The Posthuman Frame

by rsbakker

Everyone interested in the Posthuman or the Singularity more generally simply has to read David Roden’s Posthuman Life, even if only as a theoretical Rosetta stone, a way to organize their arguments against other positions. Ideally, though, they should look at it as the first genuinely sustained attempt to discern the landscape of possibility confronting us absent anthropocentric biases–at least as far as anyone has been able to get. I’ll be reviewing the book soon, but I thought the following, extended quote worth posting here as a prelude.

Understanding how the relation human-posthuman should be conceptualized is key for understanding [speculative posthumanism’s] epistemic scope. Are there ways in which we can predict or constrain posthuman possibility based on current knowledge? Some philosophers claim that there are features of human moral life and human subjectivity that are not just local to certain gregarious primates but are necessary conditions of agency and subjectivity everywhere. This ‘transcendental approach’ to philosophy does not imply that posthumans are impossible but that–contrary to expectations–they might not be all that different from us. Thus a theory of posthumanity should consider both empirical and transcendental constraints on posthuman possibility.

What if it turns out that these constraints are relatively weak?

In that case, the possibility of posthumans implies that the future of life and mind might not only be stranger than we can imagine, but stranger than we can currently conceive.

This possibility is consistent with a minimal realism for which things need not conform to our ideas about them. But its ethical implications are vertiginous. Weakly constrained [speculative posthumanism] suggests that our current technical practice could precipitate a nonhuman world that we cannot yet understand, in which ‘our’ values may have no place.

Thus, while [speculative posthumanism] is not an ethical claim, it raises philosophical problems that are both conceptual and ethico-political.

Conceptually, it requires us to justify our use of the term ‘posthuman,’ whose circumstances of application are unknown to us. Does this mean talk of ‘posthumans’ is self-vitiating nonsense? Does speaking of ‘weird’ worlds or values commit one to a conceptual relativism that is compatible with the commitment to realism.

If posthuman talk is not self-vitiating nonsense, the ethical problems it raises are very challenging indeed. If our current technological trajectories might result in a world turning posthuman, how should we view this prospect and respond to it? Should we apply a conservative, precautionary approach to technology that favours ‘human’ values over any possible posthuman ones? Can conservatism be justified under weakly constrained [speculative posthumanism] and, if not, then what kind of ethical or political alternatives are justifiable?

The goal of Posthuman Life is to define these questions as clearly as possible and to propose some philosophical solutions to them. Although it would be hubristic for a writer on this topic to claim the last word, my formulations do, I hope provide a firm conceptual basis for philosophical and interdisciplinary work in this area.

David’s project, in other words, is not so much to answer the question of the posthuman as it is to provision theorists with an exemplary frame, one that not only provides definitional clarity, but an understanding of the boggling dimensions of the problem space facing anyone who dares hazard guesses regarding the posthuman. I know mastering his vocabulary–and therefore his clarity–is one of my primary goals.