On the Grundrisse:
“in this science where contradiction becomes antagonism, there is no place for humanism, even if there is a place for the delirium of the material” (Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, p16)
On the Grundrisse:
“in this science where contradiction becomes antagonism, there is no place for humanism, even if there is a place for the delirium of the material” (Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, p16)
The time has come to settle a seemingly interminable debate: whether the potato chip ought to be seasoned or not (it should be understood that here “not seasoned” refers to completely unseasoned chips, as well as those to which only salt, and the necessary oil for cooking, have been added – such chips will be referred to in the course of this work as “plain”). Years have passed since the subject was first broached in my company and a satisfactory resolution to the dispute has yet to be obtained, nor has even the glimpse of one on a distant and savory horizon been descried. This document will, it is hoped, open debate upon this trying subject.
Antiseasoningist Wysman (2012, personal correspondence with the author) and seasoning-skeptic Schiller (2015, forthcoming) have suggested that the potato chip requires naught but salt for a rewarding gustatory experience, but their reasoning has not been made sufficiently clear. The author awaits their forthcoming works and here undertakes to dispel some of the more commonly held antiseasoningist positions, in order to “clear the ground,” as it were.
A ready first argument in favour of plain chips is the historical one, also called the pre-synthetic argument. It begins by invoking the image of the primal potato, newly drawn from the earth, which clearly is not seasoned. However, the potato must undergo chopping and frying before it constitutes potato chips. Neither chopping nor frying add anything to the potato, it is said. Thus, the plain potato chip has not been synthesized with foreign substances and thus, it remains a true potato chip. The synthesis of potato chip and seasoning produces something that is not a potato chip but rather an entity that may be defined schematically in this way:
Post synthesis “potato chip” (PSPC) = (potato chip+s, where s=anything edible).
This stands opposed to:
True Potato Chip (TPC) = (potato)
While compelling in its parsimony, this argument fails to take into account the minimal quantity of salt that is added to almost all plain chips, and further, to consider the residual oil that is absorbed into the potato during the frying process. For, if salt and oil are accepted as somehow not counting as s, or as being somehow “pre-s,” it can only be so on the basis of a highly ad-hoc rule. It remains unclear how ketchup, for example, could be excluded from the pre-s situation under the same logic.
Second, the content-garnish argument is also worth noting. This argument holds that the content of a potato chip is the potato and that seasoning plays a secondary role as garnish. This a value-theoretical argument in that it holds potato as a primary value and seasoning as valuable only in a secondary or derivative way, which is dependent on the primary value. The seasoning is only valued, such puritans argue, because it accompanies the potato. Alone, the seasoning would be akin to the flavor packets found in instant noodle packages – unappetizing and blatantly carcinogenic.
This position does have an intuitive appeal, as it is certainly true that one does not go about eating Mr. Noodles seasoning packets sans noodles. However, this argument unjustifiably presupposes the primacy of the potato in its valuation schema. Is it not true that there exist chips made of non-potatoes? The exotic corn-based chips known “tortilla” chips attest to this fact. Further, chips fashioned from pita bread are said to exist in the far East. Therefore: not all chips are potato chips. Thus, chips are not eaten because they taste like potato (supplementary: no one has ever eaten an ungarnished potato, except in a survival scenario – the same can be said for bread, which is well-known to be a potato-analogue). One is forced to conclude that, if potato chips are eaten, it is precisely because of some non-potato element in the potato chip complex. As the frying oil seeming a rather unlikely candidate, we are led to conclude that the motivation for eating potato chips lies in the seasoning applied to them. This assertion has the happy corollary of explaining the existence of chip dip, which is merely a sublimated form of direct seasoning. In chip dip, seasoning is delayed and the anticipation is heightened. The chip is left bare until mere microseconds before mastication. It might be asserted that chip dip functions in some way analogous to the Freudian eros, which seeks to prolong the ecstatic process towards release. On the quantitative level of chips consumed with dip, it then seems that dip represents a massive indulgence and simultaneous submission to restriction – a decadent sadomasochism of snacking.
Meditation on the content-garnish argument eventually leads a sincere thinker to an inversion of the model proposed by the historical/pre-synthetic argument. The fact that non-potato chips enjoy great popularity suggests that the potato is arbitrary, despite it being included in the name “potato chip”. If the potato is non-essential, it is merely included in the potato chip as a vehicle for seasoning. The author therefore proposes what he terms the Vehicle Theory Model of the True Potato Chip:
True Potato Chip (TPC) = (seasoning + v, where v= anything edible)
The particularity of the vehicle is shown to be completely arbitrary, in reality. Hence the proliferation of non-potato chips, as well as the propensity for humans to dip non-chips in chip dip. However radical this may sound, the author asks you to prepare yourself for an even more radical additional consequence. If one follows the Vehicle Theory logic to its logical extreme, and leaning outside the realm of Vehicle Theory to draw on developments in theoretical physics, one is forced to admit that the vehicle itself is totally superfluous, as represented in this formula:
True Potato Chip (TPC) = (seasoning)
As Feynman (1999) argues, nothing of what we know about physics makes engineering at the molecular level impossible. Indeed, it seems highly probable that we will eventually invent machines that can work at this level. From then on slipshod macro-level construction of things will be replaced by novel techniques of creating things from the very bottom-up. Molecular assembling technology, as it is called, holds out the opportunity of creating chips solely out of seasoning, using the molecular bonds of the seasoning’s constitutive molecules to craft chips of unheard of shapes and textures – without the interference of the potato. There are a few peaks from which the future appears unexpectedly bright – this may be the brightest.
The third argument continues the topic of texture that the second ended on. Antiseasoningists often point out the ruffled potato chip as evidence of the worthlessness of seasonings. “Why would plain, ruffled chips ever have come into being,” a prominent antiseasoningist was recently overhead slurring in an “exotic” massage parlour lobby, “if not because plain chips have been so evolutionarily successful as to have spawned a sister-species? How could anyone think otherwise?” The argument, as far as the author comprehends it, is that were there no demand for more plain chips, a ruffled format would never have appeared. Indeed, the continued thriving of two species of plain chips suggests that they are considered desirable.
I cannot deign to call this argument appealing, for the facts are diametrically at odds with it. The ridges and valleys of the rippled chip exist only to increase the chip’s function as vehicle for seasoning. One may find evidence for this by looking inside the human body. The human brain, as is well-known, appears wrinkled on its surface – the ridges known as gyri and the valleys known as sulci. This shape increases the surface area of the cortex which is able to fit within the skull cavity, enabling the advanced level of reflexive thought that humans enjoy. Similarly, rippled chips have an increased surface area for improved retention of seasoning, allowing an increased delivery of the payload. It was this technological advancement in potato chip seasoning capacity that produced the plain, rippled chip as epiphenomenon. Indeed, recent studies have shown (Steinhoff 2015, forthcoming) that plain, rippled chips exist only because currently employed seasoning machines inevitably miss many of their targets, due to difficulties in modulating the rippled texture to agree with the vast dimensional fluctuations in post-GMO potatoes, and thus leave many chips unseasoned.
What more can be said? What can the antiseasoningists possibly marshal to counter such a devastating, yet genteel critique?
Here’s a paper I originally wrote for a grad class on Marx with the venerable Dr. Jeff Noonan (http://www.jeffnoonan.org/). It has since been accepted for publication by the Journal of Evolution and Technology (http://jetpress.org/) and should appear in the spring 2014 issue, in a slightly modified form.
0 – Introduction
There exists a real dearth of literature available to Anglophones dealing with philosophical connections between transhumanism and Marxism. This is surprising, given the existence of works on just this relation in the other major European languages and the fact that 47% of people surveyed in the 2007 Interests and Beliefs Survey of the Members of the World Transhumanist Association identified as “left,” though not strictly Marxist (Hughes 2008). Rather than seeking to explain this dearth here, I aim to contribute to its being filled in by identifying three fundamental areas of similarity between transhumanism and Marxism. These three areas are: the importance of material conditions and particularly, technological advancement, for revolution, conceptions of human nature, and conceptions of nature in general. While it is true that both Marxism and (especially) transhumanism are broad fields that encompass diverse positions, even working with somewhat generalized characterizations of the two reveals interesting parallels and dissimilarities fruitful for future work.
This comparison also shows that both transhumanism and Marxism can learn important lessons from one another that are complimentary to their respective projects. I suggest that Marxists can learn from transhumanists two lessons: that some “natural” forces may become reified forces and the extent to which the productive apparatus is now relevant to revolution. Transhumanists, on the other hand, can learn from Marxist theory the essentially social nature of the human being and the ramifications this has for the transformation of the human condition as well as forms of social organization compatible with transhumanist aims. Transhumanists can also benefit from considering the relevance of Marx’s theory of alienation to goals of technological advancement.
1 – Transhumanism
The term “transhumanism” was coined by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in 1957. In a short paper bearing the same neologism as its title, he asserts that:
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature (Huxley 1957).
This early formulation contains the kernel of transhumanism, which is the desirability and feasibility of the self-directed evolution or transcendence of the human being beyond its current form or nature. Recently, philosopher Max More has offered this more precise definition:
Transhumanism is both a reason-based philosophy and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values (More 2009).
Transhumanism indicates a transitional state on the road to a posthuman state. This transition is to be accomplished primarily by technological means in a transfer of control over the process of evolution from natural selection to conscious human direction. The possibility of taking control of evolution is not a specifically transhumanist belief. Diverse non-transhumanist thinkers such as political scientist Francis Fukuyama and sociobiologist E.O. Wilson acknowledge the coming reality of “volitional evolution” or “a species deciding what to do about its own heredity,” as Wilson puts it (Wilson 1998, 299). What is distinctly transhumanist is the optimism with which the prospects of volitional evolution are regarded. Fukuyama calls for “humility” regarding human nature and fears of a transhumanists will “deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls” (Fukuyama 2004). Transhumanists contrarily desire to use such new and emerging technologies as genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to achieve goals including: the elimination of disease, radical life extension (even immortality), the creation of substrate-independent minds (capable of being uploaded to non-biological systems), augmented or virtual realities and enhanced intellectual, physical, aesthetic and ethical capabilities. Some transhumanists even aim at the abolition of all forms of suffering for all sentient life.
This is not to say, as many critics have, that transhumanists blissfully dismiss the prospects of technological advancements going horribly wrong. Nick Bostrom, in particular, has written much about “existential risks” or the possibilities new technologies present for the extinction of life on earth (Bostrom 2002). Many transhumanists prefer a “Proactionary Principle” of rational risk-assessment, as More (2005) puts it, as opposed to a “Precautionary Principle” of excessive safeguarding regarding technological developments.
