Some initial thoughts about Reza Negerastani’s complexity critique of the Disconnection Thesis made during a recent New Centre Seminar: ‘The Future of Intelligence in the Age of Intellectual Scarcity’:
The critique hinges on the claim that unbounded posthumanism depends on an instability analysis of complex systems. To wit, that in a dynamic system characterized by a positive global Lyupanov Exponent (LE), exponential divergence from initial anthropological conditions (The human whether described naturally or functionally) is liable to produce ‘unbounded posthumans’ (Reza’s term, not mine) that do not conform to these conditions and which cannot be engaged with or interpreted by humans (‘practical asymmetry’). Following Robert Bishop (2011), Reza objects that this analysis departs from a complexity ‘folklore’ to the effect that exponential divergence in chaotic systems is necessitated by a global LE, whereas this is an idealization over infinite time and thus isn’t applicable to real physical systems. In real physical systems, he argues, uncertainties tend to decrease over time, thus rendering prediction tractable in principle.
This is a hard objection to meet in part because it doesn’t obviously resemble any argument I make in Posthuman Life.
I do claim that were disconnection to occur it would be weakly diachronically emergent because it would exhibit novel technological characteristics that couldn’t be inferred from earlier technologies (Roden 2014, 118). But I explicitly dissociate this claim from any inference to radical alienness or practical asymmetry between humans and posthumans:
“As Humphrey reminds us, diachronic emergence is a one time event. Once we observe a formerly diachronically emergent event we are in a position to predict tokens of the same type of emergent property from causal antecedents that have been observed to generate it in the past. Diachronic emergence has no implications for the uninterpretability or weirdness of posthumans since their nature is left open by the disconnection thesis.” (Roden 2014, 119)
And this is just what we should expect given that the disconnection relation is multiply satisfiable and need not involve radical practical asymmetry. It might, as Darian Meacham has argued, involve a much milder ‘phenomenological speciation’ whereby technically produced posthumans dissociate from us due to their perceived strangeness (Meacham 2014).
Admittedly, I do argue that modern technique is unpredictable over medium to long terms and invoke the self-catalysing nature of technical change, as well as long-distance relations between sites of technical change, as an explanation for this property. This is an informal and general analysis of the causal structure of technological networks. It isn’t a dynamic systems analysis in the mathematical sense but an ontological proposal based on examples from the history of technology. Indeed, I explicitly deny this here:
“Technique is self-augmenting, according to Ellul, where it “tends to act, not according to arithmetic, but according to a geometric progression” (Ellul 1964: 89). We should not take this mathematical representation too literally – for one thing, it seems unlikely that all the relevant variables by which we might measure the development of a technical system will grow indefinitely. Particular technologies – like particular biological populations or sales of commodities – tend to be characterized by logistic growth functions or “S-curves” whose middle parts approximate to the endlessly accelerating growth that Ellul describes but whose later parts flatten out as the process hits resource limits (Kurzweil 2005: 44). For example, Theodore Modis notes that US oil production followed an accelerating growth pattern between 1859 and 1951 only to decelerate in the 1960s and 1970s. The same considerations will probably apply to Moore’s Law – which states that the number of silicon transistors in microprocessors approximately doubles every two years – since physical limits on the size of microcircuitry will tell eventually (Modis 2012: 316–17).”
I suspect that one reason why this critique misses is revealed by the phrase ‘unbounded posthuman’. I speak, of course, of anthropologically unbounded posthumanism (AUP). But this is an epistemological claim about the inefficacy of transcendental ‘filters’ based on ideas of rational or phenomenological subjectivity when thinking about the long-term future. AUP doesn’t necessitate anything. It implies that the hermeneutic horizon for thinking about a technologically uncertain future is radically open; not that this must be characterized by a physical system systematically marked by radical orbital divergence between initial conditions. The divergence – in this sense – is not characterized physically at all.
None of this is to say that Reza’s critique isn’t a helpful contribution to the debate about posthumanism – it is, and I hope to engage with it more as I work through his book.
Bishop, R.C., 2011. ‘Metaphysical and epistemological issues in complex systems’. In Philosophy of complex systems (pp. 105-136). North-Holland.
Ellul, J. 1964. The Technological Society, J. Wilkinson (trans.). New York: Vintage Books.
Meacham, D., 2014. ‘Empathy and alteration: The ethical relevance of a phenomenological species concept’. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 39(5), pp.543-564.
Modis, T. 2012. “Why the Singularity Cannot Happen”. In The Singularity
Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 311–46. London: Springer.
Negarestani, R., 2018. Intelligence and Spirit. Urbanomic/Sequence Press.
Roden, D. 2014. Posthuman life: Philosophy at the edge of the human. Routledge.
Roden, D. 2015. ‘Posthuman Life: The Galapagos Objection’, https://enemyindustry.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/the-galapagos-objection/
Roden, David. ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: Robert Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’, in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn, London: Roman and Littlefield, 2017, pp. 99-119.