“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.
I’ve argued e that posthumans would have to be, in some sense of the term, “autonomous entities” capable of operating outside the scope of the socio-technical network I refer to as the Wide Human (Roden 2013). A being is autonomous if it is self-governing. According to the modern practical philosophy that follows Rousseau and Kant, autonomous beings (paradigmatically human beings) are those that can freely determine the principles by which they act and live.
A nonhuman animal may have desires and drives, but not being rational it cannot represent those desires to itself or attempt to be motivated by different ones (Frankfurt 1971).
It appears that a posthuman entity would need to be autonomous in something like this sense since it will have to become both functionally and existentially independent of the Wide Human (WH).
Within WH functional and existential independence are related. Entities belonging to WH accrue functions that have come to be required by biological (narrow) humans. They also tend to exist in a form that is perpetuated over time. Further, their existence in historically stable forms is explained by this contribution to narrow human ends.
We can express this relationship as a “consequence law”: where E is the dated fact that some entity ? exists in a historically stable form in a context and (E—>H) is some humanly valuable causal function F of ?.
Thus: (E—>H) –> E Expresses the fact that (E—>H) accounts for or causes E.
A consequence law supports counterfactuals. If (E—>H) ceased to obtain, ? would cease to occur in in a historically stable form in a context (E would become false).
Technological change is capable generating new functions and it is quite normal for realizers of those functions to be superseded by new realizers. For example, automobiles have superseded horses in the developed world because the functions associated with horses can be better served by cars. The result is that horses have ceased to occur in the contexts in which they were formerly used (public transport and the provision of motive power). However, objects can acquire new functions. So we need to complicate this formula by stating that ? exists only so long as there is some human-related function that it continues to serve in some context (EF) .
EF expresses the functional dependence of those Wide Humans that are not Narrow Humans upon WH. They exist in a given context only so long as there is some narrow human purpose that they fulfil. It also expresses the fact that WH is predicated on the existence of narrowly human individuals. Were human individuals to disappear so would the functions and thus the historically stable forms of these Wide Humans would disappear also.
Certain species of domesticated animal like pigs and cows are thus Wide Humans (as I have advertised) since they would cease to exist in most of the current contexts in which they occur were it not for the fact that they serve human needs for milk and meat. For example, if all humans converted to veganism and vegetarianism cows and pigs would likely survive only as domestic pets or as feral pigs or feral cattle. Those belonging to the former group would remain parts of the wide human while those in the latter group would be effectively outside it since their continued existence in their new context would not depend on their fulfilment of human related functions.
Important Note: the term “human related function” does not refer to something like core human needs or authentically human needs, or invariant human needs. No such essentialist commitment is implied here. A human related function is simply a function that would not exist but for the existence of narrow humans. These can be as artificial and as historically contingent as you like: computer gaming, cash dispensing and pornography are human-related functions in this sense.
Nor does EF commit us to some voluntarist conception of functions. It does not require that functions come to exist through the intentions of individuals or groups. It is quite compatible with the view the some human-relative functions come into being by incremental processes in which no individual intended that a particular function or activity come into being. We can call the independence from the human-related functions of beings outside WH negative autonomy (analogously perhaps to Berlin’s notion of negative liberty).
Arguably, however, we need a positive conception of posthuman autonomy. Here’s why. There are plenty of objects that are a) technically fashioned and b) can exist for some extended period of time after they have ceased to be technically useful: hulks and ruins, for example. However, unless they are preserved for aesthetic purposes hulks and ruins have no functions at all (having aesthetic functions would, of course, qualify them for membership of WH).
Hulks and ruins are unlike feral animals in that the latter seem to carry out many non-human-related functions: for example, mating, foraging, giving birth, etc. A conception of disconnection that resulted in hulks and ruins having posthuman status would be simply too broad. Hulks and ruins are existentially independent of WH but not functionally independent in the way, say, that feral animals are. But functional independence would require that posthumans would be able to determine non-humans purposes or functions.
Rational subjects can do this within certain parameters. They can choose the projects that will give meaning to their lives or (as Rawls puts it) their conceptions of the good.