Politically, transhumanists have covered the spectrum. Proto-transhumanists such as molecular biologist J.D. Bernal and geneticist/evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane were Marxists, Bernal being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, while Haldane was an external supporter of the Party. Riccardo Campa, chair of the Associazione Italiana Transumanisti (AIT), expresses “only conditional confidence” in the power of markets and asserts that if “market mechanisms do not deliver, we should have to consider socializing what are, from the transhumanist point of view, the key sectors” (Campa 2008).
On a different note, Max More and most of those subscribing to his brand of transhumanism (known as Extropiansm) originally espoused anarcho-capitalist views. However, in the past decade More has tended more towards liberal democracy. Ray Kurzweil has not written explicitly on his political stance, but one can safely assume that his views lie somewhere not far from liberal, capitalistic democracy, given his entrepreneurial career and assertions of liberal democratic rights. H+ (formerly The World Transhumanist Association), of which Nick Bostrom is a co-founder, is explicitly a liberal democratic organization.
In the past few years, rumours and accusations concerning transhumanist fascists have been buzzing about the Italian transhumanist community. The “overhumanists” or “sovrumanists” (from the Italian “sovrumanismo”), a group of members within the ITA, having been accused of fascist tendencies. However, as I have not been able to read any of the purportedly fascistic texts (Stefano Vaj’s Biopolitica, most prolifically,) I leave this discussion untouched. May it suffice to show that transhumanists have ranged the political spectrum.
James Hughes (2001) suggests that leftist thought and transhumanist ideas parted ways after the experience of Nazi eugenics and that the two are only beginning to meet up again indirectly: through Donna Haraway’s cyborgology, speculative fiction, some radical green movements and various other dispersed projects. Hughes himself, a transhumanist sociologist, argues for a “democratic transhumanism”. He writes: “For transhumanism to achieve its own goals it needs to distance itself from its anarcho-capitalist roots and its authoritarian mutations, clarify its commitments to liberal democratic institutions, values and public policies, and work to reassure skittish publics and inspire them with Big Projects” (Hughes 2001). Yet as the WTA survey shows, 47% of transhumanists surveyed identify as “left,” so transhumanism and the left would seem to have already been reunited. Perhaps the pertinent thing to do now is to search around “inside” the left for useful political bits and pieces that do not originate from liberal democracy – particularly, Marxism.
2.1 – Technological Advancement and Revolution
Marxism is a staunchly materialist philosophy. It rejects all notions of higher realms, “spirit,” and immaterial substance. Marx’s philosophy is an appropriation of the Hegelian dialectical form but Marx rejected Hegel’s assertion that the subject of the dialectical movement is abstract spirit or mind that exists above humans and achieves its true form as Absolute Knowledge. For Marx, thought must begin with “real premises from which abstraction can only be made in imagination … [from] real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” (Marx 1978, 149). “Life is not determined by consciousness,” says Marx, “but consciousness by life” (Marx 1978, 155). Marxism is concerned with the concrete, material details of the lives of individuals. The material conditions of the relations and means of production produce the situations and systems in which individuals live and by which their conceptions of reality are determined. The social problems of private property and alienation arise from the material reality of the means of production being owned by the capitalist class. Thus Marx’s projected socialist revolution has as a necessary condition a change in the material conditions of society.
We can note two key aspects of revolution for Marx. First, revolution must be eminently practical and not merely theoretical. Marx writes: “all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism … only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations … that not criticism, but revolution is the driving force of history” (Marx 1973, 164). The socialist revolution will not occur because the most scathing critique of capitalism is written, or even by widespread understanding of the contradictions of capitalism – the actual relations of production must be overturned by real people. Workers must seize the means of production. This however, can only be achieved, Marx says, through the advancement of the productive forces.
Thus the second aspect: that technological advancement is a necessary precondition for revolution. Marx holds that to achieve a socialist society one of the first priorities of the revolutionary proletariat must be to “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State … to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible” (Marx 1978, 490). Through automatization and new technologies the productive forces should be enhanced so that less and less actual human labour is required to produce the goods necessary for satisfying human needs. The idea is that humans need to have easy access to and abundant quantities of the necessities of life (including time itself) if they are to seek a way of life beyond mere survival. Marx holds: “slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture … people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity” (Marx 1978, 169). It is thus only in a society in which machines perform much of the human labour required for human survival that humans can achieve revolutionarily new ways of living.
Most transhumanists are also materialists. The 2007 WTA Survey shows that 64% of those surveyed identify as secular/atheist, while 31% are spread widely across several subcategories of “Religious or spiritual” identifications and 5% describe their beliefs as “Other”. Even the non-secular transhumanists agree that changes to the material conditions of the world are instrumental for the achievement of transhumanist revolution. Indeed, The Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) proclaims that humanity’s power over the material world is what will lead to the realization of the objects of traditionally spiritual yearning. The MTA website lists “affirmations” such as:
We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable [the spiritual and physical] exaltation [of individuals and their anatomies, as well as their communities and environments] including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of
worlds without end.
It is therefore safe to say that all transhumanists agree that technological development is necessary for revolution, although it is true that for transhumanists what counts as advanced technology is considerably more so than for Marx. Many transhumanists posit the technological Singularity as a necessary precondition for their sense of revolution, which is the transition to a posthuman state. The Singularity is the projected moment in the future at which artificial intelligence (AI) reaches human-level capabilities. Since technology evolves at an exponential rate far exceeding biological evolution, the theory is that AI will quickly outstrip human intelligence by several magnitudes and will continue to evolve at blinding speed. This explosion of intelligence will produce unimaginable change, advanced technologies and ideas that will be essential in the creation of the posthuman. Ray Kurzweil calls the advent of such a strong AI an event of importance equaling the advent of biology itself (Kurzweil 2005, 296).
While not all transhumanists are Singularitarians, it is always the prospects of advanced technology that make a transhumanist revolution feasible. Goals such as radical life-extension, increased cognitive capacity and increased well-being are generally not sought through spiritual or mystical means such as transcendental meditation, revelation, or divine communion, for example, but through the increasing sophistication of technology. Thus transhumanists support research programmes and/or business ventures they believe will advance the human ability to revolutionarily modify the material world. Nick Bostrom emphasizes the narrow locus of transhumanist change:
As you advance, the horizon will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are. You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation, affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured physical situation (Bostrom 2010, 4).
Also evident here is a call for practical, rather than merely theoretical, revolution in the transhumanist openness to synthetic augmentation of the biological body and brain. Nanotechnology, for example, is a commonly cited way of augmenting the material condition of the body: it has been suggested that digestion, healing and synaptic processes will be augmented or taken over by nanobots that will perform these functions better. Says Bostrom: “The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil” (Bostrom 2010, 6). The idea is that practical modification of the human condition at the bodily level is needed to produce social change – theorizing is not enough. We may have to download our consciousnesses to synthetic systems to conquer death. In Bostrom’s words: “Your body is a deathtrap … You are lucky to get seven decades of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the soul takes longer” (Bostrom 2010, 4). Ignoring the poeticism of “the soul” here, the notion is that augmented bodies that are less susceptible to disease, hunger and decay could give people more time to concern themselves with their freely chosen life-activities instead of the vagaries of quotidian existence and the demands imposed by capitalism.
Nanotechnology also presents the possibility of assemblers that can manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic levels to construct anything conceivable by the laws of physics. Such machines, which so far remain theoretical, would need only a supply of raw materials to work with, coupled with a power supply and instructions, to produce all kinds of human needs and wants, ranging from computers to tools to the very Star Trek-esque possibility of food and drink. Echoing Marx, transhumanists might say that the abolition of (paid) slavery is impossible without a superabundance provided by molecular assemblers or that liberation from the bodily death trap is impossible without strong AI.
Here is the first point which Marxists should take note of: that the extent of technological development required for a revolutionary shift in human existence might be much higher than merely the massive automatization of labour. Advanced or theoretical technologies like molecular assemblers might be required to wrest production from the hands of the capitalists. Molecular assemblers present the possibility of very cheap production of almost any product. It is surely too optimistic to say that molecular assemblers might lead to the total destruction of the commodity form, but it seems likely that even a moderately wide spread of such technology would seriously undermine the capitalist system. There would simply be no need for the industrial production of most products if families or communities were able to produce those products themselves.
Advanced technological development not only presents the possibility of the elimination of dehumanizing labour. It presents more fundamental changes in the material basis of production – the potential elimination of the feasibility of large-scale centralized production and potentially the destruction of exchange-value. Marx understands exchange-value as an abstraction, determined solely by market forces, tacked onto an object that obscures its actual qualities, or use-value (Marx 1978, 307). With widespread molecular assembling technology available, the cost of a product would be reduced almost to the cost of information – the instructions required for the assembler to build that product, since raw materials would be of minimal cost and the machine would perform the labour of assembling. Of course, if information remains commodified then a capitalist system could continue to thrive. However, we are currently witnessing the difficulties with commodifying information in the Global North’s “war on piracy”. It doesn’t seem likely that anything short of an openly totalitarian regime could effectively stamp out information piracy. In short, transhumanism contains an exhortation to Marxists to keep abreast of the particulars of new technologies and to engage with them critically, looking for the unique revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) potentials they hold.
Transhumanists should here consider that Marx argues that the centralization of the productive apparatus by the revolutionary proletariat is of fundamental importance to the acceleration of productive capacity. This because, for Marx, capitalist production divorces or alienates the worker from the activity she engages in, subjecting her instead to “alien” powers – her employer’s need for profit. Marx elaborates:
the division of labour offers us the first example of how … as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily … divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape (Marx 1845).
Her labour, which is all the worker owns, is by capitalism divorced from her interests and goals – she is alienated from herself and her essential ability of self-determination. Transhumanists, by leaving technological advancement in the hands of profit-driven capitalist enterprise are analogously alienating the human that is to be transcended from itself, by enslaving humans to economically profitable, but in terms of transhumanist goals, conservative or regressive, endeavours. Think of the production of cheap, disposable dollar-store toys or the infinite cycle of the military-industrial complex. Centralization of production offers the prospect of stripping away these endeavours which serve not at all to advance the technological apparatus necessary for transhumanist goals. In short, the suggestion is that the advancement of technology, if divorced from human self-determination, may not present revolutionary opportunities, but rather the opposite.
3.1 – Human Nature
For Marx, humans have a dual nature: both active and passive. He offers this description:
Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand furnished with natural powers of life – he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities – as impulses. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his impulses exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects of his need – essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers (Marx 1978, 115).
