As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer screens, no matter what identifications you assign to the embodied entities that you cannot see, you have already become posthuman.
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman
Do you use a digital phone, receive text messages? Have an iPad or other comparable device that allows you to interact with others visually, seeing and talking to them as if they were virtually present in the room? How do you know that these messages and images are truly from your friends and loved ones? What makes you assume that these signs on the digital blackboard represent the actual person who is in fact absent while present? Is there something about the message that reflects the essential features of this person hiding behind the screen of digital light and sound? Is it that you trust images, pictures, moving representations on the digital light fields of this technological wonder to be truthful, to show forth the actuality of the embodied figure of your friend or loved one on the other side of the screen? What if someone had faked the messages, spliced together a video program of your friend that was so real that you actually believed this was in fact the person themselves rather than the fabricated images of a very adept machinic intelligence imitating the patterns of your friends behavior?
What if these digital objects we now take for granted in our everyday lives are no longer mere tools but have become a part of our person? And, I may add, that we should not narrow this to just these digital tools, but every tool that we use day by day. What if all these objects that we take for granted as useful things that help us do our work have remade us in their image, transformed our very identities as humans? What if as Katherine Hayles suggests we are, through our daily interactions with these tools merging with our technologies and have already become posthuman?
As I type these words, sitting at my desk, listening to iTunes from some distributed network that might be situated in any city of the U.S., I begin to realize that I and the machine in front of me have become a new thing, a new object. That I’m no longer just me, no longer this singular person whose body is devoid of connection from other things, cut off in its own isolated chamber of integrity. No. Instead I’ve merged with this thing, this object in front of me and become something else, a new thing or object with a distinctly different set of capabilities than if I were not connected to it. What does my use of a computer make me? I use a keypad, a terminal screen, which is in turn connected to a harddrive, which is connected to various devices: sound, networks, storage, etc., all of which have for the most part become almost invisible in the sense that I no longer see these tools in their own right, but as part of a cognitive environmental complex that consists of me, the computer, and the thousands of physically distant terminals across our planet through this interface that defines my machinic relations.
Hayles in her now classic work How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics asks: “What are we to make, then, of the posthuman?” She goes on to explain:
As the liberal humanist subject is dismantled, many parties are contesting to determine what will count as (post)human in its wake. For most of the researchers discussed in this chapter, becoming a posthuman means much more than having prosthetic devices grafted onto one’s body. It means envisioning humans as information-processing machines with fundamental similarities to other kinds of information-processing machines, especially intelligent computers. Because of how information has been defined, many people holding this view tend to put materiality on one side of a divide and information on the other side, making it possible to think of information as a kind of immaterial fluid that circulates effortlessly around the globe while still retaining the solidity of a reified concept. Yet this is not the only view, and in my judgment, it is not the most compelling one. Other voices insist that the body cannot be left behind, that the specificities of embodiment matter, that mind and body are finally the “unity” that Maturana insisted on rather than two separate entities. Increasingly the question is not whether we will become posthuman, for posthumanity is already here. Rather, the question is what kind of posthumans we will be. The narratives of Artificial Life reveal that if we acknowledge that the observer must be part of the picture, bodies can never be made of information alone, no matter which side of the computer screen they are on.1
The important thing in the above is this battle between a certain form of idealism and materialism that has creeped into the picture of the posthuman. This division between information/material with information as “a kind of immaterial fluid that circulates effortlessly around the globe while still retaining the solidity of a reified concept” seems dubious at best. Yet, this notion of embodiment not being left behind doesn’t really answer the question raised with the dualist view of information/material, instead it seems to raise more questions and pose a greater problematique. So what is information? And why do some of these scientists and philosophers see it as immaterial rather than material? Is this an almost strangely return of the old Aristotelian/Scholastic notions of substantial forms?
