Three Pound Brain

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Tag: Transhumanism

Human Enhancement as Paradigmatic Crash Space

by rsbakker

Evolutionary Question Mark

A quick apology to all for my blog delinquency of late. The copy-edit of The Great Ordeal represents my last real crack at the book, so I’ve been avoiding the web like the plague.

Eric Schwitzgebel has posted on my “Crash Space” story over at Splintered Minds, explaining why he’s been unable to get the story out of his head. Since I agree with pretty much everything he has to say, I thought it worthwhile augmenting his considerations with a critical point of view. In one sense, “Crash Space” narrativizes what is sometimes called a ‘wisdom of nature argument,’ the notion that enhancing natural systems can only undo the ancient, evolutionary fine-tuning involved in, say, giving us the sociocognitive capacities we happen to possess. As Allen Buchanan (for my money, one of the most lucid combatants in the ‘enhancement wars’) would argue, such arguments rely on what he calls the “extreme connectedness thesis,” which is to say, the mistaken assumption that biological systems are so interdependent that knocking out one irrevocably degrades the capacities of others. As he points out (In Better than Human and elsewhere), nature is replete with modularity (functional self-sufficiencies), redundancy (back up systems), and ‘canalisation’ (roughly, biological robustness), which he thinks, does not so much moot wisdom of nature concerns as block their generalization: enhancements need to be considered on a case by case basis.

Although the Crash Space argument fits the wisdom of nature profile it actually turns on the radically heuristic nature of human sociocognition–something far more specific than any ‘extreme connectedness assumption.’ Heuristic cognition is cognition that neglects information, which is to say, cognition that heavily relies on background invariances–things that can be taken for granted–to generate solutions. Once again, think of the recent Ashley Madison controversy, the way it was so easy to dupe so many men into thinking that real women were looking at their profiles. All the bots needed to do was to hit the right cues, heuristic triggers that, ancestrally at least, reliably meant we were engaging fellow humans.

Human sociocognitive capacities, which leverage cognitive miracles out of an astonishingly small number of cues (think of Sherry Turkle’s work on ‘Darwinian buttons,’ or Deidre Barrett’s on ‘supernormal stimuli’) are so powerful simply because they turn so heavily on background invariances. Allen’s counterargument fails against the Crash Space model, I think, for buying into the very same ‘one size fits all assumption’ he uses to critique bioconservatives like Francis Fukuyama. The more a cognitive system turns on cues, the more it turns on background invariances, the more vulnerable to technological transformation it becomes. The question isn’t ‘how evolution works in general,’ as Buchanan would have it, but how evolution worked in the particular case of human social cognition. The short story, I like to think, gives a vivid hypothetical in vivo look at the consequences of enhancing human cognitive capacities.

And as the Ashley Madison example suggests, the problem likely far outruns the problem of human enhancement.

The Augmentation Paradox

by rsbakker

So, thanks to the great discussion on the ‘Knowledge of Wisdom Paradox,’ here’s a sharper way to characterize the ecological stakes of the posthuman:

The Augmentation Paradox: The more you ‘improve’ some ancestral capacity, the more you degrade all ancestral capacities turning on the ancestral form of that capacity.

It’s not a paradox in the formal sense, of course. Also note that the dependency between ancestral capacities can be a dependency within or between individuals. Imagine a ‘confabulation detector,’ a device that shuts down your verbal reporting system whenever the neural signature of confabulation is detected, effectively freeing you from the dream world we all inhabit, while effectively exiling you from all social activities requiring confabulation (you now trigger ‘linguistic pause’ alerts), and perhaps dooming you to suffer debilitating depression.

It seems to me that something like this has to be floating around somewhere–in debates regarding transhumanism especially. If most all artificial augmentations entail natural degradations, then the question becomes one of what is gained overall. One can imagine, for instance, certain capacities degrading gracefully, while others (like the socio-cognitive capacities of those conned by Ashley Madison bots, for instance) collapsing catastrophically. So the question has to be, What guarantee do we have that augmentations will recoup degradations?

The point being, of course, that we’re not tinkering with cognitive technologies on the ground so much as on the 115th floor. It’s 3.8 billion years down!

Either way, the plausibility of the transhumanist project pretty clearly depends on somehow resolving the Augmentation Paradox in their favour.

