The other digital dualism

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David Golumbia, author of The Cultural Logic of Computation, describes how the seemingly immaculate materialism of the Singularitarians masks a dualistic view of the mind and the body that would make Descartes proud:

There is a radical, deeply unscientific Cartesianism in singulatarians: they believe mind is special stuff, different from body, despite their apparent overt commitment to a fully materialistic, scientific conception of the world.

This neo-Cartesian conception of the mind predates the Singularitarians, of course. It’s wrapped up in a view of the brain as a computing machine whose logic and data can be abstracted from its physical manifestation. The computer scientist Danny Hillis voiced this view, in stark terms, back in 1992 in an interview with the Whole Earth Review. He said of human beings:

We’re a symbiotic relationship between two essentially different kinds of things. We’re the metabolic thing, which is the monkey that walks around, and we’re the intelligent thing, which is a set of ideas and culture. And those two things have coevolved together, because they helped each other. But they’re fundamentally different things. What’s valuable about us, what’s good about humans, is the idea thing. It’s not the animal thing.

The human consists of that which can be digitized and that which cannot, the logic (or mind) on the one hand and the metabolic machinery (or body) on the other, and these are fundamentally, essentially different things. Mind has no particular dependency on body, at least no more than the program has on the particular computer on which it runs.

What’s striking about the neo-Cartesian, or digital dualist, view is how it manages the neat trick of incorporating both extreme humanism and extreme misanthropy. Since what’s “good” about us is what’s not “the animal thing,” we are given a superior position to all the other animals with whom we share the earth, they being the mere “monkeys that walk around.” This sense of our unique specialness is combined with a deeply misanthropic hatred for the human body, which, by linking us back to mere animals, prevents us from fulling the immortal destiny of pure intelligence. “If I can go into a new body and last for 10,000 years,” said Hillis, “I would do it in an instant.” This view is, needless to say, very close to certain religious conceptions of the body and the soul, though what it lacks is any attempt to put a brake on hubris.

In his critique of the Singularitarian dualism, Golumbia draws a useful distinction between “intelligence” and “mind”:

The use of the term “intelligence” in the fields of AI/Cognitive Science as coterminous with “mind” has always been a red herring. The problems with AI have never been about intelligence: it is obviously the case that machines have become much more intelligent than we are, if we define “intelligence” in the most usual ways: ability to do mathematics, or to access specific pieces of information, or to process complex logical constructions. But they do not have minds–or at least not human minds, or anything much like them. We don’t even have a good, total description of what “mind” is, although both philosophy and some forms of Buddhist thought have good approximations available.  Despite singulatarian insistence, we certainly don’t know how to describe “mind” outside of/separately from our bodies.

This is why the Singularitarian program is ultimately fated to fail: the mind is as much the monkey that walks around as it is the “intelligence” that can be abstracted and processed digitally. That gives Golumbia little comfort, however, because he sees the potential for an enormous amount of destruction in the unfettered pursuit of the Singularitarians’ warped humanistic/misanthropic goal—even if that goal is never reached.

Many of the most advanced technologists in corporate America for some reason adhere to this deeply unscientific piece of [dualist] dogma, and pursue unbridled technological progress and the automation of everything because they ‘know’ (following Kurzweil) that it is leading to transcendence — instead of believing the evidence of their own eyes, that it is leading someplace very dark indeed, especially when we reject out of hand — as nearly all Googlers do — that anybody but technologists should decide where technology goes.

Whether Golumbia’s darkest fears are realized, he raises an uncomfortable question: What does it mean for a society to thoughtlessly grant power to those who see the human body as an impediment to transcendence and believe that what’s good about us is what can be replicated by inanimate computers?

UPDATE: On a related note, see Colin McGinn’s review of Kurzweil’s latest book, particularly the discussion of the dangers of thinking that the brain is, literally, an information processor.

Photo by ePsos.

24 Comments

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24 Responses to The other digital dualism

  1. shagggz

    Sure, the Singularitarian program is fated to fail if you conceive of it as some kindergarten-level strawman, namely the goal of somehow copying the mind/information/soul (with 100% fidelity, whatever that may mean) from wetware into computers as we currently understand them (digital serial silicon von Neumann machines). Knocking down this particular effigy seems to be quite the popular pastime.

