The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible (Arthur C. Clarke's 2nd law)

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Disconnection Thesis (extended abstract)

David Roden, The Open University

Speculative Posthumanism and The Disconnection Thesis

Keywords: speculative posthumanism, wide descent, wide humanity, cognitive and value incommensurability, essentialism, flat ontology

In this essay I develop a philosophical schema for understanding the concept of the posthuman implied by singularity scenarios: Speculative Posthumanism (SP). SP states that wide descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration. The major part of the essay clarifies its metaphysical presuppositions. The final part will consider the ethical implications of SP for current technological practice.

1) Why is a value-neutral notion of alteration used to formulate SP in preference to ‘restrictedly value-laden’ notions like enhancement (Buchanan 2009, 350)? The advantage of the value-neutral successor relation is that it doesn’t presuppose a common measure of human and posthuman capacities. Posthumans might conceivably result from a progressive enhancement of human cognitive capacities like working memory, mathematical or analogical reasoning – for example. Alternatively, our posthuman descendants might have capacities we currently have no concepts for while lacking some capacities that we have or can conceive of. For example, a cognitive technology that rendered language vestigial while introducing new non-linguistic forms of representation or communication could cause the loss of one species-distinctive capacity (the capacity to have and express structured propositional attitudes) and the acquisition of an entirely new one (See Roden forthcoming).

2) The notion of wide human descent is explicated. Narrow descendants of human beings are those resulting from a biological process of sexual reproduction. It is argued that a notion of wide descent is essential for an adequate formulation of the posthuman because qualifying entities might include our biological descendants or beings resulting from purely technical mediators (e.g., artificial intelligences, synthetic life-forms, or uploaded minds). Such being would be descendants of parts of a composite entity I refer to as the Wide Human (WH): a system with both biological (human) and non-biological (technical or cultural) components. This ontology is justified with considerations from active externalist philosophy of mind and historical/anthropological claims about the co-evolution of humans and techno-cultural systems. Wide descent is articulated recursively thus:

An entity is a wide human descendant if it is the historical consequence of a replicative or productive process:

A) Occurring to a wide human descendant (recursive part).

B) Occurring to a part of WH (where the ancestral part may be wholly biological, wholly technological or some combination of the two).

3) I consider the ways in which posthuman lives could be value incommensurate or cognitively inaccessible for humans. I refer to this possibility as the disconnection thesis.

Following Virnor Vinge’s lead, it is suggested that value incommensurability might occur where posthumans have very different phenomenologies from humans (Vinge 1993). For example, posthumans may not experience themselves as persistent subjects of experience. It is argued that this would make any extension of public ethical frameworks such as Kantianism, liberalism of virtue ethics to the evaluation of posthuman lives problematic. The possibility of non-subjective posthuman phenomenology is justified using the arguments of naturalistic philosophers of consciousness such as Thomas Metzinger, Daniel Dennett and Michael Tye. It is claimed that the prospect of cognitive inaccessibility (to be investigated in sections 4 and 5) presents an impasse for an ethics of technology (e.g. transhumanism) that uses these ethical frameworks: the paradox of accounting and discounting. They can neither take into account values that are beyond their scope (accounting) nor relinquish the duty to do so (discounting).

4) I then consider an objection to the disconnection thesis. Donald Davidson's objections to the intelligibility of radically incommensurate or alien conceptual schemes or languages might give us grounds to be suspicious of the very idea of the radically alien cognitive or evaluative frameworks incommensurate to our own. I argue that the Davidsonian objection implies at most that alien posthumans would be interpretable in principle (they would not be cognitive ‘things in themselves’) not necessarily by us.

5) I then consider an anti essentialist objection to the disconnection thesis. Does cognitive inaccessibility presuppose an essentialist understanding of the human and is such an ontology supportable?

I argue that the active externalist or ‘cyborg ontology’ adopted by SP precludes cognitive essentialism because the wide cognitive systems of which narrow humans are components can in principle be interfaced with cognitive technologies, allowing previously inaccessible entities to become accessible. The only constraints that plausibly qualify as necessary limits to human thought are limits imposed by the most general natural laws and boundary conditions on any physically possible cognitive technology.

6) It follows that the disconnection thesis must be articulated in anti-essentialist terms. I argue that this is possible using a ‘flat ontology’ that treats discontinuities in nature as differences between individuals not abstract kinds (Delanda 2009). Individuals can be on a small scale (as in the case of cells and organisms) or exist on a large historical/geographical scale, as is the case with species or a complex socio-technical assemblages like the Wide Human. Disconnection would not result from the loss of essential human traits but from wide descendants of WH ‘splitting off’ to form discrete assemblages. These disconnections may conceivably occur because of historical failure of cognitive access (which could occur in spite of the lack of necessary limitations on human cognition) or for causes that we might never anticipate. I argue that the flat ontological outlook implies that disconnections would be weakly emergent and thus not anticipatable short of running simulations so powerful as to have singularity-inducing potential. At the same time, the flat ontological outlook precludes a priori/transcendental accounts of ‘posthuman transcendence’. We can only preclude an a priori conception of what that possibility entails. We cannot preclude an a posteriori account of posthuman difference of course, but this would be only possible during or after a disconnection.

7) It follows that posthumans may not be inaccessible in principle but may be disconnected from humans in practice. However, we cannot know how disconnection might occur or evaluate it ethically without becoming posthumans or being around to witness their emergence. Thus if we wish to understand and evaluate posthuman life it is in our interest to create posthumans or become posthuman. It is argued that becoming posthuman is preferable to the condition of passive witnesses since in becoming posthuman we may be in a position to autonomously shape the character of posthuman life. Anything short of a commitment to engineering posthumanity involves an uninformed rejection of its value. This is supportable on precautionary grounds if it is supportable at all. However, precautionary thinking can only be justified where there is knowledge of the worst case. I argue that SP precludes such knowledge. Thus SP implies an affirmative ethic of radical self-alteration.


Buchanan, Allen (2009), ‘Moral Status and Human Enhancement’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(4), 346-381.

DeLanda, Manuel (2009), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.

Roden, David (2010), Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism. Journal of Evolution and Technology 21(1) (June): 27-36.

Roden (forthcoming), ‘Posthumanism and Instrumental Eliminativism’

Vinge, V. (1993), ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’, Accessed 24 April 2008.

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