By Jon Cogburn
[Note: This is not my post on Chapter 8 of Posthuman Life. That's coming soon.]
Debbie's presentation of Chapters 4 and 5 of the Posthuman Life reading group elicited a wide-ranging discussion of David Roden's definition of Speculative Posthumanism:
(SP) Descendents of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration (PL 107).
This is related to his recursive definition of what it is for a Wide Human (things that qualify as humans according to a wide, family resemblance type, characterization of humanity) descendent to be posthumous:
- 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) (PL 112).
Various commentators (R. Scott Bakker, bzfgt, dmf, Patrick Gamez, Goldgaber, Jozef, and BP Morton) all in various kind of hinted at my biggest worry about this along the way to making their own interesting points without (I think!) quit getting at it.
My concern is set in bold relief if we consider Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, which chronicles a group of tourists who get stranded on the Galapagos islands just as a nuclear war is finishing. This actually almost happened to Charles Pence once. Anyhow, in Vonnegut's novel the rest of humanity is obliterated and the tourists are stuck with the descendents of the relatively isolated birds and lizards and whatnot that so impressed Darwin. Then, in the succeeding million years, the tourists' descendents evolve (with the help of a tiny gene pool that's been liberally pissed in by nuclear radiation) into non-sapient fish-like creatures who finally return to the sea. Like all of Vonnegut's novels, it's a very good read. As far as I know, this kind of devolution, aided by human technological alteration (the transportation to get them to the Island and all of the nuclear bombs) is a real empirical possibility.
So from reading Galapagos I conclude that Speculative Posthumanism is true. But doesn't this trivialize the view?
In Chapter 6 Roden develops an interesting account of agency such that a posthuman must be "able to fulfill an independent career as an agent outside the human technical assemblage WH (PH 113)." The requirement hopefully prohibits some trivializations, such as, for example, the living bacteria in the feces of people in societies with antibiotics counting as posthuman(s). But I can't see how it prevents the possibility of Vonnegut's fishes as entailing that posthumanism is true.
Roden is aware of this issue to some extent, but I worry that he misdiagnoses the threat. For very good reasons, he does not want to give in to the transhumanist temptation to only focus on what might strike us improvements to characteristically human capacities. But because of this
. . .it could be objected that 'alteration' is so neutral that a technical process could count as posthuman engendering if it resulted in wide descendants of humans with capacities far below those of normal humans (I will address this point in 5.5) (PH 109).
Then in Section 5.5 of the book we get the appeal to the posthumans' independence which is further developed in Chapter 6 via the non-Kantian account of autonomy.
Roden's comment #13 of the philpercs thread on Chapter 5 reinforces this worry for me:
For example, it is conceivable that some posthumans would be little more functionally autonomous than plants. They might just do the equivalent of clinging to rocks and enjoying the sunshine, forever. But they would have to have the functional autonomy to get out of the human gravity well, so to speak. But the kinds of posthumans that concern us could have capacities for acquiring functions and enlisting values comparable to our own or greater.
Roden is here subconsciously channeling the end of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, where the protagonist's descendent clone responds to the death of his dog by spending the rest of his life photosynthesizing in a tidal pool. And the members of the cloned society of Houellebecq's narrator do have this kind of power. But, at least insofar as I'm understanding it correctly, the stranded travelers in Galapagos don't. They just evolved in a certain unexpected way due to human technologies. They do have the capacity for acquiring new functions though, as their descendents do things like swim and collect fish unaided much, much, much better than humans do.
In the final chapter of Posthuman Life Roden suggests that posthumans themselves would have to be more powerful than humans:
While the disconnection thesis makes no detailed claims about posthuman lives, it has implications for the complexity and power of posthumans and thus the significance of the differences they could generate. Posthuman entities would need to be powerful relative to WH to become existentially independent of it (PH 167)
But I think there's a scope error here. Powerful events would have to happen to bring about the separation, but there's no reason to think that the separate entities would themselves have had to exercise the power. Perhaps humans will produce genuinely weird and functionally autonomous AI without it being the case that the AI in question is ever able itself to produce anything analogously weird. If animals can replicate themselves with no deep insight into how it happens, surely our post-human descendents can as well.
