Homelessness and the Transhuman: Some Existential Implications of Cognitive Science (by Benjamin Cain)

by rsbakker

If science and commonsense about human nature are in conflict, and cognitive science and R. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory are swiftly bringing this conflict to a head, what are the social implications? After explaining the conflict and putting it in the broader contexts of homelessness and alienation, I contrast the potential dystopian and utopian outcomes for society, focusing on the transhuman utopia in which, quite ironically, science and technology make the fantasy of the manifest image a reality, by turning people into gods. I use the sociopathic oligarch and the savvy politician as models to try to understand the transhuman’s sophisticated self-conception.


Our Self-Destructing Home

Richard Dawkins called the genetically-determined, artificial transformation of the environment–for example, the spider’s web, beaver’s dam, or human-made shelter–an organism’s extended body. So to see why alienation is part of our destiny, compare a person’s situation with that of a web-spinning spider. Remove the spider entirely from its web, deprive it of its ability to weave a new one, and the spider would be discombobulated from its homelessness. The spider that spins webs can’t function without them. This creature’s body evolved to walk on silk threads, to eat the prey that can be caught in that net, and to sense threats through vibrations in the web. To the extent that a spider thinks of the world, its viewpoint is web-centric. The spider surely feels most at home in its web where it’s lord of the land; from its perspective, the world beyond is webless and out of its control. So a spider has external and internal means of reorganizing the world, although its internal means are indirect. Its body crafts a tool, the web, for transmuting part of the world into a form that’s compatible with the spider’s way of life, and its brain states lump the world into categories so that the spider can deal with threats and opportunities.

A typical person likewise has a home in the world, although a person’s home is much more flexible. When someone takes a broom to a spider’s web, the spider must weave a new one and once woven, the spider is committed to that location. The web isn’t portable, although it can withstand minor disturbances. By contrast, a person adapts her outer home to suit the environment, and so in a snowy climate a person builds an igloo, while in a rainy place she adds a roof that causes the rain to roll harmlessly down the roof’s slope. And we add a wide variety of buildings to achieve our many purposes, building not just houses but towns, cities, and civilizations. The relevant difference between a spider and a person is that the spider’s body is highly specialized whereas a person’s physiological capacities are more open-ended. All of the web-spinning spider’s physical traits are put to optimal use in the web which the spider must build for itself, whereas a person’s main outer advantage is her opposable thumb which gives her a capacity for infinite manipulations of the environment. Thus, we’re not so committed to just one kind of artificial home, but can adapt our extended body to suit the natural circumstances. To do this, we must understand those circumstances, and so the main web we weave, as it were, is inside rather than outside us. We weave this with our mind or more specifically with our brain. This web is made not of silk threads but of electrical currents which pass between neurons. The web of our thoughts allows us to make many subtle distinctions and so to exploit much more of the environment. Whereas a spider requires an outer web to feel at home and even to live as a spider, a person requires a mind made up of an inner web of memories, imaginings, feelings, categories, speculations, and inferences.

But there’s a paradox. A person’s mind accesses the world through the five senses and processes the information received. That task is what the mind is mainly for in evolutionary terms. But those senses don’t similarly access the mind itself or the brain. The senses are all pointed outward. They could conceivably be extended by technology and then directed inward to observe the brain as it processes the information generated by its activities. In fact, this is what dreams or psychedelic drugs may do; the hallucinations you perceive when sleeping or stoned may reflect deeper mental processes than those with which ordinary consciousness is familiar. In any case, observation doesn’t suffice for understanding, so the impressions of what the brain does while it’s thinking would have to be interpreted, and we don’t yet have as much experience of the brain’s intricacies as we do, say, of elements in the outer world like earth, water, and fire.

The paradox, then, is that our primary shelter and source of comfort is internal and yet this shelter dissolves itself.

We belong not so much to the brick and concrete homes we build–those are not the worlds we truly live in–but to the cherished beliefs of our religious, political, and other ideologies. The degree to which we live in our heads is the degree to which we live as persons, as mammals that are highly curious and reflective not just about the physical environment but about our capacities for understanding it. Self-awareness is a necessary condition of personhood. But the more we look at ourselves, the more we shrink from our withering glare until the self we imagine we are is lost. We’re most at home in the world when we feel free to fill the unobserved void of our inner self with speculations and fantasies. They form the so-called manifest image, the naive, intuitive picture of the self that we dream up because we’re extremely curious and won’t settle for such a blind spot. We replace ignorance about the brain and the mind with fanciful, flattering notions such as those you find in religious myths and in other social conventions. But the more we think about our inner nature, the more rigorous and scientific our self-reflections become until we discover that the manifest image is largely or perhaps even entirely a fiction; certainly, that image is a work of art rather than a self-empowering scientific theory.

