Once more I was selected to give a talk at re:publica 2018 this time about Transhumanism, public perception of AI and the singularity, which I investigated using a critical utopian perspective.
As always I am sharing the transcript (I am working on a German translation to be shared in a couple days), slides and footnotes as well as further reading materials. Since it was the last day of another inspiring and important 3 day conference, the stage management was a bit tired and somehow made me hurry though I still had a lot of time, and sadly they didn't capture some of the important slides, but you will find all of them below. Hope you'll enjoy and will find it helpful for your own further investigations and thinking about this important topic framing our futures.
What if, the cyborg and the zombie represent flip sides of a giant problem humanity is facing right now?
A problem so huge that we, as a global community, just like the climate catastrophe or any other of the looming disasters, try to repress it. Because it’s so overwhelming, that despite knowing that doing so will seal our doom, we still, rather not deal with it.
The huge problem I am talking about here, is, as Sylvia Wynter 1. calls it, that,
the “answer to the question of who we are,” we give ourselves, leaves us helpless.
And today with this presentation, I hope to help identify the root of this problem, so that we collectively can work a way out of it and reclaim our future.
But let’s start with a simple question: If you were faced with the choice of becoming a cyborg or a zombie tomorrow, what would you choose?
For some of us, the cyborg, embodies an empowering way to imagine human agency in a seemingly inevitable, more and more technological future, where sooner or later humans will merge with machines. For some like Elon Musk, the probably most famous Transhumanist of our times, becoming a cyborg and fleeing the earth to colonise Mars, represents the only hope for human survival. He believes, in a future where AI will give rise to the singularity, or as it sometimes called, the Intelligence Explosion, which according to him, despite it’s rather inspiring name, threatens to turn us all into pets of machines and the world into paperclips. If you asked me, that sounds a bit crazy, but anyway even Stephen Hawking, one of Science greatest minds, was worried about the Singularity. And if that’s so, it is maybe safe to say, that the cyborg, fusing human consciousness with information technology under a shiny armour, at least represents some kind of hope for the future of humanity.
Whereas the zombie most of us associate with a racist colonial past, a hopeless capitalist present or an apocalyptical future, where biotech will turn us into monsters and that quite probably no human will ever survive.
So, who in their right mind, would ever chose to be a zombie?
Well, I would.
And in the next half an hour, I will argue, not only that the cyborg has been hijacked by dark forces, that, behind its shiny armour, promote a future build on white supremacy, “race science”, eugenics and social darwinism. But that its often misunderstood and up side down, yet almost identical twin, the zombie, offers a more appealing answer to our questions about ourselves, our future, our fears and hopes and dreams.
Since, I am fairly certain, that you are all familiar with various pop culture appearances of our two unlikely twins, I will start by introducing quickly, the philosophies that stand behind each of them, and talk about the ideology that links them both together. In the second part I will, with the help of Sylvia Wynter, explore the roots and history of this ideology, we are all familiar with, under the name of “the law of nature”.
And finally I will show you how by embracing the zombie, we might become able again, to imagine a bright and collaborative future that includes all human beings.
Let’s start with the zombie. 2.
The maybe oldest conception of the zombie myth, we in the Western world are familiar with, is the idea that it expressed the horrors of colonial slavery. Horrors which were so dreadful and inhuman, that it caused enslaved Africans to fear, that even dead might not free them from their burdens, and that they could be forced to work and suffer for infinity.
But today, zombies, or the Undead, are less known for their exploitable work power (although they maybe should be) than for being ‘unconscious automatons’ with an insatiable urge to consume human flesh. We all know them from various movies and tv shows, where they are portrayed as an infectious, deadly threat, that their former kin and even family members, are supposed to kill to survive, without any mercy or moral considerations. So, it may come as a surprise to some, that the zombie has a long philosophical history, where it doesn’t eat brains and looks rather different.
Yes, in Philosophy, the Living Dead look and act exactly like us.
It all started with Rene Descartes, who lived in the 17th. Century and you may know for his famous quote: “I think, therefore I am.” He lived during, what is called the Scientific Revolution and believed that non-human animals were mere machines. Automata, whose behaviour could be wholly explained in terms of physical mechanisms.
