Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
The Future of Philosophy is CYBORG
Phil Torres imagines a biotech way of solving intractable philosophical problems.
There’s a long history of philosophers bemoaning the apparent insolubility of certain philosophical problems, including consciousness, knowledge, meaning, free will, and the self. Many leading thinkers have indeed gestured at a chasm between our intellectual capacities and philosophy’s aim, namely the truth regarding the ultimate nature and workings of reality. We are apparently cognitively ill-equipped to tackle the problems that philosophy poses, yet one generation after another strives to reach the false horizons before us.
In the face of this limitation some philosophers have adopted a kind of ‘stoic resolve’. As Thomas Nagel writes, “if truth is our aim, we must be resigned to achieving it to a very limited extent, and without certainty. To redefine the aim so that its achievement is largely guaranteed, through various forms of reductionism, relativism, or historicism, is a form of cognitive wish-fulfillment. Philosophy cannot take refuge in reduced ambitions. It is after eternal and nonlocal truth, even though we know that is not what we are going to get” (The View from Nowhere, p.10). Other philosophers have opted for precisely what Nagel claims we must avoid: taking refuge in reduced ambitions. Rather than wallow in our limitations, let’s bring the goals of philosophy within arm’s length. Still others have adopted a position somewhere in-between these two approaches. Colin McGinn, for example, argues that many of the canonical problems in philosophy are not insoluble per se, but insoluble to the human mind. We simply lack the mental machinery to generate the concepts needed to untangle philosophy’s conundrums. As a result, McGinn speculates that ‘in a million years time’ the field of philosophy will be in exactly the same state of knotted perplexity we find it in today: a repository of inscrutable puzzles and unanswerable questions. Consequently he advises two courses of action. One is for philosophers to continue working on the lesser goals of philosophy, such as “conceptual analysis, the systemization of the sciences, ethics and politics, and no doubt other things” (Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, 1993). At the same time, though, we are to “simply acquiesce in our constitutional limitations”, which will forever prevent us from uncovering nature’s arcana. To echo a line from Donald Rumsfeld, we do philosophy with the minds we have, not the minds we might want or wish to have at a later time.
Future Philosophy by Cameron Gray 2020
Please visit parablevisions.com and facebook.com/camerongraytheartist
What all of these positions have in common is that to one extent or another they give up on philosophy’s highest endeavors. This is to be expected, of course, because what other options were there? As Bertrand Russell put it back in 1936, “There are many questions – and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life – which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of a quite different order from what they are now” (Problems of Philosophy Chap.XV). The key word here is ‘unless’. Novel technologies such as nootropics (brain-enhancing pharmaceuticals), brain-computer interfaces, neural implants, genetic engineering, and even mind-uploading (also called ‘whole-brain emulation’) could modify the underlying wetware of our minds to both quantitatively and qualitatively improve our thinking. A study by Nick Bostrom and Carl Schulman reports that a technique called ‘iterated embryo selection’ could bring about IQ gains of nearly 130 points in a relatively short time. The result could be a population of ultrasmart posthumans, capable not only of processing more information at a faster rate, but accessing entirely new libraries of concepts that are both relevant to philosophy and permanently off-limits to our mere biological brains.
This leads to another possibility: rather than deflate philosophy to match our present limitations, elevate the philosopher to meet the lofty aims of her field. As Mark Walker says: “The idea, in a slogan, is that it is not we who ought to abandon philosophy, but that philosophy ought to abandon us” (Journal of Evolution and Technology, March 2002). If philosophy is to make any progress at all on its fundamental issues, it may require intellects whose powers are ‘of a quite different order from what they are now’, as Russell said. And for the first time in history, a panoply of radical cognitive enhancements are slowly peeking over the horizons of technological possibility, making this a plausible avenue forward. I would therefore argue that the energies of most philosophers today would be better spent working to ensure the full and timely realization of mind-expanding technologies than solving problems that have proven themselves too thorny for even the brightest thinkers in history.
By analogy, imagine Ted, who wants to move a one ton boulder. Ted spends several years lifting weights to prepare for the task. He becomes extremely muscular. When he tries to roll the boulder, though, he finds that his efforts were in vain, due to limitations intrinsic to his musculoskeletal system. Now imagine that instead of bulking up in the gym, Ted spends his time designing and constructing a mechanical exoskeleton – call it a crane – which augments his capacity to physically manipulate the world. Stepping into the crane, he becomes a kind of cyborg with superhuman lifting abilities. He then relocates the boulder with the ease of pushing a button and pulling a lever. Ted is, of course, the philosophical community, and the boulder represents the arcana which philosophical inquiry aims to strip naked.
This is a controversial position. But many futurists would agree that the arrival of cognitively-enhanced posthumans is not only possible, given the trajectory of cyborg technologies it appears probable. So why not help this process along? After two and a half millennia of virtual stagnation on some of philosophy’s most notorious stumpers, perhaps it’s time to place our hope in the next generation of posthuman philosophers. After all, one way to get a square peg – philosophy’s problems – through a round hole – our minds – is to reshape the hole to better fit the peg.
© Phil Torres 2020
Phil Torres’ most recent book is Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks.