Robert Doede: Human Nature, Technology and Mind-Uploading

by Robert Doede, Professor of Philosophy, Trinity Western University

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College on the University of British Columbia campus. The entire set of posts can be found here.

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As far back as the genus Homo goes, millions of years before Homo sapiens appeared on the scene, we find Homo with tools in hand, and not just found objects to be used as tools in a one-off fashion and then left behind (like other primates), but artifacts, i.e., tools made to be used.[1] Clearly it is not the case that Homo sapiens first evolved and then, deploying its sapience, got involved with tool-making. Rather, our species, Homo sapiens, arose out of the evolutionary entanglement of hominin bodies and artifacts. By making bits of its environment into tools for extending its intentional reach into ever more sophisticated worldly possibilities, our species bootstrapped itself into the higher dimensions of transcendence. Using tools to modify their environment, early hominins were themselves modified by their tool use. Moreover, the altered environments they produced with their tools, in turn, enabled them to further develop their tools, and on and on this mutual amplification continued. This is the back-story of Homo sapiens 200,000+ year romance with technology right up to our current cyborgic trajectory: our way of being-in-the-world is the offspring of a primordial coupling of flesh and tools. Our behaviors, thought, reason, and way of being sapient in the world emerged from eons of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, material tools, and the complex cultural and technological environments they created. 

What this backstory tells us is that evolution has woven technology into our very nature; in fact, our bodies’ form and functionalities bear the indelible impress of technology, which also means that our embodied minds and their concepts bear the birthmarks of those technologies that helped evolve Homos into sapience. Genetics and epigenetics cannot be separated in the emergence of Homo sapiens. When it comes to thinking about human nature and technology, this backstory is not to be forgotten for it carries with it some substantial implications and constraints. I will highlight just a few of the more important ones before I turn briefly to discuss the contentious mind-uploading project that transhumanists believe to follow from this backstory.

I

A few of the more obvious and profoundly important implications of this evolutionary backstory for understanding human nature and its relation to technology are briefly discussed below:

1.     Human nature is not a done deal; it is not a completed, dualistic deposit (or substance) ensconced in a body such that any technological tampering with it would necessarily violate its essential integrity or normativity. In other words, human nature is neither completed nor static, but always becoming. It has a history, a history of change, a history that goes all the way back, a history of change driven largely by its relationships with technologies of one sort or another.

2.     Since our present human nature evolved through eons of entanglement with tools and other socially instigated techniques of bodily augmentation and amplification, technologies are internally related to our human nature in their role as conditions of our nature’s possibility. In other words, technologies’ inroads into human lives are not, and never have been, optional. To a significant extent then, Andy Clark is correct: we are “natural born cyborgs.”

3.     Tool use by our early hominin ancestors was without doubt deeply emancipatory, enabling them to extend their reach into environmental possibilities by amplifying and creating novel forms of engagement with their world and then providing them with the means to offload the taxing burdens that these techno-extensions of their agency brought with them. The majority of tools and technologies Homo sapiens have created, used, and been shaped by were forces of humanization rather than de-humanization. Consequently, the idea that technology is necessarily oppressive or alienating to human nature is a non-starter.

4.     The sharp and clearly delineated boundaries that traditional essentialist philosophies of technology have inscribed between humans and their technologies must be called into question. For example, on the one hand, instrumentalist philosophies of technology construe technology as value-neutral and externally related to autonomous human agents who deploy it to realize their value-laden ends. Means and ends are strictly separate: tools/technologies are value-neutral means upon which human agents impose their value-laden ends. Substantialist philosophies of technology, on the other hand, portray technology as an autonomous agency that carries its own values, is weighted with its own ends, and bears down on and shapes its users’ lives. Whereas instrumentalists preserve the ultimacy of human freedom by giving agency exclusively to technologies’ users, substantialists compromise human freedom in recognizing the autonomous forces of technologies themselves, yet both conceive of technologies and their users as constitutionally distinct entities. The more sophisticated thinking about human nature and technology promoted by the backstory briefly delineated above is boundary blurring. It offers a more dialectical or reflexive model of human-technology relationality: each reciprocally co-determines and mutually accelerates/intensifies the other’s development. Within the context of this more complex model, technologies are recognized as both the products of human agency but also as bearing agential forces, biases, and ends of their own that always mediate and shape human agency and creativity to some non-trivial degree, and thus produce consequences that are not always identical with the intentions or goals of their creators or users.

