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Posthumanisms: A Carnapian Experiment
Daryl Wennemann   Mar 19, 2015   Ethical Technology  

In his article, “What is the Difference between Posthumanism and Transhumanism?”, Kevin LaGrandeur sets out to clarify the meaning of the terms “posthuman”, “transhuman” and “posthumanism”. (http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/lagrandeur20141226) He notes that the relative newness of the terminology is a source of confusion among many who employ these terms.

Carey Wolfe made the same observation in his study of 2010, What is Posthumanism?, noting that “the term has begun to emerge with different and sometimes competing meanings.” (p. xii) I would like to carry out a sort of philosophical experiment to disambiguate the meanings of the term “posthuman” in an attempt to dispel some of the confusion surrounding the use of this term.

LaGrandeur posits that the term “posthuman” has the sense of “that condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined.” He then refines its meaning as follows, “the posthuman is a projected state of humanity in which unlocking of the information patterns that those who believe in the posthuman say make us what we are—will shift the focus of humanness from our outward appearance to those information patterns.” Identifying the human will then depend upon the functioning of a being rather than its outward form. “humanness will be defined by how a species operates—in other words, whether it processes information like a human, is sentient, empathic, intelligent, and such—rather than how it looks.”  (http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/lagrandeur20141226) This reference to the species functioning of human beings strikes me as having the sense of the term “humanB” that I have used in my work Posthuman Personhood. There I attempted to disambiguate the meaning of the term “human” by differentiating the biological humanity of a member of the human species and the moral humanity of a member of the moral community, designated by the term “humanM. This latter term indicates that a being may be a member of the moral community whether or not it is biologically human.

In Posthuman Personhood I see myself as having attempted to evaluate our technological self-transformation with regard to the possibility of maintaining personal existence, again whether humanB or not. This is what David Roden has simply called a “Principle of Accounting”. “But surely humans and transhumans have a duty to evaluate the outcomes of their technical activities of these differences with a view to maximizing the chances of good posthuman outcomes or minimizing the chances of bad ones (Principle of Accounting)

From the human/transhuman of view some posthuman worlds might be transcendently good. But others could lead to a very rapid extinction of all humans, or something even more hellish.” (http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=3348)

It is clear, then, that the term “posthuman” can have a positive or negative moral connotation. Having distinguished the different senses of the term “human,” I would like to suggest that the positive or negative connotations associated with this term can be found in an ambiguity in the meaning of the term “post”. For some, like Francis Fukuyama, our posthumanB future is one that holds the possibility of a loss of personal existence through the genetic manipulation of humanB beings. Nick Bostrom has also explored the myriad paths through which a superintelligence could “lead to a very rapid extinction of all humans, or something even more hellish.” (Roden/http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=3348). These scenarios depict a hypo-posthumanB condition. It represents a decline in human existence that could result from the increase in speed and power associated with various technological developments. I believe we could designate this sense of a posthumanB condition by the term “postOhumanB ” or “pOhB .” And since there is a decline in the possibility of a moral dimension associated with this condition, there is also a damaging of the humanM condition. The postOhumanB may thus be correlated with a postOhumanM- (pOhM-) order.

The enhancements that are often associated with transhumanism may also be conceived as a hyper-posthumanB condition. Here, humanB beings are seen as being enhanced by various technological developments. HumanB beings may be altered pharmacologically or through cyber technologies (implants, prostheses) or genetic engineering to produce a more rational, empathetic, and thus morally advanced humanM being. It is also possible that computers or robots may be produced that are not humanB but morally superior in some ways to humanB beings. This hyper-posthumanB condition may be designated by the term “postRhumanB”. Because such a hyper-posthumanB condition represents an improvement in the ability of posthumanB beings to carry out a personal existence, it would be designated “postRhumanM+ ” or “pRhM+ .” The term “posthuman” has such a positive connotation for Rosi Braidotti. “[T]o be posthuman does not mean to be indifferent to the humans, or to be de-humanized. On the contrary, it rather implies a new way of combining ethical values with the well-being of an enlarged sense of community, which includes one’s territorial or environmental inter-connections. (The Posthuman, p. 190)

​However, a hyper-posthumanB condition may also produce a posthumanB being that possesses increased intelligence, etc., but lacks a moral sense. This is the concern Wendel Wallach and others have explored with respect to the possibility of creating moral machines. So, a hyper-posthumanB condition may have a positive or negative moral valuation. As such, I propose to designate a hyper-posthumanB condition that could “lead to a very rapid extinction of all humans, or something even more hellish.” (Roden/http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=3348); as “postRhumanM- ” or “pRhM- .” And so, we can see that a postRhumanB condition may represent a moral advance or decline, whereas a postOhumanB condition must necessarily represent a moral decline.