However, I have argued elsewhere that the notion of the rational subject is too narrow to comprehend Posthuman Possibility Space (PPS). It is also not well defined since we do not have a self-standing conception of the subject that could not be revised by some future sciences of cognition.
Thus we will need a more general conception of autonomy if we are to get a sense of the kind of being that inhabits PPS. Some of these may have a mode of being that is rather like the Dasein of humans – reflecting upon their plans for life in terms formulated in shared public languages, for example – but others may lack what Thomas Metzinger refers to as a self-model. They may not think of themselves as unique individuals whose lives could go better or worse and they may not experience or participate in intersubjectivity. If so, the category of the subject is not going to furnish the general conception of autonomy we require.
The example of feral animals points us towards a different and arguably more fundamental conception of autonomy. In the philosophical tradition, the bodies of biological organisms have been understood as having functions fixed by their contribution to activity or self-maintenance of the organism.
This conception has its classical formulation in Aristotle’s biology and metaphysics who argued that the presence of certain arrangements of parts and materials in plants or animals can be explained by their specific contribution to the life activity of the creature. Thus in the Physics, Aristotle argues that the presence and specific arrangement of teeth in the mouth of animals is explained by their contribution to animal nutrition (Phys 198b25-35). Similarly, the form of the parts of organs are fixed by their contribution to the functions of those organs, whose function is determined by their contribution to the life activity of the entire organism. In animals without hard external shells, eyelids have the function of protecting the thin, moist eyes, which, in turn, realize the function of seeing in the whole organism (Ariew, Cummins and Perlman 2002, 14).
Now, this explanation conforms to the consequence law schema set out above. It is teleological (explanation in terms of purposes) because the propensity of these structures (teeth, eyelids) to contribute to the functions of the organism explains their form and thus their being. Moreover, these functions depend on the continued life of the whole organism. The contribution of these parts to life-activity of the organism is thus the ontological ground of their functions: “Thus, organisms and their parts are what they are only when living. As for the products of techne … they are defined by the function they must perform.” (Moya 2000, 321).
An animal is similar to a technological artefact like a couch in that both it and its organization can only be understood in terms of the function is performs. According to Aristotle the function (and thus the form or being) of an artefact like a hammer or couch depends upon something external to the matter of the artefact.
However, the form and function of a natural thing like an animal or plant depends only on the thing itself ((Met 1070a7-8). Whereas an instrument serves a function set by its users, the body of the animal is an “instrument (organon) performing or making manifest its own act of living (its entelecheia)” (Moya 2000, 326).
The autonomy of the organism as understood by Aristotle, and by long tradition of biological thought that follows, consists in its capacity to determine its existence: where “existence” here needs to be understood as its mode of life or function – it’s being the kind of thing it is. This clearly a different conception of self-determination from the Kant-Rousseau conception of rational-autonomy since the organism does not need to consciously choose its function or being in order to have it.
So does this provide the concept of positive autonomy that we are seeking? Well, if we understood posthumans as organisms in the Aristotelian sense we would be able to explain their existential independence in terms of their functional independence. They would not need humans to set their ends because (qua organisms) they would be teleologically self-fixing.
However, the Aristotelian reading of posthuman autonomy will not do. There are at least six objections that can be levelled at it and they all carry some weight.
1) The Aristotelian account of organism is committed to objective teleology. However, post-Darwinian biology provides a far more satisfactory explanation of biological order than Aristotle and other organicists. Since it rejects objective teleology, we should too (Darwinian Objection)
2) The Disconnection Thesis implies that some posthumans could be WHD’s of artefacts, not organisms. But artefacts have only derived functions and organisms have original functions. There is thus no technological process whereby the WHD’s of artefacts could acquire original functions and thus jump ontological category (The Category Objection).
3) Contrary to Aristotle, the functions of the parts of creatures are not exclusively determined by their contribution to the whole organism. Mechanisms at a lower level than the organism have functions independently of the systems to which they belong. Treating the organisms as a self-sufficient biological totality or whole is thus a mistake (Anti-Holism Objection).
4) Organisms are not self-determining, in any case. They and their components can acquire new functions and thus new forms of existence by being “iterated” into new contexts (Functional Indeterminacy Objection).