The idea of substantial forms dominated ancient Greek philosophy and medieval philosophy, but with the rise of the natural sciences fell into disfavor. This idea of substantial forms was later abandoned by the mechanist philosophers and appropriated by working scientists into a “bottom-up” theory of organization. Basically the theory of substantial forms asserts that forms (or ideas) organize matter and make it intelligible. Substantial forms are the source of properties, order, unity, identity, and information about objects. This is I believe a precursor to all those realist Idealisms that since the German Transcendentalists have invaded aspects of science in ways we have as yet to fully understand or even think about. Even our modern concept of force, first developed Leibniz has as its presupposition a qualified transformation of the concept of substantial forms. In his Discourse on Method he tells us “the belief in substantial forms has a certain basis in fact, but that these forms effect no changes in the phenomena and must not be employed for the explanation of particular events,” instead he suggests:
It seems that the ancients, as well as many able men accustomed to deep meditation who have taught theology and philosophy some centuries ago (some of whom are respected for their saintliness) have had some knowledge of what we have just said; this is why they introduced and maintained the substantial forms which are so decried today. But they are not so distant from the truth nor so ridiculous as the common lot of our new philosophers imagines. 2
I KNOW that I am advancing a great paradox by attempting to rehabilitate the old philosophy in some fashion and to restore the almost banished substantial forms to their former place.
In another passage he “that the bodies that make up an unum per se, as does man, are substances, that they have substantial forms, and that animals have souls, we must admit that these souls and these substantial forms cannot entirely perish, no more than atoms or the ultimate parts of matter can, on the view of other philosophers. For no substance perishes, although it can become completely different. They also express the whole universe, although more imperfectly than minds do.” Whether one buys into such imperishable substances or souls or matter today is irrelevant, what matters is that Leibniz felt that these substantial forms or Ideas were the building blocks of matter, in the old Aristotelian sense of energeia and enteléchei. As we learn from Wikipedia:
Energeia is a word based upon ergon, meaning “work”. It is the source of the modern word “energy” but the term has evolved so much over the course of the history of science that reference to the modern term is not very helpful in understanding the original as used by Aristotle.
Entelecheia is a continuous being-at-work (energeia) when something is doing its complete “work”. For this reason, the meanings of the two words converge, and they both depend upon the idea that every thing’s “thinghood” is a kind of work, or in other words a specific way of being in motion. All things that exist now, and not just potentially, are beings-at-work, and all of them have a tendency towards being-at-work in a particular way that would be their proper and “complete” way.
The reason for me delving into this is that Leibniz describes his Monad as an entelechy:
One can call all simple substances or created monads entelechies, for they have in themselves a certain perfection (echousi to enteles); they have a sufficiency (autarkeia) that makes them the sources of their internal actions, and, so to speak, incorporeal automata. (Kindle Locations 1092-1093).
His monadic philosophy was based in some ways on the old hermetic notion of “As above, so below.”:
Thus, although each created monad represents the whole universe, it more distinctly represents the body which is particularly affected by it, and whose entelechy it constitutes. And just as this body expresses the whole universe through the interconnection of all matter in the plenum, the soul also represents the whole universe by representing this body, which belongs to it in a particular way. (Kindle Locations 1191-1193).
Reading Leibniz today is almost for me at least like reading a strange science fiction parody, maybe a Stanislaw Lem or Italo Calvino or Jorge-Luis Borges, which tries to align science with the older scholastic metaphysics:
Thus each organized body of a living being is a kind of divine machine or natural automaton, which infinitely surpasses all artificial automata. For a machine constructed by man’s art is not a machine in each of its parts. For example, the tooth of a brass wheel has parts or fragments which, for us, are no longer artificial things, and no longer have any marks to indicate the machine for whose use the wheel was intended. But natural machines, that is, living bodies, are still machines in their least parts, to infinity. That is the difference between nature and art, that is, between divine art and our art. (Kindle Locations 1196-1200).