    You sure showed them!

  2. react

    Mind has no particular dependency on body, at least no more than the program has on the particular computer on which it runs.

    From my readings on the subject, this is sometimes referred to as “substrate independence” – the theory that the mind isn’t tied to the specific substrate of the brain.

    That reminds me… a few days ago a comment was posted on the Digital dualism denialism post with this anecdote:

    A little like the guy who told me that “Information is just information,” but grew evasive when I asked if it would upset him to be notified of his girlfriend’s death by text message or singing telegram.

    This is just another version of substrate independence, but with information in the position of the mind.

    Most interesting to me is how certain theorists of a cyborg persuasion perhaps traffic in this Cartesianism even while they make vague gestures in the direction of rejecting it. They continually claim that a given aspect of humanity can’t be fundamentally affected by changes in the underlying technologies which mediate it — for example, that there can be no differences in moving from face-to-face interaction to Facebook interaction, because these are essentially equivalent substrates, paper is equivalent to e-ink, and so on.

    So by denying digital dualism between technologies, do they not implicitly support a dualism between society and technology, information and medium and ultimately, mind and body?

  3. Nick

    react: Thanks. That’s illuminating, particularly: “This is just another version of substrate independence, but with information in the position of the mind.”

    shagggz: How would you define the ultimate goal of the Singularitarian program?

  4. Daniel C.

    Bravo. This is something I’ve never been able to understand about the popular view of Kurzweil et al as benevolent humanists. The idea that the human being is inadequate, unworthy and flawed is central in Kurzweil’s worldview.

  5. Mark

    Here is my answer to the question,

    What does it mean for a society to thoughtlessly grant power to those who see the human body as an impediment to transcendence and believe that what’s good about us is what can be replicated by inanimate computers?

    It means nothing. Consider and contrast this question:

    What does it mean for a society to thoughtlessly grant power to those who see the human body as an orange banana and believe that what’s good about us can be replicated by papier-mâché?

    People have crazy beliefs and in the end this belief will not affect society. There are bigger things affecting society such as the economy, wars, unemployment, violence, etc. Goofy ideas about making transistors feel emotions? Not so much.

  6. Nick

    People have crazy beliefs and in the end this belief will not affect society.

    I’m not sure history is in total agreement with you.

  7. Mark

    “I’m not sure history is in total agreement with you.”

    OK, I may be mistaken as I’ve not studied the history people thoughtlessly granting power to those who see the human body as an impediment to transcendence.

    Can you point me to a historical reference of when this belief has affected society?

  8. Can you point me to a historical reference of when this belief has affected society?

    You don’t think that various Churches and religious movements and their views about and distaste for the body have impacted society? Even today the Catholic Church and many others are among the most dominant forces shaping society. They have a huge amount of power and “see the human body as an impediment to transcendence.”

    Sergey Brin and Ray Kurzweil are both actively trying to make this happen; they are two of Google’s most senior executives, and the worldview permeates the company. I and quite a few others think it’s very similar to a religious cult. I think Google has a bit of influence on our world, personally, and the notion that people with such extreme views should concern everyone. (Eric Schmidt’s views are pretty weird too.)

  9. Thanks so much for this, Nick. You are spot-on about the misanthropy lurking under transhumanism, especially hatred of the body–it’s all over Kurzweil’s writing, in particular. I also like your re-purposing of the “digital dualism” idea–as react notes, there is an interesting alliance of the (supposedly) outmoded Cartesian mind/body dualism with the “we have always been cyborgs, so the new kind of cyborgs we are now are nothing new, even though they are very new” view that certain people advocate.

    I can’t help answering shagggz a bit. Kurzweil is absolutely the leader of this movement and considered to be so by many of its strongest adherents, so to call him a straw man seems pretty odd. The piece Nick is quoting is part of a conversation with the blogger Dale Carrico, probably the single most thorough analyst of the singulatarian movement, and since he covers just about the whole thing in fine detail, it’s even harder to dismiss his work that way.

  10. “the notion that it is led and run by peoplewith such extreme views…” I meant.

