Saturday, July 4, 2015

Humanism, Transhumanism, and Speculative Posthumanism

I have recently been working my through David Roden’s book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. It is a unique and fascinating work. I am not sure that I have ever read anything quite like it. In the book, Roden defends a position which he refers to as speculative posthumanism. This holds, roughly, that the future we are creating through technological change could give rise to truly weird and alien forms of posthuman life.

In defending this position, Roden takes the reader on a philosophical romp through contemporary debates about transhumanism and artificial intelligence, suffusing this with discussions of Kantianism, pragmatism, phenomenology and postmodernism. It is this fusion of literatures, combined with Roden’s engaging use of sci-fi examples and illustrations, that makes the work so unique and interesting (in my opinion).

Anyway, there’s lots of good stuff in the book, and I hope to cover some of its meatier elements in future posts. Today, I just want to cover something relatively straightforward — but critical if you want to understand the significance of the thesis being defended in Roden’s book. Like many who debate the ethics of transhumanism, I’m sometimes confused by the terminology that is thrown around by the participants. In particular, I find myself confused by the distinction between terms like humanism, transhumanism and posthumanism. I know that others have tried to identify these distinctions in the past — including Kevin LaGrandeur in his article ‘What is the difference between posthumanism and transhumanism? — but I have rarely found those discussions illuminating.

This is one place where Roden’s work is particularly useful. He helps the reader to understand the distinctions between these different concepts by paying close attention to how they have been used in the literature, and he also further clarifies the existing literature by distinguishing between two major forms of posthumanism. This, I think, is very helpful since it is that term ‘posthumanism’ and the overlap/disjunction between it and ‘transhumanism’ that is the source of most confusion.

You can read Roden’s book for the full analysis; I’m just going to share the results of that analysis here, which focuses on four discrete concepts (he discusses several more in the book). They are: humanism, transhumanism, critical posthumanism and speculative posthumanism.

Humanism: This is any view that singles out humans from other forms of life. This is generally based on the notion that humans possess some special faculty or attribute (reason; intelligence; consciousness; rationality; autonomy; humour; similarity to God etc) that differentiates them from all other forms of life. These special faculties are then typically taken to warrant special ethical treatment. Humanism also usually encompasses the protection, celebration and glorification of these unique attributes.

Transhumanism: This is a socio-ethical view holding that advanced forms of technology can be used to transcend certain limitations of the human condition. The appealed-to forms of technology are referred to as NBIC technologies by Roden (nanotech; biotech; information technology; and cognitive science). The forms of transcension that these technologies make possible are various. I like the summary adopted by David Pearce, who argues that transhumanists are committed to the three ‘supers’, i.e. super-longevity, super-intelligence, super well-being. In other words, transhumanists are committed to using NBIC technologies to live radically longer lives, increase their cognitive abilities, and achieve higher states of conscious bliss and satisfaction. The interesting thing about transhumanism, from Roden’s perspective, is that it works very much within the humanist ideology. That is to say, transhumanists are often committed to enhancing and improving the kinds of attributes that humanists single out as being unique and special markers of humanity (rationality, intelligence, autonomy etc). They just want to do so through technology.

Critical Posthumanism: This is the view, common in the critical humanities, that takes issue with humanism. In other words, that challenges the view of the human subject as something that is unique and worthy of glorification. One of the most widely-challenged humanist views is the one associated with Descartes. The Cartesian view is that the human is a single, unified, rational, self-governing entity that sits apart from the external world in which it operates. Critical posthumanists argue that this Cartesian view of the human subject is mistaken, highlighting various fluid relationships between the mind, body and external world, noting how those relationships are made even more fluid by modern technologies, and attempting to deconstruct the notion of a single unified self. Critical posthumanists often scoff at certain transhumanist projects, like mind-uploading, on the grounds that such projects implicitly assume the false Cartesian view.

Speculative Posthumanism: This is a view that shares certain elements of transhumanism and critical posthumanism. It shares the transhumanist fascination with the ways in which technology can be used to modify and enhance human attributes. But it also shares some of the critical posthumanist belief that the single, unified, rational human subject may be wiped out by these technological changes. Thus, speculative posthumanism is committed to the notion that future technological successors of the human race could be radically alien and different. Indeed, speculative posthumanists hold that these beings could completely cease to be human by virtue of technological change. This could lead to a radical restructuring of the values inherent in present social orders. For example, the construction of a hivemind or Borg-like society could negate many of the supposedly valuable and humanistic features of contemporary societies.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to share in this post. The majority of Roden’s book is spent defending the possibility of speculative posthumanism, encouraging us to take it seriously, and mapping out some of the weirder possible contents of the posthuman future. This strikes me as being a valuable project.

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