Zombie Epistemology: Or, I Ain’t Gonna Work on Zoltan’s Farm, Either, Part II, William T. Lynch

Steve Fuller’s work on transhumanism is interesting because it forces us to think about the long-term trajectory of the human species and the knowledge and technology it is likely to build in the future. He is surely right that the challenges posed by twentieth-century problems have overwhelmed the optimistic projections of the future that led the way mid-century, as a simple extrapolation based on what now look like exceptional and temporary rates of economic growth and technological innovation encouraged fevered dreams (Mühlbauer 2006). As the gloom of dealing with an emerging awareness of a troubled Anthropocene, likely to be a thin stratum for future archaeologists rather than a long-lived geological epoch if we are not careful, our imaginations have contracted, and possibly deadened. We have become zombies just seeking out bare survival without conscious thought and planning. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: jef Safi via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Lynch, William T. 2021. “Zombie Epistemology: Or, I Ain’t Gonna Work on Zoltan’s Farm, Either.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (6): 1-19. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-5Ur.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Author’s Note:

A Spotify playlist for songs cited in the paper can be accessed at https://spoti.fi/3i9ovKR. I am grateful for suggestions by Stacy Lynch.

Listeners are invited to contribute their own songs on a companion list entitled “More Fun Songs of Death and Entropy” at https://spoti.fi/2SWtXpR. Need instructions? See: https://www.getcloudapp.com/how-to-use-the-internet/add-songs-spotify-playlist.

Reviews in this dialogue:

❦ Hewitt, Des. 2020. “Meditations on a Theme: A Review of Steve Fuller’s Nietzschean Meditations.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (3): 50-53. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4UY.

Editor’s Note:

The SERRC presents “Zombie Epistemology” in two parts—the following serves as Part II. Please refer to Part I. The PDF of the article (see above) provides the entire piece.

At the same time, we should recognize that the kinds of dreams we had about technologically-mediated transcendence were part of the problem. The idea that the earth, or our bodies or brains, are disposable such that we can move on to the next one was part of the problem. By considering transhumanism’s zombie problem, Fuller is trying to get beyond self-imposed obstacles to putting together a collective plan for where we are headed rather than where we have been. But where we have been shapes what can be possible, even though these possibilities can be reworked. The idea of an evolutionary preadaptation, or exaptation as Gould and Vrba (1982) put it, is relevant here. It is because we have minds and bodies adapted to Pleistocene problems that we can be the kind of species that, with the right kind of cultural work-arounds, can construct kinds of knowledge, signs, technologies, and social systems that have made remarkable progress in developing new kinds of environments that will shape our future in turn (Wolf 2007; Wynn and Coolidge 2012, ch. 3; Borzacchini 2021). Can we direct this kind of change in some ways that will be better than others?

I would argue that the dream of technological transcendence, a kind of Gnostic theology for disembodied beings emerging from embodied creatures, is not the right model (Shiffman 2015). Ironically, it reflects our species’ tendency to think about minds and spirits as distinct from our bodies, which just mystifies the kinds of social constraints that may be limiting us (Flannery and Marcus 2012; Lynch 2019). By contrast, lineage thinking allows us to think about how past constraints at many points in evolutionary history not only set limits on what we can do and think, but also shape the possibility for certain kinds of changes to those limits. It does not do so in ways that simply eliminate those constraints, however.

A good example is the role of biological and cultural neoteny in making science possible (Gould 1977; Elia 2013). Homo sapiens may have outcompeted other hominins by an extended adolescence, or neoteny, allowing greater transmission of cultural knowledge. Neoteny can emerge in situations of rapid environmental change as a mechanism to allow rapid adaptation in ways that the ordinary rate of mutation-driven change cannot do. Suppressed genetic variation in traits can be brought to the surface for selection because juvenile development typically displays a wider range of traits than adult behavior, a key process behind the domestication of animals (Francis 2015, 16).

Our own evolution of behavioral modernity in the Upper Paleolithic may reflect a kind of self-domestication, allowing a longer period of cultural learning that was exploited as we developed more knowledge that could be transmitted accurately to future generations (Greenspan and Shanker 2004; Dugatkin and Trut 2017). Only with this extended time for play, as it were, could we develop new kinds of knowledge that made possible higher rates of innovation than previous tool-using primates in our lineage. Arguably, this biological neoteny is furthered through cultural neoteny, facilitated by the demographic revolution’s extension of lifespan, and economic growth making possible extended schooling and  “flexible specialization.” This has allowed deferral for some of a transition to the burdens of employment for economic necessity that had characterized life for the vast majority (Charlton 2006; Crawford 2009; Brennan and Waits 1995).

What’s remarkable about modern science and technology is the way that we have managed to take creatures with certain kinds of inborn errors that systematically mislead us on all kinds of scientific topics, including local motion, population thinking, intentionality, agency, and complex systems, and find ways to rework our inborn hypersocial division of labor, to make progress on understanding these phenomena. To say that we can discover knowledge that goes against our default biases is not to say that we do so in ways that are unconstrained by the kind of creatures we are. In this respect, exobiology should be supplemented by an exosocial epistemology. How would different kinds of creatures, biological or otherwise, construct knowledge and how might it be different from what we do? Is nature written in differential equations or is that yet another hammer that blinds us into thinking that everything is a nail?