We can note three important points in this passage: that humans are “natural,” that humans are active or determining – that we can change ourselves and the world, and that humans are also passive or determined by a particular biological nature.
The passive aspect of human nature refers to the fact that humans do not exist purely of themselves like omnipotent deities. To exist, humans must fulfill certain needs that are external to their bodies and are not aspects of their selves. Obvious examples are food and drink, but as Herbert Marcuse notes: “’need’ is not be understood only in the sense of physical neediness: man needs ‘a totality of human manifestations of life’” (Marcuse 1973, 23). For example, having all one’s physical needs met, but being completely isolated from all contact with other humans is not a situation in which human needs are being met. That humans are needy means that they are in a large sense passive beings. One is necessarily dependent on the water’s being there before one can drink it – and without it, death is certain. Thus, Marcuse holds that for Marx: “Distress and neediness here do not describe individual modes of man’s behaviour at all: they are features of his whole existence” (Marcuse 1973, 21). Marx holds that since external objects are essential to life, they are actually parts of human life. The passivity of humans means that their lives are determined to the extent that they must meet certain needs to continue existing – there are certain constraints on human life. These limits constitute a fundamental connection to the natural. But as Marcuse noted above, human needs are not only physical needs. There are also what might be called social needs which constitute a fundamental connection between the individual and other individuals in society. Humans need other humans for non-material needs such as education, friendship and culture. Uniquely human (as far as we can tell) qualities, like culture, require human beings to be social beings, thus sociality is part of human nature.
But humans are also active, self and world-determining beings. Humans have the ability to relate to objects “universally,” through labour. Human labour produces objects: buildings, computers, medicines. All of these creations we regard as created by “us” – as humans – out of the raw materials found in nature. In producing such objects we constitute a world in which we see ourselves everywhere. Says Marx: “Man is a species being, not only because in practice and theory he adopts the species as his object (his own as well as those of other things), but – also because he treats himself as the actual, living species: because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being” (Marx 1978, 75). While animals produce nests and dams these are only for “immediate physical needs,” while “man produces universally … man produces even when he is free from immediate need and truly produces in freedom therefrom” (Marx 1978, 76). The endless creation of new objects and technologies supports Marx’s claim – we do not just produce technologies for survival – we produce in an aesthetic mode, as well as a profiteering mode. Indeed, and this is Marx’s most important claim about human nature, we actually produce ourselves in other objects. Marx’s proclamation “man produces man” does not refer solely to biological reproduction (Marcuse 1973, 25). Humans produce a world in which every object has some amount of human involvement in it – the human species becomes universally present.
But what is the distinctive stamp of humanity, the “essence” that it imparts to objects? Marx’s sense of essence must be recognized as wholly material. He holds that what philosophers have called the substance or essence of the human is a “material result” … [a] sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given” (Marx 1973, 165). At any moment how humans conceive of themselves is a product of the social and material conditions which previous generations of humans set up. Human “essence” is a historical phenomenon. But this does not mean that humans lack a true nature. Marx writes: “The animal is immediately identical with its life-activity. It is its life-activity. Man makes his life-activity the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity … his own life is an object for him” (Marx 1978, 76). The “essence” of the human shifts over time because it is not a static form. It is a rather a self-transformative function or an evolving process. The human is the animal whose nature is to change its own nature.
We are thus led to another relevant aspect of Marxian human nature – its open-endedness. Marx describes the new kind of “wealth” that socialist society will produce as the “absolute working-out of [human] creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick” because he is not committed to a particular form of human life or metric by which to judge it (Marx 1973, 488). István Mészáros elaborates, asserting that never “can there be a point in history at which we could say: ‘now the human substance has been fully realized’. For such a fixing would deprive the human being of his essential attribute: his power of ‘self-mediation’ and ‘self-development’” (Mészáros 1970, 119). It is impossible to posit an ideal ending to the saga of human history as that would constrain the freedom of the human by not allowing her very nature of self-determination to be expressed.
Transhumanists generally agree with the natural being of the human but they tend to differ from Marx on the significance of the active and passive aspects; emphasizing the active nature of humans and downplaying the significance of the passive and needy aspect. Most transhumanists agree that humans are natural beings and are products of natural processes like natural selection. Humans are distinguished from other animals primarily by their level of complexity (biological and social) and ability to modify their own ways of living. It is material aspects that make humans different: our particular brains, bodies and technological capabilities.
Transhumanists do not deny the passive and needy aspects of human nature, although they do question the permanence and desirability of human needs. Nick Bostrom argues that: “not just any aspect of present human nature… is worth preserving. Rather it is especially those features which contribute to self-development and self-expression, to certain kinds of relationships, and to the development of our consciousness and understanding” that should be preserved (Bostrom 2005). Some human needs may be eliminated entirely through technology. The nutritive aspect of eating might be, for example, separated from the gustatory, just as the pleasurable aspect of sex has largely been separated from its reproductive function through contraceptive technologies. Nutrients and calories could be supplied through smart drugs, supplements and nanotech delivery systems and nanobots might filter out unwanted aspects of digested food, making eating a wholly aesthetic experience.
The need for human social interaction is already being partially met through technological alternate-realities such as the online worlds Second Life and World of Warcraft and myriad social networking sites. Such virtual worlds, while currently primitive, are being increasingly seamlessly integrated with “real reality”. Courtship, funerals, marriages and complex economies already occur in virtual worlds. Kurzweil suggests that we might find living in virtual worlds preferable once they reach a high level of sophistication (Kurzweil 1995, 29). The idea is that human needs are subject to change and even disappearance as the human being develops.
It is clear then that transhumanists generally give precedence to the active aspect of human nature. More invokes “Perpetual Progress” as a transhumanist tenet that “captures the way transhumanists challenge traditional assertions that we should leave human nature fundamentally unchanged in order to conform to ‘God’s will’ or to what is considered ‘natural’” (More 2009). Neither social institutions or moral intuitions should be taken as reasons for not modifying human nature. Currently alien and even unimaginable forms of existence can all be stamped with the mark of humanity, or whatever it is that humanity will call itself in the transhuman and posthuman stages of its existence.
The important point is that transhumanists consider some aspects of human nature to be of negative value and seek their elimination. Some transhumanists even cite an ethical duty to future generations of the species and hold that it is morally irresponsible not to alleviate suffering and death as much as possible for these future beings.
But transhumanists do not only seek alleviation of perceived lacks. They also aim for the expansion of human qualities and abilities and new levels of existence that are currently unavailable to humans. Bostrom speaks of new “modes of being” which cannot be imagined by current humans (Bostrom 2001). Kurzweil holds that technology will allow us to map, extract and upload the patterns of energy that constitute our consciousnesses. Through this technique we will ultimately “transcend” the material nature of humanity: “We can ‘go beyond’ the ‘ordinary’ powers of the material world through the power of patterns … It’s through the emergent powers of the pattern that we transcend. Since the material stuff of which we are made turns over quickly, it is the transcendent power of our patterns that persists” (Kurzweil 2005, 388). Despite this rather mystical language we can discern a concept of human nature not unlike the Marxian one. Human nature is not any set of limits, conditions or needs – rather, it is an evolving process that constantly breaks through perceived limits. Humans can perceive themselves in all kinds of alien objects and forms – humanity is “universal” in Marx’s sense.
Kurzweil describes a transhumanist sense of human essence: “the essence of being human is not our limitations – although we do have many – it’s our ability to reach beyond our limitations” (Kurzweil 2005, 311). Mészáros echoes these sentiments in his reading of Marx: “Nothing is therefore ‘implanted in human nature’. Human nature is not something fixed by nature, but, on the contrary, a ‘nature’ which is made by man in his acts of ‘self-transcendence’ as a natural being” (Mészáros 1970, 170). Humans are nature “coming out of itself” and transforming itself – a process.
The transhumanist conception of human nature is also, like the Marxian conception, an open-ended one. Whether due to the unforeseeable ruptures with the past that the Singularity will produce, or more modestly, due to human beings’ abysmal track record at predicting the future, most transhumanists do not commit to hard and fast images of the future. Speaking as a hypothetical future self, Bostrom explains: “I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a better life” (Bostrom 2010, 7). All that can be done is to fix what we know now is broken (eg. short life spans, genetic disease) and envision, rationally, future possibilities.
Despite frequent (and often understandable) accusations of utopianism, in fact, most transhumanists do not aim for a technological heaven of perfection. While Kurzweil’s far-future projections do sometimes sound like something like this, the practical import of the transhumanist project is about making human life better in ways that are possible and comprehensible to us now or in the near future. Thus Riccardo Campa holds that “only when a technology exists and is experimentally proved should it become part of immediate transhumanist policies and action programs aimed at obtaining their implementation and broad accessibility. Until then, it can only be a working hypothesis for scientists in their laboratories or of science fiction writers in their literary works” (Campa 2008). Projections should be recognized as being defeasible, though useful, ways for informing our current actions, which will undoubtedly lead to, at least some, unforeseeable consequences.
The open-ended nature of human development means that qualitatively different forms of life lie in the future of our species. While the “meaning” of such a radically different life will no doubt be unlike that of our current lives, this is no call for alarm, transhumanists argue. It is not necessarily possible to judge the “meaning” of transhuman or posthuman lives by the values we currently live by. As Bostrom holds: “Our own current mode of being … spans but a minute subspace of what is possible or permitted by the physical constraints of the universe … It is not farfetched to suppose that there are parts of this larger space that represent extremely valuable ways of living, relating, feeling, and thinking” (Bostrom 2001, 2).
We have seen that for both transhumanism and Marxism openness to redefinitions of the human are called for by human nature itself. The similarities are significant, but there is a striking difference between the two: sociality. Most transhumanist thought tends to place little emphasis on the social nature of the human – and this is where transhumanists should take a point from Marx. The transformation of the human seems to be regarded by most transhumanists as a process undergone by atomistic individuals that exist in no more than a loose aggregate with others – transformation is of the self, by the self, with social considerations tacked on afterwards –“technological self-transformation” (More 1993). While material conditions in the form of technological apparatuses are certainly an essential aspect of transhumanist revolution, the very material aspects of social structures are not usually taken into account beyond assertions that the “freedom” of liberal democracy and/or capitalism provides optimal productivity. While Bostrom expounds equal or wide access to the trans and posthuman realm, he does not touch on the social hierarchy that underlies the current capitalist system and how it will impinge on such egalitarian access (Bostrom 2001, 7). Marx pointed out that in a capitalist society (and this applies now more than ever), individuals can be bestowed with formally equal rights while simultaneously being differentiated and stratified by the underlying economic structure (Marx 1978, 34). An impoverished fisherman in Newfoundland and a CEO of a multinational corporation formally have the same rights as citizens of Canada, yet it is practically true that the millionaire CEO is able to perform actions that the fisherman cannot, through the hierarchical powers inherent in the possession of the means of production. Now imagine that both the fisherman and the CEO are both given, through an equal distribution of rights, radically extended lives. Would this in any way change the social asymmetry between them? It seems unlikely. The fisherman will still be dependent on dwindling fisheries for his livelihood while the CEO thrives on the extraction of surplus value.
