Posts Tagged ‘Transhumanism’

I discovered “The Joe Rogan Experience” on YouTube recently and have been sampling from among the nearly 900 pod- or webcasts posted there. I’m hooked. Rogan is an impressive fellow. He clearly enjoys the life of the mind but, unlike many who are absorbed solely in ideas, has not ignored the life of the body. Over time, he’s also developed expertise in multiple endeavors and can participate knowledgeably in discussion on many topics. Webcasts are basically long, free-form, one-on-one conversations. This lack of structure gives the webcast ample time to explore topics in depth or simply meander. Guests are accomplished or distinguished in some way and usually have fame and wealth to match, which often affects content (i.e., Fitzgerald’s observation: “The rich are different than you and me”). One notable bar to entry is having a strong media presence.

Among the recurring themes, Rogan trots out his techno optimism, which is only a step short of techno utopianism. His optimism is based on two interrelated developments in recent history: widespread diffusion of information over networks and rapid advances in medical devices that can be expected to accelerate, to enhance human capabilities, and soon to transform us into supermen, bypassing evolutionary biology. He extols these views somewhat regularly to his guests, but alas, none of the guests I’ve watched seem to be able to fathom the ideas satisfactorily enough to take up the discussion. (The same is true of Rogan’s assertion that money is just information, which is reductive and inaccurate.) They comment or joke briefly and move onto something more comfortable or accessible. Although I don’t share Rogan’s optimism, I would totally engage in discussion of his flirtation with Transhumanism (a term he doesn’t use). That’s why I’m blogging here about Rogan, in addition to my lacking enough conventional distinction and fame to score an invite to be a guest on his webcast. Plus, he openly disdains bloggers, many of whom moderate comments (I don’t) or otherwise channel discussion to control content. Oh, well.

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The last time I blogged about this topic, I took an historical approach, locating the problem (roughly) in time and place. In response to recent blog entries by Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, I’ve delved into the topic again. My comments at his site are the length of most of my own blog entries (3–4 paras.), whereas Dave tends to write in chapter form. I’ve condensed to my self-imposed limit.

Like culture and history, consciousness is a moving train that yields its secrets long after it has passed. Thus, assessing our current position is largely conjectural. Still, I’ll be reckless enough to offer my intuitions for consideration. Dave has been pursuing radical nonduality, a mode of thought characterized by losing one’s sense of self and becoming selfless, which diverges markedly from ego consciousness. That mental posture, described elsewhere by nameless others as participating consciousness, is believed to be what preceded the modern mind. I commented that losing oneself in intense, consuming flow behaviors is commonplace but temporary, a familiar, even transcendent place we can only visit. Its appeals are extremely seductive, however, and many people want to be there full-time, as we once were. The problem is that ego consciousness is remarkably resilient and self-reinforcing. Despite losing oneself from time to time, we can’t be liberated from the self permanently, and pathways to even temporarily getting out of one’s own head are elusive and sometimes self-destructive.

My intuition is that we are fumbling toward just such a quieting of the mind, a new dark age if you will, or what I called self-lite in my discussion with Dave. As we stagger forth, groping blindly in the dark, the transitional phase is characterized by numerous disturbances to the psyche — a crisis of consciousness wholly different from the historical one described previously. The example uppermost in my thinking is people lost down the rabbit hole of their handheld devices and desensitized to the world beyond the screen. Another is the ruined, wasted minds of (arguably) two or more generations of students done great disservice by their parents and educational institutions at all levels, a critical mass of intellectually stunted and distracted young adults by now. Yet another is those radicalized by their close identification with one or more special interest groups, also known as identity politics. A further example is the growing prevalence of confusion surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. In each example, the individual’s ego is confused, partially suppressed, and/or under attack. Science fiction and horror genres have plenty of instructive examples of people who are no longer fully themselves, their bodies zombified or made into hosts for another entity that takes up residence, commandeering or shunting aside the authentic, original self.

