Addressing a key issue related to human nature, this book argues that the first-person experience of pure consciousness may soon be under threat from posthuman biotechnology. In exploiting the mind's capacity for instrumental behavior, posthumanists seek to extend human experience by physically projecting the mind outward through the continuity of thought and the materialAddressing a key issue related to human nature, this book argues that the first-person experience of pure consciousness may soon be under threat from posthuman biotechnology. In exploiting the mind's capacity for instrumental behavior, posthumanists seek to extend human experience by physically projecting the mind outward through the continuity of thought and the material world, as through telepresence and other forms of prosthetic enhancements. Posthumanism envisions a biology/machine symbiosis that will promote this extension, arguably at the expense of the natural tendency of the mind to move toward pure consciousness. As each chapter of this book contends, by forcibly overextending and thus jeopardizing the neurophysiology of consciousness, the posthuman condition could in the long term undermine human nature, defined as the effortless capacity for transcending the mind's conceptual content. Presented here for the first time, the essential argument of this book is more than a warning; it gives a direction: far better to practice patience and develop pure consciousness and evolve into a higher human being than to fall prey to the Faustian temptations of biotechnological power. As argued throughout the book, each person must choose for him or herself between the technological extension of physical experience through mind, body and world on the one hand, and the natural powers of human consciousness on the other as a means to realize their ultimate vision....more
Paperback, 204 pages
February 15th 2006
(first published February 1st 2006)
As a long-time fan of the cyberpunk sub-genre and its contemporary off-shoots, I've always found myself fascinated by its trappings. Cyborgs, AIs, robots, mind uploads and simulated digital spaces have all permeated my imagination since childhood. This is a thoroughly unremarkable condition in my demographic, of course, as we're expected to grow up immersed in technology and taking for granted its central status in our society.
There was a time when I took this technological optimism on board uncAs a long-time fan of the cyberpunk sub-genre and its contemporary off-shoots, I've always found myself fascinated by its trappings. Cyborgs, AIs, robots, mind uploads and simulated digital spaces have all permeated my imagination since childhood. This is a thoroughly unremarkable condition in my demographic, of course, as we're expected to grow up immersed in technology and taking for granted its central status in our society.
There was a time when I took this technological optimism on board uncritically as one of the starry-eyed believers in the power of progress. In the last few years, however, I've had cause to re-think my position on technology and its role in the realms of the human.
The nature of mind, consciousness, and self are key to any discussion of human existence, for the individual and for society, and these discussions have implications for the techno-futurist ideology which gestated in the cyberpunk genre before spilling out into "mainstream" transhumanist movements. At the extreme, transhumanism has become a cult of rationality (of a particular type) dedicated to a fundamental restructuring of humanity and nature based on a set of presumptions about what it means to be a living, thinking being.
At a philosophical level, I am not convinced (as I once was) by the transhumanist argument that everything about the human mind can be reduced to the deterministic, materialist picture they have painted, in which capturing the spark of consciousness is "simply" a matter of mapping the brain at a fine-enough resolution, or else emulating the features of consciousness in sufficiently-dense lines of code.
As a conspicuous example, there is a clear affinity for metaphors of computation and machinery which, I should add, are by no means justified when discussing brains and bodies, let alone minds. It seems more like the transhumanist has presupposed that minds work this way because that model fits the available tool-kit, but this is far from guaranteed. We have little reason to believe that anything, let alone everything, about phenomenal consciousness can be analyzed as an object of scientific inquiry.
Why should it be? It is our baggage, as tool-users and Apollonian systemizers, that leads us to believe that everything can and should be taken apart, put under a microscope, and made to serve our needs as consumers. Consciousness is held to no guarantee of fitting our expectations in that regard.
Haney roughly this argument in Cyberculture, arguing that the trend of humans becoming more machine-like, in mind and body, is not all the sunshine and roses predicted by futurologists. The first portion of the book deals with the nature of mind as the intentional contents of a pure "witnessing" consciousness, which is a non-materialist, transcendental mode of being largely drawn from India's Advaitan tradition.
This is no mere rehash of Descartes's dualism, however, as Haney is arguing for mental processes very much grounded in the the squishy neural structures of the human brain. It is here, deep in the brain, that our growing reliance upon, and eventual integration with, technology will serve to disrupt or even destroy the deepest layers of consciousness which Haney argues as the basis of human nature. Machines (which I would clarify are restricted to deterministic Turing machines or computers) cannot experience this mode of existence, and cyborgs reduce or eliminate their access to it.
Haney's argument will doubtless unsettle those convinced of the materialist story, and he does not argue so strongly as to persuade a hard-line skeptic. Even so, I found this treatment of mind resonant with a position argued by John Searle, who claims that the purely functional descriptions of mind coming out of cognitive science miss out on the essential first-person lived-experience of consciousness. The mere form of brain processes is not sufficient to capture the contents of mental phenomena, and any attempt to build a conscious being from formal rules will fail.
Haney moves from this background to a literary analysis of works tackling these issues, including Stephenson's Snow Crash, Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Shelley's Frankenstein, and of course Gibson's Neuromancer. He shows how each work illustrates the dangers of uncritical self-modification, how we risk losing the essentially human with reckless changes to a brain and mind we barely understand.
The weakness of Haney's argument lies in his reliance on Eastern mysticism. I personally have no issues with that, and indeed I find it a refreshing break from the Western tendency to objectify and analyze, but it will not convince a committed physicalist. The scientific aspect of his argument, insofar as I am familiar enough with neurology to evaluate it, is at least plausible, and drawing on the work of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Gerald Edelman I cannot doubt its veracity.
Despite his arguments against merging humanity with machinery, Haney reads as taking a stance of caution rather than outright rejection. He is critical of the cultural movement toward greater integration with machinery, and I believe that this is the right course of action. Technology has made undeniable improvements in our lives, but we must balance that against its considerable drawbacks.
I share Haney's concern that, left unchecked, we may be getting in well over our heads, blissfully clueless about the self-harm caused by our new shiny toys. There is a wider sense in which the "technicizing" trend emerges from our need to quantify and control, both as individuals and as a society, in a pattern evoking Max Weber's rather cynical conception of instrumental rationality. The drive to expand, to consume, and to control is deeply rooted in the Western mind, and it has brought us many gifts, but they come with a price — and it is the tragedy of the modern world that we only barely have the vocabulary to express doubt at this prevailing worldview. Works with a more skeptical positions, such as Haney's, are a valuable counter-point to the unchecked optimism....more