But for him, distinctively human behaviour could not be explained that way. It required something extra, something beyond the physical, an immaterial mind.
Descartes believed, that if we all suddenly lost our minds, our bodies might continue to function for a while, the same way as our hearts keep beating, and we keep breathing and digesting food while we are asleep, and that we might, even be able to walk around in mindless sort of way. But that without our minds we wouldn’t have what makes us human. Yes, Descartes did everything short of spelling out the idea of zombies.
And he did so, because he wanted to show that humans are more than machines.
But 200 hundred years later, in the 19th. Century, the Enlightenment had left its mark and scientists began to be convinced that science, as in physics, should be able to explain everything. They believed in a world closed under causation, meaning that all physical events had a physical cause. And so, Neuro Physiology set out to explain even human behaviour. But there was one, quite big problem, one science, even today, still grapples with: Consciousness.3.
Phenomena of consciousness are hard to account for in physical terms, and when Physicalism (or Materialism), claimed that consciousness involves only physical processes, these scientists had to conclude something very counterintuitive. Namely, that consciousness, since it can’t be measured in physical terms, had to have no effect on the physical world.
What this means is, that human beings were reduced to being ‘conscious machines’, and consciousness to a causally inert byproduct, meaning it didn’t matter.
Human beings were stripped of their agency.
But erasing human agency, and with it making finding a purpose in life quite difficult, wasn’t the most baffling consequence of this conclusion. It also entailed that at least in theory, it should be possible for physical organisms to exist, people, just like us, but lacking consciousness. It made a zombie world possible! 4.
A world whose physical processes are closed under causation and exactly duplicate those in our actual world, but where there are no conscious experiences.
A world against all common sense, in which human bodies, without consciousness and ever experiencing anything, would still have gone through the motions of building cities, making and using bridges, telephones and telegraphs, the internet, the web…in short, all of the things that we do. Hard to swallow, isn’t it?
But since, zombies 5. are such a powerful counterexample to contest physicalism in general, a lot of arguments were made to back up this intuition, that they should be possible, or at least conceivable. Because if they are not, we would have to question a lot about how science explains human behaviour.
So, if such a zombie world still sounds more absurd than conceivable to you, remember that today’s dominant theory of the human mind, is still founded on physicalism.
Which brings us to the cyborg 6., and the lately so hyped fear of a looming singularity.
If the zombie is a human machine stripped of consciousness, the cyborg is the idea that human consciousness could be merged with a physical machine. I hope it becomes clear now, why I see these two as inverted twins. Both are seen as machines, one lacks consciousness and the other wants to have it.
What I will outline next, is how loosing agency and a sense of purpose laid the foundation for, what could be called a religious fundamentalism, by which Transhumanists propose technology as our only saviour. But first let’s look at what humanity, apparently needs saving from, the singularity. 7.
The singularity, is a kind of supernatural being, a machine that surpasses human level intelligence and whose possibility rests on the question weather one believes that the human brain is a machine or not. If it is, scientists will sooner or later figure out how it works and equipped with that knowledge might become able to turn dead matter into life.
But for the singularity to happen Artificial Intelligence will have to become conscious of itself. People who spread fear about the singularity, believe that neuroscience will very soon be able to explain not only the brain but consciousness by figuring out how neural processes carry and transfer information. Or one could say, by simply looking and measuring the computational and neural facts and functionality of our brain. If they succeed, the brain could be modelled by computers and should give rise to an independent artificial consciousness, the singularity.
But despite that Neuroscience has made impressive advances in mapping what goes on in our brains, one should remember that the brain contains about 85 billion neurons. 8. Which is close to the number of stars in the Milky Way, and seems quite a lot. Especially if you think about, that not only will scientists have to figure out what each of these neurons does, but how they all interact together. We are talking about at least hundred trillion synapses and to make it even harder, how these neurons interact and are connected, is slightly different in each and any of us.
But even if we were anywhere close to having all of this figured out, it still wouldn’t explain how all these interactions give rise to a subjective experience. As Neuroscientist Joy Hirsch explains: “We don’t even understand how the brain creates colors. I don’t know that your perception of blue is like my perception of blue. Or take smells, I don’t know that your perception of the smell of an orange is like mine. These are the hard problems of neuroscience and philosophy that we haven’t made a great deal of progress on.”