Despite having identified modern ego consciousness as a crisis and feeling no small amount of empathy for those seeking radical nonduality, I find myself in the odd position of defending the modern mind precisely because transitional forms, if I have understood them properly, are so abhorrent. Put another way, while I can see the potential value and allure of extinguishing the self even semi-permanently, I will not be an early adopter. Indeed, if the modern mind took millennia to develop as one of the primary evolutionary characteristics of homo sapiens sapiens, it seems foolish to presume that it can be uploaded into a computer, purposely discarded by an act of will, or devolved in even a few generations. Meanwhile, though the doomer in me recognizes that ego consciousness is partly responsible for bringing us to the brink of (self-)annihilation (financial, geopolitical, ecological), individuality and intelligence are still highly prized where they can be found.

In my travels and readings upon the Intertubes, which proceed in fits and starts, I stumbled across roughly the same term — The NOW! People — used in completely different contexts and with different meanings. Worth some unpacking for idle consideration.

Meaning and Usage the First: The more philosophical of the two, this refers to those who feel anxiety, isolation, estrangement, disenfranchisement, and alienation from the world in stark recognition of the self-other problem and/or mind-body dualism. They seek to lose their identity and the time-boundedness that goes with being a separate self by entering a mental state characterized by the eternal NOW, much as animals without consciousness are believed to think. Projection forward and back more than a few moments in time is foreclosed; one simply exists NOW! Seminars and YouTube videos on radical nonduality are offers by Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, Andreas Müller, and Kenneth Madden, but according to my source (unacknowledged and unlinked), they readily admit that despite study, meditation, openness, and desire to achieve this state of mind, it is not prone to being triggered. It either happens or it doesn’t. Nonetheless, some experiences and behaviors allow individuals to transcend themselves at least to some degree, such as music, dance, and sex.

Meaning and Usage the Second: The more populist and familiar of the two, this refers to people for whom NOW! is always the proper time to do whatever the hell they most urgently desire with no consideration given to those around them. The more mundane instance is someone stopping in a doorway or on an escalator to check their phones for, oh, I dunno, Facebook updates and new e-mail. A similar example is an automobile driver over whom traffic and parking controls have no effect: someone double-parked (flashers optional) in the middle of the road or in a fire lane, some who executes a U-turn in the middle of traffic, or someone who pointlessly jumps the line in congestion just to get a few cars lengths ahead only to sit in yet more traffic. The same disregard and disrespect for others is evident in those who insist on saving seats or places in line, or on the Chicago L, those who occupy seats with bags that really belong on their laps or stand blocking the doorways (typically arms extended looking assiduously at their phones), making everyone climb past them to board or alight the train. These examples are all about someone commandeering public space as personal space at the anonymous expense of anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the same location, but examples multiply quickly beyond these. Courtesy and other social lubricants be damned! I want what I want right NOW! and you can go pound sand.

Both types of NOW! behavior dissolve the thinking, planning, orchestrating, strategizing mind in favor of narrowing thought and perception to this very moment. The first gives away willfulness and desire in favor of tranquility and contentedness, whereas the second demonstrates single-minded pursuit of a single objective without thought of consequence, especially to others. Both types of NOW! People also fit within the Transhumanist paradigm, which has among its aims leaving behind worldly concerns to float freely as information processors. If I were charitable about The NOW! People, I might say they lose possession of themselves by absorption into a timeless, mindless present; if less charitable, I might say that annihilation of the self (however temporary) transforms them into automatons.

The sole appeal I can imagine to retreating from oneself to occupy the eternal moment, once one has glimpsed, sensed, or felt the bitter loneliness of selfhood, is cessation of suffering. To cross over into selflessness is to achieve liberation from want, or in the Buddhist sense, Nirvana. Having a more Romantic aesthetic, my inclination is instead to go deeper and to seek the full flower of humanity in all its varieties. That also means recognizing, acknowledging, and embracing darker aspects of human experience, and yes, no small amount of discomfort and suffering. Our psycho-spiritual capacity demands it implicitly. But it takes strong character to go toward extremes of light and dark. The NOW! People narrow their range radically and may well be the next phase of human consciousness if I read the tea leaves correctly.

