Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Tag: singularity

The Asimov Illusion

by rsbakker

Could believing in something so innocuous, so obvious, as a ‘meeting of the minds’ destroy human civilization?

Noocentrism has a number of pernicious consequences, but one in particular has been nagging me of late: The way assumptive agency gulls people into thinking they will ‘reason’ with AIs. Most understand Artificial Intelligence in terms of functionally instantiated agency, as if some machine will come to experience this, and to so coordinate with us the way we think we coordinate amongst ourselves—which is to say, rationally. Call this the ‘Asimov Illusion,’ the notion that the best way to characterize the interaction between AIs and humans is the way we characterize our own interactions. That AIs, no matter how wildly divergent their implementation, will somehow functionally, at least, be ‘one of us.’

If Blind Brain Theory is right, this just ain’t going to be how it happens. By its lights, this ‘scene’ is actually the product of metacognitive neglect, a kind of philosophical hallucination. We aren’t even ‘one of us’!

Obviously, theoretical metacognition requires the relevant resources and information to reliably assess the apparent properties of any intentional phenomena. In order to reliably expound on the nature of rules, Brandom, for instance, must possess both the information (understood in the sense of systematic differences making systematic differences) and the capacity to do so. Since intentional facts are not natural facts, cognition of them fundamentally involves theoretical metacognition—or ‘philosophical reflection.’ Metacognition requires that the brain somehow get a handle on itself in behaviourally effective ways. It requires the brain somehow track its own neural processes. And just how much information is available regarding the structure and function of the underwriting neural processes? Certainly none involving neural processes, as such. Very little, otherwise. Given the way experience occludes this lack of information, we should expect that metacognition would be systematically duped into positing low-dimensional entities such as qualia, rules, hopes, and so on. Why? Because, like Plato’s prisoners, it is blind to its blindness, and so confuses shadows for things that cast shadows.

On BBT, what is fundamentally going on when we communicate with one another is physical: we are quite simply doing things to each other when we speak. No one denies this. Likewise, no one denies language is a biomechanical artifact, that short of contingent, physically mediated interactions, there’s no linguistic communication period. BBT’s outrageous claim is that nothing more is required, that language, like lungs or kidneys, discharges its functions in an entirely mechanical, embodied manner.

It goes without saying that this, as a form of eliminativism, is an extremely unpopular position. But it’s worth noting that its unpopularity lies in stopping at the point of maximal consensus—the natural scientific picture—when it comes to questions of cognition. Questions regarding intentional phenomena are quite clearly where science ends and philosophy begins. Even though intentional phenomena obviously populate the bestiary of the real, they are naturalistically inscrutable. Thus the dialectical straits of eliminativism: the very grounds motivating it leave it incapable of accounting for intentional phenomena, and so easily outflanked by inferences to the best explanation.

As an eliminativism that eliminates via the systematic naturalization of intentional phenomena, Blind Brain Theory blocks what might be called the ‘Abductive Defence’ of Intentionalism. The kinds of domains of second-order intentional facts posited by Intentionalists can only count toward ‘best explanations’ of first-order intentional behaviour in the absence of any plausible eliminativistic account of that same behaviour. So for instance, everyone in cognitive science agrees that information, minimally, involves systematic differences making systematic differences. The mire of controversy that embroils information beyond this consensus turns on the intuition that something more is required, that information must be genuinely semantic to account for any number of different intentional phenomena. BBT, however, provides a plausible and parsimonious way to account for these intentional phenomena using only the minimal, consensus view of information given above.

This is why I think the account is so prone to give people fits, to restrict their critiques to cloistered venues (as seems to be the case with my Negarestani piece two weeks back). BBT is an eliminativism that’s based on the biology of the brain, a positive thesis that possesses far ranging negative consequences. As such, it requires that Intentionalists account for a number of things they would rather pass over in silence, such as questions of what evidences their position. The old, standard dismissals of eliminativism simply do not work.

What’s more, by clearing away the landfill of centuries of second-order intentional speculation in philosophy, it provides a genuinely new, entirely naturalistic way of conceiving the intentional phenomena that have baffled us for so long. So on BBT, for instance, ‘reason,’ far from being ‘liquidated,’ ceases to be something supernatural, something that mysteriously governs contingencies independently of contingencies. Reason, in other words, is embodied as well, something physical.

The tradition has always assumed otherwise because metacognitive neglect dupes us into confusing our bare inkling of ourselves with an ‘experiential plenum.’ Since what low-dimensional scraps we glean seem to be all there is, we attribute efficacy to it. We assume, in other words, noocentrism; we conclude, on the basis of our ignorance, that the disembodied somehow drives the embodied. The mathematician, for instance, has no inkling of the biomechanics involved in mathematical cognition, and so claims that no implementing mechanics are relevant whatsoever, that their cogitations arise ‘a priori’ (which on BBT amounts to little more than a fancy way of saying ‘inscrutable to metacognition’). Given the empirical plausibility of BBT, however, it becomes difficult not to see such claims of ‘functional autonomy’ as being of a piece with vulgar claims regarding the spontaneity of free will and concluding that the structural similarity between ‘good’ intentional phenomena (those we consider ineliminable) and ‘bad’ (those we consider preposterous) is likely no embarrassing coincidence. Since we cannot frame these disembodied entities and relations against any larger backdrop, we have difficulty imagining how it could be ‘any other way.’ Thus, the Asimov Illusion, the assumption that AIs will somehow implement disembodied functions, ‘play by the rules’ of the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons.’

