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? 

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Meaning of Death

What’s the meaning of death? What’s the role played by death in our existential situation? Is there an escape from the horror of death, at least in our imagination or in a spiritual sense if we live up to certain ideals? I’ll address these questions in what follows.

Death as the Great Equalizer

The horror of death is personal for each of us who prefers not to die, since we’re forced to accept the inevitability of our end and there are different ways of dealing with that knowledge. But the philosophical importance of death as a natural phenomenon transcends any such idiosyncrasy. According to the aphorism, death is the great equalizer, and this tells us the essence of the philosophical problem of death. Death isn’t just the end of each of our worlds, of every individual’s accumulation of memories and experiences, of every personality and living body. Death is the sameness of that end despite the astonishing diversity of living things, including our body types, abilities (swimming, running, flying, digging, and so on), accomplishments, moral qualities, and positions in space and time.

Think of the variety of organisms that have lived on this planet, the trillions of differences between species and between members of those species, and even between the stages of each member’s life as it passes through its life cycle. There are surely more such differences than there are grains of sand, so they are in fact unimaginable: besides the broad differences between dinosaurs, insects, fish, birds, and mammals, no two individual lives are the same. To take an example that’s near and dear to most people, some individuals try to be selfless and decent while others become selfish and cruel. But while the manner of our dying may be just as heterogeneous as our lives, the outcome of those lives is practically identical: all lives end in death. No apparent recognition of our distinguishing features, no necessary continuation of our plans or positions in our social hierarchies, no validation of our efforts. We try to cheat death in two ways: genetically, we pass on part of our essence that outlives us, and socially we influence our families, friends, coworkers, and fellow citizens, and their memories can outlive us. But Death has the last laugh, because it’s not just individuals who die; whole species are extinguished as well, and in fact just as death is inevitable for each individual, so too extinction seems inevitable for each species. 

What, then, is the meaning of death? I think the value of death fixes the value of life. Take an adequate description of any possible or actual organic pattern, no matter how simple or complex, such as a pattern that might be expressed by a convoluted mathematical formula that would fill hundreds of pages were it to be written down. That description is rendered pointless by the uniformity of all of that variety’s result. Tibetan Buddhists illustrate this with their sand mandalas, which are intricate, unique and beautiful geometric patterns built up by coloured grains of sand which the Buddhist ritualistically destroys upon completion. Death is the great equalizer in that our end point is identical whereas our lives are characterized by myriad differences. No matter how unique you are in life, your destination is exactly the same as that of all other living things. Theistic religions maintain that this isn’t so, that our station in life is echoed in eternity, as in Dante’s circles of hell, for example. There’s no good reason to believe in that continuity between biological life and a spiritual afterlife, but the reality of biological death has clearly given most of us reason to hope that life isn't in some ways reducible to death.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Against the Theist’s Nightmare of Hell

Would you be surprised to learn that great multitudes of people still talk seriously about an afterlife of heaven or hell--even after science has demonstrated that the ancient worldviews are replete with superstitions; after humans have been physically up to the heavens and on the moon and haven’t found any gods (or even any super-intelligent aliens); after we’ve come to understand the geological function of volcanoes; and have social scientific knowledge of religions, according to which, for example, the religious metaphor of the divine Judge derives from psychedelic experience and was exploited in the ancient world and in the current Muslim one to justify earthly dominance hierarchies, by implicitly deifying human monarchs?

You shouldn’t be so surprised, for the reason given by Richard Dawkins: preposterous religious memes persist because they’re taught to children who will, for obvious evolutionary reasons, accept and repeat absolutely anything you tell them and then grow up and have to assimilate that early input with what they later more responsibly come to learn about the world, as adults. People who are “born again,” who convert to a religion after a traumatic experience aren’t exceptions to this rule, since the trauma reduces them to childlike, passive receivers of information, which is why even an adult can join the most ludicrous cult. And as I hypothesize elsewhere, the memes originate from the hallucinations reported by those with altered states of consciousness; the vision of hell, in particular, would derive from nightmares.

Given this dynamic, there are two sorts of theists who believe there’s an eternal hell awaiting many of us in the afterlife. First, there’s the unapologetic fire-and-brimstone preacher who sides with the most primitive, literalistic theology, backlashing against modern naturalism. This is the sort of person who stands on a big city street corner and tries to scare modern, educated people with an image of God as a sadistic torturer. In short, this is a child in an adult’s body. Her fiery sermons are literally echoes of the tales implanted in her when she was either too young to know any better or too vulnerable to ask questions. When dodging the saliva emitted by the fundamentalist’s exoteric declarations about the afterlife, you might consider bringing along a pacifier and offering it to that babe in the woods who’s throwing a tantrum.

Then there’s the theist who’s forced as an adult to reconsider her religious lessons because of the perceived force of the chief alternative, science-centered worldview. This sort of theist is embarrassed by the blatant foolishness of espousing ancient ignorance in the midst of so much scientific knowledge and technological power. At the very least, if you’re going to hold on to theism even in the 21st century, you’ve got to be humble about it; moreover, you’ve got to be clever and subtle, slipping the gist of the ancient worldview past savvy modernists, hiding the core absurdities in Trojan Horses rather than shouting unmodified forms of them from the rooftops.

