Cyborg Eschatology: Whitehead and Post-Humanity (Part I)

i. Environment and Actuality

In Western thought, one person’s ego is often considered primary: the individual “I” is the focus of many historical Western Christian conceptions of salvation and sin. In contrast, Eastern philosophy has often emphasized a “flux” of existences which co-exist in community. As Christian influence has waned in Western philosophy, contemporary cultural thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida have spoken out of a so-called post-modern and post-sacred ethos. Yet despite the “death of God” drama, within Heidegger’s Dasein or Derrida’s “speaking subject” the Western conception of the individual’s being in the world as a matter of ultimate focus has nearly always been retained. The essentially ego-centric thought structure never disappeared from the work of Western thinkers. As such, this focus on the individual subject continues to perpetrate the presence of any sacrality – or ultimate absence, in the work of a/theologians like Mark C. Taylor – as existing outside the individual, and speaking into that individual’s Dasein.

Alfred North Whitehead’s penetrating process thought anticipated and critiqued the idea of the individual human subject as paramount. In process theology, we find that there is no “ultimate ground” of being – either for an individual human being or for a God figure. Instead, we are continually reminded that in the creative concrescence of the universe is found the ultimate “force” – a force that only exists in occasions that are being continuously anticipated, continuously created, continuously actualized.

This is a God that can be visualized not in terms of an individual Spirit or even a driving force, but rather one vast tide in the ocean of the universe, sweeping all matter, all reality towards optimal ends even as matter and energy continue to evolve, to develop, and to seek its own ends and actualities. In fact, “God” – in this conception – “has no existence in itself and is to be found only in actual instances of the many becoming one. In place of a substance or static being underlying or transcending the flux,” God is primarily “a formative element of the flux.”

Whitehead’s “formative flux” provides for the self-determination of every actuality and effectively reconciles efficient and final causation. Both freedom of the will and efficient causation are accounted for in Whitehead’s thought, without overt contradiction. Process thought, as conceived by Whitehead and elaborated upon by philosophers like Cobb and Suchocki, thus emphasizes that we are partially created by our environment – an individual’s “good” thus functions only as part of the individual’s overall environment. As Cobb puts it, “no neat line can be drawn between the individual and its environment, since what is ‘the environment’ in one moment essentially enters into the individual in the next moment.” Although the initial formulation of process thought concerned itself with the larger metaphysical and epistemological implications of the connection between the individual and its environment, recent developments in both artificial intelligence and the expansion of consciousness beyond its original ‘environment’ of the organic body leads us to think about particular implications of Whitehead’s emphasis on the inherent connection between an individual moment and its environment, specifically in the domain of human consciousness.

If we truly understand Whitehead’s original emphasis on all occasions being generated consistently out of that endless unifying energy of God, we must accept that “flux” includes occasions that we ourselves cannot anticipate. Evolution may take our species – and our very ensoulment – in directions that we never anticipated.

One of these directions may be that of machine extensions of the human body or even the creation of “en-souled” machine entities. Because the idea of thinking – and even emotional – machines is such a common and often humorous trope in contemporary science-fiction, it has become easy to overlook recent developments in computer science which brings these possibilities much closer to reality. In the present paper, I hope to explore what process theology would have to say about such possibilities, and posit an eschatology which is hopeful for optimal ends in a future that provides for continued embrace of the cyborg and post-organic embodiment by our culture and our species.

As we begin along this path, it may be important to outline the limits of the present study. Some thinkers often cited by process thinkers – notably Teilhard de Chardin – prophesy a post-organic future for all humankind, and have gone so far as to project an eschatological future in which all living beings are enveloped by a vast cloud of knowledge and/or co-create such a vast cloud. In Teilhard’s eschatological formulation, all knowledge comes to be known, in that vast “environment as reality” pervaded by an overarching consciousness of community, so that humanity itself evolves in Christogenesis, moving towards a transformative act of universal community “Omega Point” sometime in the distant future. At this point, humanity as we know it would cease to be recognizable, and a concioussness of this magnitude might even encompass all living material in the known universe. I do not know if such an Omega Point is possible, achievable, or even beneficial. Ideas about a far-distant potentiality are not in the scope of this paper.

Instead, I am more interested in the implications of more immediate developments in our understanding of what present-day consciousness may mean, and how that consciousness will be extended in the next few decades. Theologically, how should we best understand current developments such as substrate-independent consciousness and body extension technology that no longer requires physical presence?

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