David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 4)

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Again I take up from my previous post David Roden’s Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. In Chapter Three Dr. Roden would tell us that pragmatism elaborates transcendental humanism plausibly, and that because of that we need to consider its implications for posthuman possibility. In Chapter Four he will elaborate on that by defining pragmatisms notion of language as a matrix  “in which we cooperatively form and revise reasons”, and he will term this the “discursive agency thesis (DAT)” (Roden, KL 1402).1 The basic premise here is simple: that any entity that lacks the capacity for language cannot be an agent. The pragmatist will define discursive agency as requiring certain attributes that will delimit the perimeters of what an agent is:

1) An agent is a being that acts for reasons.
2) To act for reasons an agent must have desires or intentions to act.
3) An agent cannot have desires or intentions without beliefs.
4) The ability to have beliefs requires a grasp of what belief is since to believe is also to understand “the possibility of being mistaken” (metacognitive claim).
5) A grasp of the possibility of being mistaken is only possible for language users (linguistic constitutivity). (Roden, KL 1407-1413)

As we study this list of agency we see a progression from acting for specific reasons, desires, intentions, beliefs to the need for self-reflection and language to grasp these objects in the mind. We’ve seen most of this before in other forms across the centuries as philosophers debated Mind and Consciousness. For philosophers, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, the words are used in a way that is both more precise and more mundane: they refer to the familiar, everyday experience of having a “thought in your head”, like a perception, a dream, an intention or a plan, and to the way we know something, or mean something or understand something. “It’s not hard to give a commonsense definition of consciousness” observes philosopher John Searle. What is mysterious and fascinating is not so much what it is but how it is: how does a lump of fatty tissue and electricity give rise to this (familiar) experience of perceiving, meaning or thinking?

Philosophers call this the hard problem of consciousness. It is the latest version of a classic problem in the philosophy of mind called the “mind-body problem.” A related problem is the problem of meaning or understanding (which philosophers call “intentionality”): what is the connection between our thoughts and what we are thinking about (i.e. objects and situations out in the world)? A third issue is the problem of experience (or “phenomenology”): If two people see the same thing, do they have the same experience? Or are there things “inside their head” (called “qualia”) that can be different from person to person?

Neurobiologists believe all these problems will be solved as we begin to identify the neural correlates of consciousness: the actual relationship between the machinery in our heads and its collective properties; such as the mind, experience and understanding. Some of the harshest critics of artificial intelligence agree that the brain is just a machine, and that consciousness and intelligence are the result of physical processes in the brain. The difficult philosophical question is this: can a computer program, running on a digital machine that shuffles the binary digits of zero and one, duplicate the ability of the neurons to create minds, with mental states (like understanding or perceiving), and ultimately, the experience of consciousness?

But I get ahead of myself for Dr. Roden begins first analyzing the notions of Analytical philosophy in which “propositional attitudes” or what we term items in the mind: psychological states such as beliefs, desires and intentions (along with hopes, wishes, suppositions, etc.) are part and partial of our linguistic universe of sentences that describe the “that” clause. (Roden, KL 1416) Discussing this he will take up the work of Davidson, Husserl and Heidegger.

Now we know that for Husserl phenomenology is transcendental because it premises its accounts of phenomenon on the primacy of intentionality with respect both to reason and sense. So that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology begins and ends by a ‘reduction’ of phenomena to its ‘intentional objects’ or the ‘ideal object’ intended by a consciousness.2 

For Roden the conflict is not about intentionality (which he seems to accept) but is more about our cognition and understanding of differing “positions regarding commonly identified objects”: “That is to say, our challenge to the metacognitive claim does not show that advanced posthumans with florid agency powers would not need to understand what it is to be mistaken by being able to using the common coin of sentences.” (Roden, KL 1805-08) He will even suggest that the fact that humans can notice that they have forgotten things, evince surprise, or attend to suddenly salient information (as with the ticking clock that is noticed only when it stops) implies anecdotally that our brains must have mechanisms for representing and evaluating (hence “metacognizing”) their states of knowledge and ignorance. (Roden, KL 1815)

What’s more interesting in the above sentence is how it ties in nicely with R. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory:

“Intentional cognition is real, there’s just nothing intrinsically intentional about it. It consists of a number of powerful heuristic systems that allows us to predict/explain/manipulate in a variety of problem-ecologies despite the absence of causal information. The philosopher’s mistake is to try to solve intentional cognition via those self-same heuristic systems, to engage in theoretical problem solving using systems adapted to solve practical, everyday problem – even though thousands of years of underdetermination pretty clearly shows the nature of intentional cognition is not among the things that intentional cognition can solve!” (see here)

 This seems to be the quandary facing Roden as he delves into both certain philosophers and scientists who base their theories and practices on intentionality, which is at the base of phenomenological philosophy both Analytical and Continental varieties. Yet, this is exactly his point later in the chapter after he has discussed certain aspects of elminativist theoretic of Paul Churchland and others: evidence for non-language-mediated metacognition implies that we should be dubious of the claim that language is constitutive of sophisticated cognition and thus – by extension – agency (Roden, KL 1893). He will conclude that even if metacognition is necessary for sophisticated thought, this may not involve trafficking in sentences. Thus we lack persuasive a priori grounds for supposing that posthumans would have to be subjects of discourse (Roden, 1896).

I think we’ll stop here for today. In section 4.2 he will take up the naturalization of phenomenology and the rejection of transcendental constraints. I’ll take that up in my next post.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, Sean Watson. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (MQUP, 2011)

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