The strategy of creating these linguistic conventions is one that is inspired by the work of Rudolf Carnap. Carnap held that our received folk language is so shot through with ambiguity that it must be altered to render it amenable for philosophical work. He promoted a principle of tolerance that allows for each of us to create our own language in order to clearly express our thought. What he considered imperative is that every person specify just what the language is s/he uses. Consider Carnap’s treatment of the concept of space. Alan W. Richardson has substituted the English term “space” for the German term “raum” in his work, Carnap’s Construction of the World: The Aufbau and the Emergence of Logical Empiricism. Rischardson explains that Carnap recognized a distinction between formal space, designated by the letter S, intuitive space, designated by the letter S′, and physical space, designated by the term S′′. He further recognized a distinction between topological, projective, and metrical space, designated by the letters t, p, and m, respectively. Each of these could have a dimensional variant designated by numbers or the letter n. “Thus, for example, S′4t designates four-dimensional topological intuitive space, and Snp designates projective formal space of arbitrarily many dimensions.” (Richardson, p. 141). Part of the argument Carnap made was that philosophical disputes over the concept of space could generally be resolved by distinguishing these different terms.

My sense is that it is hopeless for multiple persons to use the term “posthuman” with divergent meanings so that readers seeing the term have widely divergent ideas of what is being discussed. John Locke made the same observation in his work of 1689, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk III, Chpt. IX, “The chief End of Language in Communication being to be understood, Words serve not well for that end, neither in civil, nor in philosophical Discourse, when any Word does not excite in the Hearer, the same Idea which it stands for in the Mind of the Speaker.” (emphasis in the original) My hope is that my terminological conventions might clarify some of the ambiguity surrounding the use of this term.

Carey Wolfe encountered this issue in Stanley Cavell’s treatment of Emerson, “What Kant confronted as ‘merely’ a problem of thought, Emerson grappled with under the additional rigors of writing and language—of philosophy as a writing practice—so that the ‘stipulations or terms under which we can say anything at all to one another’ will themselves be subjected to endless, and endlessly unfinalized, scrutiny."

As Cavell puts it, in Emerson,

"I find the Critique of Pure Reason turned upon itself: notions of limitation and of condition are as determining in the essay ‘Fate’ as they are in Kant, but it is as if these terms are themselves subjected to transcendental deduction, as if not just twelve categories but any and every word in our language stands under the necessity of deduction, or say derivation."

References:

(Carey Wolfe, What is Posthumanism, p. 245-246, quoting Stanley Cavell, “Finding as Founding,” in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, p. 113).

Cavell continued, “our antagonism to fate, to which we are fated, and in which our freedom resides, is as a struggle with the language we emit, of our character with itself.” (Carey Wolfe, What is Posthumanism, p. 246, quoting Stanley Cavell, “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant,”, in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes p. 72).

Daryl Wennemann received his Ph. D. in philosophy from Marquette University in 1994. He has been teaching philosophy at Fontbonne University since 1996. He teaches ethics and a course in critical thinking.



COMMENTS

Hi Daryl, I completely agree that a bit of regimentation is useful here. I’ve tried something similar in my book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Here I distinguish transhumanism (a normative thesis) from speculative posthumanism (a metaphysical but value neutral claim regarding the possibility of posthumans). Critical posthumanism I reserve for an generic position opposed to the anthropocentric thinking in epistemology, politics, ethics, etc. I guess what I’m missing here is the post-anthropocentric side of posthumanism. Your account of the “hyper-posthumanB condition” only allows two degree of freedom - moral personhood being enhance or stymied in some way. But the post-anthropocentric (or anthropologically unbounded) posthumanism I argue for in PHL argues that we just cannot know that that moral personhood is uniquely considerable in this way. If that’s right, then our posthuman predicament is actually far more ethically challenging than generally realised because we can no longer assume that our prescriptive moral frameworks will be apt for the deep-technological future.

My position is post-anthropocentric in the biological sense of the term “human” but not in the moral sense, as I think you have discerned.  The anthropologically unbounded posthumanism you try to describe seems to me to be a condition we cannot cognize because it is so utterly alien.  If there is a possibility of such a posthuman form of personhood, it would seem to be something we could not recognize as a personal existence and I don’t see that we can make any disciplined claims about it.  Here we may as well pull up Wittgenstein’s ladder, from my perspective, since we are in the realm of nonsense.  Still, I do not have a problem with your philosophical exploration of this since I see us as carrying out various philosophical experiments.  Your book, Posthuman Life, seems to me to end by suggesting we should just experiment with technologies and see what happens.  Here, I am more conservative.  I think we should recognize the danger that any form of human or posthuman personhood might be undermined by emerging technologies and that is one thing we must avoid at all costs.

I suppose my immediate feeling was that a survey of posthumanism needs to acknowledge post-anthropocentrism as a philosophical project (obviously, one that’s articulated in different ways by, say, Braidotti, Wolfe, myself or an array of realists, speculative realists, etc.).

But, yes, I totally acknowledge that my position is problematic, although (I think) defensible epistemologically. 

Best, David

My sense is that the realm of posthuman theorizing overall needs some greater discipline, so that our imaginations might have a disciplining function rather than leaving us in what Kierkegaard called “the despair of possibility”.  Consider Arjun Appadurai’s treatment of this in The Future as Cultural Fact, p., 263, “In fact, it may be more useful to see design as trying to regulate fashion by slowing down the infinite play of combinatorial possibilities, the dizzying vista of new arrangements of bodies, materials, forms, and functions that advertising daily puts before us.
    And this might lead us closer to the logic of connecting design and context than the conventional idea that design, being the loyal servant of fashion, simply adds technique to the lust for change that defines fashion.  Design certainly involves the imagination, but it is defined by the imagination as a source of discipline and not imagination merely as a source of new possibilities for combination and cohabitation among objects.”

Take care, Daryl

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