On this issue, compare Penrose (2004, ch. 1; 1999), who accepts the Platonic view of reality written in the language of mathematics, but rejects an algorithmic account of consciousness underlying contemporary AI orthodoxy, with Wolfram (n.d.), who essentially escalates computationalism from a theory of consciousness into a highly formal theory of everything. Awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on black holes and general relativity, Penrose’s views on consciousness are speculative and depend upon a postulated, future theory of quantum gravity. Wolfram opts out of engagement with the scientific community entirely by self-financing and self-publishing his results, a new, problematic funding model for science we might call the Buckaroo Banzai regime  (Mandelbaum 2020; Becker 2020).

His end-run around review by any core set of cosmologists and appeal to social media for support make it a post-truth science in Fuller’s (2020) terms. Wolfram even sounds like Trump when describing the unprecedented significance of his findings. Wolfram may be trying to do for science what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are doing in wresting space exploration away from representative democracy. One underexplored aspect of transhumanism is its reliance upon the deep pockets and idiosyncratic projects of highly exploitative tycoons. There have been enough science fiction stories to warn us of the dangers here as well.

Once we have considered these issues, we can think about what it would mean to maximize our potential as a species and whether that is a desirable goal. My first exposure to this issue came in a distinctively neotenic social milieu, science club in high school. Immersed in the very same science fiction infused imaginary that transhumanism trades in, I argued that humans had better get their act together by maximizing human labor directed towards science. Aware that other professions were necessary, I conceded that maybe 1% of humans could be farmers and other professions necessary to sustain ourselves from a material point of view. With more scientists, more progress would follow, and space exploration and our destiny among the stars would be possible. The trick was to get everyone on board with this program (apparently I was following the argument laid down by Condorcet—see Fuller 2019, 189).

The logistical challenges of such a program would be extraordinary, as it would involve decomposing problems and directing labor in conscious ways that extended the lucky accident of what Collins (1998, ch. 10) calls rapid-discovery science that emerged with modern science. The small number of recognized core set experts in a given field repurpose our evolved ability to work in small groups, while communicating with other groups. So in this sense modern science in no way escapes the inherent limitations of our evolved capacity for social cooperation (Dunbar 2010). While I still believe genuinely democratic planning could direct resources in ways that improved our capacity to meet the challenges we face (Lynch 2020), the adult me fully admits the limitations of this proposal.

More to the point, however, there remains the issue of democratically decided goals in the first place, and the recognition of individual autonomy. My friend, Ben, argued that this goal of maximizing science was misguided because, in the context of comparison with potential extraterrestrial civilizations, our science would be neither unique nor terribly advanced. Instead, it may be our artistic creations that have the most lasting significance, which should not follow the demands of the collective in any event (Prine 2018; Simpson 2019b). Now, one might expect that the price of admission to a hypothetical galactic civilization would be first mastering the very basics of natural science, no matter how elementary, just as we require our neotenized progeny to first learn to play nice together or color between the lines  (Fulghum 1988; Bowie 1972).

Moreover, as our science teacher, Mrs. Henley, pointed out, advanced extraterrestrials may look upon our artistic endeavors as just as primitive as our science. In this sense, Star Trek’s constant reference to our own human cultural history as something that other species would admire, along with their own, probably reflects the equivalent of posting a child’s drawings on the refrigerator. Nonetheless, Ben had a point. The issue of what our species has to offer the universe, if we may be so bold as to even ask the question, is at the very least an open question. I won’t choose between science and art, as both may be equal combinations of natural constraint and free creation (Feyerabend 1994; see Fuller 2019, ch. 1, for a comparison of the role of Russian Cosmist scientists and Italian futurist artists in early transhumanism). But I don’t think we can adopt a species-wide program for maximizing value, to add to the one from which we are already suffering.

❧ ❧ ❧

Now, could I be wrong about the implausibility of carrying out a transhumanist program? Am I not potentially adding myself to the list of those who made very bad predictions about technology, especially predictions about what cannot happen (Pestov 2017). Perhaps, although the failed predictions of bold new technologies that never happened is also a long list, and reflects its own peculiar hype and neglect of physical infrastructure and maintenance (Russel and Vinsel 2020). After all, we still do not have flying cars, no doubt for good reasons (Earle 2013).

A fallibilist approach to science and technology still requires that we make our best projections based on flawed knowledge. Popper tried to counter the purely negative character of his falsificationist approach with a (problematic) account of verisimilitude or approximate knowledge that brought back with it a “whiff of inductivism” (Lakatos 1978, ch. 3). The metaphysical claims about the world that science generates are particularly subject to change, even oscillation (Holton 1978), despite ever more accurate models underlying them (Liston 2017). Let’s just say that a program that requires inventions such as wormholes allowing interstellar travel (Penrose 2004, 834-35) or computers that can encode and preserve consciousness is as much of a leap of faith as belief in God (Dylan 1996; Ranken and Fearnley 1988). Let those who believe do the work. The rest of us gave at the office, the plant, or the Amazon warehouse (Simpson 2016).

Author Information:

William T. Lynch, William.Lynch@wayne.edu, is a professor in the history department at Wayne State University. He is the author of Minority Report: Dissent and Diversity in Science (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021.)


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