We learn that there is no inner self in the ordinary, comforting sense, but we’re not adapted to identify with our body because our body is pitifully weak. Again, our main physiological advantage is our opposable thumb, and it’s our brainpower that permits us to reinforce our body, to engineer an airplane because we have no wings, a saw because we have no claws, clothes because we have no fur, and so on. In effect, we’re most proud of our brain–except when we learn what the brain actually is and does. As cognitive science and BBT in particular show (and as the philosopher Immanuel Kant maintained), the mind prefers delusion to a humble admission of ignorance. As those who attempt to still their thoughts in meditation will testify, the mind loves to think and won’t shut up unless the thinker exerts herself in ignoring its spontaneous ramblings. We fill our head with chitchat, with rumours and all manner of mental associations, often on the basis of scarce input. We take that input and run with it and we’re drawn especially to those speculations that flatter us. Like a hermit crab, we climb inside the net of those speculations and we live there, meaning that we identify our self with them. Most of us don’t know exactly what the inner self is, but we surmise that the self is rational, conscious, free, unified, and even immaterial and immortal. Then we take a closer look, with science, and we find that we can look past the illusion. Of course we’re not as we naively picture we are: look at the brain, see what it does, and notice that there’s no ghost inside! If we were hermit crabs, we’d learn that our shell isn’t so sturdy after all, that it dissolves on contact. The difference is that whereas the crab needs that shell to protect it from others, we need the manifest image to protect us from ourselves, or rather from our capacity to discover that we have no self.

Mind you, we erase not just the naive image of the self, but that of the outer world as well. The senses and the brain present a colourful, three-dimensional world that’s relative to each viewer’s perspective, thus effectively flattering the ego. Moreover, we perceive all events as having a past, a future, and a present moment in consciousness. Einsteinian physics teaches, though, that space and time are not as we so intuit them. Again, we think of causes and effects as mechanisms, as though the cosmos were a machine, but that’s a naive, deistic conception. We think of the universe as governed by laws even though the scientist no longer assumes there’s an intelligent designer to issue them or to ensure that the universe follows them. We perceive the environment as made up of whole, solid things even though matter at the quantum level isn’t solid or neatly divided. Modern science thus undermines all intuitive conceptions, both those of the self and of everything else. This is just to say that the brain’s spontaneous chatter about this or that which happens to mesmerize us isn’t likely to be the brain’s last word on the subject.


The Horror of Alienation

The paradox of reason, which makes reason an evolutionary curse rather than just a gift, is that we live mainly in the ideational home we make in our heads, but those ideas eventually lead us to recognize that our heads are empty of anything with which we’d prefer to identify ourselves. Reason thus evicts us from our homes, kicking us to the curb, whereupon we may wander the cultural byways as outsiders, unable to lose the selves we cease to believe in in the cultural products that cater to the mass delusions. As least, that’s one path for the evicted to travel. Another is for them to sneak back into their homes, to forget that they don’t belong there and to pretend that they’re full-fledged home owners even though they know they’re dressed in rags and smell like urine. That’s an illustration of the difference between existential authenticity and inauthenticity.

To understand what I mean by that distinction, we need to consider the idea of alienation. The way I like to approach this is through the melancholic philosophy that Lovecraft dramatized in his cosmicist short stories. And it seems to me that this philosophy is analogous to the philosophical upshot of BBT. So what BBT contends is that scientific truth is opposed to personal truth, that what a self actually is is very different from what is naively presumed. This opposition raises the likelihood of cultural apocalypse and of the intriguing possibility of transhumanity to which I’ll turn in the next section. But what Lovecraft realized is that there’s a more general opposition, between the potential science of a superhuman species and even our supreme rational output. Just as the manifest image is inadequate to our scientific image, so too our scientific image may be inadequate to the superhuman conception of the world. To get an idea of the relevant sort of superhuman, picture Superman, the fictional hero whose superpowers are confined to his physiological and perhaps moral capacities, and now add superhuman intelligence plus the important levels of reality that may be exposed only to someone of that mental caliber. Of course, Lovecraft stressed that this more general scenario of what philosophers call mysterianism, which is a plausible result of atheistic naturalism, makes for psychological horror. Whereas BBT and cognitive science kick us to the curb, Lovecraft removes the curb, the street, and the whole planet and leaves us floating in a void that only a hideously indifferent alien could comprehend and use to its inhuman advantage.