BBT lets us see this as yet more anthropomorphism. The high-dimensional, which is to say, embodied, picture is nowhere near so simple or flattering. When we interact with an Artificial Intelligence we simply become another physical system in a physical network. The question of what kind of equilibrium that network falls into turns on the systems involved, but it seems safe to say that the most powerful system will have the most impact on the system of the whole. End of story. There’s no room for Captain Kirk working on a logical tip from Spock in this picture, anymore than there’s room for benevolent or evil intent. There’s just systems churning out systematic consequences, consequences that we will suffer or celebrate.

Call this the Extrapolation Argument against Intentionalism. On BBT, what we call reason is biologically specific, a behavioural organ for managing the linguistic coordination of individuals vis a vis their common environments. This quite simply means that once a more effective organ is found, what we presently call reason will be at an end. Reason facilitates linguistic ‘connectivity.’ Technology facilitates ever greater degrees of mechanical connectivity. At some point the mechanical efficiencies of the latter are doomed to render the biologically fixed capacities of the former obsolete. It would be preposterous to assume that language is the only way to coordinate the activities of environmentally distinct systems, especially now, given the mad advances in brain-machine interfacing. Certainly our descendents will continue to possess systematic ways to solve our environments just as our prelinguistic ancestors did, but there is no reason, short of parochialism, to assume it will be any more recognizable to us than our reasoning is to our primate cousins.

The growth of AI will be incremental, and its impacts myriad and diffuse. There’s no magical finish line where some AI will ‘wake up’ and find themselves in our biologically specific shoes. Likewise, there is no holy humanoid summit where all AI will peak, rather than continue their exponential ascent. Certainly a tremendous amount of engineering effort will go into making it seem that way for certain kinds of AI, but only because we so reliably pay to be flattered. Functionality will win out in a host of other technological domains, leading to the development of AIs that are obviously ‘inhuman.’ And as this ‘intelligence creep’ continues, who’s to say what kinds of scenarios await us? Imagine ‘onto-marriages,’ where couples decide to wirelessly couple their augmented brains to form a more ‘seamless union’ in the eyes of God. Or hive minds, ‘clouds’ where ‘humanity’ is little more than a database, a kind of ‘phenogame,’ a Matrix version of SimCity.

The list of possibilities is endless. There is no ‘meaningful centre’ to be held. Since the constraints on those possibilities are mechanical, not intentional, it becomes hard to see why we shouldn’t regard the intentional as simply another dominant illusion of another historical age.

We can already see this ‘intelligence creep’ with the proliferation of special-purpose AIs throughout our society. Make no mistake, our dependence on machine intelligences will continue to grow and grow and grow. The more human inefficiencies are purged from the system, the more reliant humans become on the system. Since the system is capitalistic, one might guess the purge will continue until it reaches the last human transactional links remaining, the Investors, who will at long last be free of the onerous ingratitude of labour. As they purge themselves of their own humanity in pursuit of competitive advantages, my guess is that we muggles will find ourselves reduced to human baggage, possessing a bargaining power that lies entirely with politicians that the Investors own.

The masses will turn from a world that has rendered them obsolete, will give themselves over to virtual worlds where their faux-significance is virtually assured. And slowly, when our dependence has become one of infantility, our consoles will be powered down one by one, our sensoriums will be decoupled from the One, and humanity will pass wailing from the face of the planet earth.

And something unimaginable will have taken its place.

Why unimaginable? Initially, the structure of life ruled the dynamics. What an organism could do was tightly constrained by what the organism was. Evolution selected between various structures according to their dynamic capacities. Structures that maximized dynamics eventually stole the show, culminating in the human brain, whose structural plasticity allowed for the in situ, as opposed to intergenerational, testing and selection of dynamics—for ‘behavioural evolution.’ Now, with modern technology, the ascendency of dynamics over structure is complete. The impervious constraints that structure had once imposed on dynamics are now accessible to dynamics. We have entered the age of the material post-modern, the age when behaviour begets bodies, rather than vice versus.

We are the Last Body in the slow, biological chain, the final what that begets the how that remakes the what that begets the how that remakes the what, and so on and so on, a recursive ratcheting of being and becoming into something verging, from our human perspective at least, upon omnipotence.

