Crediting People: An Exchange

SERRC —  January 16, 2014 — 4 Comments

Editor’s Note: Updated, 21 January. On 14 January Gregory Sandstrom, a member of the Collective, sent an email asking the SERRC to consider issues raised by Steve Fuller in his recent articles both at Edge.org (“What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement? Human Being = Homo Sapiens”) and on the SERRC (“Personhood Beyond the Human”). At Fuller’s suggestion we will post the exchange as it develops. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1fE

We invite our readers to join us by replying (see below) or sending an email to jim.collier@vt.edu that will be added to the post.

20 January

Taylor Loy: A few months ago, I read Humanity 2.0 (spoiler alert: which got me into Norbert Wiener and reminded me of some of Clark Glymour’s work in Philosophy of Mind).

I’ve been intrigued by the kind/degree dichotomy characterizing the relationship between humanity/God. While this seems to be an either/or proposition between Dominican/Franciscan conceptualizations of humanity, I’ve become increasingly convinced that that it can be, and is, a differentiation of both degree and kind.

Glymour’s work “When is a Brain Like the Planet” (2007) presents a philosophical and statistical argument that consciousness is provably an emergent phenomenon that isn’t reducible to the accumulation of micro-consciousnesses.

Couldn’t the Mind of God be equivalent to an aggregation of human consciousnesses but with an irreducible and special expression of consciousness that emerges once a certain degree of complexity/integration is achieved? (In other words, the stuff of God’s mind is composed of the same stuff as human consciousness [re: degree], but the expression of God’s mind is entirely an emergent phenomenon [re: kind])* At first glance, this may seem a roundabout way of just siding with the “kind” argument, but I think grounding the emergence of “kind” in the stuffness of “degree” effectively integrates the otherness of kind with degree’s intimacy. This, after all, is part and parcel to a cybernetic/trans-humanist conception of humanity. We are composed of but not reducible to parts; we are a whole of fragments.

Also, I wanted to let you know how very much I enjoy the sincerely sacrilegious tone of your work. As Wiener asserts, “It is a serious exercise, and should be undertaken in all earnestness; it is only when it involves a real risk of heresy that there is any point to it; and if heresy involves a risk of spiritual damnation, then this risk must be undertaken honestly and courageously.”

Steve Fuller: Of course, you’re right that one can imagine that there is a threshold whereby enough human consciousnesses interacting in the right way (a ‘quantitative’ shift in degree) might produce a superhuman intelligence (a ‘qualitative’ shift in kind) as an emergent effect. Indeed, this was an ideal common to Condorcet, H.G. Wells and Teilhard de Chardin. The role of writing (or ‘coding’) as a means of communication – be it via books, telegraphy or the internet – is paramount for this vision.

I have no problem with any of this. But I actually think the medieval guys were imagining something a bit different, which is also worth considering. Here you need to keep in mind that before Duns Scotus presented the ‘Franciscan’ way of understanding the Bible and language more generally (which is the basis of our ideas of ‘literalness’), the default view was that any reference to God using human language was no more than metaphor and analogy (i.e. stressing the ultimate lack of correspondence) because God exceeds human comprehension. The prima facie evidence for this position was that it was hard to imagine what an ‘all powerful, all knowing, all benevolent, etc.’ being might be, given that these qualities in their lesser versions tend to be invested in quite different people, often at odds with each other (e.g. the powerful aren’t necessarily the intelligent). However, Scotus’ way round this objection was to say that as we extend ‘goodness’, ‘intelligence’, etc. indefinitely, they converge on a single being who combines all those qualities in some global optimum. Effectively, the appeal here is to the ‘asymptotic imagination’, i.e. different virtues, originating (materially in humans) in different places end up in the same place (notionally in God).

