Comfort from not understanding?

I came across an anecdote including a quotation attributed to Alan Turing from 1949. Ruminating on the potentials of a computational machine, Turing purportedly stated, “I suppose, when it gets to that stage, we shan’t know how it does it.”

Let us assume Turing refers to the potential time when a machine begins to think–to orient, to imagine, to willfully choose, to cogitate–for itself. Clearly, the term ‘think,’ that I have offered my own synonyms for, needs explication. Whether it means something more than ‘following a pattern’–the capabilities of millions of current machines–is not certain. It is the possibility that the machine could get to this level–the level of deciding of its own accord/volition–that draws my attention. Once the machine achieves that which children and adults fall out of bed able to do, it will have passed some chimeric border that is, from what I can tell, not too different from the one separating my own thoughts and ideas from those of everyone else.

Impressively, the machine will have reached a level of complexity that appears tantamount to thought: something indecipherable and inexplicable. Descartes seemed to define the mind by that which it is not: physical extension. If it is not extendable in space, it becomes mind. That seems the only consequence of his dualistic system.

My parsing of Descartes is poor, and I do not intend it to stand in for the wonderful, detailed, and rich exegeses you can find elsewhere. However, Turing’s move, quoted above, points to a similar negative definition: once a machine reaches some sort of consciousness (and I do not claim Turing meant just that), we will not be able to explain it. If we cannot explain it, we cannot well understand it. Has our understanding of how the human mind works progressed much further?

Should we interpret Turing’s (supposed) line above as a kind of pretext, a way to maneuver around the tricky issue of consciousness? I think of David Toomey’s Weird Life book where he notes that biologists are fundamentally blinded to the possibility of life that does not resemble something found on Earth. It could be right on planets and moons in our solar system, but how would we know? We have in our minds that life resembles ______ or has ________ characteristics. And if it does not, then it is not life. That seems a weak distinction based on our own cognitive limitations.


More than Human?

A few years ago, I put together a very basic sketch of a course proposal for a writing course. This fall, I get a chance to teach an interdisciplinary class of my own devising. I am going to revisit some of the themes I considered in 2014. Following are a few paragraphs outlining topics and perspectives.


Do the technologies we use determine who we are? Would integrating technologies into our bodies change what it means to be human? How ought we make decisions about our technologies and our bodies? A June 2014 Supreme Court ruling, Riley v. California, raises critical questions regarding human-technology relationships, and even the potential of cyborg law. In this course, we will explore the ethical, legal and social implications/applications of human enhancement. As we learn about recent technological developments that permit such augmentations, we will pose and investigate questions invoked by these opportunities and challenges. For instance, we will examine issues raised by technologies such as cognitive enhancement pharmaceuticals, and predictive technologies such as autotype. Ours is a time of incredible, yet often incremental, technological change.  We must carefully consider the creations that help shape us, and our world, if we wish to be more than passive recipients of technological change.


In this course, students will encounter academic writing from disciplines like history, philosophy, and political science, but texts will also range from science fiction to socio-technical commentary to film. Current controversies over specific emerging technologies will provide a basis for exploring the social, economic, political, and environmental roots and branches of these developments. These texts will draw students into taking, defending, and critiquing positions as they learn to imagine the implications of their chosen positions, analyzing them in relation to those of their peers. The semester-long writing project, of roughly 12 pages, will begin with a series of short pieces that result from research and comparative analysis of particular emerging technologies that students may choose.


Arguments serve as our course scaffolding: we will articulate our own; we will interpret and parse professionals’ work; and, we will learn to polish our prose through workshopping, revising and editing. Focusing on the gaps, inconsistencies, and complexities in the arguments we read, whether from professionals, peers, or our own texts, will strengthen our critical and analytical reading and writing skills. Students will practice communicating ideas effectively, coherently and concisely by engaging a variety of academic and non-academic audiences because the positions we argue for will have impacts that extend beyond a university campus. We will learn to sharpen our claims, enroll our supporters—ranging from people to positions—and enter debates. Students will create a blog to post weekly writings and use it as a space to give and receive feedback. This forum will also serve as a means to make our ideas public and, potentially, engage broader audiences.

Indeterminate and Inconclusive: Satisfied?

Does any profession, academic or otherwise, require its practitioners to give decisive, categorical answers to questions? Should it?

My background in the humanities and social sciences, and my own propensity for equivocating, waffling, and generally mincing words (what a wonderfully evocative phrase: words minced like meat), tells me the answer should be No! Not a precise, clear-cut No but more of a wishy-washy Nah.