  11. Mark

    David,

    You don’t think that various Churches and religious movements and their views about and distaste for the body have impacted society? Even today the Catholic Church and many others are among the most dominant forces shaping society. They have a huge amount of power and “see the human body as an impediment to transcendence.”

    I don’t know of a dominant religion that teaches that the body is distasteful and an impediment to transcendence. The Catholic Church teaches that sin is an impediment to entrance to heaven, as do evangelicals, but where do you find either saying the body is distasteful or an impediment to transcendence?

    Sergey Brin and Ray Kurzweil are both actively trying to make this happen; they are two of Google’s most senior executives, and the worldview permeates the company. I and quite a few others think it’s very similar to a religious cult. I think Google has a bit of influence on our world, personally, and the notion that people with such extreme views should concern everyone. (Eric Schmidt’s views are pretty weird too.)

    Yes, they want to transcend the body, but these guy’s belief that it is possible will not change society. Really, Google’s impact has not really been that great. So I can find cat videos faster than my parents — big deal. I know many people who have never used a search engine.

    So far I have to say that I stand behind my statement that this belief will not effect society.

  12. CS Clark

    I don’t know of a dominant religion that teaches that the body is distasteful and an impediment to transcendence.

    I don’t know of a dominant religion that teaches you can achieve transcendence without dying. It’s not 72 Virgins at your South Beach Condo. Also, I think the ‘dominant’ part is a little misleading. Transhumanism as a religion is still a religion even if its closest pure religious counterparts are the Skoptics rather than some religion with more Likes. (I’m damned sure there’s a Skoptics/Skeptics joke there somewhere. Oh well.) Singularity is great because, y’know, eternal life, and also because nothing will change – which makes it an incredibly American religion. The weird thing is, most of the people I read praising the Singularity, I have no idea what they would do with Eternity.

    I’m reminded that many tech/law debates depend on the new tech being completely different from old tech right up till the difference is a problem in which case the new tech is now exactly the same as the old tech. Ebooks are great because you can make infinite copies of them, and they’re also great because you must be able to share them with your friends in exactly the same way you can share a physical book.* Google has changed nothing so let’s listen to them/Google has changed everything so don’t worry. Talk about syzygy. Talk about doublethink.

    *One of the great things about lending a physical book to a friend, or even a causal, random aquaintance, is that you are actually giving something up. You might not see it again. You might need to buy a new copy. You might never buy a new copy and be left with only your memories. The risk makes it more worthwhile. A book, any book, is like your heart – giving it away, even if only for a short while, should require some pain.

  13. Mark

    CS Clark,

    I don’t know of a dominant religion that teaches that the body is distasteful and an impediment to transcendence.

    I don’t know of a dominant religion that teaches you can achieve transcendence without dying.

    First, there is a difference between teaching that the body is distasteful and teaching that one must die to achieve transcendence. Again, show me a religion that teaches that the body is distasteful.

    Again, dominant religions don’t teach that you must die to achieve transcendence. Dominant religions teach that you must either 1) do some work in order to get in to heaven or 2) be forgiven to get into heaven. One can die and not achieve transcendence.

    So far I have to say that I stand behind my statement that this belief will not effect society.

  14. Seth Finkelstein

    Nick, would it do any good (I mean that, as a literal, not rhetorical) question, for me to take the pro-technology side? Much of the above strikes me as a direct modern version of the anti-Darwin arguments made by some theologians and reactionaries of the time – oh my lord, that guy thinks people came from monkeys, isn’t that awful? Let’s consider the ugly self-hate he must have, that he doesn’t think we’re created in the image of God, but are, yuck, animals. And we can’t leave science to those people who say there”s amoral “genes” rather than a moral “soul”, because it’ll lead to horrible stuff like Eugenics, genocide in the name of genetics. Everything must be properly under the control of the Church, to insure it comports with the morality that is the foundation of our society.

    Yeah, it sounds silly today, because intellectuals don’t believe it (though it’s still around in the US). But make the appropriate changes, and it’s basically what you’ve written:

    Compare:

    “What does it mean for a society to thoughtlessly grant power to those who see the human body as an impediment to transcendence and believe that what’s good about us is what can be replicated by inanimate computers?”

