Posthuman Life: The Galapagos Objection

Since Philperc’s Posthuman Life reading group got into gear a month ago, I’ve been dealing with numerous objections to the theses in Posthuman Life. But I’ve not been beset in quite the way I had expected. In my simplicity, I had assumed that the epistemological claims for unbounded posthumanism developed in Chapters 3 and 4 (and in later work on Brandom and hyperplasticity) would be attracting flak from analytical pragmatists and phenomenologists who want to retain a priori constraints on (post)human possibility. Somewhat to my surprise, fire has been concentrated on the positive thesis of SP, and the disconnection thesis (DT) in particular.

Retrospectively, it shouldn’t be all that shocking. The DT is a big, lumbering target. As Rick Searle observes in his review on the IEET site, it is an attempt to impose conceptual uniformity on unknown but conceivably highly diverse conditions while taking full account of our dated ignorance of posthuman natures. The fact it attempts to lay out clear satisfaction conditions for posthumanity is like big “Hit Me!” sign inviting counter-examples, problem cases and deconstructions. Something had to give, it seems.

To date the objections have come from two sides. A critical posthumanist objection (articulated in different forms by Searle and Debbie Goldgaber) exploits an analytic distinction between disruptive technical change internal to the Wide Human network and the agential independence required by DT. This is already implicit in the work on anthropologically unbounded posthumanism, where I argue that our knowledge of posthuman possibility is tenuous.

Well, the argument goes, so is our grasp of wide human possibility. Searle argues that the Wide Human network could diverge from current humanity without disconnecting from it. There could be stuff happening that is a) intrinsically alien or weird and b) does not lead to independence from WH but to a radical transformation or extension of it:

[What] real posthuman weirdness would seem to require would be something clearly identified by Roden and not dependent, to my lights, on his disruption thesis being true. The same reality that would make whatever follows humanity truly weird would be that which allowed alien intelligence to be truly weird; namely, that the kinds of cognition, logic, mathematics, science found in our current civilization, or the kinds of biology and social organization we ourselves possess to all be contingent. What that would mean in essence was that there were a multitude of ways intelligence and technological civilizations might manifest themselves of which we were only a single type, and by no means the most interesting one. Life itself might be like that with the earthly variety and its conditions just one example of what is possible, or it might not.

According to this story, posthumanity (in the sense of a weird succession to current humanity) does not presuppose disconnection. Disconnection is not necessary for posthumanity.

A more radical riposte is owned by Scott Bakker. He argues that the notion of agency that I develop in the Chapter 6 clarification of the Disconnection Conditions is a folk notion that fails to capture the radically non-agential possibilities opened up by a technological singularity. For Bakker, the singularity is the posthuman.

I think he’s right to have issues with my notion of agency. It’s a kluge designed to meet my systematic aims and requires a more detailed metaphysical exposition. For all that, I don’t think Scott has made a persuasive case for expunging agents from our ontology, yet.

In contrast to the critical posthumanists, Jon Cogburn has argued that disconnection may not be sufficient for posthumanity. There are conceivable divergences from the human implied by our current understanding of biology that are trivial and thus do not merit the concern the DT is intended to articulate. He cites the non-sapient fishlike successors of current humans depicted in Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos as examples of trivial posthuman succession. The Disconnection Thesis states that a being is posthuman iff.

  • It has ceased to belong to WH (the Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration.
  • Or it is a wide descendent of such a being (outside WH) (PHL 112)

The fish successors in Galapagos qualify as posthuman trivially according to Cogburn.

Their ancestors underwent mutation due to fallout of a nuclear war. Either they have ceased to belong to WH in virtue of a technical alteration in their environment or qualify as descendants of such beings. Yet they do not constitute an ontological novelty. They are no more weird than any other nonhuman life form and they do not exhibit a particularly high degree of functional autonomy.

Cogburn’s objection is elegant and immensely entertaining – do read it! For this reason alone (and because I’ve responded extensively to Bakker and Goldgaber over at philpercs) I want to focus on it in this post.

As he makes clear, the problem posed by the Galapagos example concerns an apparent ambiguity in the scope of the first condition of DT. If a “technical alteration” is construed to include any change in the world arising indirectly from human technical activity (Nuclear war in this case) then any evolutionary process it catalyzed that resulted in nonhumans with human ancestors would be a posthuman maker. But I want to argue that posthumans would have to have significant functional autonomy (or power) to escape the influence of WH, whereas no such power is implied in Galapagos-type cases. The “posthumous” fishes do not have to break out of a fish farm, for example. WH simply withers away as narrow humans develop in ways that do not suffice to maintain it.