II

Fabricated artifacts of ever-increasing complexity and capability have accompanied Homo sapiens throughout their history, assisting, extending, augmenting, and enhancing their bodily capacities and potentials. Although we, like others of the primates, have used found-objects as tools to serve our immediate goals, our species is marked by the unique capacity to make physical artifacts into tools not just to assist the satisfactions of our concrete and immediate bodily needs, but also to assist and expand our more abstract and remote intellectual projects. In recent centuries, we populated our world not only with new and ingenious tools and artifacts, but also with massive, powerful, and automated machinery that has profoundly changed our lives and the face of the earth. In the last century however, we have, by virtue of melding our accomplishments in the concrete machinic register with our advancements in the virtual machinic register (the algorithms of our maths and logics), transitioned into a world of automated information technologies that yields stupendous opportunities of intellectual expansion, global connectivity, and direct self-modification. Our information technologies’ transformative power carries enormous potential to remake the human way of being and to reshape the world in which humans have their being.

Recently, there has been a shift in the “direction of fit” of our technologies. Up to a few decades ago, technology was all about changing the world better to fit with the needs of our nature; increasingly, however, technology has become more about changing our nature better to fit the demands of our technologically changed world. As technologies have entered and transformed our communication, medical, economic, and entertainment industries, our vision of health, flourishing, and the good life has become increasingly bound up with technologies. The moral wisdom gained from hundreds of millennia of technological endeavors aimed at changing the world to accommodate the limitations of our nature is now coming to a crisis as we face the new moral questions and challenges arising from our most recent capacities to amend technologically human nature to better integrate into our technologically changed world.

In fact, in recent decades, as new computational developments and their resultant technologies have entered and transformed every facet of human life, we are finding that the only way to keep on track for the good life is to become efficient techno-products ourselves! It would appear that the spiralling dynamic of human-technology co-evolution is leading us not merely to a literal human-technology cyborgic merger, but to a total erasure of our flesh in order to realize what the radical transhumanists envision as the ultimate good life, viz., digital immortality. As the discourse and grounding metaphors of the information revolution increasingly permeate our thinking, and as the march of our information technologies reduce more and more dimensions of human reality to digitization, one gets the distinct impression that mind uploading is our destiny—is the subject position for which our love affair with technology was all along preparing us.

Despite our long and winding history of intimacy with tools and technology, mind uploading is not our destiny; indeed, it is not even coherent as a concept. The question we need to ask is “How did we get to the point where we can realistically entertain the notion of engineering the uploading of human identities onto inorganic digital platforms, especially given the prevailing evolutionary and physicalist ideological climate characteristic of contemporary western thought?” To answer this question and, at the same time, demonstrate the folly of the supposition that a technologically engineered post-biological future for humanity is a natural outgrowth of the antecedent forces that birthed humanity in the first place, we must

  1. Examine the conceptual roots of the world-machine metaphor and the ensuing modern mind-body problem that it created. Late medieval nominalism and voluntarism gave impetus to the movement of disenchantment that spanned the four centuries of the West’s transition from premodernity to modernity, a period in which the organismic metaphors of premodern thought were exchanged for the machinic metaphors that would underwrite the scientific revolution. But the metaphysics driving this transition and underwriting the emerging modern sciences were soon discovered to neither account for nor accommodate qualities or values, let alone autonomous and rational mind/persons. The early modern aporia dubbed “the mind-body problem” was the precursor to contemporary cognitivism’s hardware-software divide. This new, more scientifically acceptable dualism, has been leveraged by the radical transhumanists to support depictions of the body as a meat machine (hardware) and of the mind as a mental machine (software) which make easy and almost natural a conception of mind as separable from the body—a conception essential to the plausibility of transhumanist mind uploading scenarios.

  2. Explore the shift from analog computing to digital computing and the ensuing rise of strong AI and cognitivism that took place between the 1940s and the 1970s. The shift from analogue to digital computing further amplifies and intensifies the late medieval and early modern trajectory towards abstraction and disembodiment—key features upon which the plausibility of transhumanist mind-uploading scenarios depend.

  3. Analyze the phenomenological and socio-linguistic factors and forces that promote the reading of metaphors into metaphysics, motivate the realistic reading of abstractions, and encourage the reification of information. Contemporary cognitivist AI has lost its bearings in the conceptual fog of its own abstractions and metaphors. By conceiving of abstract mathematical information structures as stand-alone bearers of meaning and by anthropomorphizing the computer and “computomorphizing” the mind/brain such that these metaphorical transferences interact and recursively reinforce each other, the ideological foundations for believing that minds compute and computers think have been laid. Within the dubious metaphysical framework constructed through these conceptual shenanigans, a view of the human mind as nothing more than complex algorithms and information processing that are separable from the “wetware” of human flesh and technologically transferable to a superior computational substrate, is made to appear scientifically plausible.

In brief, by genealogically exposing the historical contingencies and conceptual confusions that have led to, and now support, the plausibility of the hyper-modern trope of mind-uploading, we  undermine the conceptual plausibility and the cultural clout that the notion of transferring human identities to digital platforms currently carries.

[1] Found objects used to alter other objects=tools; tools used to make more sophisticated tools=artifacts; artifacts used to make more automated artifacts=technologies?!