Less Human than Human: The Cyborg Fantasy versus the Neuroscientific Real (2012/10/29)

by rsbakker

Since Massimo Pigluicci has reposted Julia Galef’s tepid defense of transhumanism from a couple years back, I thought I would repost the critique I gave last fall, an argument which actually turns Galef’s charge of ‘essentialism’ against transhumanism. Short of some global catastrophe, transhumanism is coming (for those who can afford it, at least) whether we want it to or not. My argument is simply that transhumanists need to recognize that the very values they use to motivate their position are likely among the things our posthuman descendents will leave behind.   


When alien archaeologists sift through the rubble of our society, which public message, out of all those they unearth, will be the far and away most common?

The answer to this question is painfully obvious–when you hear it, that is. Otherwise, it’s one of those things that is almost too obvious to be seen.

Sale… Sale–or some version of it. On sale. For sale. 10% off. 50% off. Bigger savings. Liquidation event!

Or, in other words, more for less.

Consumer society is far too complicated to be captured in any single phrase, but you could argue that no phrase better epitomizes its mangled essence. More for less. More for less. More for less.


Thus the intuitive resonance of “More Human than Human,” the infamous tagline of the Tyrell Corporation, or even ‘transhumanism’ more generally, which has been vigorously rebranding itself the past several months as ‘H+,’ an abbreviation of ‘Humanity plus.’

What I want to do is drop a few rocks into the hungry woodchipper of transhumanist enthusiasm. Transhumanism has no shortage of critics, but given a potent brand and some savvy marketing, it’s hard not to imagine the movement growing by leaps and bounds in the near future. And in all the argument back and forth, no one I know of (with the exception of David Roden, whose book I eagerly anticipate) has really paused to consider what I think is the most important issue of all. So what I want to do is isolate a single, straightforward question, one which the transhumanist has to be able to answer to anchor their claims in anything resembling rational discourse (exuberant discourse is a different story). The idea, quite simply, is to force them to hold the fingers they have crossed plain for everyone to see, because the fact is, the intelligibility of their entire program depends on research that is only just getting under way.

I think I can best sum up my position by quoting the philosopher Andy Clark, one the world’s foremost theorists of consciousness and cognition, who after considering competing visions of our technological future, good and bad, writes, “Which vision will prove the most accurate depends, to some extent, on the technologies themselves, but it depends also–and crucially–upon a sensitive appreciation of our own nature” (Natural-Born Cyborgs, 173). It’s this latter condition, the ‘sensitive appreciation of our own nature,’ that is my concern, if only because this is precisely what I think Clark and just about everyone else fails to do.

First, we need to get clear on just how radical the human future has become. We can talk about the singularity, the transformative potential of nano-bio-info-technology, but it serves to look back as well, to consider what was arguably humanity’s last great break with its past, what I will here call the ‘Old Enlightenment.’ Even though no social historical moment so profound or complicated can be easily summarized, the following opening passage, taken from a 1784 essay called, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” by Immanuel Kant, is the one scholars are most inclined to cite:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of the enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (“An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” 54)

Now how modern is this? For my own part, I can’t count all the sales pitches this resonates with, especially when it comes to that greatest of contradictions, the television commercial. What is Enlightenment? Freedom, Kant says. Autonomy, not from the political apparatus of the state (he was a subject of Frederick the Great, after all), but from the authority of traditional thought–from our ideological inheritance. More new. Less old. New good. Old bad. Or in other words, More better, less worse. The project of the Enlightenment, according to Kant, lies in the maximization of intellectual and moral freedom, which is to say, the repudiation of what we were and an openness to what we might become. Or, as we still habitually refer to it, ‘Progress.’ The Old Enlightenment effectively rebranded humanity as a work in progress, something that could be improved–enhanced–through various forms of social and personal investment. We even have a name for it, nowadays: ‘human capital.’

The transhumanists, in a sense, are offering nothing new in promising the new. And this is more than just ironic. Why? Because even though the Old Enlightenment was much less transformative socially and technologically than the New will almost certainly be, the transhumanists nevertheless assume that it was far more transformative ideologically. They assume, in other words, that the New Enlightenment will be more or less conceptually continuous with the Old. Where the Old Enlightenment offered freedom from our ideological inheritance, but left us trapped in our bodies, the New Enlightenment is offering freedom from our biological inheritance–while leaving our belief systems largely intact. They assume, quite literally, that technology will deliver more of what we want physically, not ideologically.