I chanced upon a dinner conversation of the type that tends to light me up, full of familiar assertions and brief citations that purport to make sense of the world but instead open up broad inquiries without ever resolving anything. Whereas all the hanging threads might be frustrating to others, I don’t mind that we leapt from subject to subject carelessly. Engagement with another’s intellect is what really fires me.

So in the course of the discussion, I argued (as devil’s advocate) that the discontinuity between various scales and timeframes renders subtle appreciation of the world and/or universe moot. Specifically, fine-grained knowledge that flows from hard sciences such as mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics does not combine to form anything approaching a complete picture of reality in the mind of the average person. Soft sciences such as sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology, and history are as likely to confound and confuse as illuminate, considering their vulnerability to interpretative flexibility. Further, the extensive conjectural and theoretical complexity of cosmology and quantum sciences are so far out of scope for typical beer-swilling Joes as to be invisible. Even the basic distinction between the Euclidian and Ptolemaic models of the solar system is losing currency with no immediately apparent effect in the wider (American) culture of prideful ignorance.

Here’s the rub: even though I believe more nearly the opposite, namely, that refined understandings of the universe developed and held in the minds of a relative few and never achieving the completeness of a union theory yet sufficient to bestow upon us hubris a model for action in the world are eventually (or ultimately) embedded in the deep culture, I found it difficult to argue that point to us fish inside the fishbowl. Indeed, the fellow across the table from me, who possessed far greater scientific wherewithal than do I, could only rebut my assertions with the baldest “is not, is too” type of negation.

I attempted an exploration of a deep-culture effect more than two years ago with this post, but I fear the whole subject was too arcane to make much of an impression. General readers simply do not go in for such analysis. Yet I still believe that the effect is present in, for example, our willingness to trash the world until it’s uninhabitable — at least for us — and our earnest desire to transcend our embodiment and be something other than human (e.g., Transhumanism), which is an expression of our deep self-loathing and self-destructive impulse (explored amply by The Compulsive Explainer — see blogroll). Like my dinner table conversation, these inquiries lead nowhere in particular but are nonetheless fascinating. Perhaps a generous reader out there who can point to a better example that is more accessible and convincing than what I’ve been able to muster.

I indicated before that I would not blog about Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head because his content is too close to things I already blog about plenty. However, I would like to bring one thing — one thing! — out of his book:

It is fashionable to scoff at the idea of a “privileged” moment in culture (for example, the Baroque era for organs, or the decades before the 1990s for automobiles) that is better than any other moment. Let it be conceded that the orchestral organs of the early twentieth century must have swelled the worshipers of that time with an aesthetic-religious experience no less real than that of their Baroque predecessors. To speak of decadence, then, smacks of nostalgia, that thought crime that popular writers are quick to detect in anyone who glances backward.

Yet our low regard for nostalgia often seems not to rest on some substantive standard of excellence, in light of which a preference for the past is seen as missing the mark, but rather expresses idolatry of the present. This kind of “forward-thinking” is at bottom an apologetic species of conservatism, as it defers to and celebrates whatever is currently ascendant. [p. 222]

Crawford’s remarks here are an aside, not really part of his main arguments. Yet he describes well our knee-jerk disdain for tradition and the past, which I previously blogged about here. This particular idea is of significance to me not for its musical associations, though his example of Baroque vs. 20th-century organs offers an obvious musical connection (about which Crawford discusses only craftwork, his pet project, skipping past purely musical and aesthetic considerations). Rather, Crawford is right that the nostalgic frame is regarded as no less than thought crime, especially by technophiles easily impressed with gadgetry. Accordingly, the accusation of being a Luddite or not “with it” resounds in the ears of anyone without the latest electronic accouterments. Crawford puts the lie to that notion fairly handily in the course of the book. I find it curious, too, that he turns the word conservatism on its head.