    To a hypothetical:

    “What does it mean for a society to thoughtlessly grant power to those who see the human species as not Divine and believe that what’s essential about us is what can be replicated by mere collections of chemicals?”

  15. Mark

    would it do any good for me to take the pro-technology side?

    I don’t see a single anti-technology statement, nor anyone taking an anti-technology side.

  16. Seth Finkelstein

    Mark, I was writing rapidly – I don’t want to die on that hill. Pro-mechanism? Pro-dualism? Pro-the-brain-is-a-computer-get-over-it? I mean, saying *yes*, “the brain is, literally, an information processor.”.

    I’m more concerned with the “would it do any good for me” part of the sentence as opposed to the description I was fumbling for.

  17. Mark

    Seth,

    I don’t think this discussion is about pro or anti mechanism-dualism-brain-in-a-computer argument. I think the proposed question is

    What does it mean for a society to thoughtlessly grant power to those who see the human body as an impediment to transcendence and believe that what’s good about us is what can be replicated by inanimate computers?

    I have taken the side that it means nothing for society that the people who hold this belief have been granted power. That is, I presently see no example of society changing or moving towards a world of mind-in-machine humanity due to the relatively few people who hold this belief.

  18. Seth Finkelstein

    I’d say “grant power” in that question is being used in a sense best expressed as “What does it mean for social morality to be grounded in secular humanism rather than a religious God?” (this is very metaphorical, but it’s the quickest way I can think of to concisely convey what I believe is the underlying philosophical dispute). It’s not that Kurzweil is about to be elected President. But instead that liberal arts is being pushed aside by computer science in terms of answering some deep issues (not complete answers, but as much as for life’s problems, “talk to your therapist and do psychoanalysis” replaces “talk to your priest and read the Bible”).

    I mean, not everyone opposed Evolution because they were blithering idiots or closed-minded fundamentalists. If you actually read some of the opposition, even today, there’s some fairly eloquent if fallacious arguing about the supposed baleful effects of this alleged threat to the existing social order.

  19. Mark

    Seth,

    I don’t think the question or the answer to the question have anything to do with religion at all and I don’t know why people keep bringing it into the equation.

    In fact the question and answer have nothing to do with whether mind-in-a-machine is a possible reality or not.

    The question is “What does it mean for society” if some people in power want to put their minds in a machine. I say nothing.

    Your statement/question/posit of “What does it mean for social morality to be grounded in secular humanism rather than a religious God?”

    There really is no such thing as “Social morality grounded in secular humanism.” Without an agreed upon, absolute morality, there is nothing to be grounded in. Everyone just makes up and chooses what they call good or evil. If you want to call eating animals evil, then that’s fine, but don’t push your morality on me. Ergo, no such thing as “social morality.”

  20. more than materialism and mind and body, Singularitarians think they can adress movement, of a brain, mind, language, or that it could come up out of the blue, more than mind and matter, the forgotten dualism is life and death.

  21. supermundane

    Thank you for writing this. As someone who has watched the techno-utopian movement with a growing dread, especially as came to inform the decision-making and worldview of powerful individuals and corporations, I long ago recognised the rewarmed Cartesian dualism of the central premise and the bizarre mix of extreme hubris and misanthropy.

    Some time ago in an online debate with one of these techno-utopianists who blithely asserted: ‘We are not our bodies!’ To which I responded:

    “Cartesian Mind/Body Dualism is so 17th Century.

    20th century Phenomonologists, notably philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty soundly dispensed with this unhelpful distinction in Western thought years ago. A somewhat evolved form of Cartesian Dualism persists in computational and cognitivist theories of the mind, where essentially the brain is likened to computer hardware, the mind to software, and consciousness is merely an epiphenomenal consequence. In essence this theory is little different to Victorians likening biological systems to the pravailing technologies of their day (mechanistic) and this modern for of dualism where the body is merely a repository for the mind with motor and sensory function persists in some quarters, notably in the field of Artificial Intelligence, which is precisely why AI is no where near emulating the ‘human’ in the round. A machine that can perform complex equations faster than me (a lowly calculator can perform that function) or find patterns within huge masses of information is no more human than my toaster who can toast my bread better than I ever could. My toaster doesn’t ‘care’ how well it toasts my bread in the morning. Similarly the cheetah is its speed any more than a human is his or her intelligence or ‘mind’.

