritorialized” by happening on new modes of existence and new ways of being affected (DeLanda 2006, 50-51).
Anderson, Michael (2007). “Massive redeployment, exaptation, and the functional integration of cognitive operations”. Synthese, 159(3): 329-345,
Anderson, M. L. (2010). “Neural reuse: A fundamental organizational principle of the brain.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(4), 245.
Carruthers, Peter (2008). “An architecture for dual reasoning”. In J. Evans & K. Frankish (eds.), In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond. Oxford University Press.
Clark, Andy (2003). Natural Born Cyborgs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clune, J., Mouret, J. B., & Lipson, H. (2012). “The evolutionary origins of modularity”. arXiv preprint arXiv:1207.2743.
Deacon, Terrence. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain . London: Penguin.
Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2007). Cultural recycling of cortical maps. Neuron,56(2), 384-398.
DeLanda, M. (2006), A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, London: Continuum.
Frankish, Keith (2012). “Cognitive Capacities, Mental Modules, and Neural Regions”. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 18 (4).
Ihde, D. (2012). “Can Continental Philosophy Deal with the New Technologies?” Journal Of Speculative Philosophy, 26(2), 321-332.
Kirschner Marc and Gehart, John (1998). “Evolvability”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 95, 8420-8427.
Moss, L. (2006). “Redundancy, plasticity, and detachment: The implications of comparative genomics for evolutionary thinking”. Philosophy of Science, 73, 930–946.
Roden, David (2004). ‘Radical Quotation and Real Repetition’, Ratio (new series) XVII 2 June 2004, 191-206.
Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa & Moreno, Alvaro (2012). “Autonomy in evolution: from minimal to complex life”. Synthese 185 (1):21-52.
Wheeler, M. (2004). “Is language the ultimate artefact?.” Language Sciences, 26(6), 693-715.
 One of the benefits of so-called “objected oriented” programming languages (OO) like Java over “procedural” programming languages such as COBOL is that OO programs organize software objects in encapsulated modules. When a client object in the program has to access an object (e.g. a data structure such a list) it sends a message to the object that activates one of the objects “public” methods (e.g. the client might “tell” the object to return an element stored in it, add a new element or carry out an operation on existing elements). However, the client’s message does not specify how the operation is to be performed. This is specified in the code for the object. From the perspective of the client, the object is a black box that can be activated by public messages yielding a consumable output. This means that changes in how the proprietary methods of the object are implemented do not force developers to change the code in other parts of the program since these do not “matter” to the other objects. Maintenance and development of software systems becomes simpler.
 The cochlear cells in our inner are connected to hair like cells which are receptive to sound vibrations. This specialized arrangement allows the cochlear to conduct a fast spectrum analysis on incoming vibrations, assaying the relative amplitudes of components in complex sounds.
“Unlike physical or chemical dissipative structures, in which patterns of dynamic order form spontaneously, but whose stability relies almost completely on externally-imposed boundary conditions, autonomous systems build and actively maintain most of their own boundary conditions, making possible a robust far-from-equilibrium dynamic behavior.”
“A big stone in the river holds water from flowing, and some bacteria ferment milk to produce yoghourt. Although both systems do something, we do not call the stone an agent. The difference between the two cases is not in the degree of change operated by one or the other, but in the consequence of that change: only in the latter case does the change contribute to the maintenance of the performer of the action.”
Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa & Moreno, Alvaro (2012). “Autonomy in evolution: from minimal to complex life”. Synthese 185 (1), 33-34.