Hacking Humans


Here’s Scott Bakker with a most eloquent statement of his pessimism about our far technological, posthuman prospects:

Brain science. The reason why I fear that ‘cognitive augmentation’ will be catastrophic turns on the way I see psychology and neuroscience slowly confirming what I think should be humanity’s greatest scientific fear: the possibility that meaning and morality are simply figments of our neural parochialism. If this is the case, it means the very frame of reference that Marone uses to value ‘biohacking’ will in fact be one of the first casualties of biohacking.

It’s a response to Rachel Marone’s post on biohacking over at Memetics here.

If, as Scott urges, the posthuman is the postsemantic and (and we agree that having a semantics is a good thing) then becoming posthuman is bad in at least one respect.

I’m not sure that I agree with Scott’s assumption that meaning is an artifact of our ‘neural parochialism’. Certain aspects of our phenomenology might well be. For example, I take it that one of the implications of Metzinger’s account is that Dasein is a kind of online hallucination. In any case, Metzinger’s is a representationalist philosophy and representations have representational content, so it is hard to formulate his position without presupposing that meaning is real (if meaning is an illusion there must be at least one meaningful thing – namely the illusion of meaning). If you want to say that all meaning is an illusion you need to explain how the misrepresentation of meaning is possible without representation.

But this aside, I guess that I want to urge far more capacious sense of the posthuman. This is partly for ethical reasons. To misquote Iain H. Grant: I just can’t believe that fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution occurred  so we can have this chat. To quote my own plodding formulation “[We] know that Darwinian natural selection has generated novel forms of life in the evolutionary past since humans are one such. Since there seems to be nothing special about the period of terrestrial history in which we live it seems hard to credit that comparable novelty resulting from some combination of biological or technological factors might not occur in the future.” We may not currently be an position to evaluate our potential successors but I can’t see why they should not possess analogues of our own conceptions of the good, even if they are currently inconceivable for us, even if they transcend our powers of comprehension in much the way that the idea of number theory exceed the cognitive grasp of non-uplifted rat.

So I’ve urged a deliberately schematic and anti-essentialist conception of the posthuman in two parts. The first part recursively specifies a relation of wide human descent. The important thing here is that wide human descendants need not be humans.

An entity is a wide human descendant if it is the result of a technically mediated process:

A)    Caused by a part of WH (WH stands for the “Wide Human” – aka the human socio-technical network) where the ancestral part may be wholly biological, wholly technological or some combination of the two

B)    Caused by a wide human descendant.

A is the “basis clause” here. It states what belongs to the initial generation of wide human descendants without using the concept of wide descent. B is the recursive part of the definition. Given any generation of wide human descendants it specifies a successor generation of wide human descendants.

It is important that this definition does not imply that a wide human descendant need be human in either wide or narrow senses. Any part of the human socio-technical network ceases to be widely human if its wide descendants go “feral”: acquiring the capacity for independent functioning and replication outside the human network.

Becoming posthuman would thus be an unprecedented discontinuity in the hominization process. Human life has undergone revolutions in the past (like the shift from hunter-gatherer to sedentary modes of life) but no part of it has been technically altered so as to function outside of it.

A being is a posthuman WHD if it breaks out of the human network. If toothbrushes got smartened up and became sufficiently autonomous to reproduce without having to be teeth-cleaners, to devise their own ends, they would cease to be wide humans and become posthumans. A posthuman is any WHD that goes feral; becomes capable of life outside the planetary substance comprised of narrow biological humans, their cultures and technologies.

This formulation leaves the value and worth of the posthuman open. Since we cannot evaluate the posthuman ex ante, we can only assess its value by exploring posthuman design space for ourselves. This is where Rachel’s biohacking manifesto comes into its own, I think, for it questions who gets to decide the shape of the posthuman – military corporate systems, venture capitalists, or you and me?


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