If I had not written a similar phrase, and thought it innumerable times, the following might jar me more than it does: “In this chapter I will not deliver any definite answers” (not citing). I will not cite this line in deference to the actual author and to my inner author that so often thinks/wants to write/does write such a phrase. My dissertation committee had no problem objecting to my lack of commitment as they appraised my final work. They exhorted me to take a position and defend it. I failed to adequately do so then. I still fail to do so. You should find no blustering, crowing, or gloating in that admission. If I were more sure of my ideas, I hope I would defend them better. A significant problem, then, amounts to a lack of confidence. It is a symptom which many others, particular in my branches of academia, appear to share. We hedge. Often. Wittingly.

An imaginative tale would recount a time when I gushed certainty and was rebuffed. Or when I lacked conviction only to later discover I had the right idea all along. Or recount someone I knew/know who experienced one or the other. I could go religious and try one of those stories. Or fairy-tale. Each appears ready to adjudicate the timid.

I have often been quick to pounce on texts in Science and Technology Studies as mere descriptions. Prescription should be the goal; description marks one as little more than an observer, a passenger. I did not want to go along for the ride. I wanted to drive. My infatuation with automated vehicles, and my exasperation with commuting by car (that I drive) reminds me that such a metaphor was as foolish then as it is now.

Where Will We Find Meaning?

Paul Kalanithi probed the mind and the brain. When Breath Becomes Air portrays his search for meaning, a sum of life. Through literature, philosophy, and neurology, his tale represents some of the best interdisciplinary work I have read. His keen awareness of himself, others, and his environment permits him to weave philosophical, literary, and medical theory into a coherent narrative. His clear, lucid writing style pricks cerebral and emotional faculties. His topic attracts us all.

Between biology and philosophy yawns a chasm. Never mind philosophy of biology or some mixture of the two. Kalanithi’s work seeks a grand unified theory; it reconnoiters a common crevasse that each discipline claims for itself yet hardly manages to penetrate. Clinicians with their cadavers and philosophers with their phenomenology each aim to delineate and demarcate. Each miscalculate in their own idiosyncratic ways if one assumes that their audiences lie beyond the confines of their own cloistered cadres. And they do. Meaning does not accrue only to the initiated. It confounds specialists by flowing through fissures they (we) consider carefully closed, sealed. To be fair, it bewilders and mystifies most everyone. Yet, each of us returns to the abyss at some point–for pay or no–and when we turn away can only remark that it is there, waiting, if only we had the right mental and physical equipment to explore it fully.

Perhaps glimpsing his own mortality made Kalanithi finally corral and compose his thoughts. We may fairly argue that he lacked time to finish, to complete his search for meaning through practicing medicine, reflecting on literature, and examining his lived experience.

Or, we might conclude that he found what he sought. He pushes me and countless others who have and will encounter his work (I, in particular, will assign his writing to my students aspiring to be physicians) to explore the interplay between corporeal clusters of neurons and mental musings. My metaphor, then, is all wrong. There is no fixed, physical fissure. There are only integrated circuits, much like those we make in our own descendants: machines and artificial agents. Through them, perhaps, we will better comprehend ourselves.

Two Claims

A few years ago I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop facilitated by Dr. Thomas Basboll. Though I appreciated his arguments and told myself I would adopt his strategies, I failed to put enough them into practice. Today I begin to make good on what I promised my writer (myself).


Labels like genetically-modified, transgenic, etc., help shape biologists understanding of organisms. Kuhn would describe the underlying perspective and worldview afforded by such labels and thinking as a paradigm. Werner Heisenberg, in Physics and Philosophy (1958), noted the difficulty of physicists in the early twentieth century to adapt to quantum theories proposed by Niels Bohr and Heisenberg himself. Heisenberg notes that a significant obstacle to shifting from paradigm to another involves underlying philosophical perspectives. In this particular case, that shift involves relinquishing a materialist ontology. Recalcitrant physicists–Einstein included–resisted quantum theory’s vocabulary in part because it denied a Cartesian worldview where only mind is immaterial. The extended body, including all atomic particles, must always exist independent of our observation (instruments included) of them. Heisenberg proposes that characteristics like velocity and speed are secondary qualities–they do not define the quantum things, but they can be used to describe them. The human observer cannot help but alter the quantum matter any time she observes the matter. The tools we use to measure position alter its velocity, thus both cannot be measured simultaneously. Heisenberg argues that our everyday language, including vocabulary passed down from Newtonian classical physics like space and time, condition us to think of all things as cohering to how we already see the world. Quantum theory, on the other hand, proposes perspectives that clash with such language and, more importantly, wish such a worldview. Matter, says Newtonian physics, can neither be created nor destroyed. Yet quantum theory pushes against such an understanding of atomic particles–tiny pieces of matter. For the biologist (wow, this entire paragraph went in a completely different direction until now), gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 mark no revolutionary shift in how they have been doing their work for the last century. Such tools significantly shorten the time, cost, and difficulty of the work in plant and animal breeding. However, making some process faster, more efficient, cheaper, and easier does not imply the process has fundamentally changed. From the biologists’ perspective, then, genetically-modified plants and animals have extensive histories. Performing gene modification on organisms pre-dates Gregor Mendel; current work merely extends such projects. Perhaps a general perspective would be that when scientists break things–organisms, atoms, etc.–down into concomitant parts, they do not create new things. As Bohr and Heisenberg pointed out, however, physics (but maybe all science fits here) does not intend to discover what nature is. It concerns what we humans can say about nature.

“Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience” (Bohr, 1960).


Through description, postphenomenologists make normative claims about method. In their introduction to Postphenomenological Investigations, Rosenberger and Verbeek argue that postphenomenology articulates a normative perspective: Postphenomenology “[brings] together the empirical orientation of STS on concrete case studies with the conceptual and also normative orientation that are characteristic for philosophy of technology” (p. 10, emphasis mine). They argue that postphenomenology attempts “to answer the philosophical question of how the role of technology in human existence and experience can be understood” (pp. 10-11). Though they do not intend it, I want the last line to read: “how the role of technology in human existence and experience can and should be understood.” If so, then I would expect many parts of their edited volume to tell readers how we humans should view human-technology relationships. Through the first half of the text, I do not see such normative claims. I may certainly be asking more of the text than it aims to offer. Nevertheless, the first quotation evokes the normative. The empirical orientation + philosophical analysis does not, in my mind, equate to normative critique unless the normative here involves directives for how postphenomenological inquiry should proceed. If so, then Rosenberger and Verbeek’s volume certainly delivers. Its authors espouse an empirical + analysis methodology and seem to claim that the normative should play a part in the analysis. That the normative should play a role in postphenomenology is, perhaps, the sharpest edge of their normative blade. They wield it to acknowledge the import of normative analyses, yet the blade rusts from neglect as the edited volume progresses. My own work suffers from similar abandonment of the normative. My dissertation begins with grand aspirations about bringing more normative claims to philosophy of technology. It ends with little more than description and some hand-waving about why we should adopt posthumanist perspectives.


Ok, I only got to two sentences today. And they rambled. I might try again later today. Otherwise, I will have more to write tomorrow.

I must say, it feels good to get some writing done, even if the quality is little more than a draft at this point.


For another day:

From Postphenemological Investigations, I understand that we canonly move forward by reflecting upon the past (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty).

Postphenomenology needs a coherent story.

Tell me a story

I’m re-reading Donald (now Deirdre) McCloskey’s If You’re So Smart (1992). I’ve been on about narratives for quite some time, so I disappoint myself by taking so long to pull the book of the shelf.


McCloskey, besides writing clearly and succinctly, tells a good story. The tetrad–fact, logic, metaphor, and story–deserve more attention. Like the biologist telling a story about genetic manipulation, and using a model to answer questions the story fails to explain, science and technology (among other genres) are rife with tales. I wonder if my bio and chem colleagues think of themselves of storytellers? I should ask.


I also wonder what kind of story–and what model (a kind of yang to story’s yin)–would be necessary to change minds about the moral status of machines and artificial agents. Before Rachel Carson, before Peter Singer (perhaps Jeremy Bentham played a bit part), environmental ethics and animal rights groups had many facts and employed logic to impart them. After Carson and Singer, these groups have more coherent metaphors and stories. Does that partly explain the rise of these groups? Am I coming up with something akin to Kipling’s ‘just-so’ stories by these examples? Am I using metaphor and story right now–mixed with a dash of fact and logic–to persuade?




I need to start thinking more about story, fact, logic, and metaphor. I should consider how each will play a role if any convincing is going to get done about addressing the moral status of machines. They also will play a role in the book chapter I write for later this year. They also factor into the book review I have recently begun.


With all that in mind, a few sentences to kick off Tuesday writing (for you, Thomas):

Labels like genetically-modified, transgenic, etc. help shape biologists understanding of organisms.

Through description, we make normative claims (postphenomenologists) about method.

From Postphenemological Investigations, I understand that we can only move forward by reflecting upon the past (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty).

Postphenomenology needs a coherent story.