Technological developments occur in a society which has the power to determine to what end those technologies are used and to what extent their equal distribution benefits the transhumanist project. While some technologies, like molecular assemblers, do present possibilities of undermining or upsetting social structures, it is also possible that oppressive social structures will inhibit or corrupt the optimal utilization of new technologies. A recent (and depressing example) is the internet; the democratic potential of which is currently under sustained assault by governments and MNCs worldwide. There is also the suppression of the General Motors EV1 electric vehicle by a combination of corporate and governmental forces.
Transhumanists should take note of Marx’s insistence on what is often recognized as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, the contradiction between the forces of production and the social relations of production. Marx writes:
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production … with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters (Marx 1978, 4).
The capitalist system of production’s sole aim is to extract ever greater surplus value from labour through the increasingly intense exploitation of workers, sophistication of machinery and lay-offs, but at a certain point, Marx holds, these techniques begin to turn back against production and inhibit it. A simple, abstract example: increasing productive efficiency through the use of the above-mentioned techniques means that more product is produced by less workers who receive less wages. Therefore there are less and/or poorer consumers to consume ever more product. With no one to buy up all of the product and thus produce a profit, the capitalist must develop his extraction of surplus value through the same techniques that further shrink the pool of potential consumers, producing a stagnant economy that is cured only when a new market is found or demand for the product resurfaces. The property relations of capitalism – the capitalist owns the means of production, while the worker owns only his labour power – become anti-productive once the productive forces are developed.
This ponderous method pays little heed to needs of the people in the society it exists within, operating solely by the capitalist directive of “maximizing shareholder profit,” to use contemporary terms. We are now well aware of stratagems such as planned obsolescence (automobiles) and novelty-mongering (Apple excels at this) that capitalist organizations deploy to keep consumption going. The question for transhumanists is whether they want revolutionarily life-changing technologies to be produced and distributed by the clumsy and brutal hand of capitalist production.
Surely, we can only expect molecular assembling technology to come to the public, if it does, from the non-profit sector, because from a capitalist perspective, selling assemblers would be identical to selling off ownership of the means of production.
In summary, transhumanists need to take into account the fact that while technology does restructure society, the structures of society – which are social relations between humans – also influence the deployment of technologies. If the ultimate goal of transhumanism is the flourishing of the evolving being that is currently called “human,” current social relations between humans cannot be bracketed out. The “freedom” to compete and accumulate wealth under capitalism is not equivalent to the freedom to reach beyond limits for all individuals. From a Marxian angle: “What is to be avoided above all else is the re-establishing of ‘Society’ as an abstraction vis-a-vis the individual. The individual is the social being … Man’s individual life and social life are not different” (Marx 1978, 86). Society is an association of individuals, not just a neutral space in which technological development will bring about changes in the human condition. The transformation of the individual and the transformation of society are inseparable.
4.1 – Nature
In the previous section we saw how, for Marx, humans are inseparable from nature due to their passive and needy nature. We saw also how the human is linked to nature through the action of human labour which imparts a stamp of humanity on natural objects. However, humanity’s active relation to nature is deeper than this. In the stamping of objects with human essence, humans refashion nature into a “humanized” nature. For Marx, nature is produced just as the human is. He proclaims that “trade and industry … this unceasing sensuous labour and creation … is the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists” (Marx 1978, 171). The sensuous world is:
not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations … Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given [to man] through social development, industry and commercial intercourse (Marx 1978, 170).
Nature is socially constructed all the way down, Marx argues. All human ways of knowing and relating to the world are mediated by the relations of production and resultant social structures. Even sense perceptions do not perceive reality immediately. Thus György Lukács claims that, for Marx, “nature is a social category” (Lukács 1971, 130). This assertion has garnered much criticism and is often dismissed as a return to the idealism that Marx repudiated. While there is not space here to engage in a defense of Lukács’ reading, there are good reasons not to side with Alfred Schmidt in dismissing Lukács’ reading entirely because it absurdly posits humanity as the “creator of nature” (Schmidt 1971, 70). Nature can be socially constructed all the way down while not actually being brought into being for the first time by humans.
For Marx, nature does have an existence independent of human thought and will. There exists a “material substratum … which is furnished by Nature without the help of man” (Marx 1978, 309). Humans, however, never have immediate access to it. Humanity does not bring nature into existence, but it does create it as far as humans can be concerned with it. By depicting nature in this way Lukács emphasizes the extent to which we are confronted by false immediacies – not just in the social realm (the phenomenon of reification under capitalism) – but in our basic epistemological relations with the world. As one commentator puts it, Lukács’ radical move is:
to criticize the category of immediacy as such, to reject (that is) the idea that mediations must always be mediations of some pre-existing immediacy, and to insist instead that every supposed immediacy can be shown to be the result of previous constructions, thus dynamizing and dissolving all static givens into the social processes that make them possible (Vogel 1996, 34).
Nature, as far as we can know it, consists of social mediations that mutate and are replaced by new mediations over time. “Facts” are one-sided abstractions that fail to fully capture reality. Lukács calls facts: “nothing but parts, the aspects of the total process that have been broken off, artificially isolated and ossified” (Lukács 1971, 184). The total process consists of the “developing tendencies of history” which “constitute a higher reality than the empirical ‘facts’” (Lukács 1971, 181). Relying on facts leads to one being “trapped in the frozen forms of the various stages [of past forms of thought]” (Lukács 1971, 181). Nature is inadequately represented in the form of static facts because it is an evolving heterogeneity of processes, of which humans are an integrated and contributing part. Thus we can see from another perspective why it is for Marx that human nature cannot be static: to be static it would have to somehow stand outside of nature. In other words: “without making man himself dialectical … man himself is made into an absolute and he simply puts himself in the place of those transcendental forces he was supposed to explain, dissolve and systematically replace” (Lukács 1971, 187).
Only by recognizing that nature and the human are developing processes and by taking control of those processes can humans attain a free existence, Marx argues. “Freedom,” he holds, “can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature” (Marx 1978, 441). In order to achieve revolution, the forces of nature must not, as with the reified forces of capitalism, be allowed to direct the course of human life-activities. While the human is part of nature, she is nature become conscious or “turned back on itself” and is able to manipulate and control the forces of nature that she is subject to.
Transhumanists generally do not deny that there exists a material “substrate” independent of human mind, but this substrate is taken to act as an ultimate constraint on future possibilities rather than a true or ideal form that must be preserved or recovered. Kurzweil, for example, recognizes the substrate as representing the only real limits on the conversion of the matter of the universe into computing power for a posthuman super-intelligence (Kurzweil 2005, 139). The material substrate consists of building blocks out of which objects and theories might be constructed, but it does not contain natural laws in the Aquinian sense, nor does it consist of Edenic ideals.
There is therefore warrant to attribute a socially-mediated conception of nature to most transhumanists. As discussed above, most transhumanists reject any kind of hard nature/human dichotomy, and instead regard nature as a complex, reflexive process from which the human emerges as one reflexive circuit among many others. As a result, even the most fantastically outlandish modifications to the human or the world (if feasible) must be regarded as wholly natural. Campa elaborates:
The advocates of self-directed evolution, more than challenging “nature”, intend to favor the deployment of its possibilities. The sense and the direction we refer to are ultimately those at the origin of our species, our emergence as more sophisticated organisms in comparison with our immediate predecessors. This is the reason why, if we reason in evolutionary rather than static terms, transhumanism cannot be considered as “unnatural” … . “Human nature” has always been a product of a self-domestication, combining the “human” with the “living” and the “technological”, and human nature was therefore already, to some extent, a self-directed evolution, albeit at an unconscious level (Campa 2008).
In this view, nature is a product of human efforts, and humans are a product of natural efforts, having evolved from simpler forms of life. The developmental trajectory of volitional evolution is understood as a continuation of undirected or blind evolution, or perhaps as an “evolution of evolution”. There is simply no way to construct the human/nature dichotomy because the human has been inextricably involved in all human relations to the natural.
Nature, like the human being, is a process, not a fact. And also like the human, nature is seen by transhumanists as necessarily an imperfect process that control must be wrested from. Max More expresses this in A Letter to Mother Nature:
Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution … You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions … What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed … We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution (More 1999).
He goes on to criticize “the tyranny of aging and death” and our enslavement to our genes (More 1999). The notion is that transhumanist revolution can only occur if the blind forces of nature are supplanted by consciously-directed human forces.
This implies a sort of disrespect for what have traditionally been considered facts of nature. Since transhumanists “reason in evolutionary rather than static terms,” as Campa said above, we can see how the Lukácsian rejection of static facts of nature is actually a staple of most transhumanist thought. This is most evident in the derision of death as natural fact. Kurzweil asks not whether death is necessary, but rather if it is desirable. If the abolition of death becomes a live possibility “we will no longer need to rationalize death as a primary means of giving meaning to life” (Kurzweil 2005, 326). The future of the human and the natural realm itself are currently unknowable, but since our current “facts” are only stages in an on-going process transhumanists remain open to revisions to (and dismissals of) the “facts”.
Transhumanist thought thus sheds new light on something that Lukács emphasized – the social mediation of nature – but expresses its continued development. Marxists should realize that the distinction between natural and reified forces is growing consistently fuzzier. Marx rails against the reified social forces of capitalism because they strip away the human’s unique ability to consciously direct his life-activity. While human action may indeed be constrained by the laws of “the substratum” it seems increasingly likely that many natural forces (e.g. death, blind genetic variation) will be revealed to be “reified” forces in that once they are shown not to be necessary, they will continue to exist only if humans decide they should. Technological means to overcome such forces present a materially grounded, non-idealist form of radical social mediation of nature. Death, regardless of what sort of meaning it imparts to life, will be revealed as a blind force that impinges upon human nature. Yes, human life will take on a different “meaning” if death is eliminated, and such an existence is currently unimaginable, but these are not sufficient grounds for remaining subject to it. The human is but one stage in a process which potentially extends to the heat death of the universe.
