Aphorism of the Day: compliments of Thomas Metzinger


There’s this pernicious myth out there, one that bears too many similarities to the kinds of bootstrapping myths you find in popular culture more generally. The claim is that individuals and/or communities are makers of meaning.

Just think of all the narratives you’ve encountered where the hero has to own up to some difficult ‘choice,’ an easy, cowardly one that will lead to a dissolute, meaningless existence, and a difficult, courageous one that will lead to status, love, and the restoration of some traditional order. We are weaned on versions of what might be called the ‘HUMAN Potential Narrative,’ stories that teach us to strive, strive, strive (which is to say, work-work-work—largely for the benefit of others) to become ‘more than we are.’ This is, without any real doubt, the dominant ideology of the liberal democratic West. This is largely why we tend to buy into our system as enthusiastically as we do, and this is largely why so many of us think we only have ourselves to blame when we almost inevitably fail to achieve our ‘dreams.’ The more our meritocracies seem to drip away, the more our aggrandizing myths seem to seize our imagination.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the bootstrapping impulse seems to so intimately inform so much transhumanist and posthumanist thought.

The value of science lies in the way it renders the natural world compliant to HUMAN desire. Science, whatever it is, means power over the natural. Since extracting what we need from our natural environments is what we are all about, biologically speaking, science has proven to be an almost miraculous boon. The twentieth century, however, provided us with the first real indications that our power over nature could possess catastrophic consequences, intended or otherwise. Nuclear Armageddon. Biological Apocalypse. Environmental Ragnarok. Pick your poison.

And the pharmakon is growing. Now, we are entering an era which will see HUMAN nature become thoroughly compliant to HUMAN desire, and so dwell in the shadow of yet another catastrophic consequence: the Semantic Apocalypse.

The potential problem with rendering HUMAN nature compliant to HUMAN desire is quite obvious: given that HUMAN desire is rooted in HUMAN nature, the power to transform HUMAN nature according to HUMAN desire becomes the power to transform HUMAN desire according to HUMAN desire. This is a cornerstone of what troubles so-called ‘bioconservatives’ like Francis Fukuyama, for instance: the possibility of ‘desire run amok’—or put differently, the breakdown of the consensual values required for liberal democratic society.

For the first time in HUMAN history, in other words, the biological basis of HUMAN desire will be put into play. Given that this is historically unprecedented, and given the degree to which social cohesion depends upon overlapping networks of consistent—or at the very least, compatible—desires, the threat seems quite clear. ‘Designer desires’ should have the same sinister ring as ‘neurocosmetic surgery.’ Imagine waking up and deciding what to wear as well as what to feel for the day.

Now it should be noted that pretty much everyone in the field understands the social necessity of regulating desire (value). What distinguishes bioconservatives like Fukuyama is the desire to prevent the problem of designer desires from even arising, to regulate, in effect, the technologies of HUMAN nature. Call this the Easy Answer. Even though it would likely be impossible in practice to regulate these technologies (because the market, not to mention, strategic, advantages would be too decisive), it certainly is easy to suggest in theory. Pass a law, perish the thought.

Fukuyama’s myriad critics, on the other hand, have a harder row to hoe. What they need to provide is some kind of theoretical assurance that things won’t go awry in the manner that Fukuyama fears. The strategy, at least from what little I’ve read, seems to be twofold: to argue, first, that HUMAN desire as it stands is biologically, historically, or conceptually insufficient and so only stands to gain from technological augmentation and the resulting cultural transformations, and second, that desire is self-regulating in some way.

So with regards to the first strategy, you find Nick Bostrom, for instance, continually characterizing HUMAN desire as it exists as a kind of biological cage. If only we could set aside our fears, we could let desire fly into the vast possibility space of transhuman potential. Or Donna Haraway, continually characterizing HUMAN desire as it exists as a kind of socio-biological cage. The fear should be embraced as belonging to the liberating potential of transcending the oppressive conceptual and political orthodoxy of our existing values.

With reference to the second strategy, you find, to put it crudely, the wanker’s predictable and perhaps obligatory faith in wank. For transhumanists like Bostrom, this faith seems to be grounded in the Enlightenment link between autonomy and reason. As Kenan Malik writes in his review of Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future, HUMANs “possess the capacity to rise above their natural inclinations and, through the use of reason, to shape their values. But if this is so, then no amount of biotechnological intervention will transform our fundamental  values.” For other posthumanists, particularly those with poststructuralist commitments, you generally find varying degrees of residual commitment to these selfsame values, only refracted through the funhouse lens of some specific diagnostic cultural critique. So for posthumanists like Cary Wolfe, for instance, who place animal suffering on a par with HUMAN suffering, the present situation is simply so horrific that any exit has to be a good exit. Anything that forces society to abandon the conceptual cage of the ‘HUMAN’ and the horrifying crimes that it licences is a good thing.

