March 19, 2006

The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the Brain, by Robert Pepperell (2003)

This highly readable update to a 1998 release unites the postmodern and the posthuman in a provocative but limited piece of speculation

By George Dvorsky, November 3, 2003

The philosophical struggle to grab hold of and understand what is real and what is not is as old as civilization itself. Today, in light of the potential for radical human redesign and the reimagining of the human organism and condition, perspectives as to what constitutes the self, the body and the environment are becoming increasingly vague and inadequate.

Author Robert Pepperell, in this revised version to his 1998 book The Post-Human Condition, explores these particular themes while challenging the traditional assumptions of human uniqueness and superiority in consideration of 21st century technologies. As Pepperell notes, "the possibilities suggested by synthetic intelligence, organic computers and genetic modification are deeply challenging to that sense of human predominance."

Moreover, through the application of a discernibly postmodernist bias to futurist issues, The Posthuman Condition reads like a critique of rigid scientific methodologies and traditional humanism. Questions of machine consciousness and sentience are difficult to answer, writes Pepperell, "given the redundant concepts of human existence that we have inherited from the humanist era, since many widely accepted humanist ideas about consciousness can no longer be sustained." New theories about nature and the operation of the Universe, he argues, are "starting to demonstrate the profound interconnections of all things in nature where previously we had seen separations."

Considering that most futurists and transhumanists adhere to the legacy of rational humanism and Enlightenment notions of perpetual progress, Pepperell takes his life into his own hands by co-opting the posthuman and claiming it as his own. He even includes his own posthuman manifesto.

Consequently, The Posthuman Condition, while it reads lucidly and vibrantly, is a book that infuriates as much as it titillates. Pepperell offers an interesting but problematic fusion of skeptical epistemology with the latest thinking in the sciences, including cybernetics, artificial intelligence and chaos and complexity theories. Ultimately, while he offers provocative insight into the nature of knowledge and consciousness, he offers very little in terms of practical futurology, while completely misunderstanding and ignoring the valid humanistic roots of today's practical posthumanism.

The real and the artificial

The founder of the Hex multimedia collective and the coauthor of The Postdigital Membrane, Pepperell recognized the inexorable collision of postmodernist thinking with futurism back in 1998 when he wrote the initial version of The Posthuman Condition.

For Pepperell, posthumanism is more than just the attainment of a post-biological state of being, it also marks the end of the humanist period of social development, because of "the fact that our traditional view of what constitutes a human being is now undergoing a profound transformation."

The profound transformation that he speaks of is the fusion of humans and machines and the rise of artificial intelligence. Pepperell exposes the lines that are about to blur and wonders how thinkers will distinguish between the real and the artificial, the original and the simulated, the organic and the mechanical. He suggests that very soon these will become little more than semantic distinctions.

To bring his readers up to speed on the technologies that will bring these changes, Pepperell devotes the introduction of his book to a concise summary of the pending technologies, including quick notes on robotics, communications, prosthetics, intelligent machines, nanotechnology, genetic manipulation and artificial life. Once he gets this formality out of the way, Pepperell gets down to the nitty-gritty, and tackles one of the hardest problems in modern science, that of consciousness. And true to his scientific skepticism, he takes a philosophical approach to the problem of mind.

The fuzzy human

In spite of his avoidance of any substantive discussion of the mechanics behind human consciousness, Pepperell offers a fascinating account of how consciousness should be understood, defined and circumscribed. In Stelarc-like fashion, he declares that there are no boundaries that divorce humans from their environment. Pepperell advocates a form of "embedded" or "embodied" intelligence, arguing that consciousness cannot be understood—let alone exist—without placing it in the sensorial and perceptual context of the conscious being's environment.

"[A]n integrated continuum exists throughout human consciousness, body and environment," writes Pepperell, "such that any distinction in that contingent and arbitrary." The general implication, he argues, is that we can never determine the absolute boundary of the human, either physically or mentally. "In this sense, nothing can be external to a human because the extent of a human can't be fixed," he writes. The implication is anything but trivial, suggesting that "human beings do not exist in the sense in which we ordinarily think of them, that is as separate entities in perpetual antagonism with a nature that is external to them."

Indeed, there is undoubtedly much truth to embodied intelligence theory. It is impossible to deny that the mind cannot exist without a body and an environment, whether real or simulated. The mind feeds and reacts off the information that is fed to it by its body and surroundings.