Transhumanists can also learn something here. It pertains again to the social nature of the human, but with respect to the control of natural forces. Marx emphasizes that it is only in society that humans gain the means to take control of the blind forces of nature. In a simple sense this means that a lone human cannot formulate new technologies and build factories to produce them on her own. But this should also be taken in a deeper sense. The social mediation of natural forces needs to be exactly that: social. Transhumanist negligence of this principle is evident in Bostrom’s assertion that: “Since technological development is necessary to realize the transhumanist vision, entrepreneurship, science, and the engineering spirit are to be promoted” (Bostrom 2001). The social structure in which these values are to be promoted goes unmentioned.
The history of Marxist thought suggests that perhaps the whole of society should be incorporated in the use of advanced technologies to mediate the natural, if that mediation is to reflect the interests of the society as a whole. Stalin’s vanguard party is an example of a small group trying to direct the complex dynamics of a society down to the minute details. The case against vanguardism for transhumanists is even stronger in light of the threat of existential risks posed by advanced technologies. Transhumanists should take note and be wary of leaving the reshaping of the natural realm to a tiny corporate elite. If the Soviet party found centralized administration of one country’s economy impossible and if that endeavour produced some horrific results, it does not take much speculation to envision the potential for horrors if the control of nature at a fundamental level is left to an elite motivated primarily by turning a profit.
5 – CONCLUSION
It is clear that transhumanism and Marxism have some fundamental philosophical similarities. This comparison is admittedly composed of broad strokes and the extent to which the two fields differ is not here emphasized. I hope to have, however, contributed generally to the furtherance of a dialogue between the two fields, and particularly, to the socializing of transhumanism.
 See Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation: http://transfigurism.org/pages/about/quick-facts-handout/
 See Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986) and Nanosystems (1992).
 Of course, nanotechnologies present all kinds of novel dangers (e.g. “grey goo” scenarios) and I’m not trying to gloss over those here. The dangers are, however, beyond the scope of this discussion.
 Not all Marxists emphasize the passive aspect of the human as much as Marcuse, who I have cited, does. György Lukács, for example, places much more emphasize on the active aspect, as we will see in the section regarding nature.
 Avoiding punishment for law-breaking and the restructuring of the legal realm itself through lobbying, for example.
 Here in Canada Bill C-11 is the government’s most recent step towards exhaustive internet surveillance, under the guise of policing piracy and child pornography. Peter Sunde of The Pirate Bay’s conviction is another horrifying example of the capitalist system’s intolerance for the free sharing of information: http://falkvinge.net/2012/07/06/aftermath-of-the-pirate-bay-trial-peter-sundes-plea-in-his-own-words/. Edward Snowden’s case also comes to mind.
 See Paine, Chris, et. al. Who Killed the Electric Car? Culver City, California: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006.
 What constitutes a tendency for Lukács must go unexplored here. May it suffice to say that tendencies are processes of development.
In my last post, I wondered what sort of unexpected things might be quantized as information. My latest read has provided me with a somewhat startling answer: consciousness. Christof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012) suggests that consciousness can be quantized, and thus measured, as precisely as the data streaming through your internet connection. In fact, there are several points of interest in this book, which is a sort of hybrid memoir/pop-science book from the renowned neuroscientist.
First, the theory of integrated information. This theory, developed by psychiatrist/neuroscientist Giulio Tononi is based on two propositions. The first is that every conscious state is differentiated, or that every conscious state represents a massive amount of information determined not only by what is perceived in the conscious state (your computer screen, for example) but also by everything that that conscious state does not consist of (a view of the moon, the title scroll of Star Wars, a blue jay, etc.). Koch puts it this way: [a particular] “subjective experience implicitly rules out all these other things you could have seen, could have imagined, could have heard, could have smelled. This reduction in uncertainty (also known as entropy) is how the father of information theory, electrical engineer Claude Shannon, defined information. To wit: Each conscious experience is extraordinarily informative, extraordinarily differentiated” (125). Shannon’s idea was that information exists only where there is uncertainty. If you were to communicate with a single binary switch that can only be one of two states, 1 or 0 (or a fair coin toss) the uncertainty or Shannon entropy is 1 bit. I’ll let Wikipedia elaborate for me:
Entropy is a measure of unpredictability or information content. To get an informal, intuitive understanding of the connection between these three English terms, consider the example of a poll on some political issue. Usually, such polls happen because the outcome of the poll isn’t already known. In other words, the outcome of the poll is relatively unpredictable, and actually performing the poll and learning the results gives some new information; these are just different ways of saying that the entropy of the poll results is large. Now, consider the case that the same poll is performed a second time shortly after the first poll. Since the result of the first poll is already known, the outcome of the second poll can be predicted well and the results should not contain much new information; in this case the entropy of the second poll results is small.
Now consider the example of a coin toss. When the coin is fair, that is, when the probability of heads is the same as the probability of tails, then the entropy of the coin toss is as high as it could be. This is because there is no way to predict the outcome of the coin toss ahead of time—the best we can do is predict that the coin will come up heads, and our prediction will be correct with probability 1/2. Such a coin toss has one bit of entropy since there are two possible outcomes that occur with equal probability, and learning the actual outcome contains one bit of information. Contrarily, a coin toss with a coin that has two heads and no tails has zero entropy since the coin will always come up heads, and the outcome can be predicted perfectly. Most collections of data in the real world lie somewhere in between (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_(information_theory))
Keeping that in mind, the second proposition of integrated information is that conscious states are highly integrated. Conscious states are gestalt wholes, irreducible to parts that can be experienced independently. You can’t make yourself start seeing in black and white, Koch says, nor can you will certain sound waves out of your auditory perception.
These two premises form the ground of the theory. Any system that is “a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states” is thus conscious, to some extent. Tononi “posits that the quantity of conscious experience generated by any physical system in a particular state is equal to the amount of integrated information generated by the system in that state above and beyond the information generated by its parts. The system must discriminate among a large repertoire of states (differentiation) and it must do so as part of a unified whole, one that can’t be decomposed into a collection of causally independent parts (integration)” (126). The quantity of conscious experience is measured as Φ (phi), which is expressed in bits as “the reduction of uncertainty that occurs in a system, above and beyond the information generated independently by its parts, when that system enters a particular state” (127). So Φ expresses the amount of reduction of uncertainty in your brain/central nervous system as it enters a conscious state and can do the same for any system that exhibits the two necessary properties, integration and differentiation. Animals, artificial intelligences and computers can be measured in the same way. Koch even suggests that “the Web may already be sentient. By what signs will we recognize its consciousness? … The implications don’t stop there. Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system” (132). This notion, of course, leads to the entire universe having consciousness – panpsychism – a proposition I’ve always found repugnant. I might be forced to reconsider. Integrated information is appealing to me in that it dethrones human consciousness from a place of privilege (a mainstay of Western religion). If successful, the theory would institute a thorough demystification, like Newton’s quantization of mass, force, etc. did for Aristotelean physics.
Related to the resultant panpsychism of the consciousness as information theory that Koch endorses is his endorsement of an informational substance dualism. He asserts that “subjectivity is too radically different from anything physical for it to be an emergent phenomenon” (119). The feeling of subjectivity, doesn’t just emerge from a complex network of neurons (my belief), he is saying. He instead makes a surprising claim: “I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, an elementary, property of living matter. It can’t be derived from anything else; it is a simple substance, in Leibniz’s words” (119). Just as positive or negative electrical charge is an intrinsic property of protons and electrons, and there are no uncharged particles waiting to be charged, consciousness is intrinsic in “all organized chunks of matter. It is immanent in the organization of the system. It is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary particles” (120). Thus, Koch holds what he admits is “a form of property dualism: The theory of integrated information postulates that conscious, phenomenal experience is distinct from its underlying physical carrier … The conscious sensation arises from integrated information: the causality flows from the underlying physics of the brain, but not in any easy-to-understand manner. This is because consciousness depends on the system being more than the sum of its parts” (152).
This is really a bewildering theory, to my mind. In truth, I can’t wrap my head around it just yet. I’m very accustomed to thinking of consciousness as emergent property of networks, and partial in particular, to Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ theory. Anyhow, it turns out philosopher of mind David Chalmers holds a similarly dualistic view to Koch, which he terms “double-aspect theory” in which information has two aspects – physical and phenomenal. I am HIGHLY uncomfortable with such ideas and cannot figure out how information is meant to be understood as immaterial. I mean, it is always embodied in some sort of matter (neurons, circuits, text on paper) and requires some sort of energy to transfer/communicate – this even proponents of such theories have to admit – but they also assert that “Information is neither matter nor energy”. So what is it? It must be a pattern, but a pattern requires a medium in which it is instantiated to exist, doesn’t it? When and how would there be a pattern which exists with no material instantiation? If you can help this prejudiced materialist, or recommend reading, please do.
Koch also touches on free will. His position is interesting. He first rules out strong determinism (Ligotti’s puppet-nature), due to quantum indeterminacy in the basic structure of matter. But he also rules out strong free will, in the Cartesian or Christian sense, the kind that says in exactly the same situation, were it repeated, you could will yourself to act differently. This because physics rules out any action of an immaterial will that escapes material laws and somehow compels the physical brain to act. He also admits that experiments show that brain decides on actions (relatively) long before consciousness becomes aware of the decisions. Or that “the sensation of agency or authorship – is secondary to the actual cause. Agency has phenomenal content, or qualia, just as sensory forms of conscious experience do … How the decision is formed remains unconscious. Why you choose the way you do is largely opaque to you” (111). Feeling in control is just that – a feeling. And it can be manipulated by shooting electricity into certain parts of the brain. It is certain, he says, that a large part of consciousness is really just “zombie agents” or unconscious circuits that we attribute agency to only after the fact. He doesn’t come out and say it explicitly – he asserts a kind of compatibilism – but it seems he’s essentially admitting there’s very little free will, if any. He asserts that “Yet we cannot rule out the possibility that quantum indeterminacy … leads to behavioural indeterminacy … evolution might favour circuits that exploint quantum randomness for certain acts or decisions” (101). It seems he keeps a shred of free will by optimistically assessing the linkage between quantum events and the actions of conscious systems, a connection I was under the impression is tenuous at best (though I’m no expert). Yet he also says, “Personally, I find determinism abhorrent … (Of course, my personal feelings on this matter are irrelevant to how the world is)” (101). It would behoove him then, to spend more time explaining his compatibilism, because as it stands, it seems unjustified. Particularly when taken in combination with the closing chapter of the book in which he waxes hyperoptimistic and says “My tribulations are not meaningless – I am no nihilist … I am less free than I feel I am … Yet I can’t hide behind biological urges or anonymous social forces. I must act as if “I” am fully responsible, for otherwise all meaning would be leached from this word and from the notions of good and evil” (164). Again, the conspiracy, the lie… As Cioran writes in The Trouble With Being Born: “Lucidity is the only vice that makes us free – free in a desert” (12).