Object-Oriented Ontology and Philosophy of Technology

Referring to the “Copernican Revolution of Kant,” Graham Harman (2005) notes that “Like all events of shattering genius, the Kantian Revolution is so victorious that it is now taken for granted” and any attempt to subvert it, from within the academy at least, is futile (p. 75). This seems similar to the dominant paradigm described by Kuhn (1996), where even trying to think of a different question, one not supported and promoted as a puzzle to solve, becomes difficult. So, too, with the ideas of the posthuman where the human as the measure of all things, from which and to which all things must refer, dominates.

Katherine Hayles (1999) seeks an embodied posthuman rather than the disembodied posthuman imagined in cybernetic work. Hans Moravek’s notion of “downloading” one’s mind or consciousness into a computer implies that one’s “self” has nothing overly important to do with one’s body. Interestingly, the work of those believing that the mind or consciousness could be “downloaded” or placed into any other container could be taken as both a rejection of Cartesian dualism and an affirmation. Claiming that the mind/consciousness consists of information that can be recorded and translated into the 1s and 0s of computation points distinctly to an ontological physicalism. It reduces everything in the universe to the same kinds of “stuff” and means that anything and everything can be manipulated with sufficient knowledge, skill and resources.

In other words, the mind must be made of the same “stuff” as the body for such a translation to work. Or, we might even consider Moravek’s idea, as well as much work in artificial intelligence (AI), as somehow granting the dualism of Descartes but with a computational twist: the body exists, but the body does not confine me or define me. Whatever shape I wear, “I” wear it, and that “me” in there can exist in whatever shape or form I may like as long as the cognitively functioning “me” remains. Of course, more than a mere waft of physicalism pervades such ideas because that cognitively functioning “me” must be transported in some fashion or another.

For Hayles (1999), her

nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, [her] dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being., and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival. (p. 5)


Rather than accuse Hayles of fetishizing the body, a charge that might hold up if it mattered (which it does not), another way to consider her evocative nightmare/dream scenario involves questioning why we privilege the human at all. I grant that “life is embedded in a material world of great complexity,” but I side with object-oriented ontologists like Graham Harman and Ian Bogost that the material world/universe involves many kinds of bodies/objects and many kinds of consciousness. Hayles (1999), as well as a host of feminist, postmodern and deconstructionist thinkers, offers a critique of the liberal humanist subject as the dominant paradigm, arguing that it violates humanity as a whole by singling out certain genders and races as supreme.


Ranging from feminist thinkers contending that the humanist subject has been imagined as a white European male, whose universalization serves “to suppress and disenfranchise women’s voices,” to postmodernist theorists like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari that link the humanist subject to capitalism (p. 4), the thrust of such critiques has been the egalitarian move that makes human “being” something to which no race, gender or sociopolitical group can claim exclusive access. For OOO, such a move begs an important question: why do cognitive rights and abilities stop at the human species, or even apply only to animals? Assuming life exists out in the universe beyond our planet, such a definition of a thinking thing might exclude them, even if they were capable of making a journey to our world. Further, what if such aliens had no “bodies” in the sense of which we conceive the term? Our fascination with embodiment would seem rather arbitrary to such “beings” (indeed, we might even lack a proper vocabulary to describe such creatures that need no body to survive/exist).


According to Harman (2005),


experience shows that it is often a mental image of what constitutes intellectual progress, rather than any inherently weighty arguments, that explains why the antiessentialist, antisubstance, philosophy-of-access viewpoint enjoys such apparently unshakable prestige in continental philosophy today. (p. 81, emphasis in original)


Pointing to the primacy of embodiment as the locus of cognition seems strangely flawed as yet another continuation of the humanist project. Random access memory works as a metaphor for the thinking human mind partly because it evokes an image, a perspective in which humans can understand themselves. To claim such an image as the only possible one does serve traditional humanist ends in that it holds humans as superior to all other being/objects. The human remains the measure of all things, and as no other animal or nonhuman has sent in any manuscripts to academic journals or global media claiming otherwise, we humans feel safe in just such an assumption. The speculative turn that Harman (2005) attempts to reclaim from Whitehead permits Harman, and other object-oriented ontologists/speculative realists like Ian Bogost (2012) to make forays into wondering about what it is like to be a “thing.” I find the mental image these speculative realists invoke equally compelling to that of the embodied camp. As my advisor frequently reminds me, we all choose what we want to privilege, what we wish to hold inviolable. To a certain extent, we cannot move beyond such dogma. As Harman (2005) compellingly claims:

Beginners in any field generally lack such paradigms, which is why they often strike us as lost or confused, and also why they are often more difficult opponents in debate than trained experts, since experience provides us with a rapid but predictable organizing mechanism for what we learn. . . . Hollow dogma can be found in any party at any time, and is equally paralyzing no matter where it occurs. (p. 80)

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