So powerful is this conception that, as Pepperell concedes, it is quite possibly the most dominant paradigm in artificial intelligence research today. The human, the mind and the environment are indistinguishable, says Pepperell, leading him to conclude that posthuman intellects will continue to migrate and blend into their surroundings.

Attacking scientific reductionism

Continuing with this line of inquiry, Pepperell declares that there are no determinate origins, ends, complete answers or final reasons for the existence of anything. "It's not that we can't find them," he writes. "But that they're just not there."

Along the lines of fuzzy knowledge, Pepperell notes that recent scientific ideas have upset conceptions of order and disorder, continuity and discontinuity—namely chaos, catastrophe and complexity theories. It is because of these insights, argues Pepperell, that humanist notions of mechanism, reductionism and determinism have become dated.

However, Pepperell's disapproval of scientific reductionism should be taken with a grain of salt, and not just because he replaces it with its bipolar cousins, expansionism and extensionism. These types of deconstructionist and postmodernist lines of inquiries often venture far too close to radical skepticism for my liking. Accusing scientists of reductio ad absurdum can come perilously close to denying the measured, calculated and predictable observations of the Universe. As evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins once said, "reductionism is explanation."

On humanism and posthumanism

Pepperell's take on the humanist legacy isn't entirely fair or accurate. He declares posthumanism to be the philosophical and methodological successor to humanism, but fails to acknowledge how humanist thinking has in many ways contributed to progressive posthumanist thought; in many respects, posthumanism is the transitional successor to humanism, and not postmodernism as Pepperell insinuates. In fact, while most of those who call themselves posthumanist tend to be critical of the humanist movement, more and more humanists have, with relative ease, shifted their thinking in favor of progressive or transhuman thinking.

In one example, Pepperell characterizes humanism as a philosophy that places humans in a combative relationship with nature. Posthumanism, says Pepperell, suggests that people are not in opposition to nature, but an intrinsic part of it. While this is interesting from a philosophical perspective, particularly as it pertains to human consciousness, it does very little to explain how we are to deal with such things as disease, asteroid impacts and gamma ray bursts.

For centuries now, humanists have insisted that it is through the comprehension of our surroundings that we can better deal with the dangers of nature. Thinkers such as Marquis de Condorcet, David Hume, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius and Benjamin Franklin insisted that nature was not necessarily something to be fought or resisted, but something to be understood in order for humanity to better survive and prosper.

In some respects, this is an issue of semantics. Pepperell considers the post-biological or transhumanist element to be one facet of his brand of posthumanism, the other parts being the end of humanism and the beginning of a new (or is that old?) form of epistemological skepticism. It is because of Pepperell's proprietary definition of posthumanism that a number of futurists and transhumanists will have serious problems with his analysis.

Future persons

To bolster his argument, Pepperell includes a very interesting chapter on art, aesthetics and creativity. His analysis of Einsteinian relativity and cubism reveals that perceptual relativity can cross mediums, and is a developmental trend that has now entered into our cultural artifacts.

Pepperell, an artist himself, aptly observes that art forms exist outside of speculative fiction that contributes to our sense of our present and future selves. That being said, his subsequent chapter on automating the creative process felt somewhat out of place and forced. If Pepperell was trying to argue that creativity is a requisite for consciousness, he did so in an unconvincing and incomplete way.

Still, as do many futurist and transhumanist thinkers, Pepperell predicts a time when synthetic and cybernetic creatures will walk the earth. Where he and other futurist thinkers diverge, however, is in how these intellects and posthumans will conduct their affairs.

Aside from saying that it will act creatively and artistically, Pepperell is surprisingly vague on future life, except for such statements as, "Science will never achieve its aim of comprehending the ultimate nature of reality. It is a futile quest...[t]he posthuman abandons the search for the ultimate nature of the Universe and its origin (thus saving a lot of money in the process)."

Pepperell is less concerned with pragmatics than he is in formulating the philosophical rudiments of what he believes will be the next era in the social development of intelligent life. Essentially, Pepperell takes a science studies approach to futures issues while also taking the opportunity to slam scientific reductionism, including conventional notions of what is meant by consciousness and humanity, all the while touting postmodernist notions that proclaim the limitations to what can realistically be known.

What makes this work so interesting and perplexing is that Pepperell uses the latest science to reveal the limitations of science. It would seem that the more we know, the less we know—or, as Pepperell would claim, the more we know, the more we realize what we can't know.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, November 3, 2003.

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