5) The organismic perspective is a kind of vitalism; but the wrong kind. It envisages an ordered nature with functions analogous to those of the human world. But “nature is not natural” in this sense. ( Neo-Vitalist Objection).
6) The organismic perspective is, in any case, parochial. The justification for specifying the posthuman in terms of WHD is surely that posthumans are liable to be postbiological. Thus the organic/inorganic distinction would not apply to them (The Post-Biology Objection).
Ariew, Andre ; Cummins, Robert C. & Perlman, Mark (eds.) (2002). Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology. Oxford University Press.
Collier, John (2002). “What is autonomy?”, http://cogprints.org/2289/3/autonomy.pdf, accessed 04/03/2011.
Colebrook, Claire (2010). Deleuze and the Meaning of Life. Continuum.
Frankfurt, Harry G. (1971). “Freedom of the will and the concept of a person”. Journal of Philosophy 68 (1):5-20.
Moya, Fernando (2000), “The Epistemology of Living Organisms in Aristotle’s Philosophy”, Theory In Biosciences 119(3-4): 318-333.
Roden, David (2012). “The Disconnection Thesis”, in The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, edited by Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.
Metaphysical Realism (MR) is not one claim but, Putnam argues, a package of interrelated claims about the mind-world relationship. The key components of MR are 1) the independence thesis; 2) the correspondence thesis; 3) the uniqueness thesis. The independence thesis states that there is a fixed totality of mind independent objects (the world). The correspondence thesis states that there are determinate reference relations between bits of language or mental representations and the bits of the world to which they refer. The uniqueness theory states that there is a theory whose sentences correctly describe the states of all these objects. This implies a singular correspondence between the terms belonging to this theory and the objects and properties that they refer to (Putnam 1981, 49). As a package it is cohesive. One needs mind-independent properties and objects as objects/properties to correspond to. There must be some unique total fact about these objects if there is to be one correct way in which a theory can represent this total fact.
We can imagine this theory being expressed in a language consisting of names like “Fido” and “Shlomo”, property and relation terms like “…is a dog”, “…is a cat” or “…is father of…”, as well as all the quantificational apparatus that we need to make multiple generalizations: e.g. “There is at least one thing that is a cat” or “All dogs hate at least one cat”. Of course, since this is the one true theory we might expect it to contain enough mathematics (e.g. set theory) to express the true laws of physics, the true laws of chemistry, etc. However, for this to be one true theory each true sentence that we can derive from it – e.g. “Shlomo is a cat” – must hook up with the world in the right way. For example, “Shlomo” must determinately refer to a unique object and this object must have the property referred to by “…is a cat” (this property might be the set of all cats or it might be universal property of catness – again, depending on the metaphysical facts). [i]
An assignment of referents to terms along these lines is called an interpretation function. The set of objects, properties, relations, etc. that are matched up to terms by a particular interpretation function is called a model. Putnam’s account of metaphysical realism then, in effect says that metaphysical realism is the claim that there is a unique description of the world hooked up to that world by a single true interpretation function (matching names to objects, property terms to properties, etc.).
The uniqueness of the corresponding interpretation function is crucial here because if there were more than one good way of interpreting the terms of the one true theory, there would be alternative theories, each one corresponding to a different interpretation function for the constituent terms of its language.[ii] In that case, there would not be one correct description of the world. But if realism comes down to a commitment to there being a God’s eye view of the world – a uniquely true theory which picks out the way the world is – then realism would have to be rejected.
What is the virtue that makes the one true theory unique? Well, to count as the one true theory, it would, at minimum, need to satisfy all the “operational constraints” that ideally rational inquirers would impose on such a theory. For example, if one imagines science progressing to an ideal limit at which no improvements can be made in its explanatory power, coherence, elegance or simplicity, then the one true theory would have to be as acceptable to ideally rational enquirers as that theory (Putnam 1981, 30).
Putnam’s argument against realism is that given a theory that satisfies this ideal of operational virtue there would always be a second equally good theory that can be constructed by giving the sentences of the first different interpretations. Further, he argues, that there is nothing beyond operational virtue that might distinguish the first theory from the second because there are no mind-independent semantic facts that specify the right interpretation. If this is right, then there cannot be a one true theory that completely describes the world.