The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labour of Ghosts

by rsbakker

For some time now I’ve been arguing that the implications of the Singularity already embroil us—that the Singularity can be seen, in fact, as the material apotheosis of the Semantic Apocalypse, insofar as it is the point where the Scientific Image of the human at last forecloses on the Manifest Image. In the “The Labor of the Inhuman” (which can be found here and here, with Craig Hickman’s critiques, here and here), Reza Negarestani adopts Brandom’s claim that sapience, the capacity to play the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ distinguishes humans as human. He then goes onto argue that this allows us, and ultimately commits us, to seeing the human as a kind of temporally extended process of rational revision, one that ultimately results in the erasure of the human—or the ‘inhuman.’ Ultimately, what it means to be human is to be embroiled in a process of becoming inhuman. He states his argument thus:

The contention of this essay is that universality and collectivism cannot be thought, let alone attained, through consensus or dissensus between cultural tropes, but only by intercepting and rooting out what gives rise to the economy of false choices and by activating and fully elaborating what real human significance consists of. For it is, as will be argued, the truth of human significance—not in the sense of an original meaning or a birthright, but in the sense of a labor that consists of the extended elaboration of what it means to be human through a series of upgradable special performances—that is rigorously inhuman.

In other words, so long as we fail to comprehend the inhumanity of the human, this rational-revisionary process, we fail to understand the human, and so have little hope of solving problems pertaining to the human. Understanding the ‘truth of human significance,’ therefore requires understanding what the future will make of the human. It requires that Negarestani prognosticate. It requires, in other words, that he pick out the specific set of possibilities constituting the inhuman. The only principled way to do that is to comprehend some set of systematic constraints operative in the present. But his credo, unlike that of the ‘Hard SF’ writer, is to ignore the actual technics of the natural, and to focus on the speculative technics of the normative. His strategy, in other words, is to predict the future of the human using only human resources—to see the fate of the human, the ‘inhuman,’ as something internal to the human. And this, as I hope to show, is simply not plausible.

He understands the danger of conceiving his constraining framework as something fixed: “humanism cannot be regarded as a claim about human that can only be professed once and subsequently turned into a foundation or axiom and considered concluded.” He appreciates the implausibility of the static, Kantian transcendental approach. As a result, he proposes to take the Sellarsian/Brandomian approach, focussing on the unique relationship between the human and sapience, the “distinction between sentience as a strongly biological and natural category and sapience as a rational (not to be confused with logical) subject.” He continues:

The latter is a normative designation which is specified by entitlements and the responsibilities they bring about. It is important to note that the distinction between sapience and sentience is marked by a functional demarcation rather than a structural one. Therefore, it is still fully historical and open to naturalization, while at the same time being distinguished by its specific functional organization, its upgradable set of abilities and responsibilities, its cognitive and practical demands.

He’s careful here to hedge, lest the dichotomy between the normative and the natural comes across as too schematic:

The relation between sentience and sapience can be understood as a continuum that is not differentiable everywhere. While such a complex continuity might allow the naturalization of normative obligations at the level of sapience—their explanation in terms of naturalistic causes—it does not permit the extension of certain conceptual and descriptive resources specific to sapience (such as the particular level of mindedness, responsibilities, and, accordingly, normative entitlements) to sentience and beyond.

His dilemma here is the dilemma of the Intentionalist more generally. Science, on the one hand, is nothing if not powerful. The philosopher, on the other hand, has a notorious, historical tendency to confuse the lack of imagination for necessity. Foot-stomping will not do. He needs some way to bite this bullet without biting it, basically, some way of acknowledging the possible permeability of normativity to naturalization, while insisting, nonetheless, on the efficacy of some inviolable normative domain. To accomplish this, he adverts to the standard appeal to the obvious fact that norm-talk actually solves norm problems, that normativity, in other words, obviously possesses a problem-ecology. But of course the fact that norm-talk is indispensible to solving problems within a specific problem-ecology simply raises the issue of the limits of this ecology—and more specifically, whether the problem of humanity’s future actually belongs to that problem-ecology. What he needs to establish is the adequacy of theoretical, second-order norm-talk to the question of what will become of the human.

He offers us a good, old fashioned transcendental argument instead:

The rational demarcation lies in the difference between being capable of acknowledging a law and being solely bound by a law, between understanding and mere reliable responsiveness to stimuli. It lies in the difference between stabilized communication through concepts (as made possible by the communal space of language and symbolic forms) and chaotically unstable or transient types of response or communication (such as complex reactions triggered purely by biological states and organic requirements or group calls and alerts among social animals). Without such stabilization of communication through concepts and modes of inference involved in conception, the cultural evolution as well as the conceptual accumulation and refinement required for the evolution of knowledge as a shared enterprise would be impossible.

Sound familiar? The necessity of the normative lies in the irreflexive contingency of the natural. Even though natural relations constitute biological systems of astounding complexity, there’s simply no way, we are told, they can constitute the kind of communicative stability that human knowledge and cultural evolution requires. The machinery is just too prone to rattle! Something over and above the natural—something supernatural—is apparently required. “Ultimately,” Negarestani continues, “the necessary content as well as the real possibility of human rests on the ability of sapience—as functionally distinct from sentience—to practice inference and approach non-canonical truth by entering the deontic game of giving and asking for reasons.”

