Natural-Born Cyborgs

Natural-Born Cyborgs May 30, 2016

Human beings,” asserts Andy Clark at the beginning of his Natural-Born Cyborgs, “are natural- born cyborgs” (3). By that, he means that “the human mind, if it is to be the physical organ of human reason, simply cannot be seen as bound and restricted by the biological skinbag. In fact, it has never been thus restricted and bound, at least not since the first meaningful words were uttered on some ancestral plain. But this ancient seepage has been gathering momentum with the advent of texts, PCs, coevolving software agents, and user-adaptive home and office devices.” Our minds have never been confined to our heads. Only now, “the mind is just less and less in the head” (4).

In short, “what is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props, and aids. This ability, however, does not depend on physical wire-and-implant mergers, so much as on our openness to information-processing mergers. Such mergers may be consummated without the intrusion of silicon and wire into flesh and blood, as anyone who has felt himself thinking via the act of writing already knows.” This is more than a repetition of a “man the toolmaker” cliche. We have to recognize that “many of our tools are not just external props and aids, but they are deep and integral parts of the problem-solving systems we now identify as human intelligence. Such tools are best conceived as proper parts of the computational apparatus that constitutes our minds” (5-6).

We multiply large numbers, for instance, “in concert with pen and paper, storing the intermediate results outside the brain, then repeating the simple pattern completion process until the larger problem is solved. The brain thus dovetails its operation to the external symbolic resource. The reliable presence of such resources may become so deeply factored in that the biological brain alone is rendered unable to do the larger sums” (6).

This puts a different spin on the warnings that we are about to download our humanity into silicon chips: “It is because we are natural-born cyborgs, for-ever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper, and electronics, that we are able to understand the world as we do. There has been much written about our imminent post-human’ future, but if I am right, this is a dangerous and mistaken image. The very things that sometimes seem most post-human, the deepest and most profound of our potential biotechnological mergers, will reflect nothing so much as their thoroughly human source” (6).

The mind-body problem as classically posed is wrongly posed, since it leaves out “mind-body-scaffolding problem. It is the problem of understanding how human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding” (11).

Clark knows that new technologies close the gap between user and technology to nearly nothing, but he’s more interested in the general point of anthropology: we are “creatures whose minds are special precisely because they are tailor-made for multiple mergers and coalitions” (7). Perhaps our ability to extend ourselves and to take outside things up as if they were ourselves is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

Browse Our Archives