Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Posthuman Determinism: Possibility through Boundaries

In my "Posthuman Topologies: Thinking Through The Hoard," I end on a somewhat cryptic note about "posthuman determinism." In all honesty, that was one of those terms that just came out as I was writing that I hadn't thought about before. For me, it was a concept that served as a good point of departure for more writing.

As I'm deep into a new project (and heading toward a sabbatical for the Spring semester), the idea has come to the forefront, with the help of a wonderful book called The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism, by Elizabeth Grosz. As she questions and re-frames the realtionship between the ideal and the material in the works of the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Simondon, and Ruyer, she provides a thoughtful critique of materialism (and, consequently "new materialism" -- my own sub-specialty) that reinvigorates certain points of idealism while maintaining the importance of the material substrate of existence. It's a similar maneuver to Kant's critique of the rational/empirical dichotomy in the 1700s. 

Thankfully, as I started taking notes on Grosz's book, the idea of "posthuman determinism" kept coming back, and with it, a journey back to the core of my philosophical worldview: how do the artifacts which we use -- and which surround us -- contribute to the self. Note here, I'm not saying "contribute to the idea of the self." While we may have ideas of who we are, my position -- as a posthumanist, post-phenomenologist, and new materialist -- is that the objects which surround us and their systems of use are essential and intrinsic parts of the very mechanisms that allow ideas themselves to arise. Ideas may be representations of phenomena or mental processes, but the material of which we are made and that surrounds us make representation itself possible. This means that -- unlike a Cartesian worldview that puts mind over matter, and privileges thought over the material body which supports it -- I place my emphasis on the material that supports thought. That includes the body as well as the physical environments that body occupies.

In that context, a "posthuman determinism" is a way of saying that the combination of our physical bodies and physical spaces those bodies occupy create the boundaries and parameters of experience; and, to a certain extent, create boundaries and parameters of the choices we have and our capacity to make those choices. Our experiences are determined -- not predetermined -- by the material of which we are composed. The trick is to think about the difference between "determinism" and "predeterminism." In relation to the human, the former states only that all events are determined by causes which are external (read, material) to the will; while the latter implies that all human action is established in advance. Determinism emphasizes causality while predeterminism emphasizes result. That is to say, ascribing to a deterministic philosophy implies only that human action always has a cause: that specific factors guide how human beings express their will. Predeterminism implies that the specific choices that humans make are somehow established in advance and that each of us is moving toward a specific, fixed point. That would mean that our choices are themselves illusory, and that regardless of what we choose, we will arrive at a specific end.

Ascribing to a deterministic worldview does not mean -- despite what people critical of philosophy  may tell you -- that nothing matters and that we are not responsible for our choices. In fact, quite the opposite: in a deterministic philosophy everything literally matters. We are responsible for our actions by understanding the causes and conditions that supervene on our decisions. What factors affect the choices I have, and how do those factors contribute to my own decision-making processes? That is to say, What factors instantiate the mechanisms through which I make my choices? From my materialist point of view, I believe that our ability to think and our ability to choose are bounded by the material properties of our bodies and the world around us.*

So although I may ascribe to a certain posthuman determinism, I still believe in "free will," but one that has specific limits and boundaries. To us, there may seem to be infinite choices we can make in any given situation; and, indeed, there may be many choices we can make, but those choices are not unlimited. A person can't imagine a color that isn't a shade, variation, or combination of a color (or colors) that person has already seen. We can't imagine an object that isn't some component, combination, or variation of an object that we've experienced before.

None of the above is new. Both Hume and Descartes say similar things, although Descartes's (and to some extent, Kant's) valorization of the mind's ability to conceive of things like infinity and perfection prove that the mind can move beyond its physical limitations.For me, however, that's the mind moving within them. Infinity is a concept that is born of ones learned awareness of time and space.

All in all, there are limits and boundaries to free will. But those boundaries are what make volition itself possible. We can only think and act through the physical bodies and physical world those bodies occupy. Boundaries are not necessarily prohibitive, they make things possible, and give shape to the specific qualia of experience itself.

*Someday, will our computers be powerful enough to calculate the myriad physical properties around us and predict our behavior based solely on our brain chemistries coupled with the properties of the physical world around us? I think if humans survive long enough to develop that technology, then, yes. At that point, I do think the machines will literally think FOR us; transforming the human species into something very different than it is now -- something beyond the realm of our imagining ... literally. We can't think of what that thinking would be like because we literally do not have the biological capacity nor the material support to allow us to think that way.