One gets the feeling that Leibniz was trying to reconcile his religious commitments with his new found scientific mechanist world view, and that he was having a difficult time in inventing a new framework or terminological system within which to salvage what remained of the old philosophies in light of the new sciences. I often wonder if that is what we are still doing in philosophy today? On the surface one can pick up such books from scientists such as Lee Smolin, a quantum gravity physicist who not having a good set of terminological tools available returns to Leibniz’s monadic philosophy in search of a way to reconcile his own problems:
Many philosophers describe The Monadology as a metaphysical work. Perhaps they are right, I am not a scholar. There are certainly parts of Leibniz’s writings that I have difficulty understanding, and it is possible that I would disagree with them if I did understand them (Indeed, I’ve found in philosophy that this often happens, if I have difficulty understanding what someone is saying it is because of an unstated assumption that I don’t share.) But the impression I get from those parts of Leibniz that I do understand is that he was a physicist struggling with the same broad problems that we face now as we attempt to make a quantum theory of cosmology. I believe he was led to the vision he describes in his writings by wrestling with the question of how to construct a physical theory that could describe a whole universe, without the postulation of absolute space and time, such as his rival Newton required.4
Smolin goes on the describe his take on Leigniz’s Monadology:
In The Monadology, Leibniz posits a world that is constituted by a large number of entities, which he called monads. These monads do not live in space; rather, space is an aspect of their relations. Nor can there be any observer of the universe who is not one of the monads. Instead, in Leibniz’s vision, reality is contained in the views, or perceptions, that each monad has about the others. As there is nothing but the monads, what one of them can perceive about the others is only relations. A complete description of Leibniz’s universe cannot be obtained from the outside, and there is no monad who sees completely the whole of reality. Rather, reality is contained in the sum of the views of all the monads. Leibniz expresses this vision beautifully in the passage that opened this book.(Kindle Locations 5454-5459).
He then goes on to see the implications of this view for modern physics as a model of quantum states:
A few friends and I have been thinking about whether it is possible to use Leibniz’s idea as a model for how to make a quantum theory of a whole universe. Roughly speaking, we would like to make a theory in which there are many observers, each of whose incomplete views of the rest is represented by a quantum state. Such a solution to the problem of extending quantum mechanics to the universe would be, in a sense, opposite to the many-worlds interpretation. Rather than having many universes but one quantum state, we would have one universe whose description would require many quantum states. Each quantum state would be a description of a part of the universe—the part excluding a particular observer.(Kindle Locations 5470-5475).
Besides seeing the use of philosophical reversibility in which one system reverses another to provide a new perspective we see in Smolin the older substantial forms creeping into his science in a transformation of Aristotelian, Scholastic, and Rationlist philosophy. Strange how resilient certain notions are and persist through the centuries to crop up here and there over and over again. I’ve often wondered why a materialist philosophy or science has yet to provide a fully fleshed set of terminological tools devoid of what I see as a return of certain Idealist assumptions? Everywhere I turn in my readings of materialist philosophies I see them trying to circumvent the immaterial without much success. Why? Even the most reductionary physicalist sciences have hidden assumptions based on many immaterialist Idealisms. One wonders if Idealism itself is a materialism of the Idea? Could there actually be such a thing? Are we battling over words and concepts when we should be turning everything inside out and merging these two systems into some unified parallax vision of reality?
For Lebniz the answer was clear:
Philosophers have been greatly perplexed about the origin of forms, entelechies, or souls. But today, when exact inquiries on plants, insects, and animals have shown us that organic bodies in nature are never produced from chaos or putrefaction, but always through seeds in which there is, no doubt, some preformation, it has been judged that, not only the organic body was already there before conception, but there was also a soul in this body; in brief, the animal itself was there, and through conception this animal was merely prepared for a great transformation, in order to become an animal of another kind.(Kindle Locations 1216-1219).
For us this whole notion of forms, entelechies, and souls smells of Idealism and needs to be expunged from any materialist science or philosophy. But one cannot expunge, elide, or eliminate something without replacing it with a materialist notion or concept in its place. That is the problem we face. Without an answer to this whole tradition of substantial forms one is just wonder in an abyss without outlet.
