Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 5 – Something Awful’s Happened…)

In the tale of The Disembodied Lady, Dr. Oliver Sacks feels sympathy for Christina – a woman who lost her sense of embodiment. In one part of the story Sacks describes Christina as:

“a sort of wraith. [For] she has lost, with her sense of proprioception, the fundamental organic mooring of identity – at least of that corporeal identity or ‘body-ego’, which Freud sees as the basis of self: ‘The ego is first and foremost a body-ego.’ Some such depersonalization or derealization must always occur, when there are deep disturbances of body perception or body image.”

Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception offers excellent, and sobering, tools to critique concepts such as Kurzweil’s ‘mind uploading’. Furthermore Merleau-Ponty demonstrates how the ego is ultimately an embodied ego. Our reality and our sense of ourselves are constructed based upon the senses of our active and involved body.

Senses such as vision allow us to scan the world around us, providing us with the perceptual sense of sight. Merleau-Ponty writes “Is not to see always to see from somewhere? To say that the house itself is seen from nowhere is surely to say it is invisible!” Our body, the human organism, is the site of our experience although we often fail to recognize it. Hence it is not coincidental that Sacks refers to our sense of our bodies as our sixth hidden sense. Merleau-Ponty points this out and writes “Obsessed with being, and forgetful of the perspectivalism of my experience, I henceforth treat it as an object and deduce it from a relationship between objects. I regard my body, which is my point of view upon the world, as one of the objects of that world.” Our bodies are projected and open to the world, for without them there is no world. Our bodies are the condition for the possibility of objects and the world. If we had different body architecture and senses we would experience objects and the world differently from the way we do now.

Merleau-Ponty describes our experience of the world as “lived experience” in order to help us reclaim a connection with the “lived world”, a world that “precedes knowledge… [and]…always speaks”. He radically redefines the role of the perceiver in a way that could not have been envisioned under the hegemonic control of empiricist and intellectualist conceptions of perception. These traditional conceptions presuppose a dualism between self and world. The return to “lived experience” or the “lived world” is also a return to seeing self, other and world as interconnected in what he calls the “phenomenal field”. Perception does not occur solely within the mind (intellectualism) or the world (empiricism), but in-between. It constitutes and is an integral part of the phenomenal field. We are able to see certain aspects of world, self or other, but normally are unable to see that they hinge on a-priori faculties such as the intentionality that binds self and world. When we are awoken to the primordiality of the phenomenal field we see our selves not as removed from the world, but as an integral aspect of it.

Merleau-Ponty seeks to undermine the dualisms that have rendered the self reducible to mind and the world to empty sense perceptions. Dualist ideas are unacceptable as they assume a hierarchy exists where superiority is bestowed upon either man or nature. He reminds us both that consciousness is perceptual, and perception is bodily. With this in mind we can see ourselves as beings-in-the-world, as opposed to beings that are separate from the world. He rejects the notion that perception is a process where the brain constructs a model on “impoverished sense data”.

Edward Knippers

When I touch my hand, I experience myself touching myself. At times like these individual life reflects on itself. However, if the hand I was touching touches another object, I cannot expect to experience both instances of touching. I oscillate back and forth between being aware of the hand I am touching and the object that that hand is touching. Our ability to experience is never fully explicit although “our attention is drawn to the always presupposed, always present background of our experience”. As beings-in-the-world, we are only capable of perceiving via perspectives, without ever expecting to grasp the whole picture. Merleau-Ponty writes that “…reflection never holds arrayed and objectified before its gaze, the whole world and the plurality of monads, and that its view is never other than partial and of limited power”. One might rationalize: I am a body-subject on the phenomenal field, and am always viewing others and the world from only one perspective at a time. I can never expect to have a Gods eye view. I am actively investigating the world and my gaze is constantly discovering and investigating new perspectives.

Now, what does all this have to do with anything? Well, I wonder how Kurzweil and Moravec, who seek to create a separate virtual realm for subjects to dwell, might respond to Merleau-Ponty’s claims. One might critique Kurzweil and Moravec for seriously underestimating the importance of human embodiment and its differences from the silicon instantiations of intelligent machines. Significantly, it has been observed that:

…neither Kurzweil nor Moravec is trained in neurophysiology. Researchers with this experience, such as Antonio Damasio (1995, 2000), have given far different accounts of the complexities of human embodiment and the recursive feedback loops that connect brain to viscera, thought to emotion, consciousness to the specificities of humans. Brooks [note: Researcher Rodney Brooks] comments that although this ‘strong version of salvation seems plausible in principle’, we may yet be hundreds of years off in figuring out just how to do it. It takes computational chauvinism to new heights. It neglects the primary role played by the bath of neurotransmitters and hormones in which our neuronal cells swim. It neglects the role of our body in placing constraints and providing noncomputational aspects to our existence. And it may be completely missing the juice.

How can we accept the premise that we can be up-and-downloaded onto silicon based memory? Our thoughts are human-thoughts. They emerge out of the architecture a specific brain and anatomical system. How, short of constructing another brain with the same architecture that allows for the same sorts of senses and perceptions are we to assume that thought can go-on?

We seem culturally confused about the matter, and works such as The Singularity is Near do not help us regain our orientation.  The dilemma regarding uploading the mind hinges on its formation and continuance of a traditional mind – body dualism, yet Kurzweil and Moravec never actually dispense with the body. Kurzweil and Moravec do not dispense with body altogether and only dispense of the body as wholly biological. Artificial intelligence, in their view, overtakes human intelligence. Nowhere are we bodiless. When the singularity occurs, artificial and human intelligences begin to converge and congeal.  What emerges, I presume, is initially a robotic and then an altogether virtual body.

Is Kurzweil asking whether our senses, perceptions and thoughts – all reducible to informational code – can function in an entirely virtual space? At this point, we might ask him: ‘When the rapture arrives and my incorporeal soul finally make it up to Heaven will I have a heavenly body, operating on the same principles as my physical one, that is able to see, hear, or touch my deceased loved ones’?

Kurzweil and Moravec’s theorizing inadequately considers the nature of embodiment and clearly models itself after Christian (and Hegelian for that matter) theological concepts. Such theories hinder productive theorizing concerning the heterogeneous and hybridistic ‘cyborg’ subject. The virtual might not stand in as sharp opposition to the physical as was once assumed, however the impetus behind blurring the two in the work of Moravec and Kurzweil is frightening and misguided.

Molly, a fictional character from The Singularity is Near speaks from the year 2099 as a transcendent being – in Kurzweil’s words – “entirely indistinguishable from the Christian portrayal of angels. She no longer has a permanent physical body … Molly is immortal. She has … gone over to the other side. She has become pure knowledge.” Are our cultural disembodied dreams like the premonitions Christina, Sacks’ disembodied lady, experienced before losing proprioception entirely? One wonders if Molly, like Sacks’ disembodied lady, will suddenly scream: Stop! “Something awful’s happened”. If so, would Kurzweil and Moravec ignore these cries and argue that they are insignificant and incapable of affecting the divine laws of Progress?

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~ by dccohen on January 6, 2010.

2 Responses to “Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 5 – Something Awful’s Happened…)”

  1. […] Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 5 – Something Awful’s Happened&#… […]

  2. we are what we eat.

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