More better

Of course, everything hinges upon the ‘better,’ here. More is not a good in and of itself. Things like more flooding, more tequila, or more herpes, just for instance, plainly count as more worse (although, if the tequila is Patron, you might argue otherwise). What this means is that the concept of human value plays a profound role in any assessment of our posthuman future. So in the now canonical paper, “Transhumanist Values,” Nick Bostrom, the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, enumerates the principle values of the transhumanist movement, and the reasons why they should be embraced. He even goes so far as to provide a wish list, an inventory of all the ways we can be ‘more human than human’–though he seems to prefer the term ‘enhanced.’ “The limitations of the human mode of being are so pervasive and familiar,” he writes, “that we often fail to notice them, and to question them requires manifesting an almost childlike naiveté.” And so he gives us a shopping list of our various incapacities: lifespan; intellectual capacity; body functionality; sensory modalities, special faculties and sensibilities; mood, energy, and self-control. He characterizes each of these categories as constraints, biological limits that effectively prevent us from reaching our true potential. He even provides a nifty little graph to visualize all that ‘more better’ out there, hanging like ripe fruit in the garden of our future, just waiting to be plucked, if only–as Kant would say–we possess the courage.

As a philosopher, he’s too sophisticated to assume that this biological emancipation will simply spring from the waxed loins of unfettered markets or any such nonsense. He fully expects humanity to be tested by this transformation–”[t]ranshumanism,” as he writes, “does not entail technological optimism”–so he offers transhumanism as a kind of moral beacon, a star that can safely lead us across the tumultuous waters of technological transformation to the land of More-most-better–or as he explicitly calls it elsewhere, Utopia.

And to his credit, he realizes that value itself is in play, such is the profundity of the transformation. But for reasons he never makes entirely clear, he doesn’t see this as a problem. “The conjecture,” he writes, “that there are greater values than we can currently fathom does not imply that values are not defined in terms of our current dispositions.” And so, armed with a mystically irrefutable blanket assertion, he goes on to characterize value itself as a commodity to be amassed: “Transhumanism,” he writes, “promotes the quest to develop further so that we can explore hitherto inaccessible realms of value.”

Now I’ve deliberatively refrained from sarcasm up to this point, even though I think it is entirely deserved, given transhumanism’s troubling ideological tropes and explicit use of commercial advertising practices. You only need watch the OWN channel for five minutes to realize that hope sells. Heaven forbid I inject any anxiety into what is, on any account, an unavoidable, existential impasse. I mean, only the very fate of humanity lies in the balance. It’s not like your netflix is going to be cancelled or anything.

For those unfortunates who’ve read my novel Neuropath, you know that I am nowhere near as sunny about the future as I sound. I think the future, to borrow an acronym from the Second World War, has to be–has to be–FUBAR. Totally and utterly, Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. Now you could argue that transhumanism is at least aware of this possibility. You could even argue, as some Critical Posthumanists (as David Roden classifies them) do, that FUBAR is exactly what we need, given that the present is so incredibly FU. But I think none of these theorists really has a clear grasp of the stakes. (And how could they, when I so clearly do?)

Transhumanism may not, as Nick Bostrom says, entail ‘technological optimism,’ but as I hope to show you, it most definitely entails scientific optimism. Because you see, this is precisely what falls between the cracks in debates on the posthuman: everyone is so interested in what Techno-Santa has in his big fat bag of More-better, that they forget to take a hard look at Techno-Santa, himself, the science that makes all the goodies, from the cosmetic to the apocalyptic, possible. Santa decides what to put in the bag, and as I hope to show you, we have no reason whatsoever to trust the fat bastard. In fact, I think we have good reason to think he’s going to screw us but good.

As you might expect, the word ‘human’ gets bandied about quite a bit in these debates–we are, after all, our own favourite topic of conversation, and who doesn’t adore daydreaming about winning the lottery? And by and large, the term is presented as a kind of given: after all, we are human, and as such, obviously know pretty much all we need to know about what it means to be human–don’t we?

Don’t we?