Since the time of my initial post, however, the dilemma of ceaseless, destabilizing flux has taken on new dimension (at least from my vantage point). Whereas the argument used to be mostly about those who felt they were being left behind by a culture always on the move (yet surprisingly not so when one looks deeper), it has now also become about individuals losing themselves to ideation. Crawford’s subtitle speaks to this directly: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. From time to time, I point to The Compulsive Explainer (see blogroll), who also circles around the idea of people now being nothing, nonentities, absorbed in and by their machines, especially the computer. To go just a little further, this is what it also means to observe that the U.S. has progressed out of agrarian, manufacturing, and service economies into an information economy. Progress is the wrong word, of course, but it encapsulates what I have been saying for some time now, namely, that we’re living in our heads, in a world of our own imaginations rather than in the real world of things.

At last, getting to my much, much delayed final book blogs (three parts) on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The book came out in 2010, I picked it up in 2012 (as memory serves), and it took me nearly two years to read its entirety, during which time I blogged my observations. I knew at the time of my previous post on the book that there would be more to say, and it’s taken considerable time to get back to it.

McGilchrist ends with a withering criticism of the Modern and Postmodern (PoMo) Eras, which I characterized as an account of how the world went mad. That still seems accurate to me: the madness that overtook us in the Modern Era led to world wars, genocides, and systematic reduction of humanity to mere material and mechanism, what Ortega y Gasset called Mass Man. Reduction of the rest of the living world to resources to be harvested and exploited by us is a worldview often called instrumental reality. From my armchair, I sense that our societal madness has shape-shifted a few times since the fin de siècle 1880s and 90s. Let’s start with quotes from McGilchrist before I extend into my own analysis. Here is one of his many descriptions of the left-hemisphere paradigm under which we now operate:

In his book on the subject, Modernity and Self-identity, Anthony Giddens describes the characteristic disruption of space and time required by globalisation, itself the necessary consequence of industrial capitalism, which destroys the sense of belonging, and ultimately of individual identity. He refers to what he calls ‘disembedding mechanisms’, the effect of which is to separate things from their context, and ourselves from the uniqueness of place, what he calls ‘locale’. Real things and experiences are replaced by symbolic tokens; ‘expert’ systems replace local know-how and skill with a centralised process dependent on rules. He sees a dangerous form of positive feedback, whereby theoretical positions, once promulgated, dictate the reality that comes about, since they are then fed back to us through the media, which form, as much as reflect, reality. The media also promote fragmentation by a random juxtaposition of items of information, as well as permitting the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness’, another aspect of decontextualisation in modern life adding to loss of meaning in the experienced world. [p. 390]

Reliance on abstract, decontextualized tokens having only figurative, nonintrinsic power and meaning is a specific sort of distancing, isolation, and reduction that describes much of modern life and shares many characteristics with schizophrenia, as McGilchrist points out throughout the chapter. That was the first shape-shift of our madness: full-blown mechanization borne out of reductionism and materialism, perspectives bequeathed to us by science. The slow process had been underway since the invention of the mechanical clock and discovery of heliocentrism, but it gained steam (pun intended) as the Industrial Revolution matured in the late 19th century.

The PoMo Era is recognized as having begun just after the middle of the 20th century, though its attributes are questionably defined or understood. That said, the most damning criticism leveled at PoMo is its hall-of-mirrors effect that renders objects in the mirrors meaningless because the original reference point is obscured or lost. McGilchrist also refers repeatedly to loss of meaning resulting from the ironizing effect of left-brain dominance. The corresponding academic fad was PoMo literary criticism (deconstruction) in the 1970s, but it had antecedents in quantum theory. Here is McGilchrist on PoMo:

With post-modernism, meaning drains away. Art becomes a game in which the emptiness of a wholly insubstantial world, in which there is nothing beyond the set of terms we have in vain used to ‘construct’ mean, is allowed to speak for its own vacuity. The set of terms are now seen simply to refer to themselves. They have lost transparency; and all conditions that would yield meaning have been ironized out of existence. [pp. 422–423]

This was the second shape-shift: loss of meaning in the middle of the 20th century as purely theoretical formulations, which is to say, abstraction, gained adherents. He goes on:

