Archive for distributed cognition

Chinese Room and the Cogito

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Chinese Room

The Chinese Room

Cogito ergo sum is perhaps the most abused three-word phrase in our contemporary intellectual sphere, so much so that most of us no longer bothered to read further on the subject and what Descartes really meant. “I think therefore I am” has been recycled over and over by changing the verb into every other activity, from shopping to tweeting. All these has of course one underlying assumption, a false reading of the Cartesian subject as a substantial subject. Truth be told, the mind-body split did not come from Descartes at all — the idea has obviously been around since the pre-Socratic era (why else would we have the narratives of heaven and hell?). The true Cartesian revolution is in fact the opposite one: that of a total desubstantialized subject.

This does not mean, again, a subject desubstantialized of of a body and becoming a free-flowing mind, a (mis)reading found everywhere today in the intellectual sphere, and especially in the area of third-wave cybernetic research. Among the most fiercest proponents of this version of Descartes is none other than John Searle, the proponent of the famous Chinese Room argument. Unknowingly for Searle, however, the Chinese Room argument is, in fact, at one point, an ultimately Cartesian paradox.

What does the res cogitans, the thinking substance, mean, then, if not the common misreading of it as a declaration of a subject of pure thought? Here, it is crucial to look at what kind of thinking the cogito is first formulated under. The thinking that brought upon the cogito is none other than pure doubt — the doubting of reality and my existence within it. This doubt is irreducible, so much so that, in what may pass as a rather desperate move, the doubt itself becomes the only positive proof of the thing that I doubt — I exist only insofar as I doubt my existence. Rather than a substance of pure thought (“that can be downloaded into computers”, as Hans Moravec put it, etc…), the Cartesian subjectivity is a void of pure self-doubt.

(It is of course true that, in Descartes, there is ultimately a mind-body duality: the subject does not depend on the world, res extensa, to truly exist. This is, however, not because they are two separate substances, but because the former is a precondition of the latter; because the cogito is a prior void around which res extensa can only emerge as such.)

Does John Searle not reproduce exactly same motive in his Chinese Room argument, but instead of doubting the true existence of his reality, he doubts the cognition of computer programs? The famous Cartesian doubt, “What if God is a liar” is here replaced by Searle’s “What if I ultimately do not understand the symbols with which I communicate, but only know its perfect grammar?” Of course, the path they take in the end is different: If Descartes were a Searlean, he would have claimed that he cannot prove his own existence; if Searle were a Cartesian, he would have acknowledged that it would not be possible for one to know grammar without knowing semantics, for ultimately meaning is generated from structure, as the Structuralists already have it.

A great answer to the Chinese Room argument, and so far the best, I think, is the systems reply, claiming that it is the whole room instead of the person that understands, because cognition could not be localized to a single source. This would be the true Cartesian revolution, that cognition is separate from any particular subject, and the true Lacanian experience of the subject as barred. Searle rejected this argument by saying that if the entire room is located inside the brain, that would not make a subject understand any more than he does, despite his being able to communicate — which, of course, presupposes an ideal subject that “truly understands.”

Here, Daniel Dennett’s reply is worth noting: Dennett claims that if such non-thinking-but-nevertheless-communicating subjects exist, they would be the ones surviving natural selection, hence we would all be “zombies”. Does this not perfectly mimic the humanists’ fear of the post-struturalist alienation of the subject from language? Dennett, perhaps rather unfortunately, then goes on to say that the Chinese Room is impossible because we are not zombies — which, again, presupposes an ideal, non-alienated subject.

Distributed cognition is where the barred subject takes its place in contemporary cybernetics, and this is, contrary to popular belief, ultimately a Cartesian move that fully separates cognition from its local basis, as the separation of mind from its carbon basis. It turns out that Descartes was not only the first Lacanian, as Žižek put it, but also the first third-wave posthumanist. It is a sad fact, thus, that leaders in the field of cybernetics overlook this fact and, in both sides of the argument, tend to return to Aristotelian ideals, to illusions of wholeness.

Welcome to a Posthuman Democracy!

Posted in Political Focus with tags , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Obamas victory

Obama's victory

The start of this month has been a tense one. As the outcome of the 2008 US Election is finally announced, I am proud to say that I am happy for my American readers that they got a new, decent president in which they can all entrust their hopes. With all the tension relieved, The Posthuman Marxist will now resume its blogging with more critical articles for you to read! And what better way to celebrate the upcoming new administration than a critical analysis of what all this spectacular election had been?

What especially interests me in all this glorious spectacle of an election is how tech-savvy the Democrats had been in conducting their campaign. I have been following Mashable’s takes on this, which has been covering the issue from way back in February 2007, and here’s their quick recap. What we are having today in our politics, especially with Obama, is a head-on collision between the realm of high politics and direct online life. Needless to say, this is the first time such politics is conducted, and the interesting question would thus be: why has our politics evolved in such way?

This is obviously not such a hard question. Is it not only natural for politics to go towards the more popular, transparent, and democratic approach in its conduct? And does the internet not indeed provide such a platform? Furthermore, it is of course very much in line with the appeal of the Democrats to use media that are close to the hearts of the young generations, so all this has been natural. Then it is perhaps better to reformulate the question: why is technology seen as a more democratic means?

We have come a long way from our technophobic past. “Media brainwashing” is a phrase we no longer hear quite as often today as in the past. After all, we have Web 2.0, with all its connectedness and writeability. What is interesting, however, in this “digital democracy” (for lack of a better phrase), is how very much outsourced things are (obviously, Obama does not handle all those Web 2.0 profiles himself; and I very much doubt that it was he who personally clicked “follow” on my Twitter profile). It is not surprising, then, to hear all the buzz about wiki governance and Google transparency. Anderkoo has an excellent take on this matter, which is worth a serious read.

With Obama, the democratic decentralization of politics today, it seems, does not only involve the standard notions of giving power to the people. Already, we are seeing how the job is given to intelligent machines — albeit just in the form of computer codes that work on Web 2.0 platforms. This tech-savvy campaign is very well aware that the question today is not merely to decentralize power, but to decentralize cognition itself, i.e. to conduct better politics not only in terms of creating a more equal humanist society, but also in terms of creating a more intelligent posthumanist environment in which it will only be possible to conduct a better democracy.

Automated Web technology and machine intelligence is now a democratic means that we trust instead of a postmodern artifact of great anti-humanist suspicion, because, recalling the famous Haylesian argument, we have already become posthuman.

Regarding the development of our posthuman future, Obama, at least so far, is taking great steps. Will he continue this tech-savvy grassroots platform? We can only hope. And what will we make of this new conducts? Will it indeed bring better democracy? Will it bring about more trust in intelligent machines? What political subjects will our society turn out to be, when environment itself becomes politically aware in the near-future age of ambient intelligence?