Needless to say, we tend to be pretty cynical about the ‘power of reason’ to ‘bootstrap HUMAN desire’ here at Three Pound Brain. Like Hume guessed, and cognitive psychology is discovering, reason seems primarily invested in rationalizing desire. To use Haidt’s metaphor, these guys are putting the elephant on the back of the rider.

But I literally think that all of this, from Fukuyama to Bostrom to Haraway and Wolfe, is beside the point. Why? Because no one—including them—knows what the fuck they are talking about.

Strong words, I know, but I mean them quite literally.

Should we count contemporary philosophical theories of the HUMAN as knowledge? Of course not. But the sad fact is that this is all we got. Opinions abound, the way they always abound, and the wild diversity of claims is enough to beggar belief. Until recently almost all theoretical claims regarding the HUMAN were prescientific in a very profound sense. All things being equal, the overarching reason why we can’t definitively decide between varying philosophical conceptions of the ‘HUMAN’ is the same reason any other prescientific speculation regarding another domain couldn’t arbitrate between its competing claims. No one knew what they were talking about. Of course, people in the grip of this or that interpretation are prone to forget as much, to treat abject guesswork as knowledge, but this is just what we do: buy our own bullshit.

The HUMAN, as yet, eludes anything resembling thorough scientific understanding. The speculative discourses devoted to it, such as philosophy, literature, and so on, contradict one another in innumerable ways. Perhaps no concept is so wildly overdetermined. When we talk about the ‘posthuman,’ there’s a very real sense in which we are talking about the ‘post-whatchamacallit.’ As yet, we really have no idea just what it is that science is set to transform. Aside from low resolution facts, all we really know about the ‘HUMAN’ as we intuit it is that we cannot trust our intuition. As Eric Schwitzgebel puts it, “There are major lacunae in our self-knowledge that are not easily filled in, and we make gross, enduring mistakes about even the most basic features of our currently ongoing conscious experience, even in favorable circumstances of careful reflection, with distressing regularity.”

It really is the case that science might have more humbling, epochal revelations to make, perhaps the most dreadful of all revelations, a final ‘wound’ (to use Freud’s famous image) which kills far more than our narcissism. Think about it. Creeping medicalization. Corporations retooling themselves in ways to manage you as a mechanism. The factory farm is becoming the assembly plant as we speak.

Should we worry that this is the very trend we might expect given the truth of nihilism (the trend given narrative bones in Neuropath). Should we write it off as mere coincidence? Or should we prepare? This very experience you are having now really could be a kind of informatic dream, systematically connected to actual, effective processes of the brain, but hopelessly distorted—and certainly not an ‘agent’ in any obvious intentional sense. And the more we learn, the more plausible this seems to become.

When it comes to this debate as opposed to the posthuman, I find myself stranded, quite against my wishes, on the side that thinks science will show how the ‘HUMAN’ as we intuit it is largely hallucinatory, an artifact of any number of neuromechanical kluges. I could be wrong. Christ, I pray that I’m wrong. But no amount of neoenlightenment or poststructuralist speculation can decide the issue one way or another. The fact is, for better or worse, the question of HUMAN meaning has now become an empirical one. The question of the posthuman is largely a question of the consequences of neuromechanical intervention, of how we will change ourselves once we know ourselves. And this means the question of meaning is prior to the question of the posthuman, both practically and theoretically. To talk about transhuman or posthuman ‘value’ is to assume there will be such a thing. If meaning and value are parochial to the way HUMANs are, then being posthuman could be tantamount to being post value as well.

In this respect, with the glaring exception of David Roden, almost everything I’ve encountered in the posthuman literature so far, even the stuff that touts its radicality on its theoretical sleeves, suffers from what might be called the ‘Star Trek fallacy.’ They all assume that intentionality will survive the break with evolved biology, that the future will be familiar enough for the intentional kernel of our dramas to live on. But the discontinuities awaiting us are existential in every sense, including the conceptual. Why should science serve up anything other than a knowledge utterly indifferent to our hopes and desires? Isn’t that what we pay it for?

Experience and knowledge stand at a crossroads. This is the explosive time, the bewilderment that comes before the reckoning. We cannot assume that meaning transcends biological humanity as it stands, or that the hopes invested in some set of contemporary scruples can be pinned on a future indifferent to all scruple. We cannot presume that ‘right desire,’ let alone reason, is sure to survive what comes.

The future of value must be decided before it can be divined.

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