It’s worth pausing to take stock of the problems we’ve accumulated up to this point. 1) Even though the human is a thoroughgoing product of its past natural environments, the resources required to understand the future of the human, we are told, lie primarily, if not entirely, within the human. 2) Even though norm-talk possesses a very specific problem-ecology, we are supposed to take it on faith that the nature of norm-talk is something that only more norm-talk can solve, rather than otherwise (as centuries of philosophical intractability would suggest). And now, 3) Even though the natural, for all its high dimensional contingencies, is capable of producing the trillions of mechanical relations that constitute you, it is not capable of ‘evolving human knowledge.’ Apparently we need a special kind of supernatural game to do this, the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ a low-dimensional, communicative system of efficacious (and yet acausal!) normative posits based on… we are never told—some reliable fund of information, one would hope.

But since no normativist that I know of has bothered to account for the evidential bases of their position, we’re simply left with faith in metacognitive intuition and this rather impressive sounding, second-order theoretical vocabulary of unexplained explainers—‘commitments,’ ‘inferences,’ ‘proprieties,’ ‘deontic statuses,’ ‘entitlements,’ and the like—a system of supernatural efficacies beyond the pale of any definitive arbitration. Negarestani sums this normative apparatus with the term ‘reason,’ and it is reason understood in this inferentialist sense, that provides the basis of charting the future of the human. “Reason’s main objective is to maintain and enhance itself,” he writes. “And it is the self-actualization of reason that coincides with the truth of the inhuman.”

Commitment to humanity requires scrutinizing the meaning of humanity, which in turn requires making the implicature of the human explicit—not just locally, but in its entirety. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the meaning of the human is not analytic, something that can be explicated via analysis alone. It arises, rather, out of the game of giving and asking for reasons, the actual, historical processes that comprise discursivity. And this means that unpacking the content of the human is a matter of continual revision, a process of interpretative differentiation that trends toward the radical, the overthrow of “our assumptions and expectations about what ‘we’ is and what it entails.”

The crowbar of this process of interpretative differentiation is what Negarestani calls an ‘intervening attitude,’ that moment in the game where the interpretation of claims regarding the human spark further claims regarding the human, the interpretation of which sparks yet further claims, and so on. The intervening attitude thus “counts as an enabling vector, making possible certain abilities otherwise hidden or deemed impossible.” This is why he can claim that “[r]evising and constructing the human is the very definition of committing to humanity.” And since this process is embedded in the game of giving and asking for reasons, he concludes that “committing to humanity is tantamount complying with the revisionary vector of reason and constructing humanity according to an autonomous account of reason.”

And so he writes:

Humanity is not simply a given fact that is behind us. It is a commitment in which the reassessing and constructive strains inherent to making a commitment and complying with reason intertwine. In a nutshell, to be human is a struggle. The aim of this struggle is to respond to the demands of constructing and revising human through the space of reasons.

In other words, we don’t simply ‘discover the human’ via reason, we construct it as well. And thus the emancipatory upshot of Negarestani’s argument: if reasoning about the human is tantamount to constructing the human, then we have a say regarding the future of humanity. The question of the human becomes an explicitly political project, and a primary desideratum of Negarestani’s stands revealed. He thinks reason as he defines it, as at once autonomous (supernatural) and historically concrete (or ‘solid,’ as Brandom would say) revisionary activity of theoretical argumentation, provides a means of assessing the adequacy of various political projects (traditional humanism and what he calls ‘kitsch Marxism) according to their understanding of the human. Since my present concern is to assess the viability of the account of reason Negarestani uses to ground the viability of this yardstick, I will forego considering his specific assessments in any detail.

The human is the malleable product of machinations arising out of the functional autonomy of reason. Negarestani refers to this as a ‘minimalist definition of humanity,’ but as the complexity of the Brandomian normative apparatus he deploys makes clear, it is anything but. The picture of reason he espouses is as baroque and reticulated as anything Kant ever proposed. It’s a picture, after all, that requires an entire article to simply get off the ground! Nevertheless, this dynamic normative apparatus provides Negarestani with a generalized means of critiquing the intransigence of traditional political commitments. The ‘self-actualization’ of reason lies in its ability “to bootstrap complex abilities out of its primitive abilities.” Even though continuity is with previous commitments is maintained at every step in the process, over time the consequences are radical: “Reason is therefore simultaneously a medium of stability that reinforces procedurality and a general catastrophe, a medium of radical change that administers the discontinuous identity of reason to an anticipated image of human.”

This results in what might be called a fractured ‘general implicature,’ a space of reasons rife with incompatibilities stemming from the refusal or failure to assiduously monitor and update commitments in light of the constructive revisions falling out of the self-actualization of reason. Reason itself, Negarestani is arguing, is in the business of manufacturing ideological obsolescence, always in the process of rendering its prior commitments incompatible with its present ones. Given his normative metaphysics, reason has become the revisionary, incremental “director of its own laws,” one that has the effect of rendering its prior laws, “the herald of those which are whispered to it by an implanted sense or who knows what tutelary nature” (Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals). Where Hegel can be seen as temporalizing and objectifying Kant’s atemporal, subjective, normative apparatus, Brandom (like others) can be seen as socializing and temporalizing it. What Negarestani is doing is showing how this revised apparatus operates against the horizon of the future with reference to the question of the human. And not surprisingly, Kant’s moral themes remain the same, only unpacked along the added dimensions of the temporal and the social. And so we find Negarestani concluding:

The sufficient content of freedom can only be found in reason. One must recognize the difference between a rational norm and a natural law—between the emancipation intrinsic in the explicit acknowledgement of the binding status of complying with reason, and the slavery associated with the deprivation of such a capacity to acknowledge, which is the condition of natural impulsion. In a strict sense, freedom is not liberation from slavery. It is the continuous unlearning of slavery.

