Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 25, 2017

things and creatures, conscience and personhood

Yesterday I read Jeff VanderMeer’s creepy, disturbing, uncanny, and somehow heart-warming new novel Borne, and it has prompted two sets of thoughts that may or may not be related to one another. But hey, this is a blog: incoherence is its birthright. So here goes.

1.

A few months ago I wrote a post in which I quoted this passage from a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come — you heard it here first — when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.

If you look at the rest of the essay, you’ll see that Pynchon thinks certain technological developments could be embraced by Luddites because the point of Luddism is not to reject technology but to empower common people in ways that emancipate them from the dictates of the Capitalism of the One Percent.

But why think that future technologies will not be fully under the control of the “biggest of brass”? It is significant that Pynchon points to the convergence of “artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics” — which certainly sounds like he’s thinking of the creation of androids: humanoid robots, biologically rather than mechanically engineered. Is the hope, then, that such beings would become not just cognitively but morally independent of their makers?

Something like this is the scenario of Borne, though the intelligent being is not humanoid in either shape or consciousness. One of the best things about the book is how it portrays a possible, though necessarily limited, fellowship between humans and fundamentally alien (in the sense of otherness, not from-another-planet) sentient beings. And what enables that fellowship, in this case, is the fact that the utterly alien being is reared and taught from “infancy” by a human being — and therefore, it seems, could have become something rather though not totally different if a human being with other inclinations had done the rearing. The story thus revisits the old nature/nurture question in defamiliarizing and powerful ways.

The origins of the creature Borne are mysterious, though bits of the story are eventually revealed. He — the human who finds Borne chooses the pronoun — seems to have been engineered for extreme plasticity of form and function, a near-total adaptability that is enabled by what I will call, with necessary vagueness, powers of absorption. But a being so physiologically and cognitively flexible simply will not exhibit predictable behavior. And therefore one can imagine circumstances in which such a being could take a path rather different than that chosen for him by his makers; and one can imagine that different path being directed by something like conscience. Perhaps this is where Luddites might place their hopes for the convergence of “artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics”: in the arising from that convergence of technology with a conscience.

2. 

Here is the first sentence of Adam Roberts’s novel Bête:

As I raised the bolt-gun to its head the cow said: ‘Won’t you at least Turing-test me, Graham?’

If becoming a cyborg is a kind of reaching down into the realm of the inanimate for resources to supplement the deficiencies inherent in being made of meat, what do we call this reaching up? — this cognitive enhancement of made objects and creatures until they become in certain troubling ways indistinguishable from us? Or do we think of the designing of intelligent machines, even spiritual machines, as a fundamentally different project than the cognitive enhancement of animals? In Borne these kinds of experiments — and others that involve the turning of humans into beasts — are collectively called “biotech.” I would prefer, as a general term, the one used in China Miéville’s fabulous novel Embassytown: “biorigging,” a term that connotes complex design, ingenuity, and a degree of making-it-up-as-we-go-along. Such biorigging encompasses every kind of genetic modification but also the combining in a single organism or thing biological components with more conventionally technological ones, the animate and the inanimate. It strikes me that we need a more detailed anatomy of these processes — more splitting, less lumping.

In any case, what both VanderMeer’s Borne and Roberts’s Bête do is describe a future (far future in one case, near in the other) in which human beings live permanently in an uncanny valley, where the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman are never erased but never quite fixed either, so that anxiety over these matters is woven into the texture of everyday experience. Which sounds exhausting. And if VanderMeer is right, then the management of this anxiety will become focused not on the unanswerable questions of what is or is not human, but rather on a slightly but profoundly different question: What is a person?

4 comments:

  • I guess what I'm asking here is whether eventually we will cease to find the question of what is human interesting, and focus instead on the question of what is a person, and intrinsic component of which (necessary but not sufficient? necessary and sufficient?) is having a conscience.

  • Two quotations brought to mind after reading this:
    The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects. It is characteristic of children to pick up inanimate objects and to talk to them in their play as if they were living persons. --Vico, "New Science" ¶ 186

    “ ‘But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!’ (Certainly, but it can also talk.)
    ‘But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk non-sense.’—It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense-poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babble of a baby.)”
    --Wittgenstein, "Philosophical Investigations," I, #282.

  • Following Kant, "embodied rational person" has been my rough definition of "human" for a while now. (With one narrow, technical exception.)

  • I think your right about the conscience as an at least necessary component of personhood, but the question that gives me great pause as we attempt step into our Creators shoes is this: will humans be as good at making consciences as God was/is?

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