This is the second in a series of guest posts* by Elijah Millgram (Utah) based on themes from his new book, The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization. The first post appeared here last week.
Serial Hyperspecializers and How They Think
by Elijah Millgram
A little while back, an engineer I know wanted to chat with me about transhumanism: more or less, the notion that genetic engineering and high-tech prostheses will transform us into creatures who are quite literally no longer human. I thought about what that would mean; in the sense that matters to philosophers, a species is delineated by its ergon—by what it does and how it works, to paraphrase Aristotle’s concept. And if that’s right, transhumanism is already here. Our ergon has changed, we’re no longer human, and no one noticed, because it didn’t look like bad sci-fi.
Here’s one of the deepest aspects of that change: used to be, we all pretty much worked the same, perhaps modulo sexual and life-stage specialization; division of labor didn’t go all that far down. Now we are, more and more of us, ever more highly specialized, and what that means is that people in different disciplines have different ways they work; what’s more, these forms of activity (with their built in vocabularies, standards and even logics) are transient. Film vanished, Kodak imploded, and all those engineers who saw their specialization simply evaporate went on to do something else. Let’s give this new species a name; they are (we are) serial hyperspecializers.
This sort of low-key transhumanism matters for philosophers, because philosophical problems almost always turn out to be about what the right way to think is, and a creature’s cognition should match its form of life. If we’ve come to have a different form of life (a form of life that consists in having many thoroughly different forms of life, side by side but temporarily), we should expect to find, when we take another look, that we’ve got a different pile of philosophical problems to deal with.
Sure enough, that is what you do find. (You didn’t think I was going to take it back, did you?) Apriorism is acting like you already know what’s going on, without bothering to look. The posture of philosophy has been apriorist pretty much throughout its history. But we’d better ask: when can you afford this posture? Well, when the intellectual equipment—the concepts, the opinions, the guidelines—that a creature is going to need are stable, they can be front-loaded; however, they’ll be stable when what the creature does and how it works (as we were putting it, its ergon) doesn’t change, or only changes very slowly. We’re not like that anymore. So we can’t afford to be apriorist; the job of philosophy for us, for the transhumans we’ve become over the last couple of centuries, can’t be to figure out the built in opinions and concepts and categories and so on. That’s philosophy for an older, defunct species to which we are very peculiarly related.
A big part of the ensuing Great Endarkenment is that we serial hyperspecializers are deploying—and the philosophers amongst us are methodically working out—a philosophical self-understanding that no longer has much to do with how we can live successfully. Here’s an illustration that helps itself to a very familiar philosophical view.
If you think that your reasons for doing one thing or another are your desires (or maybe your desires, as you’d adjust them if you knew a little more), then you have an apriorist view of practical rationality. A desire marks something as practically important, and if just having the desire counts as a reason, then you’re acting as though you can go by what you already think is important (whatever that is), without going to look. Instrumentalist (or “Humean”) theories of practical reasoning are how philosophers talk through the strategy of hardwiring designated objectives into an organism, so that it can execute a life plan suitable to a stable environment. Your environment is no longer stable enough for relying on desires to be a decent strategy. Instrumentalists (“Humeans”) have a view of practical rationality suitable for a cruder, simpler species. That we still live by theories like this, even as they become more and more wrong for us, is a very large part of the Great Endarkenment.