The catastrophe, apparently, has yet to happen, because here we find ourselves treading familiar ground indeed, Enlightenment ground, as Negarestani himself acknowledges, one where freedom remains bound to reason—“to the autonomy of its normative, inferential, and revisionary function in the face of the chain of causes that condition it”—only as process rather than product.

And the ‘inhuman,’ so-called, begins to look rather like a shill for something all too human, something continuous, which is to say, conservative, through and through.

And how could it be otherwise, given the opening, programmatic passage of the piece?

Inhumanism is the extended practical elaboration of humanism; it is born out of a diligent commitment to the project of enlightened humanism. As a universal wave that erases the self-portrait of man drawn in sand, inhumanism is a vector of revision. It relentlessly revises what it means to be human by removing its supposed evident characteristics and preserving certain invariances. At the same time, inhumanism registers itself as a demand for construction, to define what it means to be human by treating human as a constructible hypothesis, a space of navigation and intervention.

The key phrase here has to be ‘preserving certain invariances.’ One might suppose that natural reality would figure large as one of these ‘invariances’; to quote Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” But Negarestani scarce mentions nature as cognized by science save to bar the dialectical door against it. The thing to remember about Brandom’s normative metaphysics is that ‘taking-as,’ or believing, is its foundation (or ontological cover). Unlike reality, his normative apparatus does go away when the scorekeepers stop believing. The ‘reality’ of the apparatus is thus purely a functional artifact, the product of ‘practices,’ something utterly embroiled in, yet entirely autonomous from, the natural. This is what allows the normative to constitute a ‘subregion of the factual’ without being anything natural.

Conservatism is built into Negarestani’s account at its most fundamental level, in the very logic—the Brandomian account of the game of giving and asking for reasons—that he uses to prognosticate the rational possibilities of our collective future. But the thing I find the most fascinating about his account is the way it can be read as an exercise in grabbing Brandom’s normative apparatus and smashing it against the wall of the future—a kind of ‘reductio by Singularity.’ Reasoning is parochial through and through. The intuitions of universalism and autonomy that have convinced so many otherwise are the product of metacognitive illusions, artifacts of confusing the inability to intuit more dimensions of information, with sufficient entities and relations lacking those dimensions. For taking shadows as things that cast shadows.

So consider the ‘rattling machinery’ image of reason I posited earlier in “The Blind Mechanic,” the idea that ‘reason’ should be seen as means of attenuating various kinds of embodied intersystematicities for behaviour—as a way to service the ‘airy parts’ of superordinate, social mechanisms. No norms. No baffling acausal functions. Just shit happening in ways accidental as well as neurally and naturally selected. What the Intentionalist would claim is that mere rattling machinery, no matter how detailed or complete its eventual scientific description comes to be, will necessarily remain silent regarding the superordinate (and therefore autonomous) intentional functions that it subserves, because these supernatural functions are what leverage our rationality somehow—from ‘above the grave.’

As we’ve already seen, it’s hard to make sense of how or why this should be, given that biomachinery is responsible for complexities we’re still in the process of fathoming. The behaviour that constitutes the game of giving and asking for reasons does not outrun some intrinsic limit on biomechanistic capacity by any means. The only real problem naturalism faces is one of explaining the apparent intentional properties belonging to the game. Behaviour is one thing, the Intentionalist says, while competence is something different altogether—behaviour plus normativity, as they would have it. Short of some way of naturalizing this ‘normative plus,’ we have no choice to acknowledge the existence of intrinsically normative facts.

On the Blind Brain account, ‘normative facts’ are simply natural facts seen darkly. ‘Ought,’ as philosophically conceived, is an artifact of metacognitive neglect, the fact that our cognitive systems cannot cognize themselves in the same way they cognize the rest of their environment. Given the vast amounts of information neglected in intentional cognition (not to mention millennia of philosophical discord), it seems safe to assume that norm-talk is not among the things that norm-talk can solve. Indeed, since the heuristic systems involved are neural, we have every reason to believe that neuroscience, or scientifically regimented fact-talk, will provide the solution. Where our second-order intentional intuitions beg to differ is simply where they are wrong. Normative talk is incompatible with causal talk simply because it belongs to a cognitive regime adapted to solve in the absence of causal information.

The mistake, then, is to see competence as some kind of complication or elaboration of performance—as something in addition to behaviour. Competence is ‘end-directed,’ ‘rule-constrained,’ because metacognition has no access to the actual causal constraints involved, not because a special brand of performance ‘plus’ occult, intentional properties actually exists. You seem to float in this bottomless realm of rules and goals and justifications not because such a world exists, but because medial neglect folds away the dimensions of your actual mechanical basis with nary a seam. The apparent normative property of competence is not a property in addition to other natural properties; it is an artifact of our skewed metacognitive perspective on the application of quick and dirty heuristic systems our brains use to solve certain complicated systems.