What this all comes down to, is, that despite all the progress, we still don’t have the slightest idea how the brain creates consciousness and what is called Qualia, or “how it feels like” to be you and perceive the world right now in this moment. Qualia or the ability to turn sensory input or triggered emotions into feelings and reflection is an essential part of consciousness, and yet we still have no idea how it happens.
So if this is where Science stands, how could it be that the singularity is perceived as such an immediate and deadly threat? Personally, what I find the most puzzling about this, is, that if you take the singularity’s media presence as an indicator, it seems, more scientists are interested in solving the problem of how to create life from dead matter than for example stopping the climate catastrophe and the millions of human deaths that will accompany it.
This bothered me quite a lot and so I began investigating the philosophy that informs the alarmist claims of such prominent figures like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel 9., who believe that the only way to deal with this menace of a looming singularity, is either enhancing our cognitive abilities by implanting technology into our brains, becoming cyborgs, or directly uploading our minds into machines, becoming immortal.
So, let’s talk about Transhumanism. 10.
Most people, Transhumanists included, would probably say, Transhumanism is the belief that the human self and body can be improved by merging it with technology and through it, ultimately, transcend its mere humanity, becoming immortal. Transhumnists believe that if the singularity becomes real before we are anywhere close to this goal, that humans would be utterly unprepared to compete with their own creation. And to understand the fear they are spreading, it’s important to highlight one little word in this last sentence: compete. Because the Enlightenment not only gave rise to the scientific method, that brought us physicalism and stripped human consciousness of any agency, it also gave rise to Darwin’s theory of evolution and Malthus concept of natural scarcity. In short, it reduced individual and collective human life to competition in Darwin’s famous “struggle for existence.”
And when you elevate this “struggle for life” to an ideology, what you get is libertarians. So, behind the shiny surface of the transhumanist cyborg dream, that’s exactly what I found . For example, Max More, who calls himself the founder of modern Transhumanism and who created “the proactionary principle.” A principle that turns consumers into lab rats, by claiming that innovation and becoming immortal is so important, that there should be no regulation on putting whatever product, you may come up with, immediately on the market. And in case, an innovation or untested medicine, ends up hurting anyone, you just pay with profits gained for those human “damages”.
Or take billionaire Peter Thiel, who allegedly funds experiments of harvesting and transfusing young people’s blood to help old, rich people live longer. Or Professor Steve Fuller, who claims that people, who oppose diverting public resources to developing life extension technologies, should be seen as zombies. And that the most attractive option to deal with Zombies, has always been killing. But, since genocide is still politically controversial, to say the least, Transhumanists are therefore stuck with having to convince these “underdeveloped,” less valuable humans to become “fully alive.”
It’s not only a despicable social darwinism, that it reveals it self here, but the surprising fact that despite Transhumanists being stark Darwinists, they seem to believe in a purpose of life. For Fuller, becoming alive, becoming conscious, is to recognise humanities purpose or end goal, to overcome death and become immortal.
And this is surprising, because if you take the perspective of Darwinism, you would try to avoid talking about a human goal or purpose. Because the fundamental idea in Darwinian thinking is, that the purposes were sort of discovered, as things evolved. Selecting certain kinds of routine behaviour, because they were “good,” or providing an advantage for winning the “struggle for life”. 11.
So, what I tried to show so far, is, that this, our dominant scientific world view, reducing us to biological machines, has left us with a gaping hole inside.
Transhumanists included. Most of us, have a hard time finding a meaning in life, so much so, that now, even people who elevate the essence of this reduction, as their sole purpose, start inventing a supernatural being, to worship or be afraid of, just to find a meaning.
And I think, what makes itself visible here, is, that humanity has always relied on telling itself a story. A story of a supernatural order, responsible for the laws that govern our world and its power structures. The Transhumanist’s need to prove that consciousness is physical, is like trying to prove, once and for all, that physicalism’s ‘conscious biological machines’ is, really all we are. And Darwinism’s tabu of thinking about, why and what for, we have evolved to have consciousness, a consciousness, that makes us storytellers that constantly seek for a meaning, reveals itself as the contradiction that it is.