Over-awareness … alienates us from the world and leads to a belief that only we, or our thought processes, are real … The detached, unmoving, unmoved observer feels that the world loses reality, becomes merely ‘things seen’. Attention is focussed on the field of consciousness itself, not on the world beyond, and we seem to experience experience … [In hyperconsciousness, elements] of the self and of experience which normally remain, and need to remain, intuitive, unconscious, become the objects of a detached, alienating attention, the levels of consciousness multiply, so that there is an awareness of one’s own awareness, and so on. The result of this is a sort of paralysis, in which even everyday ‘automatic’ actions such as moving one leg in front of another in order to walk can become problematic … The effect of hyperconsciousness is to produce a flight from the body and from its attendant emotions. [pp. 394–396]

Having devoted a fair amount of my intellectual life to trying to understand consciousness, I immediately recognized the discussion of hyperconsciousness (derived from Louis Sass) as what I often call recursion error, where consciousness becomes the object of its own contemplation, with obvious consequences. Modern, first-world people all suffer from this effect to varying degrees because that is how modern consciousness is warped shaped.

I believe we can observe now two more characteristic extensions or variations of our madness, probably overlapping, not discrete, following closely on each other: the Ironic and Post-Ironic. The characteristics are these:

  • Modern — reductive, mechanistic, instrumental interpretation of reality
  • Postmodern — self-referential (recursive) and meaningless reality
  • Ironic — reversed reality
  • Post-Ironic — multiplicity of competing meanings/narratives, multiple realities

All this is quite enough to the chew on for a start. I plan to continue in pts. 2 and 3 with description of the Ironic and Post-Ironic.

Updates to my blogroll are infrequent. I only add blogs that present interesting ideas (with which I don’t always agree) and/or admirable writing. Deletions are typically the result of a change of focus at the linked blog, or regrettably, the result of a blogger becoming abusive or self-absorbed. This time, it’s latter. So alas, another one bites the dust. Dropping off my blogroll — no loss since almost no one reads my blog — is On an Overgrown Path (no link), which is about classical music.

My indignation isn’t about disagreements (we’ve had a few); it’s about inviting discussion in bad faith. I’m very interested in contributing to discussion and don’t mind moderated comments to contend with trolls. However, my comments drive at ideas, not authors, and I’m scarcely a troll. Here’s the disingenuously titled blog post, “Let’s Start a Conversation about Concert Hall Sound,” where the blogger declined to publish my comment, handily blocking conversation. So for maybe the second time in the nearly 10-year history of this blog, I am reproducing the entirety of another’s blog post (minus the profusion of links, since that blogger tends to create link mazes, defying readers to actually explore) followed by my unpublished comment, and then I’ll expound and perhaps rant a bit. Apologies for the uncharacteristic length. (more…)

“Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made.” – Günther Anders

For a fertile mind, nearly everything is a potential metaphor or microcosm for something else. It gets tiresome, really. Still, I couldn’t help but to reflect on this post at On an Overgrown Path as a particularly on-point example of what I’ve been working out over numerous blog posts, namely, that our discontentment over being human, with its inherent limitations, is boiling over. Case in point: music is now routinely given a slick, post-production shove toward hyperreality. That assertion is probably not clear to anyone wandering into The Spiral Staircase without the benefit of prior familiarity with my themes, so let me unpack it a bit.

The essence of the linked blog post above is that media have altered musical perspective (e.g., stage perspective, podium perspective, audience perspective, stereo hifi perspective, and in- or over-ear perspective) to such a degree that acoustics developed intuitively over generations (and hardened into convention) to enhance natural sound must now be supplanted by subtle (or not so subtle) amplification and digital processing to satisfy a generation that may never have stepped inside a concert hall and is instead acculturated to the isolating, degraded sound of earbuds and headphones playing back mp3s. Reorienting concert soundscapes and recordings to model immersive, inside-the-head experience (VR tricks the eye in a similar fashion) is promulgated as inevitable if music presenters wish to attract new generations of concertgoers and thus retain audiences. The blogger follows up later with another post entitled “Technology Reveals Information but Annuls Perception,” which appears to be in conflict with his earlier contentions. (He also dismisses my corrective comment, but no matter.)