A Moderate Defense of Hell

C. S. Lewis was a paradigmatic example of the latter sort of theist, since he taught at Oxford and Cambridge, which are places filled with very smart people. Lewis was brought up in a Christian family, and he rebelled as a teenager by turning to atheism and then re-embraced Christianity as an adult. He popularized the Christian creed by taking the ancient edge off of it, modernizing it so that Christians wouldn’t have to feel ashamed of repeating their memes. The author of the Thinking Christian blog, Tom Gilson, is in Lewis’s camp and summarizes Lewis’s formulation of the doctrine of hell:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Stephen Hawking’s Scientific Atheism

The great Stephen Hawking is a lousy philosopher. There’s just no way around it. But if you could tell him so to his face, he’d say, “Yeah? So what?” After all, in his book The Grand Design, he and his co-author say, infamously, that “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” This is like saying that physics is dead because physicists haven’t kept up with modern developments in fly fishing. But the point is that Hawking has no respect for philosophy, and so he’s naturally disinclined to devote himself to the task of learning much philosophy, to philosophize well. This is the tragic undoing of positivism: the positivist loves science so much that she sees all problems in scientific terms. She’s like Kramer from Seinfeld who thinks that all you need in life is a shower; you can spend all hours there, eating and sleeping beneath the shower head so you never have to leave and suffer the annoying change of temperature. Likewise, the neo-positivists (as opposed to the founders of positivism) think all legitimate questions that potentially add to our knowledge are scientific.

Philosophers call this prejudice scientism and most scientists don’t care because they don’t think there’s any such prejudice. As Jerry Coyne likes to say, no one ever provides an example of a nonscientific way of increasing our knowledge; there’s no progress in nonscientific cognitive disciplines because they’re at best pseudoscientific. Of course, this presupposes that knowledge is entirely about lengthening our list of empirical facts. Scientists make discoveries because they go out into the world and observe the details and test hypotheses, whereas philosophers don’t. But having knowledge is not the same as having a list of facts. If it were, computers would know much more than humans. Instead, computers currently know nothing at all because they don’t grasp the meaning or the value of those facts. As I’ve said elsewhere, to have knowledge you need a coherent worldview, and this means you need a way to make your list of facts unite with your values, ideals, and intuitions. Sometimes, you’ll have to discard obsolete intuitions or update your values, if the facts speak loudly enough, whereas other times you’ll have to interpret the facts to protect your values, because the facts are ambiguous. Either way, science cannot by itself make your worldview coherent. This is because science doesn’t answer normative questions. Also needed are philosophy, religion (but not the obsolete theistic kind), culture, and the institutions that protect a democratic exchange of ideas. As I’ve argued elsewhere, atheists presuppose a religion in their effort to unite naturalism with their typical liberal values: this religion is secular humanism, Scientism, positivism, or pragmatism. But when a religion is only presupposed rather than openly acknowledged, the religion is bound to be clumsy and lackluster, and that’s the case with Hawking’s atheistic argument.

Hawking’s Arguments for Atheism

Hawking’s positivism is philosophically deficient since it leads him to argue so shoddily against the opposing, theistic philosophy. Take his argument in his Discovery Curiosity TV episode, “Does God Exist?" This argument is philosophical, perhaps even religious, but Hawking’s philosophy is absurdly antiphilosophical, so he’s forced to pretend that his atheism is purely scientific. Here is Hawking’s stripped-down argument for God’s nonexistence: the universe was created in the Big Bang, which means that in its earliest stage the universe was infinitesimal and so the laws of quantum mechanics apply to its origin, and we know from those laws that quantum events can happen spontaneously without any cause; moreover, the Big Bang’s gravitational singularity was in effect a black hole and we know that in modern-day black holes time stops inside of them, which means there was no time before the Big Bang and thus no time for anyone to create the universe.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Existentialism and the Ideal Religion

I’ve thrown around the word “existentialism” a lot in my writings, and it’s time to consider directly the relevance of existentialism to the philosophy I’m working out here. For a good summary of existentialism, I recommend the article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, especially sections two and three.

The Philosophy of Existentialism

The most widely-known kind of existentialism begins with the phenomenological method of describing how things seem to the conscious self and then draws ontological conclusions based on those descriptions. Thus, the existentialist takes for granted the anthropocentric structure of the first-person perspective and contrasts objective with subjective orders of being. Tools lying in the environment are “ready-to-hand,” meaning that their mode of being is instrumental, that they exist for conscious users, whereas the conscious self is absolutely primary and central from that first-personal, solipsistic perspective. Moreover, from that perspective, the self seems autonomous, and the existentialist builds an ethics of personal authenticity, or integrity, on this apparent freewill. When we introspect, we don’t detect an objective cause of our conscious state, precisely because we don’t perceive--again within that first-person perspective--the self as an object in the field of material causes and effects; after all, the five senses that perceive that material field are all directed outwards and so we don’t process our impression of the conscious self as informing us about just another material object. On the contrary, the self is experienced as being detached from the physical world and thus as free from its laws. So even when the body is clearly affected, say, by drinking alcohol or being punched in the stomach, and the brain is affected which in turn has an impact on consciousness, the conscious self still seems free to decide how to respond to such effects.

The ultimate feeling of freedom is found in the experience of anxiety, when we detach from our practical concerns and come to grips with the subjective arbitrariness of values and social conventions. In that case of alienation, we have difficulty identifying with the social roles we play and just as consciousness seems to itself detached from the body, a person can feel detached from society. Ethics enter into the picture when the existentialist distinguishes between those who accept their freedom and who commit to their life project with integrity, and those who fail to act so responsibly and ignore what we all learn from the first-person perspective, that is, from introspection. Again, what we learn is that when a self fails to define herself by choosing a life path and owning that choice without scapegoating anything, and when she allows herself to be defined by society, her religion, or anything else as though she had no voluntary role to play, she loses her individuality. She becomes an inauthentic person, a subject who pretends to be an object. Thus, existentialism is about the philosophical problem of existing as a human being in the first place, or as this problem is informed by introspection.