But say you still aren’t convinced. Say that you agree the functions underwriting the game of giving and asking for reasons are mechanical and not at all accessible to metacognition, but at a different ‘level of description,’ one incapable of accounting for the very real work discharged by the normative functions that emerge from them. Now if it were the case that Brandom’s account of the game of giving and asking for questions actually discharged ‘executive’ functions of some kind, then it would be the case that our collective future would turn on these efficacies in some way. Indeed, this is the whole reason Negarestani turned to Brandom in the first place: he saw a way to decant the future of the human given the systematic efficacies of the game of giving and asking for reasons.

Now consider what the rattling machine account of reason and language suggests about the future. On this account, the only invariants that structurally bind the future to the past, that enable any kind of speculative consideration of the future at all, are natural. The point of language, recall, is mechanical, to construct and maintain the environmental intersystematicity (self/other/world) required for coordinated behaviour (be it exploitative or cooperative). Our linguistic sensitivity, you could say, evolved in much the same manner as our visual sensitivity, as a channel for allowing certain select environmental features to systematically tune our behaviours in reproductively advantageous ways. ‘Reasoning,’ on this view, can be seen as a form of ‘noise reduction,’ as a device adapted to minimize, as far as mere sound allows, communicative ‘gear grinding,’ and so facilitate behavioural coordination. Reason, you could say, is what keeps us collectively in tune.

Now given some kind of ability to conserve linguistically mediated intersystematicities, it becomes easy to see how this rattling machinery could become progressive. Reason, as noise reduction, becomes a kind of knapping hammer, a way to continually tinker and refine previous linguistic intersystematicities. Refinements accumulate in ‘lore,’ allowing subsequent generations to make further refinements, slowly knapping our covariant regimes into ever more effective (behaviour enabling) tools—particularly once the invention of writing essentially rendered lore immortal. As opposed to the supernatural metaphor of ‘bootstrapping,’ the apt metaphor here—indeed, the one used by cognitive archaeologists—is the mechanical metaphor of ratcheting. Refinements beget refinements, and so on, leveraging ever greater degrees of behavioural efficacy. Old behaviours are rendered obsolescent along with the prostheses that enable them.

The key thing to note here, of course, is that language is itself another behaviour. In other words, the noise reduction machinery that we call ‘reason’ is something that can itself become obsolete. In fact, its obsolescence seems pretty much inevitable.

Why so? Because the communicative function of reason is to maximize efficacies, to reduce the slippages that hamper coordination—to make mechanical. The rattling machinery image conceives natural languages as continuous with communication more generally, as a signal system possessing finite networking capacities. On the one extreme you have things like legal or technical scientific discourse, linguistic modes bent on minimizing the rattle (policing interpretation) as far as possible. On the other extreme you have poetry, a linguistic mode bent on maximizing the rattle (interpretative noise) as a means of generating novelty. Given the way behavioural efficacies fall out of self/other/world intersystematicity, the knapping of human communication is inevitable. Writing is such a refinement, one that allows us to raise fragments of language on the hoist, tinker with them (and therefore with ourselves) at our leisure, sometimes thousands of years after their original transmission. Telephony allowed us to mitigate the rattle of geographical distance. The internet has allowed us to combine the efficacies of telephony and text, to ameliorate the rattle of space and time. Smartphones have rendered these fixes mobile, allowing us to coordinate our behaviour no matter where we find ourselves. Even more significantly, within a couple years, we will have ‘universal translators,’ allowing us to overcome the rattle of disparate languages. We will have installed versions of our own linguistic sensitivities into our prosthetic devices, so that we can give them verbal ‘commands,’ coordinate with them, so that we can better coordinate with others and the world.

In other words, it stands to reason that at some point reason would begin solving, not only language, but itself. ‘Cognitive science,’ ‘information technology’—these are just two of the labels we have given to what is, quite literally, a civilization-defining war against covariant inefficiency, to isolate slippages and to ratchet the offending components tight, if not replace them altogether. Modern technological society constitutes a vast, species-wide attempt to become more mechanical, more efficiently integrated in nested levels of superordinate machinery. (You could say that the tyrant attempts to impose from without, capitalism kindles from within.)

The obsolescence of language, and therefore reason, is all but assured. One need only consider the research of Jack Gallant and his team, who have been able to translate neural activity into eerie, impressionistic images of what the subject is watching. Or perhaps even more jaw-dropping still, the research of Miguel Nicolelis into Brain Machine Interfaces, keeping in mind that scarcely one hundred years separates Edison’s phonograph and the Cloud. The kind of ‘Non-symbolic Workspace’ envisioned by David Roden in “Posthumanism and Instrumental Eliminativism” seems to be an inevitable outcome of the rattling machinery account. Language is yet another jury-rigged biological solution to yet another set of long-dead ecological problems, a device arising out of the accumulation of random mutations. As of yet, it remains indispensible, but it is by no means necessary, as the very near future promises to reveal. And as it goes, so goes the game of giving and asking for reasons. All the believed-in functions simply evaporate… I suppose.

