Freedom from nature: the ultimate enslavement

The end of nature is the end of humanity

freedom from nature

We have entered a period of history when our growing ability to transform nature has begun limiting our freedom, rather than expanding it. Global warming is a point in case. But even more dangerous for our freedom are the developments in biogenetics and the dawn of a post-human era. The promise of these advances is freedom from our nature: limited intelligence, vulnerable to disease, and death.  But the more we learn how to alter our own nature, the less free we will become. We will be transformed into just another object that can be manipulated and reconstructed, argues Slavoj Žižek, following on from his debate with Yuval Noah Hararri at HowTheLightGetsIn. Watch the original debate here.

 

Today’s ecology tends to perceive Nature as the limit to our expansion, and instructs us, humans, to renounce our hubris, our ruthless exploitation of nature. Now that God or Tradition can no longer play the role of the highest Limit, Nature takes over this role. But what kind of nature will this be? Even when we imagine global warming, we still picture it as a new stability, with “regular and repeatable weather patterns”: “once humanity reaches the limit of carbon output, Earth's climate stabilizes at a new, higher average temperature. This higher temperature is overall bad for humans, because it still leads to higher sea levels and more extreme weather events. But at least it's stable: The Anthropocene looks like previous climate ages, only warmer.” [1]

However, recent research finds it more probable that “Earth's climate leads to chaos. True, mathematical chaos. In a chaotic system, there is no equilibrium and no repeatable patterns. A chaotic climate would have seasons that change wildly from decade to decade (or even year to year). Some years would experience sudden flashes of extreme weather, while others would be completely quiet. Even the average Earth temperature may fluctuate wildly, swinging from cooler to hotter periods in relatively short periods of time. It would become utterly impossible to determine in what direction Earth's climate is headed.

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The temptation to be resisted here is to continue to rely on our basic notion of nature and, consequently, proclaim chaos as somehow “unnatural.”

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Such an outcome is not only catastrophic for our survival, it also runs against our (human) most basic notion of nature, that of repeatable pattern of seasons. As such, it reminds us of what Georg Lukacs pointed out in his History and Class Consciousness: “nature” is a social category, i.e., what we perceive as “nature” is always overdetermined by a social context. So while everything that there is is nature (we are part of nature), the obverse also holds at the level of our understanding: nature is a cultural category, what strikes us as “unnatural” is always socially determined.

The temptation to be resisted here is to continue to rely on our basic notion of nature and, consequently, proclaim chaos as somehow “unnatural.” It is as if our Earth is gradually turning into Trisolaris, a strange planet from The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin’s sci-fi masterpiece. Trisolaris has three suns which rise and set at strange and unpredictable intervals: sometimes far too far away and horribly cold, sometimes far too close and destructively hot, and sometimes not seen for long periods of time. Devastating hurricanes, droughts and floods, not to mention global warming – do they all not indicate that we are witnessing something for which the only appropriate term is “the end of nature”? This proclamation only makes sense if “Nature” is to be understood here in the traditional sense of a regular rhythm of seasons, the reliable background of human history, something on which we can count always to be there.

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The limitation of our freedom that becomes palpable with global warming is the paradoxical outcome of the very exponential growth of our freedom and power.

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Our survival depends on certain natural parameters which we automatically take for granted. The lesson of the global warming is that the freedom of the humankind was possible only against the background of the stable natural parameters of the life on earth (temperature, the composition of the air, sufficient water and energy supply, etc.): humans can ‘do what they want’ only insofar as they remain marginal enough, so that they don’t seriously perturb the parameters of the life on earth. The limitation of our freedom that becomes palpable with global warming is the paradoxical outcome of the very exponential growth of our freedom and power, i.e., of our growing ability to transform nature around us up to destabilizing the very basic geological parameters of the life on earth. We are thus entering a new phase in which it is simply nature itself which melts into air: the main consequence of the scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of its construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is ‘desubstantialized’, deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called ‘earth’.

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It is crucial to bear in mind that the rise of the post-human era and the end of nature are the two sides of the same process.

