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Sunday, August 3 2014

Toward the Posthuman

Luc Besson's new film Lucy, which opened nationwide last week, is one of the most  thoughtful and challenging science fiction movies since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. While many science fiction films address some of the large philosophical questions, in most cases either the questions are tangential to the main thrust of the plot, or they get overshadowed by special effects and gee-whiz production values. Lucy, however, dives headfirst into one of the most important questions: What does it mean to be a human being?

The question is framed in terms of another question, potentially just as important, that has periodically arisen in science fiction books and movies: What will it look like when we, or our descendants, are no longer quite human? What does the Posthuman future hold for us?

The term "Posthuman" is, itself, a tricky one. It has at least two distinct, mutually exclusive definitions.

In the realm of cultural criticism, Posthumanism (or, if you like, Antihumanism) is a reaction to the Renaissance philosophy of Humanism. Humanism ponders the importance and distinct nature of human beings;  it's the basis for all our ideas of individual rights, individual worth, and infinite human potential. Post/Antihumanism rejects those idea, and urges us to consider ourselves as no better than the rest of Nature—and perhaps, in some respects, worse, since we are presumptively guilty of the rape and destruction of the natural world.

Transhumanism, on the other hand, points toward a future in which human beings will move to an even more exalted state, usually by virtue or as a consequence of our actions as human beings. "Posthuman" is what we will one day become: so different and so magnified in our capacities and abilities, and so far beyond our current limitations, that we are no longer quite recognizable as human. Transhumanism is an explicitly humanistic school of thought, and as such, Antihumanists tend to reject it, treating the idea with complete hostility.

For the purposes of this discussion, I use "Posthuman" to mean the exalted state of the human who has been elevated to a no-longer-quite-human condition. Transhumanism is the set of ideas about how to get there.

As I mentioned before, the Posthumanist idea has arisen frequently in science fiction novels and movies; Lucy is the most recent example. Some of the most interesting things about it are all the parallels between it and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick's groundbreaking 1968 movie. First, both films suggest (explicitly, in the case of 2001, implicitly in Lucy) that the genesis of human consciousness took place millions of years ago as a result of contact with a far advanced intelligence. In the case of Lucy, that intelligence was a human being who had ascended to the Posthuman state via exposure to a miracle drug. In 2001, it's alien intelligences that deliberately nudge humanity upward along the evolutionary path. Both movies also feature an extended ending sequence showing the protagonist's journey (depicted through dazzling special effects) where they transcend their humanity and become a new sort of being. Finally, both movies prompt the viewer to wonder what connection, if any, might still remain between the protagonist and the rest of us—the fundamental question in Transhumanist SF.

Apart from Lucy and 2001: A Space Odyssey, other notable examples in the genre include:

  • The Six Million Dollar Man: One of the most famous television adventure series of the 1970s, TSMDM told the story of astronaut Steve Austin, critically injured in a crash, whose life was saved by a government agency that implanted him with various cybernetic devices.  Austin's "bionic" prosthetics (both legs, an arm, and an eye) granted him superhuman strength, agility, and vision, effectively turning him into a superhero. By this measure, Steve Austin was perhaps the first Posthuman character to be widely accepted in mass market popular culture.
  • The X-Men: In 1963, comic book publisher Stan Lee introduced a new team of superheroes, the X-Men, who have been popularized in the past decade with a series of extremely successful movies. The X-Men are all mutants: people born with an altered genetic structure that gives them special abilities (i.e. super-powers) and permanently separates them from the rest of humankind. If mutants did exist, they would by definition be Posthuman, albeit in such a way as to be entirely irrelevant to the rest of us, since there's no way to become a mutant, one is simply born that way.
  • Dawn:  One of the more interesting examples comes from award-winning science fiction author Octavia Butler. In 1987, Butler published Dawn, the first book in her Xenogenesis trilogy. Set on Earth after a devastating war, the books tell the story of humanity's interaction with the Oankali, an alien race that rescued the remnants of humanity from extinction. This rescue came at a steep price: the transformation of the human race by genetic merger with the Oankali. While cross-breeding with alien races is not itself a new or unique concept in science fiction (Star Trek's Mr. Spock, half human and half Vulcan, may be the most famous example), there are few if any other works of SF that posit this particular vision of  the Posthuman future.
  • Transcendence: This 2014 Johnny Depp movie features one of the most explicitly Transhumanist storylines out there—one which many critics felt was squandered on a silly, poorly-written plot. In the movie, Depp plays a computer scientist researching Artificial Intelligence, whose consciousness is transferred into his computer in order to save his life. Transcendence is one a very small number of Transhumanist pop culture works to specifically reference Singularity, one of the most important concepts in Transhumanist thinking. We'll come back to Singularity in a moment.

There are other examples, of course, but that gives a decent idea of some of the range and scope of what's out there.

Apart from the realms of science fiction, there are two other philosophical realms of thought that border on the Transhuman, which bear some mention: Christianity, and Marxism. Granted, neither is the same as the Transhumanism that is based in science and explored in science fiction. Still, it's interesting to note some parallels. In particular, these comparisons suggest there is something deeply rooted in the human psyche that looks to transform to another mode of being.