The argument begins with a theorem of model theory.[iii] The model-theoretic notion of a theory is that it is a language L under a given interpretation function I which maps the terms of L onto a universe of objects and properties (properties are treated as sets of objects. For example, the relation of fatherhood would be the set of all ordered pairs, the second member of which is the son of the first member.). The theorem states that for every theory T1 (consisting of a language L under interpretation I) it is possible to gerrymander a function J that interprets each term L “in violently different ways, each of them compatible with the requirement that the truth value of each sentence in each possible world be the one specified” (Putnam 1981, 33, 217-218). The basic idea is that under these “permutated” interpretation functions, the sentences that come out true in T1 in a given possible world would come out true in T2 in that world.[iv] The two theories T1 and T2 would not differ in assignments of truth values to sentences in any possible world and – being expressed in the same words – would have exactly the same structure, so each would be as simple and as elegant as the other.
However, metaphysical realism is committed to the view that even an ideally confirmed and simple theory could be comprehensively false because truth is “radically non-epistemic” – that is truth is a matter of whether a sentence corresponds with the world, not of how well confirmed that sentence is. This is, of course, the position that Descartes is committed to in his Evil Demon thought experiment. The semantic facts that give my beliefs reference to a possible world are unaffected by the existence or nature of the mind-external world. Putnam’s version of this realist conceit is the science fictional notion that we might be brains in vats being fed simulated experiences by a mad neurophysiologist. Thus, according to metaphysical realism, even a theory T1 that is operationally ideal and irrefutable for vat brains could be still be false (Putnam 1978, 125). However, unlike Descartes, Putnam argues that this conceit is incoherent. If T1 is consistent it is possible to find an interpretation function that maps the language of T1 onto a model containing elements of whatever world happens to exist – even if that is vat-world. So under this interpretation T1 comes out true, not false (Putnam 1978, 126).
It can be objected that this would not be the interpretation “intended” by the vat brains (or the ensorcelled Descartes, if one prefers). But T1 would be operationally as good as it gets for the envatted. It would inform their practices of inference and prediction in just the same way that it would were it true. There seems to be nothing beyond these practices of judgment and inference that could fix the meaning of terms like “cat” or “dog” – though these are clearly not sufficient to give uniquely determinate meaning.
Some philosophers have argued that uniquely intended interpretations can be imposed by our contents of our beliefs or ideas. For example, maybe my idea of a cat and actual cats shares a mysterious essence of catness which “exists both in the thing and (minus the latter) in our minds” which, in turn, fixes the reference of property terms like “cat” (Putnam 1983, 206; 1981, 59-61). Putnam argues that this response makes recourse to a magic language of self-interpreting mental-signs: it states, in effect, that there are mental representations that just mean what they mean irrespective of how the world is or of their role in inference. Here Putnam is in agreement with the French deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida. For Derrida, as for Putnam, a sign is a mark that acquires it meaning by being used differently from other signs, whether the mark is spoken, written or occurs in the brain or in some purely mental medium (if such a thing exits). A particular inscription or brain state or sound only counts as a sign insofar as it functions or is used differently from other signs. The obvious candidate for “use” and “function” here are the roles of signs in inferences and in interpretative practices. But these, as has been seen, are unable to fix a unique model for T1.
So it does not matter whether we are talking about mental signs or signs in language: they derive meaning from their differential functioning. For Derrida this has the complicating consequence that any mark must be “iterable”: i.e. can be lifted from its standard contexts and grafted into new ones, thereby acquiring different functions (Derrida 1988, 9-10). However, for our purposes, the important consequence is that appealing to “inner” or mental signs to fix the intended meanings of T1 seems to presents us with exactly the same problem of indeterminacy as we had with T1 itself (Putnam 1978, 127; 1983, 207).
If this is right, then the realist claim that an ideally confirmed theory could be false just comes down to the claim that there are self-standing minds or self-standing languages whose meanings are fixed regardless of how things lie in the world. But if Putnam is right, there are no self-standing meanings in this sense. Descartes thought experiment in either its 17th Century Demonic version or its modern Neuro or Simulationist versions is incoherent.