    There is a growing awareness of just how embodied the human mind is as seen not only through Phenomonology but also through scientific explorations of Embodied Cognition where the body and mind indistinct are the permanent condition of experience and articulation. “

  22. supermundane

    ‘Similarly the cheetah isn’t its speed any more than a human is his or her intelligence or ‘mind’’ – that ought to have been.

    Proof perhaps that I’m not a bot.

  23. Mark

    There is a growing awareness of just how embodied the human mind is as seen not only through Phenomonology but also through scientific explorations of Embodied Cognition where the body and mind indistinct are the permanent condition of experience and articulation.

    or

    There is a growing awareness of just how disembodied the human mind is as seen not only through Phenomonology but also through scientific explorations of Disembodied Cognition where the body and mind distinct are the permanent condition of experience and articulation.

  24. IO

    Hi there, i’m new here!
    I wanted to reply to some things, particularly Mark’s POV:

    People have crazy beliefs and in the end this belief will not affect society. There are bigger things affecting society such as the economy, wars, unemployment, violence, etc. Goofy ideas about making transistors feel emotions? Not so much.

    I agree that so far there’s no signs of these wackos getting to shape society very much, and hopefully, and very likely, that will stay so. However, having lots of these people in paid positions working full-time on AI and information technology does succeed in making me momentarily queasy about what will come out of it. I put my trust in the crushing global majority that doesn’t and never will live in the internets.

    show me a religion that teaches that the body is distasteful.

    i don’t think this refers to what’s literally in the doctrines of various religions, but to the more general influence of these religions-as-institutions on social policy and individual attitudes. Granted, playing up the body-hating and misanthropic aspects of the influence of various religious institutions simplifies the picture a lot; on the whole the social influence of dominant religions has usually been more the regulation of the people’s “bodily life” than its wholesale burning at the stake, as well as acting as worldly power structures, playing politics with spiritual issues mostly as justifications after-the-fact. But Cartesianism didn’t come from nowhere, nor the idea during the same time period that the screams of a live-dissected dog is “just the mechanical noise of a machine”; nor did Victorianism; nor myriad strands of guilt-laden Puritanism religious and secular; nor “hysteria”; nor the knee-jerk reactions to Darwin’s theories; nor the medieval idea of “procreation as a joyless duty” nor the “sexual revolution” of the 60′s. Nor did fringe flipcases like Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph or the Jonestown massacre. Hell, according to Wilhelm Reich fascistic movements stem from repressed sexuality, FWIW. In most cases, again, ideology (e.g. religion) has been more a justification for “realpolitics” than a primary motivator – a lot of the above is bottom line about making fertility governable on a macro-social level (i.e. “go forth and multiply, close your eyes and think of England”) – which is why the female body has traditionally taken the brunt of the vilification (please do your homework on this, and then come back to tell me that Western history isn’t full of extreme body-hating – misanthropy looks much smaller if one doesn’t count misogyny) and why on the other hand the body has traditionally been feminized (Yin&Yang has it all: the body is lumped together with femininity, darkness, irrationality, passivity, etc, while on the other side is mind, maleness, light, activity, rationality, you name it). On that note, can someone confirm or disprove my intuitive hunch that the Singularist movement is overwhelmingly male and very much a “boys club”?

    Anyway, the fact that ideology is rarely a primary cause for Bad Stuff isn’t an alleviating factor when scrutinizing ideology – it means that, the more space for misanthropy there is in some idea or ideology, the more likely it is to be used to justify misery or oppression. Singularism, or transhumanism, could theoretically come to justify the minority with most access to emergent information technology (including the really worrisome developments in the area of social network surveillance IT) being morally superior, and thus holding more power in society, than the majority with less or marginal access to said technology. As this great little comic puts it, “the singularity is the nerd way of saying, in the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome”. Me, I’m hoping these nerds are wrong.

    (Disclaimer For the knee-jerk prone: nothing against whites, although i do have some issues with the rich ;-) )