In The Information (2011), James Gleick gives us a history of how humans have stored, transferred and theorized information. His overall purpose is to show that our dealings with information didn’t begin with the advent of the ‘information age,’ though certainly they have intensified. He develops a narrative that begins with pictographs and talking drums, continues on to the invention of the alphabet, libraries, dictionaries, telegraphy, and onto the information technologies we use today. His narrative remains one continuous thread through a methodological technique of taking the principles and ideas of information theory (which began development in the 1960s) and showing how they have always been what is at issue in human dealings with information, even before we had terms for them – principles and ideas like bandwidth, signal/bit size, noise, redundancy and entropy. I’m not going to explain these here, rather I’ll just consider a few general notions that keep popping up:
Everything is being informationalized. Information theory has its roots in electrical engineering (early telephone systems at Bell) and early computer science, but already, in its short life-span, information theory has been fruitfully applied to physics (thermodynamics can be understood in information-theoretic terms), genetics (the genetic code is information which is translated into a particular phenotype, neurology (the brain as neuronal network of information), and the study of complex systems (information theory presents a way to understand chaos and randomness). There are even some that maintain that information (in the form of ‘bits’) is the fundamental constituent, the most basic building-block of reality.
The increasing ubiquity of informational ways of thinking is propelled by the fundamental insight of information theory, proposed by Claude Shannon, the discovery that information can be quantized, that is, broken down from a continuous series and into a set of discrete parts (bits), thus making it measurable, manipulable in mathematical formulas, formalizable. Gleick elaborates:
For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague – force, mass, motion and even time – and gave them new meaning. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just a soft and inclusive term as information. For Aristoteleans, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed. In the nineteenth century, energy began to undergo a similar transformation: natural philosophers adapted a word meaning vigor or intensity. They mathematized it, giving energy its fundamental place in the physicist’s view of nature.
It was the same with information. A rite of purification became necessary. And then, when it was made simple, distilled, counted in bits, information was to be found everywhere (8-9).
What’s a bit? Here’s the interesting part: it’s a fundamental particle, and it’s not just invisible to the naked eye, it’s completely immaterial – we can say it’s virtual or abstract. A bit is a binary choice, or a virtual switch that has two states: 1 or 0, yes or no. Of course, a bit requires some kind of physical medium to be embodied in, but it doesn’t have to be a transistor. 6 billion bits in the form of DNA make up a human being. Some even believe that bits are irreducible, that bits make up matter, and even space and time. Physicist John A. Wheeler put it like this:
It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe. ( Wheeler 1990: 5)
This position is called digital ontology and it’s a new concept for me. An interesting one too in that it’s fundamentally immaterialist, yet tempting, and I’m a rather committed materialist… but it’s too soon for me to say anything interesting about it. Though it seems that Luciano Floridi, who has founded the subfield of philosophy of information, doesn’t agree, and argues instead for an ‘informational ontology’ (I’ll get to Floridi’s book in a few months, but here’s an article here for the intrigued: http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/publications/pdf/ado.pdf).
My other thought regarding quantization is: what remains to be usefully quantized that hasn’t yet been? I offer not even a tenuous lead at this point.
Information, as technically conceived in bits by Shannon, is not concerned at all with meaning. The meaning of the bits sent in an information transfer is unessential to understanding the success or failure, quality or decay of the information. The same qualities apply to speech as do to drumbeats or the data a guided missile uses, Gleick explains. All can be analyzed in the same way. I see this meaninglessness as contributing a sort of universality to information, a potential for the knocking-down of borders or a horizontalizing, a potential for dehierarchizations.
Vague notions in this vein led to me think about how apolitical Gleick’s text is. Granted, it’s a history text about information, not a philosophical/political argument, and one can’t cover every possible facet of anything in one book. Yet, I wish he would have, at the end at least, considered the more political deployments of information technology especially in recent years. He touches on this when discussing the strange new world of digital (informational) property, but doesn’t have much to say about the control of information, or theories on how the flow of information in society ought to be directed, promoted or stifled. What is revolutionary information handling? What is the opposite?
Maybe some of my questions will be answered in my next read about information: “Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages” by Alex Wright. http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0801475090
Wheeler, John A. A Journey Into Gravity and Spacetime (1990). Scientific American Library. W.H. Freeman & Company
The topic is again nihilism, but as the author of the book under scrutiny this time puts it: a “nice nihilism”. What could that mean? Let’s see. The book is The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by philosopher Alex Rosenberg. He generally holds to the same basic understanding of reality that Thomas Ligotti promulgates in The Conspiracy… (see previous post): nothing exists other than matter and energy, meaning and purpose are illusions, humans are subject to the same laws as the rest of matter, the laws of matter are deterministic, thus free will, the self and morality are non-existent. Two major differences here are: 1) Rosenberg’s greater emphasis on getting the scientific details down, and more interestingly (for my study of nihilism), 2) his insistence that the nihilism that results from his worldview isn’t a plague to be fought off by the Ubermensch, as ol’ Nietzsche thought, nor is it a depressive, defeatist acceptance of the horror of emptiness at the heart of reality, as Ligotti suggests. We can deal with nihilism, Rosenberg thinks, as individuals and as societies – and such lives won’t be dramatically different from how we currently live.
Rosenberg opens the book with a quick run-down of the “persistent questions” he aims to provide correct answers to, as well as pithy versions of the answers. I might as well quote them here to give you the gist of his position:
“Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
What is love and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).”
So what we have here is another rather hard-line materialist position. Rosenberg sees this position as a direct consequence of taking atheism seriously, and I think he’s more or less right. Note: in the past I was reluctant to let free will go, but the more I read on the subject, the less plausible it seems. But we might as well pretend as long as we can. And anyhow, we can’t really ditch the idea without going insane, as Ligotti notes. I’ll now run over the basics of why Rosenberg believes what he believes and then I’ll consider how his nihilism can be “nice”.
Rosenberg’s first premise and his continually repeated mantra is “the physical facts fix all the facts” (20). This means that physics provides “the whole truth about reality”. He means that any explanation of reality that relies on anything other than physics cannot be [correct/true/knowledge] (chemistry and biology are built-up out of physics and so they can). While physics is not nearly complete, he argues that we know enough to answer the persistent questions and that these answers will not change even with new discoveries in quantum mechanics, string theory or whatever. We know, for example, that in physics, purposes do not exist. This because, at the subatomic level, particles move and interact in completely random, indeterministic (quantum) ways, or: at the “basement level of reality, there are just probabilities” (38). The big bang was just another of these random, quantum events, and therefore all the “laws of nature” or constants that came into existence with it, those that “intelligent design” theorists try to cite the complexity of as proof of a creator, must simply be products of chance.
So at the subatomic level there’s no purpose or meaning, but perhaps at the macro level of creatures there is, you may be thinking. Perhaps conscious beings, for example, can imbue dry reality with juicy purpose or meaning? (you might call this the position of Nostalgia and it’s where most philosophers stand on the issue.) Well, no. Randomness destroys purpose at this level as well. Well, randomness combined with natural selection. Reproduction involves random mutations to a combination of parental DNA. Read about the details elsewhere. Some of these mutations produce creatures better suited to survival and reproduction than their fellows. These lucky mutants are more “fit” than their fellows, and tend to survive longer and thus produce more offspring than their fellows. Thus the fit mutants leave more offspring than the non-fit, thereby increasing the predominance of that mutation in the next generation. This happens again and again, and thus certain mutations flourish while others die off. Now, fitness is considered in relation to a particular, local environment and so can’t be used to find any sort of general purpose or meaning to a particular species’ success or extinction. The lobster’s fitness to its environment is not at all fitness in an alpine environment.
To avoid another massively long post: let’s sum up half of Rosenberg’s book: the blind variation of mutation along with natural selection (as well as other purpose-less factors such as genetic drift and catastrophes) are the mechanisms which produced reality as we know it. Dammit, I have to include one tangent: I was surprised to read about how natural selection and blind variation apply even at the level of molecules. After the big bang, atoms bounced around randomly, occasionally joining into molecules if the conditions were right. Most of these molecules would have lacked the correct configuration of chemical bonds between them and so would have been unstable and quickly split up. A few, however, would be stable and would be capable of copying themselves through a process called “template matching” (61). Tangent over. The take home point is that the blind filtering process of natural selection applies at pretty much every level of reality (including the level of your thoughts).
More obviously, blind variation and natural selection have produced us and all other animals. (Almost) everyone knows this. The more controversial aspect of this assertion is that almost all culture, morality, emotion, religion, self-evident truths and pretty much everything else that we do or think about was also produced by the combination of blind variation and natural selection. Thus, all that stuff is, as philosophers say, contingent, which is the opposite of necessary. It all could have went differently, had past mutations went differently, or had the environmental factors that contribute to selection for fitness been different. Therefore: no necessarily true Ten Commandments, sorry, and absolutely no standard for defining what is morally right or wrong. Rosenberg is right to emphasize the simple fact that would put a whole legion of philosophers out of work were it widely embraced: moral judgments are impossible to make because morality just does not exist. Being an “ethicist” must rank as one of the most absurd professions on the earth.
The question now is: how is Rosenberg going to convince us that this nihilism which denies morality, meaning and purpose is “nice”? Let us get to the meat. The gist of his argument is that natural selection and blind variation have happened to make us nice and that such niceness is hard-wired into us and is further reinforced by the soft-wiring of cultural/social factors.
He asserts that pretty much all humans share a “core morality” that is somewhat nebulous if a rigorous definition is sought, but includes such norms as “Protect your children,” “It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong,” “It’s wrong to punish the innocent,” “On the whole, people’s being better off is morally preferable to their being worse off,” and others (104). Moral disputes result, he says, from the combination of principles of core morality with “factual” beliefs about reality. I put factual in quotes because it isn’t easy to see what the facts are when asking questions like “When is a fetus a person?” The answer depends on the definition of “person,” which is itself subject to further debate. Does personhood depend on consciousness, rights, or what? But even though we certainly have moral disputes, we are generally nice to each other, because historically our ancestors that were genetically predisposed to niceness were better at surviving. While we have wars, murder, rape, etc., we tend not to have so much of them as to shatter society completely. Our naturally-selected niceness and its principles of core morality are what allows Rosenberg to be optimistic about living with nihilism. We are all ready nice and bearing witness to the bleak truth of nihilism won’t change that, he argues. And further, “Scientism (which is his label for his brand of nihilism, as it accepts only the truths of science as real) allows for moral ‘improvement.’ It’s a matter of combining the core morality that evolution has inflicted on us with true beliefs vouched safe for us by science” (144). I’m glad to report that he’s not foolish enough to suppose that scientific facts will allow us to find definite answers to moral questions. He rightly admits that the question of what action is to be taken when confronted with a moral problem will most often have to be decided by local facts about that particular problem. Science won’t give us moral rules, just facts on which to base decisions.