What, then, is alienation? It’s just the futile feeling of homesickness, of not belonging somewhere you’d like to be or indeed of not belonging anywhere at all. Science alienates us from our preference to see ourselves in terms of the manifest image. We’d prefer to identify with that naive conception of the ego or of the immortal spirit, but informed people with intellectual integrity or perhaps with the foolishness to take human knowledge so seriously as to upset their chance for a happy life, are estranged from that conception. Married people who get divorced may feel terribly awkward when they’re then forced to be together, say, in some legal hearing. Likewise, science and especially cognitive science seem to push us towards a reckoning with the naive self-image so that even if we’re forced to project that image onto the brain, we’re sickened by or bored with that particular painting. In this context, alienation is the fear that that reckoning leaves us nowhere, or at least unsure of where to go next. And an existentially authentic, self-evicted mammal stays true to that homelessness, whereas an inauthentic one settles for a delusion rather than the reality.


Home for the Transhuman

I want to consider some possible refuges for those who are existentially homeless. The most likely scenario, I fear, is the dark one that RSB speaks of and that is in fact a staple of dark science fiction. In this scenario, most people are reduced to the inauthentic state. What may happen, then, is that the majority either aren’t permitted to understand the natural facts of human identity or they prefer not to understand them, in which case they become subhuman: slaves to the technocrats who perfect technoscientific means of engineering cultural and mental spaces to suit the twisted purposes of the sociopathic oligarchs that tend to rule; automatons trained to consume material goods like cattle, whose manifest image functions as a blinder to keep them on the straight and narrow path; or hypocrites who have the opportunity and intelligence to recognize the sad truth but prefer what the philosopher Robert Nozick calls the Happiness Machine (the capitalistic monoculture) and so suffer from severe cognitive dissonance and a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. These aren’t dubious predictions, but are descriptions of what most people, to some extent, are currently like in modern societies. The prediction is only that these dynamics will be intensified and perhaps perfected, so that we’d have on our hands the technoscientific dystopia described by Orwell, Huxley, and others. I should add that on a Lovecraftian view, it’s possible that human scientific control of our nature will never be absolute, because part of our nature may fall within the ambit of reality that transcends our comprehension.

Is there a more favourable outcome? Many transhumanists speak optimistically about a mergence between our biological body and our extended, technological one. If we aren’t immaterial spirits who pass on to a supernatural realm after our physical death, we can still approximate that dualistic dream with technoscience. We can build heaven on earth and deify ourselves with superhuman knowledge and power; cast off our genetic leash/noose, through genetic engineering; overcome all natural obstacles through the internet’s dissemination of knowledge and nanoengineering; and even live forever by downloading our mental patterns into machines. In short, even though the manifest image of a conscious, rational, free, and immortal self is currently only an illusion that conceals the biological reality, the hope is that technoscience can actually make us more rational, conscious, free, and immortal than we’ve ever imagined. Of course, there are many empirical questions as to the feasibility of various technologies, and there’s also the dystopian or perhaps just realistic scenario in which such godlike power benefits the minority at the majority’s expense. But there’s also the preliminary question of the existential significance of optimistic transhumanism, granting at least the possibility of that future. How should we understand the evolutionary stage in which we set aside our dualistic myths and merge fully with our technology to become more efficient natural machines? Indeed, how would such transhumans think of themselves, given that they’d no longer entertain the manifest image?

I think we should conceive of this in terms of a natural process. Atoms bond to become molecules, molecules join to form macroscopic things like rocks, animals, and planets, and some animals incorporate their handiwork to become creatures that can interact more fully with the rest of nature. There’s the mereological process of complexification and the temporal process of evolution, and these may come together to produce transhumans. Lacking the manifest image and the vanity but also the moral limitations which that image subserves, a transhuman would have to conceive of itself as strictly part of some such natural process. The universe changes itself, and the transhuman can bring about many more of those changes than can a deluded, self-limited mammal. Currently, we transform much of our planet, whereas a transhuman who accepts only the scientific image of human nature may acquire the power to transform star systems, galaxies, or untold dimensions. A transhuman wouldn’t think in normative or teleological terms; such a natural god would have no goals or individualistic hallucinations, and would take to heart the Joker’s lines in the movie, The Dark Knight, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?…You know, I just…do things.”