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Let me confess one of my guilty pleasures for which contempt of almost all of my friends befell me: I quite like Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall whose premise is that our Moon is an artificial megastructure constructed by the ancestors of humanity (who were more technologically advanced than their present-day descendants) as an ark to repopulate humanity; these ancestors were hunted by a rogue artificial intelligence that grew too strong… Two features I find interesting in the film are: (1) the conflict that structures the entire human history is the one between two strands of Artificial Intelligence, not between humanity and AI; (2) the denaturalization of what we spontaneously perceive as a gigantic natural object – the Moon’s ragged surface is just a mask aimed at deceiving humans and concealing a complex machine inside. So what if we universalize this premise and conceive nature itself, what we perceive as its most “natural” features (spontaneity, chaos…), as a deceiving appearance concealing a machinic inside? It is crucial to bear in mind that the rise of the post-human era and the end of nature are the two sides of the same process. So, if development will render homo sapiens obsolete, what will follow it? A post-human homo deus (with abilities that are traditionally identified as divine) or a quasi-omnipotent digital machine?

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This ultimate freedom of genetic self-reconstruction coincides with the ultimate non-freedom: I am myself reduced to an object which can be endlessly refashioned.

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With regard to the possibility of new forms of awareness emerging, one should bear in mind Metzinger’s warning. While he considers artificial subjectivity possible, especially in the direction of hybrid bio-robotics, and, consequently, an “empirical, not philosophical” issue, he emphasizes its ethically problematic character: “it is not at all clear if the biological form of consciousness, as so far brought about by evolution on our planet, is a desirable form of experience, an actual good in itself” [2]. This problematic feature concerns conscious pain and suffering: evolution “has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none. As not only the simple number of individual conscious subjects but also the dimensionality of their phenomenal state spaces is continuously increasing, this ocean is also deepening.” And it is reasonable to expect that new artificially generated forms of awareness will create new “deeper” forms of suffering.

post nature SUGGESTED READING Harari and Žižek warn of a post-nature world By AlexisPapazoglou As Harari points out, the most realist option of the biotechnology and computer algorithms joining their powers in producing “bodies, brains and minds” will be a radical division, much stronger than the class division, within human society itself. With the gap exploding “between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not: those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.” The main threat is therefore that of the rise of a

“small and privileged elite of upgraded humans. These superhumans will enjoy unheard-of abilities and unprecedented creativity, which will allow them to go on making many of the most important decisions in the world.... However, most humans will not be upgraded, and they will consequently become an inferior caste, dominated by both computer algorithms and the new superhumans…Splitting humankind into biological castes will destroy the foundations of liberal ideology.” [3]

Crucial here is the interdependence of man and nature: by reducing man to just another object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right: humanity itself relies on some notion of “human nature” as what we inherited as simply given to us, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is thus that that there is man only insofar as there is impenetrable inhuman nature (Heidegger’s “earth”): with the prospect of biogenetic interventions opened up by the access to the genome, the species freely changes/redefines itself, its own coordinates; this prospect effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from its enslavement to the "selfish genes." However, this ultimate freedom of genetic self-reconstruction coincides with the ultimate non-freedom: I am myself reduced to an object which can be endlessly refashioned.

The ultimate lesson is here that we should accept the meaningless stupidity of nature. Humanity owes its existence to the immense destruction and suffering that befell life on Earth. Without the extinction of dinosaurs, there would not be human life on earth. Our main sources of energy (coal, oil) are the leftovers of unimaginable destructions that occurred in the past. Our daily habits rely on global suffering – just think about what happens in industrial farms with chicken and pigs. We are not only a catastrophe for our environment, we emerged out of this catastrophe and even today live off it. And all these sacrifices will never be redeemed in some kind of new Nuremberg court condemning us for our crimes against natural life. The most difficult thing is not to find some deeper meaning of suffering but to really accept its meaninglessness.

[2] References

[3] [1] Physicists predict Earth will become a chaotic world, with dire consequences (msn.com).

[2] Thomas Metzinger, Being No One, Cambridge: MIT Press 2004.

[4] [3] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow, London: Harvill Secker 2016.

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