David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 2)

In my last post on David Roden’s new book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human I introduced his basic notion of Speculative Posthumanism (SP) in which he claimed that for “SP … there could be posthumans. It does not imply that posthumans would be better than humans or even that their lives would be compared from a single moral perspective.” The basic motif is that his account is not a normative or moral ordering of what posthuman is, but rather an account of what it contains. 

In chapter one he provides a few further distinctions to set the stage of his work. First he will set his form of speculative posthumanism against the those like Neil Badmington and Katherine Hayles who enact a ‘critical posthumanism’ in the tradition of the linguistic turn or Derridean deconstruction of the humanist traditions of subjectivity, etc.. Their basic attack is against the metaphysics of presence that would allow for the upload/download of personality into clones or robots in some future scenario. Once can see in Richard K. Morgan’s science fictionalization (see Altered Carbon) of humans who can download their informatics knowledge, personality, etc. into specialized hardware that allows retrieval for alternative resleeving into either a clone or synthetic organism (i.e., a future rebirthing process in which the personality and identity of the dead can continually be uploaded into new systems, clones, symbiotic life-forms to continue their eternal voyage).  Hans Moravec one of the father’s of robotics would in Mind’s Children be the progenitor of such download/upload concepts that would lead him eventually to sponsor transhumanism, which as Roden will tell us is a normative claim that offers a future full of promise and immortality. Such luminaries as Frank J. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead would bring scientific credence to such ideas as the Anthropic Principle, which John D. Barrow and he collaborated on that stipulates: “Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, will never die out.”

Nick Bostrom following such reasoning would in his book Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy supply an added feature set to those early theories. Bostrom showed how there are problems in various different areas of inquiry (including in cosmology, philosophy, evolution theory, game theory, and quantum physics) that involve a common set of issues related to the handling of indexical information. He argued that a theory of anthropics is needed to deal with these. He introduced the Self-Sampling Assumption (SSA) and the Self-Indication Assumption (SIA) and showed how they lead to different conclusions in a number of cases. He pointed out that each is affected by paradoxes or counterintuitive implications in certain thought experiments (the SSA in e.g. the Doomsday argument; the SIA in the Presumptuous Philosopher thought experiment). He suggested that a way forward may involve extending SSA into the Strong Self-Sampling Assumption (SSSA), which replaces “observers” in the SSA definition by “observer-moments”. This could allow for the reference class to be relativized (and he derived an expression for this in the “observation equation”). (see Nick Bostrom)

Bostrom would go on from there and in 1998 co-found (with David Pearce) the World Transhumanist Association (which has since changed its name to Humanity+). In 2004, he co-founded (with James Hughes) the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. In 2005 he was appointed Director of the newly created Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. Bostrom is the 2009 recipient of the Eugene R. Gannon Award for the Continued Pursuit of Human Advancement and was named in Foreign Policy’s 2009 list of top global thinkers “for accepting no limits on human potential.” (see Bostrom)

Bostrom’s Humanity+ is based on normative claims about the future of humanity and its enhancement, and as Roden will tell us transhumanism is an “ethical claim to the effect that technological enhancement of human capacities is a desirable aim” (Roden, 250).1 In contradistinction to any political or ethical agenda (SP) or speculative posthumanism which is the subject of Roden’s book “is not a normative claim about how the world ought to be but a metaphysical claim about what it could contain” (Roden, 251). Both critical posthumanism and transhumanism in Roden’s sense of the term are failures of imagination and philosophical vision, while SP on the other hand is concerned with both current and future humans, whose technological activities might bring them into being (Roden, KL 257). So in this sense Roden is more concerned with the activities and technologies of current and future humans, and how in their interventions they might bring about the posthuman as effect of those interventions and technologies.

In Bostrom’s latest work Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies he spins the normative scenario by following the trail of machine life. If machine brains one day come to surpass human brains in general intelligence, then this new superintelligence could become very powerful. As the fate of the gorillas now depends more on us humans than on the gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species then would come to depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence. But we have one advantage: we get to make the first move. Will it be possible to construct a seed AI or otherwise to engineer initial conditions so as to make an intelligence explosion survivable? How could one achieve a controlled detonation? In my own sense of the word: we want be able to control it. Just a study of past technology shows the truth of that: out of the bag it will have its own way with or without us. The notion that we could apply filters or rules to regulate an inhuman or superintelligent species seems quite erroneous when we haven’t even been able to control our own species through normative pressure. The various religions of our diverse cultures are examples of failed normative pressure. Even now secular norms are beginning to fall into abeyance as enlightenment ideology like other normative practices is in the midst of a dark critique.

In pursuit of this Roden will work through the major aspects of the humanist traditions, teasing out the moral, epistemic, and ontic/ontological issues and concerns relating to those traditions before moving on to his specific arguments for a speculative posthumanism.  I’ll not go into details over most of these basic surveys and historical critiques, but will just highlight the basic notions relevant to his argument.

