Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Posthuman Condition: Progress and Challenges

There have been enormous shifts in the intellectual landscape since the first edition of The Posthuman Condition was published in 1995. The view that the mind is entirely dependent on the brain has been widely and seriously challenged, with theories of enactive perception and extended cognition now gaining significant currency; mid-twentieth century models of artificial intelligence, with their dependence on top-down processing and symbolic logic, have been replaced with situated models of intelligence based on embodied interaction within the environment; and the notion of posthumanism itself — once a minor strand in science fiction literature — is now a major branch of cultural theory, which some have argued is succeeding postmodernism as the defining intellectual idiom of our age.

While all this is to be welcomed, I want to argue that the posthuman conception of reality continues to present us with profound challenges, the importance of which many contemporary theorists are yet to grasp. Take the startling implications of quantum theory, part of standard scientific knowledge for nearly a century now. Thought for a long time to be confined only to the smallest detectable scales, recent experiments have shown how quantum effects can influence events at the human scale of reality. Yet despite this, many thinkers continue to rely on ontological assumptions that were already out of date by the 1920s. Just as vital is the need to incorporate new knowledge arising from the quest to understand consciousness, which in the last 15 years has moved from the margins of psychology to the forefront of science and philosophy. Many recent discoveries in consciousness studies are deeply perplexing and counter-intuitive, and force us to rethink cherished beliefs about human nature.
I will survey these developments and point to where posthuman thinking might further guide us as we struggle to come to terms with developments in science and technology in the gathering posthuman age.

Keynote at The Emergence of the Posthuman Subject Conference, University of Surrey, July 2010