That’s it. That’s his conclusion on how to live with nihilism. Essentially: “don’t worry about it”. He advocates an “Epicurean detachment” or “a tranquil self-sufficient life along with your friends” as the good life and pain as the bad life (313). And if you can’t manage sufficient Epicureanism, he offers a second option: modify your brain chemistry. He writes:
“Alas, some people do get everything right about the universe and our place in it and still remain dissatisfied. Satisfying themselves that science answers all the persistent questions correctly, they are still troubled. You, gentle reader, may be one of these people. Fortunately for such people, Epicurus was almost right. If you still can’t sleep at night, even after accepting science’s answers to the persistent questions, you probably just need one more little thing besides Epicurean detachment. Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them until they kick in” (315).
That’s nihilism, and I like it. That’s also why I like alcohol. Call it cynical, but he’s right to dethrone the notion of a natural, authentic relation to reality. There’s no reason to suppose that, once we figure out what reality is like, that it’s going to be pleasant. The assumption of such is a hold-over from religion and its notions of reality being designed for us. This is the very same pit of stupidity that most new-age, spiritualist and occult belief systems fall into. Rosenberg might be the first academic philosopher I’ve read to be honest in this respect. No nonsense about living “authentically” or “heroically” as Heidegger or Camus might say.
But I wouldn’t be a philosopher without criticizing Rosenberg in some way, would I? The obvious problem with his scientism/nihilism is that he’s too optimistic about the extent to which core morality and our hard-wired niceness will maintain a somewhat “nice” social order. I mean, genetic modification technology is advancing at light speed. If we can already tweak the genes of fetuses to eliminate genetic diseases and defects, more in-depth modification of ourselves doesn’t seem far off. Who’s to say people won’t choose to shut-off or annihilate their hard-wired niceness? A corporate ladder-climber would probably benefit from the annihilation of some of her/his core morality – it’s been shown that psychopaths do very well in the corporate world… How long will nihilism remain nice?
Anyhow, this is a book I’d recommend to almost any person that tries thinking occasionally, and especially to my philosopher friends. I think it’ll piss most of them off. There’s a lot more to it than I can discuss here. I didn’t even try to mention his dismantling of the notion of “aboutness” in general, or his claims that the brain is just a relatively simple collection of input/output circuits, or his disturbingly wide application of the second law of thermodynamics…
There is a kind of knowledge that strips whatever you do of weight and scope: for such knowledge, everything is without basis except itself. Pure to the point of abhorring even the notion of an object, it translates that extreme science according to which doing or not doing something comes down to the same thing and is accompanied by an equally extreme satisfaction: that of being able to rehearse, each time, the discovery that any gesture performed is not worth defending, that nothing is enhanced by the merest vestige of substance, that “reality” falls within the province of lunacy. Such knowledge deserves to be called posthumous: it functions as if the knower were alive and not alive, a being and the memory of a being.
-E.M. Cioran – The Trouble With Being Born
Shut up, there’s no excuse to live!
-Carpathian Forest – Fuck you all!!! Caput Tuum In Ano Est
Thomas Ligotti writes horror fiction that is really, really good. So far I’ve read his most recent output, the collection of short stories Teatro Grottesco, and his not-so-short story My Work Is Not Yet Done, which also includes two bonus short stories. I’m working on obtaining copies of the rest of his fiction. The best way to describe Ligotti’s fiction is by comparison to Lovecraft (everyone’s doing it), though Ligotti doesn’t at all involve himself in the Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos. He’s similar to Lovecraft in terms of the obscenely insignificant standing he gives humans amid an incomprehensibly vast and ancient universe. His stories aren’t horror of the pop variety, ala Stephen King, which consist of familiar characters with which one can identify encountering strange and unexplainable phenomena. Of course, strange and unexplainable phenomena are also important elements of Ligotti’s narratives, but the difference is that in Ligotti’s works there are no familiar characters to identify with – unless perhaps you’re one of those unfortunate folks who, in Ligotti’s words, “treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic or defeatist nature as indispensible to their existence” (147).
Most people would not want to be or even meet any of the characters in Ligotti’s works. His characters exist in realities which appear vaguely familiar, but horribly distorted and terribly bleak, drained of all hope and hopeful lies – realities which are vehicles for deliciously nihilistic philosophical insights.
Ligotti’s contention in his first non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race is that the terrible bleakness and hopelessness of his fictions is not a distorted view of reality, but rather a honest perspective cleared of the myriad filters and blinders that humans apply to reality to make it manageable or livable. This is The Conspiracy.
The main conclusion of the book is this: that non-existence is better/preferable to existence because existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (Ligotti’s capitalization). As such, he recommends the voluntary extinction of the human race through the cessation of reproduction. In what follows I’ll flesh out some of his reasons for arguing as he does and also note some of the interesting (often disappointingly brief) asides he makes. The book is a bit of a ramble.
I’ve identified two main reasons that support his argument. Though it’s not really an argument. It’s more of a statement or maybe a manifesto. He’s not writing to convert. Though there’s undoubtedly some pleasure to be derived from the infecting of other minds with nihilistic thoughts/memes. The book is certainly a salve and a great pleasure to read for a person with nihilistic tendencies. It even has intoxicating properties, for the right reader. Or maybe the book is best understood as a manual, for the non-pessimist, concerning how a hardcore pessimist’s mind works. Regardless.
First, and key to Ligotti’s dark worldview, is his belief that humans are preprogrammed machines or puppets that entirely lack free will or the ability to make decisions. This is a position that people who care to discuss such things refer to as hard determinism – that the state of affairs in the universe at any time is determined by its previous states, with no wiggle-room for human freedom. Just as the 8-Ball’s falling into the corner pocket is determined by my propelling the cue ball into it with the right amount of force and at the right angle, so the thoughts that run through my mind are determined by the movements of bits of matter. Matter seems to act in regular, predictable ways and we have generalized observations of this kind and come up with laws of nature/physics. Rocks don’t spontaneously turn into eggs or gases. Electrons act in such a way, molecules of x substance act in such a way, etc. Now, since we humans are composed of precisely the same basic elements as the rest of nature there’s the question of how free will could be possible if all we are made up of is particles acting in “lawful” ways just like the particles in a tree or litre of water. Just like the 8-Ball is propelled into the pocket by a force external to it, so are all our thoughts driven by forces impinging on us. There’s no “you” controlling your thoughts, only the illusion of a self that thinks this or that. Or so hard determinists such as Ligotti believe.
And at this point in time there’s no way to say whether the determinists are right or whether we have free will (or whether both are true at the same time, a position called compatibilism). Many proponents of free will point to quantum mechanics as evidence that the universe is not at base law-governed and determined because quantum mechanics asserts that some tiny particles exist in multiple locations at once (superpositions). One can only calculate probabilistically the chance that the particle might be in a given area at a given time – quantum indeterminacy. Look up the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment for an illustration of quantum indeterminacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat. The idea is that if the minute particles of the universe display quantum indeterminacy, determinism may only exist at the macro-level (of human bodies, and cars) but perhaps not at the micro-level of neural processes or the level of conscious thought. Free will might arise out of the strangeness of the quantum realm. Quantum indeterminacy might save us from hard determinism.
I had this idea in the back of my head while reading The Conspiracy, so I did a little research. It turns out that quantum mechanics does not necessarily entail indeterminism and indeed there are quantum mechanical theories that are wholly compatible with hard determinism (Bohmian Mechanics: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-bohm/). I bet that most youtube-fed new-agey mystic-hippies are unaware of this.
Anyhow, the question of determinism is up in the air. If I had to bet, I’d go for determinism being true. We’ll see in the future. It’s hard for me to see how the human brain, which is the hardware on which the software of the mind runs, could somehow bootstrap itself out of the determined movement of particles that makes up the rest of the universe.
Obviously, if hard determinism is true, we are just puppets following predetermined roles that were essentially laid out at the moment of the big bang. But wait, a standard objection goes: “It is obvious that we have free will. I can choose to do or refrain from doing, whatever I want”. The standard reply is: “The feeling of free will doesn’t mean anything. Does it feel like you’re wheeling through space at 100,000km/h on a rotating sphere? Because you are”. For a more articulate reply, you could look to Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. There he offers a pretty convincing theory of how the feeling of having a self could arise from a purely computational model of the brain.
Ligotti notes that the big problem for humans if determinism is true is that our “sacrosanct belief in moral responsibility” will have to be shoved down the garbage disposal (95). If we’re just knocked about like billiard balls and no one really chooses to do anything, how can anyone be at fault for doing anything? What would be the justification for any kind of punishment? And conversely, any kind of reward or accolade? Simply, there wouldn’t be. Society would be fucked, clearly, if most people thought this way. So would thinking about oneself and one’s own life, but we’ll get to that next. But now we’re seeing why Ligotti speaks of a Conspiracy – ideas such as hard determinism have to be fought, dismissed and ridiculed if we humans are to keep on living in the societies we have. The idea that we’re all just puppets is a horror lurking behind everyday reality that we cannot seriously entertain.
This leads us to the second reason for Ligotti’s stance against existence: consciousness is a torturous paradox or a tragedy. He writes:
“While a modicum of consciousness may have had survivalist properties during an immemorial chapter of our evolution – so one theory goes – this faculty soon enough became a seditious agent working against us … we need to hamper our consciousness for all we are worth or it will impose upon us a too clear vision of what we do not want to see … Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are – hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones” (27-28).
Human-level consciousness presents us with the awareness of bleak ideas like hard determinism, our possible puppet-natures and therefore the non-existence of morality. Trees, for example, don’t suffer from such distressing ideas and thus don’t have to hide from them. There are three other bleak ideas that consciousness is to blame for. The first is the very concept of suffering and its predominance in our lives. Most of life consists of suffering, says Ligotti, drawing heavily on that pleasant old German philosopher Schopenhauer (who once shoved a woman down a flight of stairs for moving too slowly) and we spend most of our time avoiding current or projected sufferings. We eat to avoid the pain of hunger, we socialize to avoid to pain of loneliness, we sell our labour the majority of our waking hours to obtain little tokens which we can exchange for products to stave off the countless forms of suffering that can and do befall us. Yet we try not to think much about this. There’s no point in moping over such ideas, conventional wisdom says. Better to be optimistic. And here the Conspiracy again becomes visible: the pessimistic view of life as suffering just can’t be entertained. Ligotti makes the true claim that people who espouse such views tend to be marginalized. He writes:
“Optimism has always been an undeclared policy of human culture – one that grew out of our animal instincts to survive and reproduce – rather than an articulated body of thought. It is the default condition of our blood and cannot be effectively questioned by our minds or put in grave doubt by our pains” (64).
