[ExI] Posthumanism vs. Transhumanism

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Wed Jun 17 19:37:32 UTC 2009

A little more on anti-essentialism and its problems. This chunk from 
my book comes after a longer discussion of sociologist of knowledge 
Barry Barnes (1983):

           Knowledge in Context

Barnes proceeds to several implications: *delocalisation* (to know a 
goose, it also helps to know a swan); hence, there are no 
free-floating `atomic' concepts (p. 29); the application of a term is 
a judgment, as we have noted, since `the tension of a term represents 
a conventional relationship of sameness between the instances within 
it', and this can always be revised (pp. 30 1); proper usage is 
*agreed usage*, so that a creature might be at one time deemed a 
moth, at another a butterfly: `Cases such as these are sometimes 
thought to result from an inadequate knowledge of the "real meanings" 
of terms themselves; and occasionally the achievement of consensus in 
these cases is conceived as a "discovery" of the "real meaning". But 
such consensus merely marks the successful negotiation of an 
extension of usage'; and *equivalence*, which is to say that 
`different Hesse nets are always equivalent' (p. 33), since 
`"Reality" does not mind how we cluster it; "reality" is simply the 
massively complex array of unverbalized information which we cluster. 
This suggests that different nets stand equivalently in relation to 
"reality" or to the physical environment', and also `as far as the 
possibility of "rational justification" is concerned'(p. 33, his 
emphasis). In short, `alternative classifications are *conventions* 
between which neither "reality" nor "pure reason" can discriminate. 
Accepted systems of classification are *institutions* which are 
socially sustained. (p. 33, his emphasis)'
           In my own view, this strong relativist position is surely 
inconsistent with an implacable universe warranting ostension. [That 
is, you can point to something as you name it.] Barnes offers in 
support of his case the instance of Karam animal taxonomy, which 
places cassowaries (a kind of flightless bird) in the special taxon 
kobtiy, outside that of flying beasts like other birds and bats (pp 
34 37), and compares that categorisation with the zoological taxonomy 
used in an advanced industrial Hesse net:

           "How can the pattern of either net distort reality? 
Rather, reality provides the information incorporated in both nets; 
it has no preference for the one or the other." (p. 35)

However bracing this might be as a corrective to imperialistic 
anthropology, it is nonsense if taken literally. DNA sequences, for 
example, are not `randomly' or `purely culturally' associated with 
the genomes of each taxa, but contain clear natural-historical 
markers endorsing the phylogenetic claims of one over the other--that 
is, the history of their natural selection. (These deep links might 
be of no interest or use to humans, of course, and for most of 
history they have been altogether inaccessible, but they remain coded 
as the DNA `text' or `recipe': an almost indelible inscription).
           Animals and plants, whose phenotypes are the expression of 
the interaction between environment and coded genotype, are the 
`naturally-chunked' perceptual fields, or `natural kinds', which 
humans are prone to tag with lexemes (whatever further totemic or 
commercial significance they may be given). This perspective--that 
human language, prior to the legitimate claims of cultural 
relativity, is founded in its capacity for adaptation to an 
indefinitely complex interacting universe--gives the lie to Barnes's 
easy assertion: `"Reality" does not mind how we cluster it.' Reality 
might not mind, but finding the correct clustering certainly matters.
           The relativist view has been canvassed by John Dean, who 
found within our own botanical science two rival taxonomies for the 
plant Gilia inconspicua, and noted that both `are built upon 
perceptible, systematizable, stable distinctions between individual 
plants. In this sense the natural order sustains both taxonomies; 
neither can be said to be erroneous' (Dean, 1979, p. 226; see 
especially his taxonomic discussion, pp. 211-28). This view does not 
convince me that `reality does not mind how we classify it'; it 
simply reminds us that the reality we notate on our low-dimensional 
grids is multidimensional. Reality is not, however, utterly or even 
very indeterminate: it would be very strange to classify Gilia 
inconspicua as a variety of possum or igneous rock, or to attempt to 
breed it in the wild with an elephant. True, one might throw it in 
with anything imaginable for, say, totemic purposes, but that is a 
different point entirely. Ironically, the arch-conventionalist Pierre 
Duhem looked to the emergence of naturally-chunked classification: 
`The more a theory is perfected, the more we apprehend that the 
logical order in which it arranges experimental laws is the 
reflection of an ontological order' (cited Lakatos, 1978, p. 21).
           Taken together, these converging models from artificial 
intelligence research and the sociology of scientific knowledge offer 
a useful springboard to the further examination of semiosis: the ways 
in which humans recognise, construct and manipulate logics and 
contexts in the service of signification.

[etc etc. Maybe I should put this whole damned book up on the web, 
even if it is somewhat out of date now...]

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list