One of the central concepts in Christian theology is the Resurrection. Resurrection is Christ's promise to His followers, prefigured by His own resurrection three days after His death on the cross. As to the specific nature and meaning of the Resurrection, in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul writes:

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body…

Paul uses the image of a seed that is sown, and the plant that grows from that seed. If the analogy holds, then the difference between the mortal body that dies and the resurrected body that arises will be as great, perhaps, as that between an acorn and an oak tree. Moreover, in Christian theology, one of the defining characteristics of human nature is Original Sin: we are born in sin, we are helpless to resist it. The resurrected body, however, will be free of that limitation, will live without the stain of Original Sin. It may fairly be said, then, that the Christian tale of resurrection is one of change, from the narrow, limited, human state, to a glorified, transcendent, Posthuman state.

It just happens to be a Posthuman state that comes from God, rather than from aliens, pharmacology or computers.

This points back to the question that we started with: What does it mean to be human? In the context of Transhumanism, the question is transformed slightly: what does it mean to transcend humanity, and what human qualities does the Posthuman leave behind? The answer varies, depending on the specific vision under consideration. For Christianity, the transcended state is about leaving behind Man's sinful nature. For astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001, the Posthuman state transcended human dependence on spaceships, on conventional life support, on limited awareness of spacetime. And for Steve Austin, the titular Six Million Dollar Man, his cybernetic implants made him (as the famous formulation goes) "better… stronger… faster."

In every case, Transhumanism is primarily about liberating human beings from the limitations that hold us back from an imagined, glorious future. So is it just wishful thinking? Is Transhumanism simply a fantasy world where frail, limited human beings can pretend to be more than they are?

Critics of Marxism would certainly answer "yes", particularly when it comes to the Communist vision of a Posthuman world. In Marxist theory, what we call "Human Nature" is not fixed; it's determined by the "factors of production" that define the prevailing economic system. This is Economic Determinism: under a system of slavery, Human Nature is suited to the institution of slavery, according to whether one is a slave or an owner. Under Capitalism, Human Nature is suited to the ownership of private property. And under Communism, Human Nature is suited to the absence of both private property and individual rights as we currently understand them. This is another sort of Posthumanist idea: the Communist future depends on all of mankind transcending our limited attachment to property and individualism.

The Communist Posthuman state would mean that private property can be successfully abolished without simply creating another system of exploiters and exploited. But to those of us who observe history, it is apparent that this is not how the world works. From Russia to China, from Cambodia to Cuba, it's clear that everywhere that Communism has been tried, what emerged was a system of a privileged few ruling over the miserable many, no different from the pharaohs, chiefs or kings of old. Seen by that light, Economic Determinism looks very much like pure wishful thinking.

For some, though, Transhumanism is anything but a fantasy.

Ray Kurzweil is a famous computer scientist, inventor, and futurist. The Kurzweil music synthesizer, computer speech recognition, and optical character recognition (OCR) are just a few of the inventions Kurzweil has to his name. Currently, his focus is on the development of Artificial Intelligence. And there are few people on the planet who place more intellectual stock in Transhuman thinking than Kurzweil, who is among the leading proponents of the idea of Singularity.

In 1999, Kurzweil published The Age of Spiritual Machines. It set forth the "Law of Accelerating Returns," a theory that the ever-increasing tempo of new technological innovations and scientific discoveries points toward a fundamental change in what it means to be human:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense 'intuitive linear' view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The 'returns,' such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.

Singularity is the ultimate Transhumanist idea, a change in the human condition so abrupt and entire that, as with the physical singularity that lies at the heart of a black hole, we cannot possibly see or even imagine what lies on the other side. And unlike other Transhumanist ideas, Singularity may not be science fiction or wish-fulfillment fantasy. Ray Kurzweil doesn't think so, at any rate. From observing the current and historical rates of technological change, Kurzweil has extrapolated forward, and pinpointed Singularity as happening—actually happening—in the year 2045. It may be even sooner than that; writer Vernor Vinge identifies 2030 as the year of Singularity.

Whichever is right, this means that not only is the Posthuman future a certainty, but that many who are now living will see it happen.

If Kurzweil, Vinge and the rest are right about the imminence of Singularity and the Posthuman condition, then it's impossible to say what continuity there will be for a philosophy of Individualism. One of the defining characteristics of human beings is our individuality. Despite vague theories about collective unconscious, racial memory and the like, the reality is that every human being lives a life entirely contained within the boundaries of his or her own mind, perceptions, and imagination. Whether or not this state of affairs will continue past the point of Singularity is impossible to predict.

In the 2013 movie Pacific Rim, giant robots called "Jaegers" were controlled by pairs of human pilots whose minds were linked via technology, in a shared consciousness called "The Drift." The implications of such a technology are sobering. In the Drift, Jaeger pilots share thoughts, memories, and consciousness, with no barriers. If such a technology were to become reality, some sort of Hive Mind or true collective consciousness could lie in our future. One predicted facet of Singularity, after all, would be the transfer of human consciousness into computers. Given current understanding of computer networking, then, one can easily imagine just such an outcome. And what lies on the other side of Singularity is likely to be stranger than anything we could possibly imagine.

If, if, if. Whatever the future might hold, it's important to hold on to the fact that, at present, we remain individuals, and the values and principles that attach to that fact remain important. That doesn't mean that it isn't still fascinating—and frequently entertaining— to speculate on what might be coming down the pike. With each new advance, it gets harder to imagine that the future of humankind doesn't include some profound shift in the definition of that all-important word, "human."

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