Cyborg Eschatology: Whitehead and the Posthuman (Part III)

iii. Self-Realizing Material

As any programmer who studies philosophy immediately notes, current software programming models act out to some degree the ideas of Plato and Thomas Aquinas. In the programming world, the pervasive emphasis on Object-oriented programming has given rise to the somewhat common analogy that “Platonic forms are classes and instances are [software] objects.” Given this fundamental understanding of their work as the ‘instantiation’ of an overarching class or Form, programmers thus work to define hierarchies of symbolic content within their coding structures, such that Forms/Classes ‘inform’ and create dynamic ‘Instances’ or Expressions of the individual Forms and Classes. Furthermore, “Patterns, abstract data types, and the like can certainly be seen as ‘ideals’ in the Platonic sense.” In many regards, programmers are already creating a world that has an onto-theological base: they are laying the groundwork for a substantially self-aware and self-‘Formed’ being.

Why does it matter that a particular programming mode is reliant, to a great degree, on a metaphorical and symbolic model that is remiscient of – if not identical to – a Whiteheadian conception of being in the world? Because the particular software model of “Object Oriented Progamming” now underlies how we interact with, modify and create nearly every electronic device. Object-oriented programming is the foundational model on which much of current software (and to some degree hardware as well) relies. Fundamentally, whenever we use a computer, an online system, or even a low-level silicon-based device like a pacemaker, an ATM or even some varieties of modern calculator, we are relying upon body extensions which were created on an object-oriented foundation. From a technological perspective, we now live in an object-oriented world.

What is most interesting about this fact is that object oriented programming was created to – as much as possible – mirror ‘reality’ as programming architects understood it. Instead of relying on the abstruse and Talmudic concepts like “memory partition” and “pointers,” object-oriented thinking begins by defining ‘objects’ in the world – such as a “dogs and bicycles” – as having ‘states’ and ‘behaviors.’ As Sun Microsystem’s online explanation of object-oriented programming explains: “dogs have state (name, color, breed, hungry) and behavior (barking, fetching, and wagging tail).” Thus, “Object-oriented modelers sometimes engage in the same philosophical discussions, debating how real the objects and classes are they are modeling.”

A community of true mutual participation is the dream. Yet, as Whitehead and Cobb point out, our dominant conceptions of reality have not yet allowed this dream to come to reality. A primary impediment is precisely the notion that human consciousness is bounded by our individual birth-body experience. As Cobb writes, “We perceive the given reality to be the individual psychophysical person, bounded by her or his skin. Each person remains external to all others… In short, all relations are viewed as external.”

The solution to such impediments, of course, is to change our notion of reality, and understand that our organically-born bodies are not the final limit on our consciousness. Whitehead speaks of the “body” as merely the most intimate part of our environment. In fact, the entire environment participates with each individual human being in creating community. With this realization in mind, we might move to the next step of consciousness; Cobb writes that

“The sense of mutual participation with all life and even with the inanimate world should radically alter the way we treat the environment… When we have existentially realized that we are continuous with the environment, that the environment is our body, then we will find new styles of life appropriate to that realization.”

It is important to note that Cobb’s 1970s milieu carried with it an overriding concern for the natural environment, arising out of the new awakening to humankind’s impact on the natural world. Yet even in making powerful statements about community and “the environment” – conceived in traditional terms – Cobb makes equally powerful ontological statements about the “environment” in Whiteheadian terms. If we indeed do “participate” even with the “inanimate world” in the creation of conscious community, then it goes without saying that machined body extensions and silicon minds are conceptually already participating in our community, even without their own separately evolved consciousness.

Furthermore, if matter itself – even materials like base silicon and carbon – are innately connected to our own “en-souledness,” then these materials substantially participate in God’s overall vision of reality. Instead of discarding base materials like metal and glass, we must realize that these materials may be used by God – and are being used by God – to realize transcendence. As we create Seed AIs and similar systems, we must be aware that any systems we create in fact thus participate in the substantial form imbued by God into the world.

In fact, programmers are beginning to allow their creations to ‘evolve’ their own identities, purposes, and thought patterns separate from the world we live in. This has certain implications for the development of possible new ‘beings.’ Our understanding of our own material, corporeal and ‘substantial’ extensions into the world has also given rise to the possibility that we can ‘incorporate’ such essences of ‘being-ness’ into embodiments or extensions that move beyond our organic flesh. For example, cognitive neuroscientists have demonstrated that a person’s body schema easily incorporates non-organic tools or even other organic entities that are external to the body. From the perspective of the brain’s body schema or “sense of the body,” an organic limb grafted from a ‘real’ person is treated much the same as an ‘artificial’ prosthetic device. The obvious corollary is that when a person is in a virtual environment, they must have a body in order to feel fully present: “the virtual body can be considered as merely an extension of the physical body and the virtual body is a representational medium of the mind.” The conscious or sentient mind has already stretched beyond the borders of the organic human body. Thus, writes body theologian Christopher Isherwood, “there is no escape back to some kind of ‘natural’ human body, we have to acknowledge our cyborg nature and renegotiate it.” Thus, we might ask, ‘what is the cyborg before God?’

In our physical reality, the Word was expressed by the Father into the world as a symbolic act of grace. This Platonic and Thomistic understanding is paralleled in the language, structure and philosophy of computer science. In the virtual world, the ‘word’ or ‘expression’ of a word/term also becomes an expression of the identity and reality of the creator. In our reality, Logos – the Word of God – is the Symbol of the Godhead. In object-oriented programming environments, an “expression” is defined as a ‘symbol’ of that word. On a base level, the ontology and eschatological understandings of what makes a world work seem to be nearly identical. When we enter the programming sphere, we have already begun by constructing systems which echo the human experience of consciousness as symbolic and transcendent.

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