Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Homelessness and the Transhuman: Some Existential Implications of Cognitive Science

This is another of my guest posts at R. Scott Bakker’s blog. The article's called Homelessness and the Transhuman and here are some highlights:

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….

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 naïve, 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….

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….

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? 

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