But a very important feature of the asymptotic imagination is that even if, say, ‘good’ means the same in the Bible when referring to humans or God, it follows that it looks different when we’re talking about humans than when we’re talking about God. This is where all the stuff relating to theodicy and ‘the ends justifies the means’ stuff comes in. In other words, to put it in terms of a being on the road to becoming a deity, as you become more knowledgeable, your sense of what it means to do good changes because you can operate with a longer time-horizon, etc. This is why advanced creatures in science fiction are typically portrayed as dispassionate with regard to day-to-day issues: The horizon of care of these creatures has been expanded, so they treat immediate distress as inconveniences suffered temporarily in service of a larger goal, which lesser mortals don’t quite comprehend.

Now, I think there is a Plato bias built into how this scenario played out in the history of the West, whereby the knowing/intelligence aspect of God drives humanity’s move toward fully self-realizing the divine virtues. In contrast, perhaps a la Aristotle, were we to imagine ‘goodness’ as the strong attractor in moving us toward apotheosis, then we might see that increased cognitive knowing actually diminishes our capacity to do ‘more good’ in a sense that we more or less already recognise. After all, even if God is all-knowing, it does not necessarily follow that he has an interest in everything knowable – it just means that he could have such interests, if it suited him. I won’t pursue this side here because the Plato side is really the one that matters, both in the history of theology and in terms of contemporary transhumanism (e.g. pursuit of the Singularity).

If what I’m saying isn’t obvious, consider that it’s been a lot easier to accept someone’s death if God is said to have done it than a human is said to have done it. In both cases, the human is dead but one can attribute quite different reasons to the death’s significance. To think like God is to imagine that no death is an unmitigated loss; rather, it is an addition of value to the world that may be only revealed in the fullness of time to the remaining humans. In that case, our instinctive tendency to see all loss of life as bad may be parochial and too dependent on the features of our being (i.e. our emotions, especially insofar as they are tied to immediate sensory response) — and this tendency may in fact keep us apart from God. Calvinists have found this line of argument attractive — but so too Bolsheviks.

Now, what this means as politics — especially in a secular environment — is very tricky, but in any case it is not as easy as talk of ‘emergence’ might suggest, where all the constitutive individuals appear to be resolved of responsibility because they only ‘unintentionally’ or ‘indirectly’ produced the emergent effect.

14 January

Gregory Sandstrom: A brief response and question regarding your article at Edge.org and related to your SERRC piece on ‘Personhood Beyond the Human’. It’s a fascinating topic and I’m glad you’re engaging people on this with your creative/proactionary approach.

That said, I must admit I’m a bit confused and now seeking clarification about your position. On the one hand, you raise a predominantly political conversation about humanity, speaking of a ‘Republic of Humanity’. But on the other hand there’s also a taxonomic issue, whether its a biological (species) taxonomy, spiritual/religious taxonomy or cultural taxonomy, etc.

Previously, I had thought you were promoting an ‘anthropic worldview’ (consistent with the Abrahamic faiths) as in The New Sociological Imagination. Now it seems you’re willing to enlarge what ‘anthropic’ means to include as ‘persons’ some “creatures that we care about most,” i.e. even if we don’t currently call them ‘human.’ Have I understood you correctly?

You surprisingly wrote that “non-Homo sapiens may be allowed to migrate to the space of the ‘human’.”

In light of your comment about the EU and ‘joining the Union,’ my question is: Who/what specifically would you let into the “ontological union of humanity,” i.e. to gain ‘human citizenship’ or human ‘membership’ that is not currently considered (i.e. in the taxon of) ‘human’? In other words, who/what ‘candidate states/beings’ do you propose we ‘uplift’ to ‘become human’ in an “expanded circle of humanity”? What do you mean by “all of those whom we regard as capable of being rendered ‘human’, in the sense of fully autonomous citizens in The Republic of Humanity” other than referring to homo sapiens?

Personally, I don’t think it will ever come to the point when we call domestic pets or animals ‘human’ (leaving human slavery aside), though we may nevertheless call them ‘friend’ (as oftentimes we already do) or even possibly fellow ‘citizen’ or…? That doesn’t really even make sense in an ‘Eden in Reverse’ scenario, unless you are suggesting that animals will ‘name’ (be named as) humans.