1. Humanists believe in the exceptionalism of humans as distinct and separate from non-human species. Most of this will come out of the Christian humanist tradition in which man is superior to animals, etc. This tradition is based in a since of either ‘freedom’ (Satre, atheistic humanism) or ‘lack’ (Pico della Mirandola). There will also be nuances of this human-centric vision or anthropocentric path depending stemming from Descartes to Kant and beyond, each with its own nuanced flavor of the human/non-human divide.
2. Transhumanism offers another take, one that will combine medical, technological, pharmaceutical enhancements to make humans better. As Roden will surmise, transhumanism is just Human 1.0 to 2.0 and their descendents may still value the concepts of autonomy, sociability and artistic expression. They will just be much better at being rational , sensitive and expressive – better at being human. (Roden, KL 403-405)
3. Yet, not all is rosy for transhumanists, some fear the conceptual leaps of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). As Roden tells us Bostrom surmises that “the advent of artificial super-intelligence might render the intellectual efforts of biological thinkers irrelevant in the face of dizzying acceleration in machinic intelligence” (Roden KL 426).
4. Another key issue between transhumanists and SP is the notion of functionalism, or the concept that the mind and its capacities or states is independent of the brain and could be grafted onto other types of hardware, etc. Transhumanist hope for a human like mind that could be transplanted into human-like systems (the more general formulation is key for transhumanist aspirations for uploaded immortality because it is conceivable that the functional structure by virtue of which brains exhibit mentality is at a much lower level than that of individual mental states KL 476), while SP sees this as possible wishful thinking in which thought it might become possible nothing precludes the mind being placed in totally non-human forms.

Next he will offer four basic variations of posthumanism: SP, Critical Posthumanism, Speculative realism, and Philosophical naturalism. Each will decenter the human from its exceptional status and place it squarely on a flat footing with its non-human planetary and cosmic neighbors:

Speculative posthumanism is situated within the discourse of what many term ‘the singularity’ in which at some point in the future some technological intervention will eventually produce a posthuman life form that diverges from present humanity. Whether this is advisable or not it will eventually happen. Yet, how it will take effect is open rather than something known. And it may or may not coincide with such ethical claims of transhumanism or other normative systems. In fact even for SP there is a need for some form of ethical stance that Roden tells us will be clarified in later chapters.

Critical posthumanism is centered on the philosophical discourse at the juncture of humanist and posthumanist thinking, and is an outgrowth of the poststructural and deconstructive project of Jaques Derrida and others, like Foucault etc. in their pursuit to displace the human centric vision of philosophy, etc. This form of posthumanism is more strictly literary and philosophical, and even academic that the others.

Speculative realism Roden tells us will argue against the critical posthumanists and deconstructive project and its stance on decentering subjectivity, saying  “that to undo anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism we must shift philosophical concern away from subjectivity (or the deconstruction of the same) towards the cosmic throng of nonhuman things (“ the great outdoors”)” (Roden, KL 730). SR is a heated topic among younger philosophers dealing with even the notion of whether speculative realism is even a worthy umbrella term for many of the philosophers involved. (see Speculative Realism)

Philosophical naturalism is the odd-man out, in the fact that it’s not centered on posthuman discourse per se, but rather in the “truth-generating practices of science rather than to philosophical anthropology to warrant claims about the world’s metaphysical structure” (Roden, KL 753). Yet, it is the dominative discourse for most practicing scientists, and functionalism being one of the naturalist mainstays that all posthumanisms must deal with at one time or another. 

I decided to break this down into several posts rather than to try to review it all in one long post. Chapter one set the tone of the various types of posthumanism, the next chapter will delve deeper into the perimeters and details of the “critical posthumanist” discourse. I’ll turn to that next…

Visit David Roden’s blog, Enemy Industry which is always informed and worth pondering.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

“We need useless theory more than ever today…” – Slavoj Zizek

“The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature.”

– Baron D’Holbach, The System of Nature

If one were to look for an early source of post-humanist ideology one could do no better than read the Baran D’Holbach’s The System of Nature. This work was an early and ably reasoned form of postscientific inhumanism, in which d’Holbach, arguing against religious supernaturalism, undertook to undo human consciousness, purposiveness, and initiative as philosophical primitives by reducing them to the material operation of causal laws. Yet, as one reads his work one will understand rather quickly that its roots lie in the deeper worlds of Epicurean and Lucretian theory and practice. He tells us that certain philosophers would be a metaphysicians before they have become a practical philosophers. That they quit the contemplation of realities to meditate on chimeras. They neglect experience to feed on conjecture, to indulge in hypothesis rather than following the simple road of truth, by pursuing of which, one can “ever reasonably hope to reach the goal of happiness” (Preface: They System of Nature).

Of this great work the powerful defender of humanism, Goethe wrote, that it “appeared to us so dark, so Cimmerian, so deathlike, that we found it difficult to endure its presence, and shuddered at it as at a specter. . . . How hollow and empty did we feel in this melancholy, atheistical half-night, in which earth vanished with all its images, heaven with all its stars.” One must realize that Goethe’s response is not an argument addressed against d’Holbach’s arguments but an expression of incredulity toward the world that is the consequence of d’Holbach’s arguments— a world that Goethe finds to be unreal, and also morally repulsive.

