Ray Brassier on Transhumanism and its Critics



In this highly illuminating talk from EXPO1 at MOMA, Ray proposes that there is nothing inherently wrong with the transhuman reengineering of nature on the “promethean” grounds that nature has no ethical dispensation. Thus there is no natural, ontological or theological order violated by the extension of human cognitive powers or by the creation of synthetic life. Such processes are potentially violent and destructive, but that is acceptable as long as we distinguish between “good” emancipatory violence and that which oppresses and restricts the life chances of rational subjects.

I’m wholly in agreement with Ray in his rejection of theological objections to the technological refashioning of human and non-human nature. I’m less convinced that the idea of emancipation is an adequate horizon within which to adjudicate between the new world-engines that might lie before us. But I agree that we need some ethically substantive framework in which to do this. My own leaning is increasingly towards a pluralist moral realism – the claim that there are objectively good or bad locations in Posthuman Possibility Space but no moral hierarchy in which these are enfolded in turn. So to adjudicate these we need to “sample” them by experimenting with bodies, things and minds.

Ray also peppers his talk with some references to J G Ballard’s short story “The Voices of Time”, one of his many narratives of ontological catastrophe. Ballard’s own position on emancipation is profoundly ambivalent, as Baudrillard observes. Something to return to in later post or article, I think.

9 thoughts on “Ray Brassier on Transhumanism and its Critics

  1. this kind of over-reaching/over-arching is part of why I prefer experimental focused anthropologies of the present, via Paul Rabinow, Andy Pickering, and John Law and co., over academic philosophy.

  2. Fascinating stuff, but I can’t help but think he’s drifting into traditionalist apologia of another kind. So when he says things like, “there are structures of involution and reflection within the natural order, whereby rules or concepts–or rationality itself–can emerge out of physical patterns and processes” he sounds very old-fashioned to me. If he’s counting on some form of functionalism on carrying the day he simply hasn’t been following contemporary neuroscience. Even *concepts* are on the chopping block, nowadays. The normativity nobody knows what to do with, but it’s hard to see how any natural account could satisfy our traditionally grounded intuitions, and even more difficult to understand what could anchor any given ‘pragmatic’ consensus to *pretend* it’s such and such once the science has moved on.

    If you think about just how little information anchors our present intuitions of ‘good and bad,’ and just how much information the sciences of the brain are sure to provide, believing that our theoretical intuitions ‘somehow got it right’ begins to seem more than a little magical, especially when you realize that metacognitive evaluations of ‘function’ are about as reliable as pre-telescopic evaluations of the cosmos. Odds are this is all just wishful thinking.

  3. Scott, Could you give some references regarding *concepts* being on the chopping block for contemporary neuroscience? Thanks!

  4. Hi Scott, To be fair, I don’t think Ray had the time to engage with naturalism in great detail while taking aim at the Heideggerian critique of transhumanism. But your point is well made. It’s hard to see how concepts could have an explanatory role in cognitive neuroscience unless they can be identified with a causally effective property of brains such as geometrically equivalent partitions in neural state spaces. But such approaches are liable to be methodologically individualist and syntactic in any case. At this point, I think Ray would insist that normatively located concepts in his sense are a condition of the intelligibility of first order enquiries like neuroscience. This is the same line that transcendental phenomenologists of a Husserliean/Heideggerian persuasion make. I’m coming round to the idea that the pragmatist approach to concepts even presupposes something like a phenomenological relation to a world as a horizon of intelligibility and communicability. Which get’s us right back to the neuroscience of subjectivity. If – as I’ve argued elsewhere – phenomenology doesn’t give us a complete account of phenomenology, then we have no access to a transcendental life world or a priori structure of communication. There is no such thing as a common world. There are just biologically parochial styles of metarepresentation.

  5. Inhuman: Edouard Machery has his Doing Without Concepts which came out recently. It’s interesting because he actually cuts philosophical usages of ‘concept’ free in a way that is far more condemning than otherwise. Paul Thagard also discusses the naturalization of concepts a la Chris Eliasmith’s ‘Semantic Pointers’ in his recent Cognitive Science of Science. But the big problem on the horizon for concepts, I think, lies with the successes of Bayesian approaches to neurofunction, wherein the concept/percept divide seems to evaporate altogether. Andy Clark has his BBS piece on “Action Oriented Predictive Processing” floating around the web now and it is well, well, worth a patient read.

    David: This is certainly his argument in the “View from Nowhere” paper. Wolfendale and I have debated this via email (and quite some time ago, here!) for a while now, and I still can’t see what they find so convincing about “conditions of intelligibility” as traditionally understood given that we are finally on the verge of discovering just what intelligibility is. He keeps charging me with performative contradition, insisting that I have to be using reason *as he defines it,* and I keep telling him he’s begging the question, since my thesis is that reason as he defines it is chimerical. I’m still waiting for some kind of argument beyond this. How would you tackle my pessimistic induction (if you were inclined to defend their position)?

    Of course, I’m no longer convinced there’s any such thing as ‘phenomenology’ as metacognized simply because I think our brains obviously lack the informatic access and cognitive resources required for accurate, theoretical metacognition. And BBT likewise interprets the ‘transcendental’ as a kind of cognitive illusion pertaining to this very incapacity. Since I do think pragmatic concepts are intuitively rooted in the same set of metacognitive incapacities, I heartily encourage you to pursue your skeptical inclinations! For instance, consider the nature of ‘conceptual roles,’ the strange way they seem to shadow functions (understood in the mechanical as opposed to any biosemantic sense) and yet nevertheless remain queerly incommensurable with them. Is it so hard to believe that incommensurability is an artifact of the limited information and cognitive resources available to theoretical reflection? On BBT, pragmatism is anosognosiac machinism, and rules are what attractors look like in metacognitive silhouette.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Scott

      There’s also a useful survey article from Andy clark on the neural bayesianism here

      Click to access Clark_preprint.pdf


      I’ve just downloaded the Machery book, which looks excellent. I’m just getting to grips with the material on neural error correction right now. The Clark article is very useful as a survey of the current state of the art here. There’s some particularly interesting material on work on hierarchical recurrent neural net architectures for modelling neural error connection. As a novitiate in this area, my feeling at the moment is that neural Bayesianism needs some approach to content. Classical Bayesianism after all is a theory of degrees of belief in propositions. Thus when we say that a neural network encodes some estimate of the posterior probability of there being an edge at distal location, we are attributing some kind of content even if this is understood in a purely syntactic way.

      I’m hoping to incorporate some of this material (not much) in the final draft of Posthuman Life. The book’s with the publisher for review at the moment, but there are a few rough edges and lacuna. One of these, is the lack of a more thorough treatment of work with higher order neural network architectures, though this is a fairly minor issue for me just now. 🙂

  6. I’m very, very much looking forward to PL!

    I actually think all talk about content (as traditionally conceived) needs to be ditched, that the heuristic, mechanical role played by isomorphic information structures is enough given a supplementary account of how metacognition confuses this for low-dimensional ‘content.’

    I’m very keen for Eliasmith’s new book (How to Build a Brain) to come out in paperback, given what he achieved with SPAUN using so few units. Our brains still seem to do far, far more than any of the artificial models out there, Bayesian or otherwise, and Eliasmith’s semantic pointers, which collapse and inflate the dimensionality of information processing at various, key junctures in his rudimentary sensorimotor loops fits hand in glove with what I’ve been arguing with BBT.

    But I despair of ever being anything other than a novice when it comes to predictive processing approaches – unless I break down and retake those stats courses that nixed my dreams of becoming a psychiatrist all those years ago!

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