We have a model of such a transhuman god and that’s the oligarch. An oligarch is a very powerful person who’s reached the top of a national pecking order and is either sufficiently sociopathic to have reached that position with finesse or is naturally corrupted by the power he thereby acquires, in which case he conditions himself to be sociopathic. What I mean by “sociopathy” in this context is that power corrupts in the specific sense that the very powerful person tends to lose not just a sense of morality but the capacity for empathy. A transhuman would share that incapacity, since morality is part of the illusion of the manifest image. However, a transhuman and a corrupted ruler would differ significantly in that the latter would still act egoistically; indeed, such a person is a megalomaniac who believes he’s entitled to so much wealth and power because of his personal magnificence. By contrast, the transhuman would have no illusion of personhood: a transhuman would be only an instrument that ushers in galactic transformations; these wouldn’t be intended or preferred, but would be understood as just meaningless, natural evolutions of the cosmic landscape.

Another model that can help us get a sense of what transhuman life would be like is the democratic politician. I may be slightly more cynical than the average person living in a democracy, but I just take it for granted that a politician never speaks the truth in public. More precisely, the politician never tells the people at large exactly what she’s thinking. This is because when a politician speaks publicly, she’s on the job and so must carry out the functions of her office. As is said in the business, the politician–and the lobbyist, political handler, public relations expert, spin doctor, partisan, and so forth–speak publicly only in “talking points,” never leveling with the public or having anything as pedestrian as a conversation or a dialogue with a presumed equal. This is to say, then, that the politician eliminates semantics in her side of the public discourse: the meaning of her statements is irrelevant to their function, and the politician is interested only in that function, which is to say in the statements’ shaping of public opinion to the politician’s advantage. In other words, a politician’s public statements are guided only by what we might call their political syntax, which is the set of social scientific laws that make plausible various Machiavellian strategies for manipulating people, for exploiting their weaknesses and biases as a means to some end. The ends of the politician’s purely instrumental use of language are usually the limited ones of maintaining the politician’s privileged position and of stroking her ego, but may rarely include the purpose of benefitting the country at large according to the politician’s principles.

Again, there are interesting differences between this politician and the transhuman. A politician has goals whereas the transhuman has none. We might prefer to say that the transhuman has “implicit purposes,” but this would be sheer personification, since anything in the universe can be interpreted as acting towards some end point that isn’t mentally represented by that which is so acting. This would just amount to reading intelligent design into everything and positing some transcendent designer that does so represent the goals which that designer’s creations would be built to achieve. No, a transhuman who has fully embraced the scientific image and so abandoned the crude conception of personhood wouldn’t conceive of herself as mentally representing anything, which is to say that she would understand her mental states to be meaningless pseudo-instruments, as elements of a natural process. She would have neither beliefs nor desires in the ordinary sense and so she wouldn’t seek her enrichment or even the continuation of her life (although her vast technoscientific knowledge and power would render her invulnerable, in any case). The transhuman would be a new force of nature, as blind, deaf, and dumb as the wind or as sunshine. By contrast, a politician’s instrumentalism is petty, the scheme of a child playing at being a god. A politician may flatter herself that in her political role she acts as a savvy machine that sees past the delusions of the herd and can manipulate the masses at will by pushing their proverbial buttons, uttering a code word or two to initiate the news cycle, and so forth. But as long as the politician labours under the quaint delusion that she personally plans or desires anything, she’s better thought of as a wannabe god, as a child who hasn’t yet grown into her shoes. At best, the cynical politician would be the harbinger of the god to come, the Silver Surfer to the future Galactus.

Where, then, would the transhuman call home? The universe would be the transhuman’s playground, just as a force of nature works wherever it’s naturally able. A transhuman identifies not with a figment of its imagination, with a particular mind or consciousness, but with all of nature, since the transhuman’s knowledge and power would encompass that whole domain, or at least enough of the universe that the transhuman would effectively be divine. The transhuman’s reach would extend very far in space and time, and her body would be the extended one of technology that only morally-neutral science could unleash. And the transhuman would understand natural processes at a highly technical level; she’d be immortal, fearless, and enmeshed in the universe’s course of self-creation, as opposed to being limited, alienated, and homeless. Perhaps technoscience is the means of building gods, of ironically turning the manifest image, which is currently a fantasy, into a reality, and we are mere strands in the cocoon that will birth that new form of life. This transhumanism seems to me the most uplifting way of imagining the outcome of the clash between science and commonsense, but of course this doesn’t mean the scenario is plausible or likely. At any rate, if BBT is correct, we are primarily not individual persons with private agendas, but are stages of some natural process that we can’t yet see clearly, because our vision is obscured by smoke and mirrors.