And Science becomes visible as yet another belief system, one with churches that worship a new god, created by humans, but as unstoppable, and almighty as all the ones we known before.12.
But this blurring of science with religion, not only becomes visible in Transhumanism’s fierce technological determinism. It also shows itself in all of us. How we helplessly watch how technology eats our rights, welfare and privacy. And in our cynicism and refusal to imagine anything different.
If we are merely biological machines, fighting over resources and who gets to procreate, we won’t make it, we all know that. So, what does it mean, when the most hopeful future in the public mainstream, is abandoning earth to colonise Mars, or becoming immortal uploading our minds into machines? How many of us and who, will get to live that dream? 13.
A couple weeks ago I listened an interview with Jordan Peterson, where he claims, that if one enforced “true” equality, what would follow, is, that people would loose their reason for living. And that all, there would be left, is suffering.
Suffering. It’s such a remarkable statement, and I don’t think he is referring to physical pain here, but what in religious terms might be called, a suffering of the human soul. He seems to be convinced that there cannot be any other meaning or purpose in life, except the “natural” self-interested Darwinian fight.
I think, understanding this pain, is important, because what humanity needs, isn’t any more fighting, but persuasion and a better story.
A story against all common sense, of a world in which human bodies, built cities, made and used bridges, telephones and telegraphs, the internet, the web…all without ever being conscious of what they are doing. A zombie world, but a zombie world that finally wakes up.
Sylvia Wynter holds that the huge problem humanity is facing right now, is the challenge to envision a new science, a “science of the word.” 14. A challenge comparable to the one made by Copernicus when, against the hegemonic Christian worldview, he declared that the earth moves. And with this realisation, undermined the church’s entire plan for salvation. This is a challenge where we will have to come to realise, the importance of our stories. 15.
For, the beauty of Darwinian thinking, is, not only, that one gets a tool for understanding the world, but, also, maybe even more importantly, a way of how to define “good.”
And Wynter reminds us, that “good” as well as “purpose,” were once words, which meaning and value were defined by the church. She shows, that our societies were always defined by mirroring the laws of an half scientific, half imagined supernatural order, and that the relationship between religion and the secularisation (and with it science), needs to be understood historically, as a story.
If we want a future, where the answer to the question of who we are, includes everyone, we need to understand how for the first time the Western ‘Man’ became an overrepresentation for what it means to be human.
We need to understand, how in medieval Christian Europe a scholastic order dictated the concept of ‘Man’ in theological terms. Dividing humanity for the first time, into “True Christian Selves” and their ‘untrue Others’. And how this story of who we are, in a struggle for power, got already reinvented twice. The first time during the Renaissance, when Humanism was born, and Christians set sail to explore and colonise the world. Establishing the first racial hierarchy, this time by reinventing the divide based on a by-nature-difference of rationality.
And how 200 years later, the Enlightenment, with its reductionism, Darwin and Malthus, then, demanded the second reinvention. Because the combination of Darwin’s theory of evolution, with Malthus concept of “Natural Scarcity,” not only cemented and naturalised a racial hierarchy but amplified who would be othered, and pushed on the less valued side of the human divide. Because from then on, it included anyone, unable to master this law of nature. Anyone who, no matter how hard they tried, would never be a Western ”Man”, the dys- selected, the poor, women, anyone different. 16.
But, we humans are not only regulated by our genes, neither are we mere machines.
We are what Wynter calls “Homo Narrans,” storytelling, hybrid beings.
And the stories we tell condition not only our behaviour, but how we do science and study nature. We need to recognise the ambiguity of our current situation, that is neither religious, nor secular. Because if the current configuration of the relationship between religion and secularity, is a contingent, historical development, rather than a lawlike historical necessity. Then as all contigent, historical developments, it can change. 17.
So, yes, the zombie world is possible.
But just like a story, like a magic spell, could turn us humans into zombies. Zombies, who feel hope and powerless, not knowing why they are doing what they are doing, but following a supernatural script.
Those zombies can awaken, and throw away this script. Because they come to realise, that who makes a script reality, is us.
And finally, we can re-imagine what it means to be human.
