Do Extraterrestrials Philosophize?

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The novelist and philosopher R. Scott Bakker recently put out a mind blowing essay on the philosophy of extraterrestrials, which isn’t as Area 51 as such a topic might seem at first blush.  After all, Voltaire covered the topic of aliens, but if a Frenchman is still a little too playful for your philosophical tastes , recall that Kant thought the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence important to cover extensively as well, and you can’t get much more full of dull seriousness than the man from Koeningsberg.

So let’s take an earnest look at Bakker’s alien philosophy…well, not just yet. Before I begin it’s necessary to lay out a very basic version of the philosophical perspective Bakker is coming from, for in a way his real goal is to use some of our common intuitions regarding humanoid aliens as a way of putting flesh on the bones of two often misunderstood and not (at least among philosophers) widely held philosophical positions- eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, both of which, to my lights at least, could be consumed under one version of the ominous and cool sounding, philosophy of Dark Phenomenology. Though once you get a handle of on dark phenomenology it won’t seem all that ominous, and if it’s cool, it’s not the type of cool that James Dean or the Fonz before season 5 would have recognized.

Eliminativism, if I understand it,  is the full recognition of the fact that perhaps all our notions about human mental life are suspect in so far as they have not been given a full scientific explanation. In a sense, then, eliminativism is merely an extension of the materialization (some would call it dis-enchantment) that has been going on since the scientific revolution.

Most of us no longer believe in angels, demons or fairies, not to mention quasi-scientific ideas that have ultimately proven to be empty of content like the ether or phlogiston. Yet in those areas where science has yet to reach, especially areas that concern human thinking and emotion, we continue to cling to what strict eliminativists believe are likely to be proved similar fictions, a form of myth that can range from categories of mental disease without much empirical substance to more philosophical and religiously determined beliefs such as those in free will, intentionality and the self.            

I think Bakker is attracted to eliminativism because it allows us to cut the gordian knot of problems that have remained unresolved since the beginning of Western philosophy itself. Problems built around assumptions which seem to be increasingly brought into question in light of our increasing knowledge of the actual workings of the human brain rather than our mere introspection regarding the nature of mental life. Indeed, a kind of subset of eliminativism in the form Blind Brain Theory essentially consists in the acknowledgement that the brain was designed for a certain kind of blindness by evolution.

What was not necessary for survival has been made largely invisible to the brain without great effort to see what has not been revealed. Philosophy’s mistake from the standpoint of a proponent of Blind Brain Theory has always been to try to shed light upon this darkness from introspection alone- a Sisyphean tasks in which the philosopher if not made ridiculous becomes hopelessly lost in the dark labyrinth of the human imagination. In contrast an actually achievable role for philosophy would be to define the boundary of the unknown until the science necessary to study this realm has matured enough for its’ investigations to begin.

The problem becomes what can one possibly add to the philosophical discourse once one has taken an eliminativists/Blind Brain position? Enter the aliens, for Bakker manages to make a very reasonable argument that we can use both to give us a plausible picture of what the mental life and philosophy of intelligent “humanoid” aliens might look like.

In terms of understanding the minds of aliens eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory are like addendums to evolutionary psychology. An understanding of the perceptual limitations of our aliens- not just mental limitations, but limitations brought about by conditions of time and space should allow us to make reasonable guesses about not only the philosophical questions, but the philosophical errors likely to be made by our intelligent aliens.

In a way the application of eliminativism and BBT to intelligent aliens put me in mind of Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall in which a world bathed in perpetual light is destroyed when it succumbs to the fall of  night. There it is not the evolved limitations of the senses that prevent Asimov’s “aliens” from perceiving darkness but their being on a planet that orbits two suns and keep them bathed in an unending day.

I certainly agree with Bakker that there is something pregnant and extremely useful in both eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, though perhaps not so much it terms of understanding the possibility space of “alien intelligence” as in understanding our own intelligence and the way it has unfolded and developed over time and has been embedded in a particular spatio-temporal order we have only recently gained the power to see beyond.