Now, there are various responses to the Galapagos objection. Some of those involve amendments to schematic statement of DT. This has happened before.

Three years ago, Søren Holm pointed out that a similarly trivial result could be achieved if posthumans decided to produce biological humans for wide human descendants that were subsequently reabsorbed into WH. Hence the current stipulation that wide descendants of posthumans remain outside WH.

I think Pete Mandik suggests the way this should go in a Twitter response where he writes, “the solution involves distinguishing between being a technical alteration and being an effect of a T.A” Radiation from a nuclear war is an environmental change: not a technical change but an effect of one. The increased mutation rate resulting in the post-sapient fish people is not a technical change but an effect of one.

This may seem that I’m leaning on a leaky distinction between direct and indirect technical causes here. To say that the increased mutation rate is not a technical change is just to say that it is indirectly rather than directly caused by technical change. However, it could be objected that there is no principled (non-observer-relative) way of distinguishing between the direct and indirect causes in any instance. All causation is mediated by intervening causes if we but look (Experts on the metaphysics of causation might beg to differ of course).

But we can avoid having to make the distinction between direct and indirect technological causes by stipulating that the process of ceasing to be human result from the exercise of technological powers by the disconnecting.

This is not true of the post-people of Galapagos. They do not exercise the technological powers that result in the withering away of WH. They are effects of its exercise by others.

This clarification comports well with the DT and the assemblage theory in which it is framed (more, with the philosophy of technology laid out in Ch7) though it is not an explicit consequence of the schematic formulation. There might be a way of reformulating DT to allow this (along the lines of my response to Holm) but for reasons for time and incompetence, I’ll hold off on that here.

Posthumans like humans have components which instantiate technologies. It doesn’t have to follow that they are technologies, of course. I’m inclined to the view that technologies are abstract particulars concretized in disparate forms and contexts. Vonnegut’s post-people don’t instantiate or exercise such technologies. So they don’t qualify as posthumans.

There are other responses. One could just allow that Vonnegut’s post-people are posthuman but are just boring – not the kind that elicit our moral concern. However, I think the clarification suggested by Mandik provides a more robust response since it makes clear why the DT articulates our moral concern with posthuman possibility. The posthuman – according to this account – is inherently disruptive because of an independence from human ends resulting from the emergence of new technical powers. This independence implies significant functional autonomy because the technical powers exhibited by posthumans are no longer exercised by us.

Beings exhibiting this independence need not be maximally weird, but then I allow for disconnections that would involve posthumans are not radically alien in someway (e.g. genetically engineered super-cooperators, Cylons or some such). In any case, the evocation of the weird is designed to suggest the epistemic scope for divergence (given anthropological unboundedness). Nothing is weird as such or intrinsically unless we allow for the kind of radical transcendence contemplated in negative theology.


12 thoughts on “Posthuman Life: The Galapagos Objection

  1. Thanks for the mention, David. That’s very much the sort of response I had in mind, and I like your development of it. I look forward to seeing what Jon thinks of it.

  2. No worries, Pete – many thanks for the suggestion. It seems to slot neatly into my existing philosophy of technology, so it’s potentially a boost to the coherence of SP.

  3. Why is it, again, that you think hyperplasticity alone isn’t enough? After all, the issue isn’t simply whether you can stipulate over potential counter-examples, but whether your concept does the kind of work we want it to do. For instance, one of the things we would want it to do is pick out similar individuals.

    Take two different super intelligences, identical in all technical/functional respects, save that one elects to search for a new star system, while another decides to remain dependent upon and therefore a product of WH (I recently finished a novella involving this!). Is one posthuman and the other not?

    Another thing we would want it to do is pick out individuals *becoming posthuman.* But as the above example illustrates, entities can possess identical capacities, and yet still not count as posthuman.

    It seems to me you don’t run into either of these problems with hyperplasticity. The process of ‘post-hominization’ can be tracked via the development of this structure in nature. Insofar as we’re beginning to alter our biology, we’re beginning to become posthuman. The time frame is slow, the ‘hyper’ is sporadic and protracted, but the bootstrapping principle is the same. Some of us, at least, can expect to become more posthuman as time wears on.

    It seems clear that your account forecloses on these (pretty commonsensical) usages. By making something concrete and historical as opposed to concrete and structural criterial of the concept, I think you may inadvertently handicap the discursive utility of ‘posthuman.’ What do we gain by tying our concept of the posthuman to the moment of Disconnection?