But, Putnam argues, this means that the idea that truth is non-epistemic is incoherent. To suppose that our beliefs could all be false, no matter how well they conform to experience and canons of enquiry makes no sense (Putnam 1978, 128-130). And (assuming the soundness of Putnam’s model theoretic argument) this also means that the idea of a privileged, God’s eye view of the world – MR -is incoherent. There is no single theory that uniquely corresponds to the nature of a mind-independent world because there are always other interpretation functions with which to generate new theories with the same degree of epistemic virtue. Thus the assumption that the world has an intrinsic nature independently of how it is construed from the standpoint of a particular theory or form of life is as much an ungrounded superstition as the notion of substantial forms.
Rather than aspiring to the idealized God’s eye view of metaphysical realism, Putnam argues that we should recognize that truth, reference and objectivity are properties that our claims and experiences have in virtue of “our” practices of inference, confirmation and observation. To say that the sentence “’Cow’ refers to cows” is true is not to make a claim about some determinate relationship – reference – between word and world but to say something about the situations in which a competent speaker of English should use the term ‘cow’ (Putnam 1978, 128, 136). From within the shared practices of English speaker, this fact just shows up as an a priori truth. But this (as Kant also claimed) does not reflect some impossible insight into the mind-independent nature of things, but simply reflects our acculturated understanding of what is appropriate to say, when (137). Even the metaphysical structure of the world is – according to this view – a perspective that reflects the background understanding and interests of creatures who share the relevant concerns and practices. Reference is, as Putnam puts it elsewhere, a “matter of interpretation” which presupposes “a sophisticated understanding of the way words are used by the community whose words one is interpreting” (Putnam 1995, 119). So, by the same token, there can be no ready-made totality of objects of reference since (again) this presupposes the discredited God’s eye view:
[From] my “internal realist” perspective at least, there is no such totality as All the Objects There are, inside or outside science. “Object” itself has many uses, and as we creatively invent new uses of words, we find that we can speak of “objects that were not “values of any variable” in any language we previous spoke (The invention of “set theory” by Cantor is a good example of this.) (Putnam 1995, 120)
Derrida, Jacques (1988). Limited Inc. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.),Evanston Ill.:
Northwestern University Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1978). Meaning and the Moral Sciences. Routledge & K. Paul.
Putnam, Hilary (1981). Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge University Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1983). Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers Volume 3. Cambridge University Press.
[i] We can summarise this state of affairs as follows:
“Fido” —> the object Fido
“Shlomo” —> the object Shlomo
“…is a cat…” —> property of cattiness
“…is a dog…” —> property of dogginess
“…is the father of…” —> relation of fatherhood
[ii] For example, we can imagine a deviant interpretation function that maps up terms in the “wrong” way:
“Fido” —> the object Fido’s shadow
“Shlomo” —> the object Shlomo’s shadow
“…is a cat…” —> property of being the shadow of a cat
“…is a dog…” —> property of being the shadow of a dog
“…is the father of…” —> relation of fatherhood
[iii] The branch of mathematical logic that examines the formal relationships between languages and the models assigned to them under interpretation functions.
[iv] Suppose T1 has an interpretation function I that includes the first set of assignments given above (“Fido” refers to Fido, “Shlomo” refers to Shlomo, etc.) whereas T2’s interpretation function has the second. Thus the sentence “Shlomo is a cat” says that the object Shlomo is a cat in T1 whereas the same sentence say that a particular shadow is the shadow of a cat, which also happens to be true.
According to Hilary Putnam, if we can think that we are brains in vats, we are not brains in vats because we cannot think about things like vats without having discriminating causal relationships with real vats (Reason, Truth and History, p.16) .
How might Putnam’s argument apply to the claim that we could be living in a computer simulation: in other words, that the entire universe – including our brains – is simulated on a computer in some under-universe with which we have no direct contact?
A simulation is (to a first approximation) an implementation of a software object. So if we are implementations of software we will interact somehow with other implementations within the simulation. In fact (on Putnam’s assumption) that’s all we” be able to interact with and thus all we’ll be able to think about.
But this doesn’t entail that we can think that we are in a simulation because understanding that requires that we can think about the other bits of the under-world in which the simulation occurs. And we can’t do that for the same reason that we can’t think about our vats. Yet it seems entirely possible that we are a) in a simulation and b) that we can think about it.