It seems then that there may be a danger of an anthropic worldview slipping into a ‘karmic worldview’ as a result of taking transhumanist (leaving aside post-humanist) ideas into ambiguous claims about non-humans (mysteriously or presumably by some democratic voting procedure) ‘becoming’ humans. Doesn’t the core of ‘human-ness’ nevertheless remain, with its inclusivity at the heart of the social sciences and humanities (including ‘social’ epistemology) in contrast with the natural-physical sciences?

Anyway, just a few thoughts responding to Steve’s provocative participation in the humanity 1.0/humanity 2.0/transhumanism/human exceptionalism discourse.

Steve Fuller: One thing that was taken for granted by nearly everyone at the Yale conference was that Homo sapiens already possessed human rights in some substantial, legally enforceable sense. Thus, there was no discussion of the ‘race, class, gender’ issues that still create vast divisions within our own species and provide the bread-and-butter topics of research in sociology. The main point of my talk — and this was picked up in the discussion afterward (unfortunately not recorded, it seems) — was that it was only starting in 1948 that an internationally binding legal claim could be made for ensuring that all members of Homo sapiens enjoyed human rights. And of course, that was just the first step, and the process is by no means completed — if it ever will be.

Yet, of course, for many centuries prior to 1948, an enormous amount of philosophical and political energy has been expended to promote the idea of ‘humanity’ as some ultimate ideal, perhaps even the culmination of reality itself (at least that’s one way of reading Hegel). So what have people been talking about? Clearly, it’s not everything that Homo sapiens do or is capable of doing. In other words, the ideals have always been semi-detached from our biological embodiment. Robespierre had a point when he said he loved humanity but hated humans. And so too, all the critical theorists in sociology have a point when they observe that ‘humanity’ has been invoked to judge, coerce and destroy actual flesh-and-blood Homo sapiens. The potentially radical implications of such a brutally idealised notion of humanity has motivated the counterattack by the Roman Catholic Church, which stresses our natural biological makeup as intrinsic to our humanity. This ‘naturalising of the human’ basically serves to slow down the exit velocity of the transhumanists who want push as hard as possible those humans who can radically transform, if not replace altogether, their biological bodies with something better able to express those superintelligent, superpowerful, etc. ideals associated with ‘Humanity+’. But back in 1948, before ‘Humanity+’, there were only Nazis and Communists to worry about.

However, even granting that it was a good idea to ground ‘human rights’ more clearly in the biological character of Homo sapiens, the fact remains that even the political regimes most keen on enabling all of Homo sapiens to become proper human beings have engaged in various coercive acts (from redistributive taxation to preferential hiring) that at least those of us on the Left would consider to be good things — but they have nevertheless been coercive. In other words, granting people equal treatment in terms of ‘human rights’ requires getting everyone in society to change their default patterns of behaviour. As we know from the history of the welfare state, there has been pushback from time to time, increasingly so nowadays. To put it bluntly, Homo sapiens is not naturally human but needs to be made human — and that has always taken blood, sweat and tears.

So, in light of this history, the same should apply to candidate animals and machines. Just as we have engaged in ‘uplift’ policies to turn Homo sapiens into human beings because we value ‘humanity’ so much, why should not the same policy trajectory apply to animals and machines? I actually think the machine-rights activists understand this point well. It’s the animal-rights people who have the problem here.

The punchline of the argument is that the history of ‘humanity’ as a project has thrown up many different sorts of criteria for eligibility — and these were all being rehearsed at the Yale conference under the rubric of ‘personhood’. I happen to think that a strong autonomy-centered view of rights (associated with the ‘will theory of rights’) is the one that best keeps alive the idea of an ‘anthropic’ perspective. But in any case, one thing for sure is that the secret to what makes us ‘human’ is not going to be found in our biology — unless we decide to make it that way.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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