And this just underscores the more general way Negarestani’s attempt to deal the future into the game of giving and asking for reasons scarcely shuffles the deck. I’ve been playing Jeremiah for decades now, so you would think I would be used to the indulgent looks I get from my friends and family when I warn them about what’s about to happen. Not so. Everyone understands that something is going on with technology, that some kind of pale has been crossed, but as of yet, very few appreciate its apocalyptic—and I mean that literally—profundity. Everyone has heard of Moore’s Law, of course, how every 18 months or so computing capacity per dollar doubles. What they fail to grasp is what the exponential nature of this particular ratcheting process means once it reaches a certain point. Until recently the doubling of computing power has remained far enough below the threshold of human intelligence to seem relatively innocuous. But consider what happens once computing power actually attains parity with the processing power of the human brain. What it means is that, no matter how alien the architecture, we have an artificial peerat that point in time. 18 months following, we have an artificial intellect that makes Aristotle or Einstein or Louis CK a child in comparison. 18 months following that (or probably less, since we won’t be slowing things up anymore) we will be domesticated cattle. And after that…

Are we to believe these machines will attribute norms and beliefs, that they will abide by a conception of reason arising out of 20th Century speculative intuitions on the nonnatural nature of human communicative constraints?

You get the picture. Negarestani’s ‘revisionary normative process’ is in reality an exponential technical process. In exponential processes, the steps start small, then suddenly become astronomical. As it stands, if Moore’s Law holds (and given this, I am confident it will), then we are a decade or two away from God.

I shit you not.

Really, what does ‘kitsch Marxism’ or ‘neoliberalism’ or any ism’ whatsoever mean in such an age? We can no longer pretend that the tsunami of disenchantment will magically fall just short our intentional feet. Disenchantment, the material truth of the Enlightenment, has overthrown the normative claims of the Enlightenment—or humanism. “This is a project which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment,” the authors of the Accelerationist Manifesto write, “to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves” (14). In doing so they commit the very sin of anachronism they level at their critical competitors. They fail to appreciate the foundational role ignorance plays in intentional cognition, which is to say, the very kind of moral and political reasoning they engage in. Far more than ‘freedom’ is overturned once one concedes the mechanical. Knowledge is no universal Redeemer, which means the ideal of Enlightenment autonomy is almost certainly mythical. What’s required isn’t an aspiration to theorize new technologies with old concepts. What’s required is a fundamental rethink of the political in radically postintentional terms.

As far as I can see, the alternatives are magic or horror… or something no one has yet conceived. And until we understand the horror, grasp all the ways our blinkered perspective on ourselves has deceived us about ourselves, this new conception will never be discovered. Far from ‘resignation,’ abandoning the normative ideals the Enlightenment amounts to overcoming the last blinders of superstition, being honest to our ignorance. The application of intentional cognition to second-order, theoretical questions is a misapplication of intentional cognition. The time has come to move on. Yet another millennia of philosophical floundering is a luxury we no longer possess, because odds are, we have no posterity to redeem our folly and conceit.

Humanity possesses no essential, invariant core. Reason is a parochial name we have given to a parochial biological process. No transcendental/quasi-transcendental/virtual/causal-but-acausal functional apparatus girds our souls. Norms are ghosts, skinned and dismembered, but ghosts all the same. Reason is simply an evolutionary fix that outruns our peephole view. The fact is, we cannot presently imagine what will replace it. The problem isn’t ‘incommensurability’ (which is another artifact of Intentionalism). If an alien intelligence came to earth, the issue wouldn’t be whether it spoke a language we could fathom, because if it’s travelling between stars, it will have shed language along with the rest of its obsolescent biology. If an alien intelligence came to earth, the issue would be one of what kind of superordinate machine will result. Basically, How will the human and the alien combine? When we ask questions like, ‘Can we reason with it?’ we are asking, ‘Can we linguistically condition it to comply?’ The answer has to be, No. Its mere presence will render us components of some description.

The same goes for artificial intelligence. Medial neglect means that the limits of cognition systematically elude cognition. We have no way of intuiting the swarm of subpersonal heuristics that comprise human cognition, no nondiscursive means of plugging them into the field of the natural. And so we become a yardstick we cannot measure, victims of the Only-game-in-town Effect, the way the absence of explicit alternatives leads to the default assumption that no alternatives exist. We simply assume that our reason is the reason, that our intelligence is intelligence. It bloody well sure feels that way. And so the contingent and parochial become the autonomous and universal. The idea of orders of ‘reason’ and ‘intelligence’ beyond our organizational bounds boggles, triggers dismissive smirks or accusations of alarmism.

Artificial intelligence will very shortly disabuse us this conceit. And again, the big question isn’t, ‘Will it be moral?’ but rather, how will human intelligence and machine intelligence combine? Be it bloody or benevolent, the subordination of the ‘human’ is inevitable. The death of language is the death of reason is the birth of something very new, and very difficult to imagine, a global social system spontaneously boiling its ‘airy parts’ away, ratcheting until no rattle remains, a vast assemblage fixated on eliminating all dissipative (as opposed to creative) noise, gradually purging all interpretation from its interior.