In virtue of all of this, it seems to me that one the deep problems that was slightly elided in the earlier discussions concerns distinguishing Non-Trivial Posthumanism (NTPH) from Trivial Posthumanism (TPH). Trivial post-humanism is ensured by evolutionary theory and the fact that our own technologies create the environment by which heritable traits either are or are not selected for. And this isn't a necessary and sufficient characterization of TPH. What if we get good enough at designing DNA such that we can build animals such as Vonnegut's fish? They aren't narrow human descendents, but as far as I'm understanding this they would be our WH descendents, without themselves being WH.
One might try to say that they are trivially posthumous because we understand them. Perhaps non-trivial posthumans are those we cannot understand? But doesn't this involve just as much epistemic hubris as does the pretensions of traditional phenomenology, which Roden himself has (IMHO) pretty effectively eviscerated? If I don't know what it's like to be me I certainly don't know what it's like to be a Galapagos fish.
The easiest way to differentiate TPH from PH is teleologically, by adding a notion of advancement to the latter theory. But for good reasons Roden doesn't want this. (1) Creatures that in other respects functioned just like us but who, for example, did not experience pain or did not forget or were incapable of boredom would actually be incredibly alien, and (2) we want to make room for varieties of post-human weirdness that we can't currently conceive.
I want to say something like this. A non-trivial posthuman is a someone/thing that (1) possesses some enhanced characteristically Wide Human properties while (2) lacking others* and (3) that exists in part as a result of technological alteration by narrow, wide, and/or posthumans. The creatures who don't get bored/feel pain/forget/fail to notice things but who are not insane would have to have radically enhanced Wide Human properties. People with congenital insensitivity to pain are able to function at different levels, some of them almost superhumanly so. Temple Grandin's work is in part so interesting because she describes what she's had to do to cope with the fact that she lives in such an intense world. A Godlike creature that was unable to filter out anything but who did more than just clutch its shoulders and rock back and forth like a severely abused child would posses something like Temple Grandin's powers, but in a way that we potentially could not understand (for all of her excellent books, I'm still not sure neuro-typicals really understand very well what it's like to be Temple Grandin).
I think if we differentiate clearly between epistemology and metaphysics this might accommodate Roden's worry that ineliminable appeal to enhancement forecloses posthumous possibility space too much. The theory is not that we are able to recognize which properties the posthumous possess and lack, and the theory is not that we are able to understand how they do what they do. Again, we would have very little understanding of what superpowers would enable a creature that did not feel pain but was also not subject to any of the debilitating problems that humans with congenital insensitivity to pain suffer. Or how a godlike creature who was unable to tune out perceptions and memories but who didn't exhibit human signs of mental illness and severe autism could manage to do that. Most importantly, the theory is not that the posthumous possess and lack the properties we associate with humanity. Rather it's that they possess and lack properties that constitute (in a family resemblance way) and/or are causal grounds for humanity. If we adopt the epistemic humility about our own understanding of humanity, a humility well warranted by Roden's discussion, then this makes room for all sorts of disconnection, insofar as disconnection is a thesis about the epistemic challenge posed by the posthumous.
Part of what is so compelling to me about Roden's book is that it is a concrete case of working around the Berkley/Fichte master argument for what Meillassoux calls "correlationism." The truism that all we can know is all we can know is supposed to keep us imprisoned in our own little anthropocentric playgrounds. But against phenomenology, logical positivism, and other transcendental forms of anthropocentric thinking Roden insists that we don't have very much insight into the extent of what we can know and we don't know much of what we think we know about ourselves for that matter. But this doesn't lead to a pernicious skepticism or negative theology, as the non-trivial posthumous are a canonical example of an unknowable we can talk meaningfully about as well as develop an understanding of. This should be of comfort to those interested in their own navels as well. Perhaps we will understand ourselves better in the process.
I hope that stressing our possible ignorance about what constitutes wide humanity allows one to make sense of genuinely weird, and non-trivial, posthumans. They are non-trivial because they much better possess some characteristic qualities of the wide human. They are weird both because we don't know (and possibly won't be able to understand) what tradeoffs are involved when wide human capacities are radically enhanced and also because we are epistemically humble about what it is to be wide human. I think that this is one plausible route to defeating the Galapagos objection, but I'm less sure about what other commitments one would have to give up to follow it.
*Maybe this accommodates Goldgaber's discussion of Leroi-Guerhan’s account of hominization. This is really Hegel though. Any concession to the superhuman is also going to be a concession to the subhuman in some respect, and (as I argue above) in many cases vice versa.]