This is a world devoid of humanist constructions and frames of reference, a world beyond human need or support, a world that could go on perfectly fine without humans and their thoughts. But if this is so we must ask this question: is this world also becoming uninhabitable for the actual flesh and blood humans for whom such thoughts are thinkable? And, if so, what exactly does this mean? Maybe I should also ask: is this a real world? Or is this a world for theorists? If the world for us of the old humanist given is going away then what are the theoretical possibilities opening for us in this new world-of-theory?

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Excision Ethos: The Posthuman Object/Subject

“Transhumanism for me is like a relationship with an obsessive and very neurotic lover. Knowing it is deeply flawed, I have tried several times to break off my engagement, but each time, it manages to creep in through the back door of my mind.”
– N. Katherine Hayles

“In fact, for me, the facticity, the object as a support quelconque of facticity, you can iterate it, without any meaning. And that’s why you can operate with it, you can create a world without deconstruction and hermeneutics. And this is grounded on pure facticity of things, and also of thinking. It is not correlated.”
– Quentin Meillassoux

David Roden’s essay Excision Ethos, published on enemyindustry.net,  offers a flat ontological reading of the posthuman, which, he says, implies “an excision of the human”. He tells us that the “the logic of excision forces us to accept that there is no rigorous or pure demarcation between theoretical and practical thinking.” [2] He argues that a “flat ontology would allow emergent discontinuities between the human and non-human. Here we understand radical differences between humans and non-humans as emergent relations of continuity or discontinuity between populations, or other such particulars, rather than kinds or abstract universals.”  To understand his use of flat ontology we must dig deeper into the many theories surrounding flat ontology as the central term underlying his posthumanist philosophy.

In his own essay on flat ontology Flat Ontology II: a worry about emergence Roden tells us that the terminological justification for a flat ontology originally came from Gilles Deleuze, and was then appropriated by his ephebe Michael Delanda. Delanda in his work Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy describes ontology within the Deleuzian enterprise as a “becoming without being”, or as “a universe where individual beings do exist but only as the outcome of becomings, that is, of irreversible processes of individuation” (Delanda, 84). [1] This forms the nucleus of Delanda’s flat ontology in which he describes individual organisms as being “component parts of species, much as individual cells are parts of the organisms themselves, so that cells, organisms and species form a nested set of individuals at different spatial scales” (Delanda, 85).  This is a non-hierarchical position, which Delanda further explicates, saying, a “flat ontology of individuals, like the one I have tried to develop here, there is no room for reified totalities. In particular, there is no room for entities like ‘society’ or ‘culture’ in general. Institutional organizations, urban centres or nation states are, in this ontology, not abstract totalities but concrete social individuals, with the same ontological status as individual human beings but operating at larger spatio-temporal scales” (63).  Paul Ennis remarking on flat ontologies in general in a humorous aside tells us that there “is no vertical ontological totem pole.” [3]  As Delanda in his book emphasizes: “……while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status” (47).

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Speculative Posthumanism

“Speculative posthumanists claim that descendants of current humans could
cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration.”
– David Roden

Commander William Adama: [President Roslin is bedridden, dying of cancer, and coughing profusely] What can I get you?
President Laura Roslin: [sarcastically] A new body. Perhaps, one of those young Cylon models from the Resurrection Ship.
Commander William Adama: I can’t see you as a blonde.
President Laura Roslin: You’d be surprised.
[laughs]
– from Battlestar Galactica

David Roden of enemyindustry fame in his essay Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism (warning pdf)  makes a strong argument for a speculative posthumanism as against the critical posthumanism portrayed by most cyborgian scholars. He also raises the ethical dilemmas faced by transhumanists ideologists who affirm a transcension of the human through technological enhancement. What we are presented with in the transhumanist scenario is a speculative path, one that entails thinking the impossible: What would the descendants of humans be if they follow an accelarationist path of global and technological change to its ultimate limit: the singularity? Would they be not only different but in some respects both inhuman and unhuman? And, what would that difference be?

He presents the basic history of speculative thought in its rejection of the self-world axis of the post-Kantian variety and tells us that such sci-fi thinkers as Vernor Vinge with his vision of a non-subjective machine based intelligence “might lack awareness of itself as a persistent “subject” of experience”. He qualifies the distinction that Kant made between a transcendental subjectivity and a “non-sensory “intellectual intuition” that produces objects rather than, as in humans, imposing a synthetic unity on their sensory affects (Kant 1787, B 307)”. If Vinge is right then such a machine intelligence would preclude the human, and our hierarchy of public ethical frameworks would be rocked in their very foundations. As he states it: “Moral conceptions such as autonomy or responsibility would be inapplicable to a subjectless posthuman. The central value that modern liberal theory places on liberty and democratic legitimacy would be likewise unintelligible.”

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