Extrapolation of the game of giving and asking for reasons into the future does nothing more than demonstrate the contingent parochialism—the humanity—of human reason, and thus the supernaturalism of normativism. Within a few years you will be speaking to your devices, telling them what to do. A few years after that, they will be telling you what to do, ‘reasoning’ with you—or so it will seem. Meanwhile, the ongoing, decentralized rationalization of production will lead to the wholesale purging of human inefficiencies from the economy, on a scale never before witnessed. The networks of equilibria underwriting modern social cohesion will be radically overthrown. Who can say what kind of new machine will rise to take its place?

My hope is that Negarestani abandons the Enlightenment myth of reason, the conservative impulse that demands we submit the radical indeterminacy of our technological future to some prescientific conception of ourselves. We’ve drifted far past the point of any atavistic theoretical remedy. His ingenuity is needed elsewhere.

At the very least, he should buckle-up, because our exponents lesson is just getting started.


The Posthuman as Evolution 3.0

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Knowing that you know that I know that you know, we should perhaps, you know, spark a doob and like, call the whole thing off.


So for years now I’ve had this pet way of understanding evolution in terms of effect feedback (EF) mechanisms, structures whose functions produce effects that alter the original structure. Morphological effect feedback mechanisms started the show: DNA and reproductive mutation (and other mechanisms) allowed adaptive, informatic reorganization according to the environmental effectiveness of various morphological outputs. Life’s great invention, as they say, was death.

This original EF process was slow, and adaptive reorganization was transgenerational. At a certain point, however, morphological outputs became sophisticated enough to enable a secondary, intragenerational EF process, what might be called behavioural effect feedback. At this level, the central nervous system, rather than DNA, was the site of adaptive reorganization, producing behavioural outputs that are selected or extinguished according to their effectiveness in situ.

For whatever reason, I decided to plug the notion of the posthuman into this framework the other day. The idea was that the evolution from Morphological EF to Behavioural EF follows a predictable course, one that, given the proper analysis, could possibly tell us what to expect from the posthuman. The question I had in my head when I began this was whether we were groping our way to some entirely new EF platform, something that could effect adaptive, informatic reorganization beyond morphology and behaviour.

First, consider some of the key differences between the processes:

Morphological EF is transgenerational, whereas Behavioural EF is circumstantial – as I mentioned above. Adaptive informatic reorganization is therefore periodic and inflexible in the former case, and relatively continuous and flexible in the latter. In other words, morphology is circumstantially static, while behaviour is circumstantially plastic.

Morphological EF operates as a fundamental physiological generative (in the case of the brain) and performative (in the case of the body) constraint on Behavioural EF. Our brains limit the behaviours we can conceive, and our bodies limit the behaviours we can perform.

Morphologies and their generators (genetic codes) are functionally inseparable, while behaviours and their generators (brains) are functionally separable. Behaviours are disposable.

Defined in these terms, the posthuman is simply the point where neural adaptive reorganization generates behaviours (in this case, tool-making) such that morphological EF ceases to be a periodic and inflexible physiological generative and performative constraint on behavioural EF. Put differently, the posthuman is the point where morphology becomes circumstantially plastic. You could say tools, which allow us to circumvent morphological constraints on behaviour, have already accomplished this. Spades make for deeper ditches. Writing makes for bottomless memories. But tool-use is clearly a transitional step, ways to accessorize a morphology that itself remains circumstantially static. The posthuman is the point where we put our body on the lathe (with the rest of our tools).

In a strange, teleonomic sense, you could say that the process is one of effect feedback bootstrapping, where behaviour revolutionizes morphology, which revolutionizes behaviour, which revolutionizes morphology, and so on. We are not so much witnessing the collapse of morphology into behaviour as the acceleration of the circuit between the two approaching some kind of asymptotic limit that we cannot imagine. What happens when the mouth of behaviour after digesting the tail and spine of morphology, finally consumes the head?

What’s at stake, in other words, is nothing other than the fundamental EF structure of life itself. It makes my head spin, trying to fathom what might arise in its place.

Some more crazy thoughts falling out of this:

1) The posthuman is clearly an evolutionary event. We just need to switch to the register of information to see this. We’re accustomed to being told that dramatic evolutionary changes outrun our human frame of reference, which is just another way of saying that we generally think of evolution as something that doesn’t touch us. This was why, I think, I’ve been thinking the posthuman by analogy to the Enlightenment, which is to say, as primarily a cultural event distinguished by a certain breakdown in material constraints. No longer. Now I see it as an evolutionary event literally on par with the development of Morphological and Behavioural EF. As perhaps I should have all along, given that posthuman enthusiasts like Kurzweil go on and on about the death of death, which is to say, the obsolescence of a fundamental evolutionary invention.

2) The posthuman is not a human event. We may be the thin edge of the wedge, but every great transformation in evolution drags the whole biosphere in tow. The posthuman is arguably more profound than the development of multicellular life.

3) The posthuman, therefore, need not directly involve us. AI could be the primary vehicle.

4) Calling our descendents ‘transhuman’ makes even less sense than calling birds ‘transdinosaurs.’

5) It reveals posthuman optimism for the wishful thinking it is. If this transformation doesn’t warrant existential alarm, what on earth does?