26 Sep

Imagining our selves in the image of our devices

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/26/13

Ellen Ullman on computer science, the meaning of life, and the importance of the body

In his book, Should We Live Forever? Gilbert Meilaender (a guest on volume 118 of the Journal) offers a cogent critique of the radical anti-aging agenda of the transhumanists, sometimes acknowledged as “posthumanists.” Meilaender comments on the contradiction at the heart of their program: 

The posthumanist vision begins with a thoroughgoing commitment to materialistic reductionism, in order, then to reimagine human beings as immaterial — as utterly disembodied. We are, according to this view, what our brains do. Mind and personal identity are located in the pattern of information housed in the brain, and our memories and emotions are simply the behavior of its nerve cells. Having reduced mind to that, we can then imagine the possibility of transferring it to a computer program, where the “self” would remain in entirely immaterial form.

Human beings are reduced to bodies, personality is then reduced to brains, which is further reduced to information, which can then survive without a body. Neat.

It is precisely the neatness of it — the dispensing with the messiness of bodies — that displays how research in cognitive science, artificial intelligence [A.I.], robotics, and “artificial life” has much in common with ancient Gnosticism.

In her 2002 article “Programming the Post-Human: Computer science redefines ‘life’” (Harper’s, October 2002) Ellen Ullman describes (with a profound sense of un-ease) how scientific research in various disciplines has converged to promote a vision of the future once only imaginable to fabulists like Isaac Asimov. Ullman recalls how in the late 1970s and 1980s, working as a young computer programmer, she

saw in AI  the opportunity to explore questions that had previously been in the province of the humanities. What are we? What makes a human intelligent? What is consciousness, knowledge, learning? . . . It was clear that as members of a secular society that has given up on the idea of God we would be looking elsewhere for the source of what animates us, and that “elsewhere” would be the study of cybernetic intelligence, the engine of postmodern philosophical speculation.

Ullman bristles at the mechanistic, reductionistic view of life that is advanced by the research, and she makes a good case for its inadequacies, but she finally has no compelling way to refute it. Nonetheless, her essay has not lost in 11 years any of its power to describe the dehumanizing agenda that animates (if that is an apt word) this agenda. Passages in the article are reminiscent of scenes set in the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), the site of some devilish brain research in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

Ullman’s essay was appreciated at the time by Steve Talbott (a guest on two back issues) in his on-line newsletter NetFuture (#138). Talbott welcomed her descriptions of the dehumanizing effects of this research (and her personal sense of dis-ease at the vision of life it represents), but finally says that he couldn’t “see how Ullman has made a case in any way that clearly separates her view from that of the AI researchers she is criticizing.”