  4. I don’t think my response here is just stipulation. It’s a clarification entirely consonant with the ontology of technique developed in Ch7. But regarding hyperplasticity. Well, it’s enough to scrag your favourite version of the manifest image, we agree. But a) we don’t know that hyperplasticity is even physically possible and (like my account of agency) the notion needs work; b) the multiple satisfaction base is intended to capture the generality of the posthuman and (for all its problems) I’m yet to see formulations of the concept of the posthuman that are precise or as consequential;

    c) hyperplasticity is enough. That is, I’ve given reasons why a HP superintelligence wouldn’t be integrated into anything resembling the human world of persons and language-games. It doesn’t matter where it happens to domiciled. I’d suggest writing a science fiction novel about the scenario you describe, Scott, but you already have 🙂

  5. But the bootstrapping of morphology and behaviour is actually quite clear, is it not? After all, it’s the basic structure of evolution. As soon as any cognitive structure driving behaviour becomes a direct (as opposed to indirect, as in the evolutionary case) product of that behaviour, you have a clear cut instance of ‘becoming posthuman.’ We’re already doing this to ourselves, so we know ‘hyperplasticity’ in this rudimentary sense is possible! The Singularity (which I don’t see as synonymous with the posthuman) simply refers to the point where this process becomes entirely nonbiological.

    This captures the inscrutability of PPS quite well, I think. As soon as morphology becomes the plaything of behaviour, we have no way of saying what the consequences will be simply because we have no way of knowing the degree to which our constraining intuitions are the parochial product of our morphology. It also posits a PPS that is sensitive to gradations, to differences in degree so characteristic of intelligence. Moreover, it provides a way to do so without importing intentional concepts (and the threat of anthropocentric parochialisms). From a naturalistic perspective, it comes quite cheap. It also resonates with a number of commonsense intuitions. I personally can’t think of any problematic counter-examples.

    Just thinking out loud, David… Ultimately, this is the kind of horserace that will determine the fate of your definition. We want a concept that avoids running afoul our (anthropocentric) biases (as is the case with all critical posthumanisms), while contributing to a flexible and powerful interpretation of whatever it is that has us in its grip. Clarity is an important desideratum, to be sure, but so to is versatility.

    How does your account handle issues of degree? Is the posthuman an all or nothing affair?

    “That is, I’ve given reasons why a HP superintelligence wouldn’t be integrated into anything resembling the human world of persons and language-games. It doesn’t matter where it happens to domiciled”

    So a nonhuman intelligence cannot take on dependency as a value? I’m not sure I follow. Where do you discuss this?

  6. Arrgh, somewhat the worse for wear after the Serial Killerists’ post-publication party in Dublin. Luckily there’s qualified response to your objection wrote when not sleep deprived and hungover over at the philpercs reading group …. 😉

  7. Reading this makes me ambivalent. When we use the term “posthuman” we continue to harken back to this battle over just what a human is – both an ontic and ontological/epistemic distinction. If one is to surmount what a post – human is or might be or become – what is the set of sets against which we are to judge this? It’s as if between Scott (sciences and neurosciences in particular) or philosophy (dark phenomenology, normative (Brandom), etc.) we seem to return to the circle of definition and language from which there is no break or path forward.

    Even in your book Posthuman Life there seems to be this wavering over just what a “human” is, whether the dualists or monists within the sciences or philosophy have the necessary conceptual rigor even to discuss the matter. When you say: “Although critical posthumanism is probably the most visible form of anti-anthropocentric thinking within the academic humanities, we have identified some lacunae in the analysis of humanism offered by its leading proponents – including its failure to distinguish the normative claims of transhumanism from speculative metaphysical claims about nonhuman descendants of humans. … and argue against certain critical posthumanists that “the prospect of genuine posthumans poses a far greater challenge to the prescriptions of humanist philosophy than deconstruction or allied assaults on the integrity of the human subject.”

    I keep wondering if this wavering between normativity and speculation is itself the muddle of this project, that rather than continuing this fictional philosophical digression one is better off studying the effectuators, the technological systems that might purport to bring about such things as posthumanity and the singularity. Instead of continuing with the traditions of an outworn philosophy one turns instead to the convergence technologies (NBIC) nanotech, biotech, and Information and Communications systems that will eventuate such changes?

    It seems that trying to get one’s conceptuality correct is leading this project into a sort of closed loop of discourse without a necessary end, while what is happening has nothing to do with what humans are thinking about posthumanism; that, rather, technology is and will be the effectuator of this changes, so that we need a more conceptual grasp of these technologies of our era and how they may be used for or constrain such future wide humans, etc.

    Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (pp. 32-33). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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