Those who do hold the pessimistic view – why are they different from the optimistic masses? Does Ligotti think he’s particularly enlightened? No. He suggests that the difference is probably biological – an evolutionarily disadvantageous mutation, an error in neural wiring or a sub-optimal distribution of chemicals in the brain. The pessimist garners no benefits for her lucidity.
Related to the preponderance of suffering are the facts of our origins and our ends. We humans came into being after a long series of life-forms reproducing, and in so doing, producing mutants. We just happened to evolve into what we are now, which is not the apex of evolution, but just a moment on a continuum that extends potentially until the heat death of the universe or more likely, until we annihilate ourselves.
We, as individuals, just pop into existence without any explanation provided. (Heidegger referred to this strange quality of appearing in the world without any reasons for being there as thrownness). There’s a total lack of answers as to why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do, Ligotti holds, other than the biologically hard-wired imperatives to survive and reproduce (which on their own are not very meaningful by the standards of most humans). There’s no meaning to be found in life. Questions regarding such a meaning are pointless and cannot even be asked seriously.
Neither is there meaning to be found in death. It comes and kills each of us at some arbitrary moment and that’s it for us. You can be brave in the face of it, or weep in terror, but it all amounts to the same thing for Ligotti, the annihilation of a confused puppet. Whatever you do in life will be, in the end, even less meaningful than it seemed in life because you will not be there to experience it and apply to it that façade of meaning.
What about our emotions? We feel certain ways about certain things. Can’t we derive meaning from feelings such as pleasure, love and joy? Guess Ligotti’s answer? It’s another No. He writes:
“What meaning our lives may seem to have is the work of a relatively well-constituted emotional system. As consciousness gives us the sense of being persons, our psychophysiology is responsible for making us into personalities who believe the existential game is worth playing … You can conceptualize that your life has meaning, but if you do not feel that meaning then your conceptualization is meaningless and you are nobody. The only matters of weight in our lives are coloured by rainbows or auroras of regulated emotion which give one a sense of that ‘old self’ … Emotions are the substrate for the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world. Not knowing this ground-level truth of human existence is the equivalent of knowing nothing at all” (114).
You might want to reply that emotions are base-level phenomena from which we can derive meaning. Surely, at least, we can salvage hedonism from a nihilistic worldview such as Ligotti’s, you might say. Again, he would answer in the negative. He considers severe depression as proof of this. He holds that “a major depression causes your emotions to evaporate, reducing you to a shell of a person standing alone in a drab world,” and thus that they are not base-level or necessary/ever-present qualities of human existence (114). Another lengthy quote is necessary here:
“In the recumbence of depression, your information-gathering system collates its intelligence and reports to you these facts: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know. Without meaning-charged emotions keeping your brain on the straight and narrow, you would lose your balance and fall into an abyss of lucidity. And for a conscious being, lucidity is a cocktail without ingredients, a crystal clear concoction that will leave you hung over with reality. In perfect knowledge there is only perfect nothingness, which is perfectly painful if what you want is meaning in your life … This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige” (115-116).
A “vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige” (!) Well put. The interactions, flows and balances of various chemicals in our brains and nervous systems and the rest of our bodies determine how we construe the input data which makes up our individual reality tunnels. If these chemicals get unbalanced we can lose access to the emotions which charge our experience of reality with meaning. This prospect is especially terrifying to anyone who believes in grand concepts such as love. The depressive, in her lucidity, Ligotti is saying, perceives that her love for Person X is built on a seaside bluff of emotion that has eroded and collapsed into the infinite and pointless sea of particles bouncing around. She might reconstruct the bluff and her love which sits on it, but she now knows that love’s foundation is tenuous and her conception of it will be tainted with that knowledge, which she will have to either lie to herself about, distract herself from or hide from. By such practices The Conspiracy is perpetuated.
All right, time now to muse on a few particular points extracted from the book. First, the notion of ecocide. Suffer another massive extract:
“As appealing as a universal suicide pact may be, why take part in it just to conserve this planet, this dim bulb in the blackness of space? Nature produced us, or at least subsidized our evolution. It intruded on an inorganic wasteland and set up shop. What evolved was a global workhouse where nothing is ever at rest, where the generation and discarding of life incessantly goes on. By what virtue, then, is it entitled to receive a pardon for this original sin – a capital crime in reverse, just as reproduction makes one an accessory before the fact to an individual’s death? … We did not make ourselves, nor did we fashion a world that could not work without pain, and great pain at that, with a little pleasure, very little, to string us along – a world where all organisms are inexorably pushed by pain throughout their lives to do that which will improve their chances to survive and create more of themselves. Left unchecked, this process will last as long as a single cell remains palpitating in this cesspool of the solar system, this toilet of the galaxy. So why not lend a hand in nature’s suicide? For want of a deity that could be held to account for a world in which there is terrible pain, let nature take the blame for our troubles. We did not create an environment uncongenial to our species, nature did. One would think that nature was trying to kill us off, or get us to suicide ourselves once the blunder of consciousness came upon us. What was nature thinking? We tried to anthropomorphize it, to romanticize it, to let it into our hearts. But nature kept its distance, leaving us to our own devices. So be it. Survival is a two-way street. Once we settle ourselves off-world, we can blow up this planet from outer space. It’s the only way to be sure its stench will not follow us. Let it save itself if it can – the condemned are known for the acrobatics they will execute to wriggle out of their sentences. But if it cannot destroy what it has made, and what could possibly unmake it, then may it perish along with every other living thing it has introduced to pain. While no species has given in to pain to the point of giving up its existence, so far as we know, it is not a phenomenon who praises are often sung” (79-80).
Hah! What a wonderful and absurd idea, revenging oneself against all nature, against the blind idiot god Azathoth as Lovecraft obscurely described it, or the Great Black Swine as Ligotti calls it in My Work Is Not Yet Done. I have a lot to say about this idea (setting aside philosophical haggling over the definition of nature) but I’ve decided not to get into it here as this post is already far longer than anticipated. Expect to hear more about ecocide and its relation to dramatic ideas such as The Second Death of God.
Ligotti also briefly discusses transhumanism, which, if you know me, you’ll know has occupied about 80% of my mental capacity for the past year or so. You’ll also know that I’m generally a supporter of transhumanism, though I lack the optimism that most transhumanists exude or must pretend to exude. Ligotti is definitely not a fan:
“Like believers in libertarian free will, transhumanists believe we can make ourselves. But this is impossible. Because of evolution, we got made. We did not bring ourselves out of the primeval ooze. And everything we have done since we became a species has been a consequence of being made. No matter what we do, it will be what we were made to do – and nothing else … We are following orders, as we have always done, that nature is forever barking out” (125).
A primary tenet of all transhumanist thought is that through the use of technology we should radically alter the human condition/body/being and in so doing, wrest evolution from natural processes like natural selection and genetic drift, etc, and bring them under human control. Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson (who has never admitted to being a transhumanist as far as I know) terms this “volitional evolution”. See his book Consilience for more on that idea.
Ligotti rejects this idea because he’s a hard determinist. And as the status of determinism is still up in the air, this objection to transhumanism remains up in the air as well. But Ligotti also presents a far more interesting objection to transhumanism. He writes:
“one possibility that transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take. They have also failed to reflect upon those aspects of the scientific world-view which may be damaging to our mental well-being. In that case, transhumanists will not get as far as stage one in their mission before they must head back to the conspiracy against the human race and be reeducated in the art of self-deceptive paradox” (128).
I’m pretty sure when he speaks of “the ideal being standing at the end of evolution” Ligotti is referring to the grandiose predictions as to the nature of a posthuman being made by prominent transhumanist Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near (which you should read). There Kurzweil describes how all matter in the universe might, in the future, be converted into computing power, creating a universe-sized supercomputer that will closely approximate traditional conceptions of a god. Kurzweil holds that post-Singularity:
“Our civilization will then expand outward, turning all the dumb matter and energy we encounter into sublimely intelligent—transcendent—matter and energy. So in a sense, we can say that the Singularity will ultimately infuse the universe with spirit. Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love, and so on. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal” (389).
Ligotti is right to be skeptical about this benevolent superintelligence. The Singularity is called a singularity because it will be a unique event, the wake of which is impossible to conceive of with our current knowledge and intelligence. We can’t even begin to guess how a being that possesses more computational power and knowledge than all human that have ever existed combined would think or feel. It is certainly seems likely that that superintelligence would see through The Conspiracy, but how would it feel about it? Who knows. It might not be bothered by the meaninglessness of existence.
Ligotti also asserts that transhumanists neglect to consider that “aspects of the scientific world-view … may be damaging to our mental well-being”. If he’s referring to those transhumanists that consider transhumanism an extension of Renaissance humanism and its ideals (Max More, Kurzweil), then I concede him the point. However, this isn’t the case for all transhumanists. There are others who recognize the screaming and awful extent to which human values and ideals will have to change along with radical changes to the physical constitution of the human being. But to be fair to Ligotti, this subgroup of transhumanists is less vocal, or at least (even) less accepted in serious, academic circles, perhaps because they broach issues that must be suppressed by The Conspiracy.
Finally, a problem I have with The Conspiracy. We might call it The Problem with the Suffering Problem. It goes as such: Why and/or how is suffering a problem in a meaningless universe? I mean, how can you use the preponderance of suffering in the universe as grounds for judging that existence is not “all right” or of positive value if the universe is wholly bereft of meaning? How can suffering be of negative value? Isn’t it just valueless? Why and/or how can it be bad to suffer? How can anything at all be bad or good? Judgments about the badness of suffering are necessarily equally as meaningless as judgments about the aesthetic supremacy of blue eyes. And by extension, isn’t existence just valueless, and not of negative value? Isn’t it all just banally neutral or void? I can agree with Ligotti that it’s all USELESS, but I have a hard time seeing how it’s MALIGNANTLY so, other than through eyes that are still crusty with nostalgia. I guess he means that the malignance derives from the uselessness, but there’s still some use to malignance, and in the end it’s all just USELESS. But I get it. MALIGNANTLY USELESS has a pleasant ring to it.