Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The reality we sense is not fixed or static, but, as Carlo Rovelli puts it, a “momentary get together on the sand.” For the quantum physicist, all reality is an ever-shifting interaction of manifold influences, each determining the other, which converge or dissolve under the conditions at a particular time and space that is always in flux. As Rainer Maria Rilke expressed this thought in poetic terms, “Everything/is not itself.”
The human, too, can be seen this way as a node of ever-changing interactions with the natural cosmos and the environment humans themselves have formed through technology and culture. What it means to be human, then, is not a constant, but continually constituted, altered and re-constituted through the recursive interface with an open and evolving world.
This is the view, at least, of Benjamin Bratton, a philosopher of technology who directs the Berggruen Institute’s Antikythera project to investigate the impact and potential of planetary-scale computation. To further explore the notion of “post-Anthropocene humanism” raised in a recent Noema essay, I asked him to weigh in on the nature of human being and becoming when anthropogenesis and technogenesis are one and the same process. He is worth quoting at length.
Technology Makes Us More Human
“I can’t accept the essentially reactionary claim that modern science erases ‘the Human.’ Demystification is not erasure. It may destabilize some ideas that humans have about what humans are, yes. But I see it more as a disclosure of what ‘humans’ always have been but could not perceive as such. It’s not that some essence of the Human goes away, but that humans are now a bit less wrong about what humans are,” he argues.
Bratton goes on: “Instead of science and technology leading to some ‘post-human’ condition, perhaps it will lead to a slightly more human condition? The figure we associate with modern European Humanism may be a fragile, if also a productive, philosophical concept. But dismantling the concept does not make the reality go away. Rather, it redefines it in the broader context of new understanding. In fact, that reality is more perceivable because the concept is made to dissolve.”
How so? “The origins of human societies are revealed by archaeological pursuits. What is found is usually not the primal scene of some local cultural tradition but something much more alien and unsettling: human society as a physical process.
Our brains are just barely figuring out how they work. As they do, they discover that brains don’t work as they feel like they work for those who think with them. But the demystification of solipsistic phenomenologies doesn’t mean that human agency and autonomy are extinguished. To the contrary, the nature of subjectivity is revealed by comparative neuroscience and given shape by its ongoing technologization, such as AI, not subordinated to it.
Similarly, the qualities of being a human body are revealed by comparative genomics. As it links human speech and writing to the signals of plants and animals, information theory reveals the inner workings of expression, it doesn’t annihilate them.”
All this would suggest, in Bratton’s view, “that cooperative social intelligence was not only the path to Anthropocene-scale agency for humans, but a reminder that the evolution of social intelligence literally shaped our bodies and biology, from the microbial ecologies inside of us to our tool-compatible phenotype. The Renaissance idea of Vitruvian Man, that we possess bodies and then engage the world through tools and intention, is somewhat backward. Instead, we possess bodies because of biotic and abiotic ‘technologization’ of us by the world, which we in turn accelerate through social cooperation.”
In short, one might say, it is not “I think therefore I am,” but, because the world is embedded in me, “thereby I think.”
As Bratton sums it up: “The modern cultural configurations of ‘the Human’ is always in a continuous state of auto-deconstruction. One figure of the human disappears — the construction of classical Humanism — because the latent, scientific figure of the human is revealed through secular archaeology, contemporary biosciences, the epistemological implications of artificial intelligence and so on.”
The Politics Of Anthropo-Technogenesis
Bratton’s view has significant implications for how we see and approach the accelerating advances in science and technology.
A negative biopolitics, so to speak, would seek to limit the transformations underway in the name of a valued concept of the human born in a specific time and place on the continuum of human evolution. A positive bio-politics would embrace the artificiality of those transformations as part of the responsibility of human agency.
Bratton states: “Abstract intelligence is not some outside imposition from above. It emerged and evolved along with humans and other things that think. Therefore, I am equally suspicious of the sort of posthumanism that collapses sentience and sapience into an anti-rationalist, flat epistemology that seeks not to calibrate the relation between reason and world, but is instead a will to vegetablization: a dissolving of agency into flux and flow. Governance then, in the sense of steerage, is sacrificed.”
To mediate this creative tension, what is called for is a theory of governance that recognizes the promise while affirming the autonomy of humans, albeit reconfigured through a new awareness, by striving to shape what we now understand as anthropo-technogenesis.
In the political theory of checks and balances, government is the positive and constitutional rule is the negative. The one is the capacity to act, the other to amend or arrest action that could lead to harmful consequences — the “katechon” concept from Greek antiquity of “withholding from becoming,” which I have written about before.
An ecology of mind, in the term of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, would encompass both by re-casting human agency not as the master, but as a responsible co-creator with other intelligences in the reality we are making together.