I don’t really care much about audience building or the business and marketing aspects of music; others can attend to those concerns. However, the engineering and construction of virtual space, head space, and/or hyperreality, proceeding in slow, incremental steps, is of grave concern to me. We are turning our backs on the world (the body and the sensorium) and fleeing into our heads and ideation. How fully does the gradual disappearance of natural sound in the ear (namely, wearing earbuds 24/7) signify the dire condition of humanity? Impossible to quantify, of course, but considering how omnipresent technology retrains attention and focus away from the environment toward itself in the form of playback devices and handheld screens, I would say that to be part of the modern world means agreeing to be media (and consumer) slaves. Furthermore, the faux reality found there is edited and distorted to achieve maximum impact in minimal time, but the result is overstimulation giving way to catatonia.

When I was a boy, I felt the shut-down reflex in response to the venerable three-ring circus that came to town periodically: too much everything, so ultimately very little or nothing. The same overkill aesthetic is true now of most media, which are saturated with blinkered content to rivet attention — a bubbling, pseudo-glamorous effervescence — but nonetheless fail to register on stripped-out senses. I can think of no better example than events where amplified sound is bone-crushingly loud, i.e., destroying the small, conductive bones in the inner ear leaving unprotected listeners’ ears ringing temporarily, and over time, damaging hearing permanently. The sheer volume has the effect of isolating everyone (alone in a crowd) and reducing them to voiceless, gesticulating grunts. For example, I have attended concerts (indoor and outdoor), dance clubs, wedding receptions, and fundraisers where the sound level was well above the 85 db sufficient to cause hearing loss, yet people just stand there and take it. The disconnect from reality and failure to react to the aural onslaught (by leaving or putting in earplugs) is astonishing. There is no sane reason to believe such conditions are enlivening and inevitable, yet those are in fact fashionable behaviors and recommendations.

Admittedly, destroying one’s ears is not the same as wrecking concert hall acoustics or recording perspective, but they are part and parcel of the same underlying mentality: a discontentment with human limitation. Cinema is going the same direction with gimmicky use of CGI and eye-popping camera effects that deliver views and perspectives that have lost all relation with mundane reality. The desire to transcend the banal is terrific when guided by a wizened aesthetic. When motivated by boredom or shame at our inability to be superhuman, well, that’s something quite different.

I’ve lost my focus with this blog. When I started, I had imagined collecting and refining my ideas about a general theory of mind and its intersection with culture. That has been the principal intellectual preoccupation of my adulthood. Although I don’t have college degrees in the usual disciplines that most researchers and philosophers on the subject have (psychology and historical psychology, anthropology, neurology and brain surgery, cognitive and learning theory, and philosophy), I’ve synthesized a lot of information that comes from these disciplines. Indeed, to even begin requires a formidable interdisciplinary breadth. In a certain respect, I’m wholly unqualified to tackle the subject, but in other respects, I’m precisely the sort of person to do so. Regrettably, other things got in the way, such as earning a living. And besides, consciousness is a moving target, which is one of my points.

Almost from the inception of this blog I’ve been delaying discussions about and further investigation of consciousness and the mind in favor of dire predictions of The Collapse stemming from overpopulation, environmental degradation, global warming and climate change, the end of oil, etc. What could be more significant that humanity’s demise at its own hand? There are no links there because maybe half my blog entries have been about those topics. Interspersed are observations about the culture at large and a few lighter, more humorous posts about a variety of nonsense.

I’ve also adopted a conspicuously dense though abbreviated form for most entries. I rarely blog over 3 or 4 paragraphs. That’s partly out of a desire not to bore my few readers or to write excessively long, scholarly tomes on a blog. I can’t say whether that choice has been successful, as there is little discussion going on in the comments. I have only two, maybe three faithful commentators and not very many more visitors. So perhaps longer, more self-indulgent entries might appear with fuller explications of my themes.

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