Nevertheless, I think there are limitations to the model. After all, it isn’t even clear the extent to which the kinds of philosophical problems that capture the attention of intelligence are the same even across our own species. How are we to explain the differences in the primary questions that obsess, say, Western versus Chinese philosophy? Surely, something beyond neurobiology and spatial-temporal location is necessary to understand the the development of human philosophy in its various schools and cultural guises including how a discourse has unfolded historically and the degree to which it has been supported by the powers and techniques to secure the survival of some question/perspective over long stretches of time.

There is another way in which the use of eliminativism or Blind Brain Theory might lead us astray when it come to thinking about alien intelligence- it just isn’t weird enough.When the story of the development of not just human intelligence, but especially our technological/scientific civilization is told in full detail it seems so contingent as to be quite unlikely to repeat itself. The big question I think to ask is what are the possible alternative paths to intelligence of a human degree or greater and to technological civilization like or more advanced than our own. These, of course, are questions for speculative philosophy and fiction that can be scientifically informed in some way, but are very unlikely to be scientifically answered. And if if we could discover the very distant technological artifacts of another technological civilization as the new Milner/Hawking project hopes there remains no way to reverse engineer our way to understand the lost “philosophical” questions that would have once obsessed the biological “seeds” of such a civilization.

Then again, we might at least come up with some well founded theories though not from direct contact or investigation of alien intelligence itself. Our studies of biology are already leading to alternative understanding of the way intelligence can be embeded say with the amazing cephalopods. As our capacity from biological engineering increases we will be able make models of, map alternative histories for, and even create alternative forms of living intelligence. Indeed, our current development of artificial intelligence is like an enormous applied experiment in an alternative form of intelligence to our own.

What we might hope is that such alternative forms of intelligence not only allow us to glimpse the limits of our own perception and pattern making, but might even allow us to peer into something deeper and more enchanted and mystical beyond. We might hope even more deeply that in the far future something of the existential questions that have obsessed us will still be there like fossils in our posthuman progeny.

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The King of Weird Futures

Bosch vanity Garden of earthy delights

Back in the late winter I wrote a review of the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s grandiloquently mistitled tract-  The Meaning of Human Existence. As far as visions of the future go Wilson’s was a real snoozer, although for that very reason it left little to be nervous about. The hope that he articulated in his book being that we somehow manage to keep humanity pretty much the same- genetically at least- “as a sacred trust”,  in perpetuity. It’s a bio-conservatism that, on one level, I certainly understand, but one I also find incredibly unlikely given that the future consists of….well…. an awfully long stretch of time (that is as long as we’re wise enough or just plain lucky ). How in the world can we expect, especially in light of current advances in fields like genetics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence etc, that we can, or even should, keep humanity essentially unchanged not just now, but for 100 years, or 1000s year, 10,000s years, or even longer?

If Wilson is the 21st century’s prince of the dull future the philosopher David Roden should perhaps be crowned the king of weird one(s). Indeed, it may be that the primary point of his recent mind-bending book Posthuman Life:Philosophy at the Edge of the Human, is to make the case for the strange and unexpected. The Speculative Posthumanism (SP) he helps launch with this book a philosophy that grapples with the possibility that the future of our species and its descendents will be far weirder than we have so far allowed ourselves to imagine.

I suppose the best place to begin a proper discussion of  Posthuman Life would be with explaining just exactly what Roden means by Speculative Posthumanism, something that (as John Dahaner has pointed out) Roden manages to uncover like a palimpsest by providing some very useful clarifications for often philosophically confused and conflated areas of speculation regarding humanity’s place in nature and its future.

Essentially Roden sees four domains of thought regarding humanism/posthumanism. There is Humanism of the old fashioned type that even absent some kind of spiritual dimension makes the claim that there is something special, cognitively, morally, etc that marks human beings off from the rest of nature.

Interestingly, Roden sees Transhumanism as merely an updating of this humanism- the expansion of its’ tool kit for perfecting humankind to include not just things like training and education but physical, cognitive, and moral enhancements made available by advances in medicine, genetics, bio-electronics and similar technologies.

Then there is Critical Posthumanism by which Roden means a move in Western philosophy apparent since the later half of the 20th century that seeks to challenge the anthropocentrism at the heart of Western thinking. The shining example of this move was the work of Descartes, which reduced animals to machines while treating the human intellect as mere “spirit” as embodied and tangible as a burnt offering to the gods. Critical Posthumanism, among whom one can count a number of deconstructionists, feminists, multicultural, animal rights, and environmentalists philosophers from the last century, aims to challenge the centrality of the subject and the discourses surrounding the idea of an observer located at some Archimedean point outside of nature and society.

Lastly, there is the philosophy Roden himself hopes to help create- Speculative Posthumanism the goal of which is to expand and explore the potential boundaries of what he calls the posthuman possibility space (PPS). It is a posthumanism that embraces the “weird” in the sense that it hopes, like critical posthumanism, to challenge the hold anthropocentrism has had on the way we think about possible manifestations of phenomenology, moral reasoning, and cognition. Yet unlike Critical Posthumanism, Speculative Posthumanism does not stop at scepticism but seeks to imagine, in so far as it is possible, what non-anthropocentric forms of phenomenology, moral reasoning, and cognition might actually look like. (21)

It is as a work of philosophical clarification that Posthuman Life succeeds best, though a close runner up would be the way Roden manages to explain and synthesize many of the major movements within philosophy in the modern period in a way that clearly connects them to what many see as upcoming challenges to traditional philosophical categories as a consequence of emerging technologies from machines that exhibit more reasoning, or the disappearance of the boundary between the human, the animal, and the machine, or even the erosion of human subjectivity and individuality themselves.

Roden challenges the notion that any potential moral agents of the future that can trace their line of descent back to humanity will be something like Kantian moral agents rather than agents possessing a moral orientation we simply cannot imagine. He also manages to point towards connections of the postmodern thrust of late 21st century philosophy which challenged the role of the self/subject and recent developments in neuroscience, including connections between philosophical phenomenology and the neuroscience of human perception that do something very similar to our conception of the self. Indeed, Posthuman Life eclipses similar efforts at synthesis and Roden excels at bringing to light potentially pregnant connections between thinkers as diverse as Andy Clark and Heidegger, Donna Haraway and Deleuze and Derrida along with non-philosophical figures like the novelist Philip K. Dick.

It is as a very consequence of his success at philosophical clarification that leads Roden across what I, at least, felt was a bridge (philosophically) too far. As posthumanist philosophers are well aware, the very notion of the “human” suffers a continuum problem. Unique to us alone, it is almost impossible to separate humanity from technology broadly defined and this is the case even if we go back to the very beginnings of the species where the technologies in question are the atul or the baby sling. We are in the words of Andy Clark “natural born cyborgs”. In addition to this is the fact that (like anything bound up with historical change) how a human being is defined is a moving target rather than a reflection of any unchanging essence.

How then can one declare any possible human future that emerges out of our continuing “technogenesis” “post” human, rather than just the latest iteration of what in fact is the very old story of the human “artificial ape”? And this status of mere continuation (rather than break with the past) would seem to hold in a philosophical sense even if whatever posthumans emerged bore no genetic and only a techno-historical relationship to biological humans. This somewhat different philosophical problem of clarification again emerges as the consequence of another continuum problem namely the fact that human beings are inseparable from the techno-historical world around them- what Roden brilliantly calls “the Wide Human” (WH).

It is largely out of the effort to find clear boundaries within this confusing continuum that leads Roden to postulate what he calls the “disconnection thesis”. According to this thesis an entity can only properly be said to be posthuman if it is no longer contained within the Wide Human.  A “Wide Human descendent is a posthuman if and only if:”

  1. It has ceased to belong to WH (the Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration.
  2. Or is wide descendent of such a being. (outside WH) . (112)

Yet it isn’t clear, to me at least, why disconnection from the Wide Human is more likely to result in something more different from humanity and our civilization as they currently exist today than anything that could emerge out of, but still remain part of, the Wide Human itself. Roden turns to the idea of “assemblages” developed by Deleuze and Guattari in an attempt to conceptualize how such a disconnection might occur, but his idea is perhaps conceptually clearer if one comes at it from the perspective of the kinds of evolutionary drift that occurs when some set of creatures becomes isolated from another by having become an island.

As Darwin realized while on his journey to the Galapagos isolation can lead quite rapidly to wide differences between the isolated variant and its parent species. The problem when applying such isolation analogies to technological development is that unlike biological evolution (or technological development before the modern era), the evolution of technology is now globally distributed, rapid and continuous.