This has been one of those troubling aspects of posthuman thought in general, that it seems to be immersed in this great problematique, too. And until we can resolve this problem the notion of the posthuman in its relations with machinic intelligences, etc. is just a false game in semantics. As one survey of posthumanism tells us it “seems almost inevitable that an ‘affirmative (posthuman or at least posthumanist) biopolitics’ would have to embrace some form of (neo) vitalism, for example à la Deleuze, if not à la Nietzsche. Equally, there are a number of ‘new materialisms’ that seek to reposition the notion of ‘life’ outside propriety or impropriety, namely by ‘de-athropo-centring’ and ‘de-ontologizng’ it.”5 But is this true? Neovitalism, deontologization, deanthropization, etc… ? This same author continues:
This is another reason why a critical approach to the broad issue of posthumanist subjectivity needs to resist the current tendency to foreground the importance of technology in discussions of human/ social evolution. Rather, to return to our notion of a critical posthumanism ‘without technology’, the ubiquitous technological determinism in contemporary perspectives on bio-thanato-politics will have to be met with radical scepticism. (Kindle Locations 3884-3887).
Oh, really, and why is that? Do with out any discussion of ‘technology’ as if it were alien to any discussion of posthuman subjectivity, as if the current scientific paradigms of scientific realism, physicalism, eliminativistism etc. were the enemy to any posthuman discussion and to be met with derision? The more I read supposed new materialism the more I see Idealism sinking its teeth into the foundations of the materialist world view not only of the older mechanist philosophies (which do need a great deal of revision), but into much of the materialist sciences of the twentieth-century.
In their recent anthology of the New Materialisms Diana Coole and Samantha Frost tell us “there is an apparent paradox in thinking about matter: as soon as we do so, we seem to distance ourselves from it, and within the space that opens up, a host of immaterial things seems to emerge: language, consciousness, subjectivity, agency, mind, soul; also imagination, emotions, values, meaning, and so on”. These have typically been presented as idealities fundamentally different from matter and valorized as superior to the baser desires of biological material or the inertia of physical stuff. It is such idealist assumptions and the values that flow from them that materialists have traditionally contested. They go on to say:
It is true that over the past three decades or so theorists have radicalized the way they understand subjectivity, discovering its efficacy in constructing even the most apparently natural phenomena while insisting upon its embeddedness in dense networks of power that outrun its control and constitute its willfulness. Yet it is on subjectivity that their gaze has focused. Our motivation in editing this book has been a conviction that it is now time to subject objectivity and material reality to a similarly radical reappraisal. Our respective researches have prompted our own interests in changing conceptions of material causality and the significance of corporeality, both of which we see as crucial for a materialist theory of politics or agency. We now advance the bolder claim that foregrounding material factors and reconfiguring our very understanding of matter are prerequisites for any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century.
So is this really what we need: a reconfiguration of our very understanding of matter, or would we be better off understanding the tool that actually develops such theories to begin with; by that I mean an understanding of the brain itself, as in the work of the multifarious branches of the neurosciences? If we understand how the brain produces our theories of matter to begin with would we then be in a better position to reconfigure our ontologies? Is this the old cart before the horse issue? Should we get our epistemologies straightened out first or our ontologies? More and more it seems that the brain is the hidden player behind the scenes that both epistemologists and ontologists conveniently forget about. Maybe as my friend R. Scott Bakker is inclined to believe we are all blind to the very processes that construct our realities to begin with, that it is to the brain we need to turn our discerning eye rather than knowledge or ontology?
So for me a turn toward the various neurosciences is ultimately a course I have set for myself rather than a continuous immersion in the various aspects of philosophical speculation on contemporary philosophy. So I’m thinking of continuing with this blog as is, but of changing direction and focusing more Posthumanism, Neuroscience, and the Philosophy of Information, Science and Technology rather than the current contemporary scene of speculative philosophy. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. For me it part of a new cycle in my further adventures in thought.
1. Hayles, N. Katherine (1999-02-15). (p. 246). University of Chicago Press – A. Kindle Edition.
2. Gottfried Wilhelm Freiherr von Leibniz. Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays (Kindle Locations 214-217). Kindle Edition
3. Gottfried Wilhelm Freiherr von Leibniz. Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays Kindle Edition.
4. Smolin, Lee (1997-05-01). The Life of the Cosmos (Kindle Locations 5459-5466). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
5. Herbrechter, Stefan (2013-08-01). Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (Kindle Locations 3865-3868). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
6. Diana Coole;Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Kindle Locations 37-46). Kindle Edition.