12 February 2017

Frankensteinian Humans & Zeitgeist

Mary Shelley's famous 1818 novel, Frankenstein, was written only once the scientific investigation of electric current had gotten underway. Shelley was contemporaneous, for instance, with the natural philosopher, Giovanni Aldine, who, according to Sharon Ruston, made many public attempts at human reanimation through bio-electric Galvanism in London.

Shelley's vision of an electrically-powered, artificial human being would not have been possible without the 17th century precursor of the Cartesian hermeneutic cast of the human being as a machine housing a soul in the pituitary gland suspended beneath the brain. Despite all the subsequent critique and repudiation of this Cartesian cast, the conception of human being remains to the present day that of an embodied, sentient subject with its encapsulated, interior consciousness vis-à-vis an external, objective world 'thrown against' it. The unfashionable word 'soul', with its Christian connotations, has been cast aside in favour of the more scientifically sounding consciousness. Moreover, by hook or by crook, under the leadership of today's flourishing neuroscience, modern science is out to break the code of consciousness by reducing it to some complicated working of physical causes, including, significantly, electrically-powered neurons. Even without cracking this problem, artificial intelligence has a great model for modelling the human being with a computer-controlled machine fitted with multitudes of sophisticated sensors -- just the thing Descartes and Leibniz ordered long ago!

Even though sceptics and ethically minded critics point out that the the problem of consciousness is too hard for science to solve, or that the human mind is far more sophisticated and subtle than any machine will ever be, or that the human mind and soul is capable of artistic creativity, sensitivity, moral sensibility as well as stupendous cultural achievements forever beyond any possible machine's capabilities, this makes no dent at all in the underlying hermeneutic-ontological cast of the human being itself as a sentient conscious subject, which remains homologous with a Cartesian machine and hence also with Shelley's Frankenstein. 

The historical catastrophe for human thinking and being has already long since happened, quite independently of any nightmarish realization of some approximation of an AI-Frankenstein -- and yet no one sees this disaster for the way we thoughtlessly think. How so? Because such a Frankensteinian-Cartesian conception of human being itself occludes the view of a radically alternative hermeneutic cast of human being that takes leave of the AI-compatible blue-print of a consciousness/soul ensconced in a body. Perhaps traditional ways of thinking --after millennia of having become deceptively self-evident -- today have to be turned upside down.

To wit: could it indeed not be the case that, instead of a psyche, soul or consciousness housed for a time in a body, the alternative cast of a human body partaking temporarily and temporally in a world-mind-and-soul that animates it is closer to the phenomena themselves? Could it be that this world-mind-and-soul is the Zeitgeist itself, a word coined by Herder in 1769? Could it be that we human beings live only so long as we stand out in, are exposed to and are animated by 3D-ecstatic time itself? 

Before decrying the revival of 'mystical' notions of a world-soul present, say, in Plato, among other thinkers, consider that such a world-mind-and-soul is the same as the openness of three-dimensionally ecstatic time. This originary time, in turn, is the open clearing we humans inhabit as long as we're alive, enabling in the very first place our access to the world both in understanding it and resonating moodfully with it, in particular, with the Zeitgeist of an historical time. Our very sharing of a world with each other is, in the very first place, enabled by our sharing, for a time, the openness of 3D-ecstatic time. Hence this time-clearing is tied to human being itself in its finitude and down-to Earth historicity, far removed from any theologically-imbued conception of a timeless, divine world-soul.

Such an hermeneutic recasting of the human mind-and-soul as historical, three-dimensionally ecstatic Zeitgeit opens multiple new perspectives, including on how to conceive culture, cultural heritage and tradition, that are occluded for any sociology or anthropology operating within an implicit, unthought-through ontology of intersubjectivity.

Further reading: A Question of Time.

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