Not by becoming transhuman, reinventing another divide, but by becoming human.
By re-enchanting humanism and creating a new, post secular world.
A Humanism without divisions and degrees, that includes everybody, and ushers a new world where science supports our meaning. Because what really makes us so special and different from other beings, is that we are storytellers. Storytellers who always have been, collectively, creating the future.
So, if we want this zombie world to finally awaken, to get out of this nightmare, all we have to do, is realise, that being human is a praxis.
1. Essential reading list by Sylvia Wynter:
The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Svlvia Wvnter
PROUD FLESH Inter/Views: Sylvia Wynter
Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation--An Argument
On How We Mistook the MaE for the Territory, and Re-Ir~prisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Desetre - Black Studies Toward the Human Project
Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, of “Identity” and What it’s Like to be “Black”
Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis edited by Katherine McKittrick
2. Recommend checking out Zombie Theoryby Sarah Juliet Lauro I absolutely loved this book.
3. On the problem of consciousness:
Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?
4. Fantastic essay on David Chalmers:
Zombies Must Be Dualists What the existence of zombies would do to our philosophy of mind.
5. Highly recommend the article on Zombies at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
6. Examining the symbiosis of the human body and the machine-the cyborg body- in contemporary marketing communications.:
Cyborg Consciousness: A Visual Culture Approach to the Technologised Body
"I can’t believe the blissed-out techno-idiocy of people who talk about downloading human consciousness onto a chip." #posthumanism
When We Have Never Been Human, What Is To Be Done? Interview with Donna Haraway
Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.
Blog-Post for Cyborgs - On Donna Haraway - McKenzie Wark
7. Recommend reading these four articles together:
The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis - David J. Chalmers
Intelligent Machines - Moore’s Law Is Dead. Now What?
“The Lebowski Theorem”: No superintelligent AI is going to bother with a task that is harder than hacking its reward function.
The empty brain - Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer
8. An underlying motivation for this paper is to counter the view that artificial evolution will facili- tate the technological singularity, by arguing that the energy costs are likely to be prohibitively high.
"The most complex robot controllers evolved to date have perhaps 100 artificial neurons, somewhat less but of the same order as C. elegans (nematode roundworm), with 302 neurons and ∼ 5000 synapses." To get a sense where we are: human brain around 85 billion neurons.
Estimating the Energy Cost of (Artificial) Evolution - Alan F.T. Winfield
9. Must reads on AI / Singularity fearmongering
Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear - Ted Chiang
The existential paranoia fueling Elon Musk’s fear of AI
An Open Letter To Everyone Tricked Into Fearing Artificial Intelligence - Don't believe the hype about artificial intelligence, or the horror
Blame the Computer - The fake science that keeps threatening to kill us - Corey Pein
10. On Transhumanism:
WHAT IS TRANSHUMANISM? - Nick Bostrom
11. Very interesting interview with Antonio Damasio about his latest book 'The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures' where he talks quite a bit about Darwinism
Antonio Damasio podcast
12. Transhumanism and Religion
God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism
Thinking Outside the Old Religious Box - Transhumanism is complicating the sometimes antagonistic relationship between faith and science.
13. Transhumanism and Libertariansim
THE LIBERTARIAN LOGIC OF PETER THIEL
The first men to conquer death will create a new social order – a terrifying one
The strange and conflicting world views of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel
The Moldbug Variations - Feudalism is the new conservatism - Corey Pein
A couple terrifying articles by Zoltan Ishtvan:
The Growing World of Libertarian Transhumanism - Freedom from the government will allow radical science to go on undisturbed.
QUANTUM ARCHAEOLOGY: THE QUEST TO 3D-BIOPRINT EVERY DEAD PERSON BACK TO LIFE
14.More on Sylvia Wynter and Cesaire "Science of the Word”
Real Human Being - SERYNADA
16. A must read on the recent comeback of "race science"
The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’- Its defenders claim to be standing up for uncomfortable truths, but race science is still as bogus as ever. By Gavin Evans
17. Recommend reading Ola Sigurdson on Postsecularity - especially this paper, which is included in 'Zombie Theory - A Reader'
Slavoj Žižek, the Death Drive, and Zombies: A Theological Account