This is essentially Andy Clark’s take in Natural-born Cyborgs: Given what we now know about human nature, he argues, we should see that our nascent or impending union with our technology is as natural as can be, simply because, in an important sense, we have always been cyborgs, which is to say, at one with our technologies. Clark is a famous proponent of something called the Extended Mind Thesis, and for more than a decade he has argued forcefully that human consciousness is not something confined to our skull, but rather spills out and inheres in the environmental systems that embed the neural. He thinks consciousness is an interactionist phenomena, something that can only be understood in terms of neuro-environmental loops. Since he genuinely believes this, he takes it as a given in his consideration of our cyborg future.

But of course, it is nowhere near a ‘given.’ It isn’t even a scientific controversy: it’s a speculative philosophical opinion. Fascinating, certainly. But worth gambling the future of humanity?

My opinion is equally speculative, equally philosophical–but unlike Clark, I don’t need to assume that it’s true to make my case, only that it’s a viable scientific possibility. Nick Bostrom, of all people, actually explains it best, even though he’s arrogant enough to think he’s arguing for his own emancipatory thesis!

“Further, our human brains may cap our ability to discover philosophical and scientific truths. It is possible that the failure of philosophical research to arrive at solid, generally accepted answers to many of the traditional big philosophical questions could be due to the fact that we are not smart enough to be successful in this kind of enquiry. Our cognitive limitations may be confining us in a Platonic cave, where the best we can do is theorize about “shadows”, that is, representations that are sufficiently oversimplified and dumbed-down to fit inside a human brain.” (“Transhumanist Values”)

Now this is precisely what I think, that our ‘cognitive limitations’ have forced us to make do with ‘shadows,’ ‘oversimplified and dumbed-down’ information, particularly regarding ourselves–which is to say, the human. Since I’ve already quoted the opening passage from Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” it perhaps serves, at this point, to quote the closing passage. Speaking of the importance of civil freedom, Kant concludes: “Eventually it even influences the principles of governments, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man, who is more than a machine, in a manner appropriate to his dignity” (60). Kant, given the science of his day, could still assert a profound distinction between man, the possessor of values, and machine, the possessor of none. Nowadays, however, the black box of the human brain has been cracked open, and the secrets that have come tumbling out would have made Kant shake for terror or fury. Man, we now know, is a machine–that much is simple. The question, and I assure you it is very real, is one of how things like moral dignity–which is to say, things like value–arise from this machine, if at all.

It literally could be the case that value is another one of these ‘shadows,’ an ‘oversimplified’ and ‘dumbed-down’ way to make the complexities of evolutionary effectiveness ‘fit inside a human brain.’ It now seems pretty clear, for instance, that the ‘feeling of willing’ is a biological subreption, a cognitive illusion that turns on our utter blindness to the neural antecedents to our decisions and thoughts. The same seems to be the case with our feeling of certainty. It’s also becoming clear that we only think we have direct access to things like our beliefs and motivations, that, in point of fact, we use the same ‘best guess’ machinery that we use to interpret the behaviour of others to interpret ourselves as well.

The list goes on. But the only thing that’s clear at this point is that we humans are not what we thought we were. We’re something else. Perhaps something else entirely. The great irony of posthuman studies is that you find so many people puzzling and pondering the what, when, and how of our ceasing to be human in the future, when essentially that process is happening now, as we speak. Put in philosophical terms, the ‘posthuman’ could be an epistemological achievement rather than an ontological one. It could be that our descendants will look back and laugh their gearboxes off, the notion of a bunch of soulless robots worrying about the consequences of becoming a bunch of soulless robots.

So here’s the question I would ask Mr. Bostrom: Which human are you talking about? The one you hope that we are, or the one that science will show us to be?

Either way, transhumanism as praxis–as a social movement requiring real-world action like membership drives and market branding, is well and truly ‘forked,’ to use a chess analogy: ‘Better living through science’ cannot be your foundational assumption unless you are willing to seriously consider what science has to say. You don’t get to pick and choose which traditional illusion you get to cling to.

Transhumanism, if you think about it, should be renamed transconfusionism, and rebranded as X+.

In a sense what I’m saying is pretty straightforward: no posthumanism that fails to consider the problem of the human (which is just to say, the problem of meaning and value) is worthy of the name. Such posthumanisms, I think anyway, are little more than wishful thinking, fantasies that pretend otherwise. Why? Because at no time in human history has the nature of the human been more in doubt.

But there has to be more to the picture, doesn’t there? This argument is just too obvious, too straightforward, to have been ‘overlooked’ these past couple decades. Or maybe not.

