I took a course this year which included large elements of philosophy. It is not something I have ever studied formally. Unless you count reading Sophie’s World as a teenager, or dozing off to In Our Time. As a result, I found it pretty challenging at times.
Many of the ideas we discussed were sort of familiar, like songs you’ve only heard playing in a shop, or the back of cab, but never really listened to. Once you sit down and listen, you discover the depth to the orchestration, or that the lyrics weren’t at all what you thought they were. It challenged some of my deeply held (though little-considered) ideas about reason. And particularly about transhumanism.
A science fiction education
The idea that we can supersede human biology, our minds escaping the limitations of the flesh, is an old and important one in science fiction. And I have devoured science fiction as long as I can remember, from Terrahawks and Star Wars, to Iain M Banks and Charles Stross. So many times in these stories, we see the separation of mind and body. Humans continuing their lives with their brains transplanted into alternate bodies, or their minds ported into the digital realm. It’s an appealing idea in many ways. Digital superpowers and immortality, rolled into one.
The brain in a jar is an idea that has very old roots. A modern expression of Cartesian dualism, where the consciousness and its container are two separate and entirely divisible things. It was a foundational myth of religions and ghost stories, long before the first science fiction.
It is also a very important idea to many in Silicon Valley, where transhumanist ideals have very much taken root.
It’s an idea I have always bought into. Until recently.
It turns out that the human mind is not like a piece of software that could be run on a different piece of hardware. Instead, the software and the hardware are deeply entwined. Over the last few decades, a variety of studies((This blog post is worth a read to start with: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/)) have shown that our whole mental model of the world is shaped by our physicality. The exact relationships are still to be fully understood, but the conception of the mind as driver and body as vehicle seem to be fundamentally incorrect. We think with our bodies not just our brains, from the sensory signals in our skin, to the chemicals washing through us from our glands, to the spatial model created by our senses. The picture is complex but my reading of the evidence so far is that you cannot have a mind distinct from the body.
Emulating the body
Could we recreate all of the biological elements that make up ourselves, as we do when we build emulators to run old software? Maybe. But the point remains that it is much more complicated than we have imagined: you can’t transplant or digitise the brain. You have to digitise the whole embodied experience, and then put it into a virtual environment that can present information in a way that the embodied human can interpret. And you have to get it right: if you make fundamental changes to the body, you are changing the person.
This would rather mess with transhumanist ideas of immortality: something might live on but will it be you?
A political dimension
There is a clear political aspect to belief in this division of mind and body. It devalues the physical, turning our bodies and indeed, everyone else’s, into resources. This is why feminists frequently((Frequently, but not by any means always. Feminism is an incredibly broad field with a huge range of different perspectives, as you might expect from a philosophical discipline and political campaign representing half the population. Feminism also has a strong transhumanist tradition – for example, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fictionnownarrativemediaandtheoryinthe21stcentury/manifestly_haraway_—-_a_cyborg_manifesto_science_technology_and_socialist-feminism_in_the_….pdf)) have an issue with this mode of thought, since ending the treatment of women as reproductive resources is at the very core of the feminist movement.
By divorcing us from our bodies, the transhumanist ideology also questions the link between us and our planet. If our consciousness can be immortal, we can be more cavalier with our environment. ((https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/an-eco-social-perspective-on-transhumanism/))
I don’t mean to say that all transhumanists are patriarchal hyper-capitalists (see footnote on feminism and transhumanism, for a start). But there is undoubtedly that streak. Indeed, one of the things I like about so much about some science fiction is that it doesn’t ignore this. Whether it is Battle Angel Alita or Altered Carbon, these stories show that even if we could transplant our brains or minds into new forms, the society that this technology creates wouldn’t necessarily be a kind or egalitarian one.
We’re still human
Throughout the pandemic I have been briefing clients and audiences on its likely ramifications. And I keep getting the same piece of feedback. People really like hearing about the human traits that persist and even dominate in the face of change and disruption. In many ways, the pandemic has reminded us just how human and fragile we still are. How bound to our bodies, and to our environment. Despite all the digital luxuries of our age, we have been forcibly reminded that there is no substitute for pubs and hugs, colleagues and kisses. And for the most part, we have shown real humanity. One Public Health England study showed that nearly 2/3 of us checked on our neighbours. Over a third of us shopped for neighbours in need.
We are still human. Ours is still an embodied experience. We still need our planet and the people around us. However powerful the potential of technologies to take us beyond our limitations, we need to remember that.