Something truly disruptive seems much more likely to emerge from within the Wide Human than from some separate entity or enclave- even one located far out in space.  At the very least because the Wide Human possesses the kind of leverage that could turn something disruptive into something transformative to the extent it could be characterized as posthuman.

What I think we should look out for in terms of the kinds of weird divergence from current humanity that Roden is contemplating, and though he claims speculative posthumanism is not normative, is perhaps rooting for, is maybe something more akin to a phase change or the kinds of rapid evolutionary changes seen in events like the cambrian explosion or the opening up of whole new evolutionary theaters such as when life in the sea first moved unto the land than some sort of separation. It would be something like the singularity predicted by Vernor Vinge though might just as likely come from a direction completely unanticipated and cause a transformation that would make the world, from our current perspective, unrecognizable, and indeed, weird.

Still, what real posthuman weirdness would seem to require would be something clearly identified by Roden and not dependent, to my lights, on his disruption thesis being true. The same reality that would make whatever follows humanity truly weird would be that which allowed alien intelligence to be truly weird; namely, that the kinds of cognition, logic, mathematics, science found in our current civilization, or the kinds of biology and social organization we ourselves possess to all be contingent. What that would mean in essence was that there were a multitude of ways intelligence and technological civilizations might manifest themselves of which we were only a single type, and by no means the most interesting one. Life itself might be like that with the earthly variety and its conditions just one example of what is possible, or it might not.

The existence of alien intelligence and technology very different from our own means we are not in the grip of any deterministic developmental process and that alternative developmental paths are available. So far, we have no evidence one way or another, though unlike Kant who used aliens as a trope to defend a certain versions of what intelligence and morality means we might instead imagine both extraterrestrial and earthly alternatives to our own.

While I can certainly imagine what alternative, and from our view, weird forms of cognition might look like- for example the kinds of distributed intelligence found in a cephalopod or eusocial insect colony, it is much more difficult for me to conceive what morality and ethics might look like if divorced from our own peculiar hybrid of social existence and individual consciousness (the very features Wilson, perhaps rightfully, hopes we will preserve). For me at least one side of what Roden calls dark phenomenology is a much deeper shade of black.

What is especially difficult in this regard for me to imagine is how the kinds of openness to alternative developmental paths that Roden, at the very least, wants us to refrain from preemptively aborting is compatible with a host of other projects surrounding our relationship to emerging technology which I find extremely important: projects such as subjecting technology to stricter, democratically established ethical constraints, including engineering moral philosophy into machines themselves as the basis for ethical decision making autonomous from human beings. Nor is it clear what guidance Roden’s speculative posthumanism provides when it comes to the question of how to regulate against existential risks, dangers which our failure to tackle will foreclose not only a human future but very likely possibility of a posthuman future.

Roden seems to think the fact that there is no such thing as a human “essence” we should be free to engender whatever types of posthumans we want. As I see it this kind of ahistoricism is akin to a parent who refuses to use the lessons learned from a difficult youth to inform his own parenting. Despite the pessimism of some, humanity has actually made great moral strides over the arc of its history and should certainly use those lessons to inform whatever posthumans we chose to create.

One would think the types of posthumans whose creation we permit should be constrained by our experience of a world ill designed by the God of Job. How much suffering is truly necessary? Certainly less than sapient creatures currently experience and thus any posthumans should suffer less than ourselves. We must be alert to and take precautions to avoid the danger that posthuman weirdness will emerge from those areas of the Wide Human where the greatest resources are devoted- military or corporate competition- and for that reason- be terrifying.

Yet the fact that Roden has left one with questions should not subtract from what he has accomplished; namely he has provided us with a framework in which much of modern philosophy can be used to inform the unprecedented questions that are facing as a result of emerging technologies. Roden has also managed to put a very important bug in the ear of all those who would move too quick to prohibit technologies that have the potential to prove disruptive, or close the door to the majority of the hopefully very long future in front of us and our descendents- that in too great an effort to preserve the contingent reality of what we currently are we risk preventing the appearance of something infinitely more brilliant in our future.