The fact is, no matter how eloquently I argue, no matter how compelling the evidence I adduce, how striking or disturbing the examples, next to no one in this room is capable of slipping the intuitive noose of who and what they think they are. The seminal American philosopher Wilfred Sellars calls this the Manifest Image, the sticky sense of subjectivity provided by our immediate intuitions–and here’s the thing, no matter what science has to say (let alone a fantasy geek with a morbid fascination with consciousness and cognition). To genuinely think the posthuman requires us to see past our apparent, or manifest, humanity–and this, it turns out, is difficult in the extreme. So, to make my argument stick, I want to leave you with a way of understanding both why my argument is so destructive of transhumanism, and why that destructiveness is nevertheless so difficult to conceive, let alone to believe.

Look at it this way. The explanatory paradigm of the life sciences is mechanistic. Either we humans are machines, or everything from Kreb’s cycle to cell mitosis is magical. This puts the question of human morality and meaning in an explanatory pickle, because, for whatever reason, the concepts belonging to morality and meaning just don’t make sense in mechanistic terms. So either we need to understand how machines like us generate meaning and morality, or we need to understand how machines like us hallucinate meaning and morality.

The former is, without any doubt, the majority position. But the latter, the position that occupies my time, is slowly growing, as is the mountain of counterintuitive findings in the sciences of the mind and brain. I have, quite against my inclination, prepared a handful of images to help you visualize this latter possibility, what I call the Blind Brain Theory.

Imagine we had perfect introspective access, so that each time we reflected on ourselves we were confronted with something like this:

We would see it all, all the wheels and gears behind what William James famously called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of conscious life. Would their be any ‘choice’ in this system? Obviously not, just neural mechanisms picking up where environmental mechanisms have left off. How about ‘desire’? Again, nothing we really could identify as such, given that we would know, in intimate detail, the particulars of the circuits that keep our organism in homeostatic equilibrium with our environments. Well, how about morals, the values that guide us this way and that? Once again, it’s hard to understand what these might be, given that we could, at any moment, inspect the mechanistic regularities that in fact govern our behaviour. So no right or wrong? Well, what would these be? Of course, given the unpredictability of events, the mechanism would malfunction periodically, throw its wife’s work slacks into the dryer, maybe have a tooth or two knocked out of its gears. But this would only provide information regarding the reliability of its systems, not its ‘moral character.’

Now imagine dialling back the information available for introspective access, so that your ability to perfectly discriminate the workings of your brain becomes foggy:

Now imagine a cost-effectiveness expert (named ‘Evolution’) comes in, and tells you that even your foggy but complete access is far, far too expensive: computation costs calories, you know! So he goes through and begins blacking out whole regions of access according to arcane requirements only he is aware of. What’s worse, he’s drunk and stoned, and so there’s a whole haphazard, slap-dash element to the whole procedure, leaving you with something like this:

But of course, this foggy and fractional picture actually presumes that you have direct introspective access to information regarding the absence of information, when this is plainly not the case, and not required, given the rigours of your paleolithic existence. This means, you can no longer intuit the fractional nature of your introspection intuitions, that the far-flung fragments of access you possess actually seem like unified and sufficient wholes, leaving you with:

This impressionistic mess is your baseline. Your mind. But of course, it doesn’t intuitively seem like an impressionistic mess–quite the opposite, in fact. But this is simply because it is your baseline, your only yardstick. I know it seems impossible, but consider, if dreams lacked the contrast of waking life, they would be the baseline for lucidity, coherence, and truth. Likewise, there are degrees of introspective access–degrees of consciousness–that would make what you are experiencing this very moment seem like little more than a pageant of phantasmagorical absurdities.

The more the sciences of the brain discover, the more they are revealing that consciousness and its supposed verities–like value–are confused and fractional. This is the trend. If it persists, then meaning and morality could very well turn out to be artifacts of blindness and neglect–illusions the degree to which they seem whole and sufficient. If meaning and morality are best thought of as hallucinations, then the human, as it has been understood down through the ages, from the construction of Khufu to the first performance of Hamlet to the launch of Sputnik, never existed, and, in a crazy sense, we have been posthuman all along. And the transhuman program as envisioned by the likes of Nick Bostrom becomes little more than a hope founded on a pipedream.

And our future becomes more radically alien than any of us could possibly conceive, let alone imagine.

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.