Originally posted on the IEET weblog

Critical Thinking: The Posthuman Mind pt4b: An Interview with Dr. Joel Rudinow

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Joel Rudinow who teaches Philosophy and Humanities at Santa Rosa Junior College. He is also author of Invitation to Critical Thinking. The topic of the interview is about the Posthuman mind and how critical thinking applies to such a concept. We discuss important issues from whether or not the Posthuman will be friendly to the evolution of critical thinking.

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Joel Rudinow teaches Philosophy and Humanities at Santa Rosa Junior College in northern California, is co-author (with Vincent Barry) of Invitation to Critical Thinking 6/e, and (with Anthony Graybosch) of Ethics and Values in the Information Age (both published by Cengage/Wadsworth). His latest book Soul Music: Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown is published by the University of Michigan Press.

1.Kris Notaro: How did you become interested in critical thinking?

Joel Rudinow: It all goes back to my earliest encounters with Socrates, the central character in Plato’s dialogues. Initially I was attracted by the peculiarity that Socrates never “lost the argument”. It took me a little while to appreciate that there was a profound method involved in which Socrates rarely professed any “wisdom”, but sought it everywhere, and whenever anyone professed “wisdom” in his presence he would examine it deeply.

2. KN: Has critical thinking been evolving throughout time and if so, in what way?

JR: When I was an undergraduate college student there was no course or curriculum called by the name “critical thinking”, but the content of the curriculum that now goes by that name was well established (as we now say) “across the curriculum”, and is indeed ancient. If we look deeply into the “core values” that animate what we’re now calling “critical thinking”, the intellectual virtues that we try to model and encourage through the teaching and study of “critical thinking” are essentially the same as those found at the heart of Socrates’ practice and quest and expressed in the Buddha’s Kalama Sutra. They are the essential ingredients of an intellectual practice aimed at self-knowledge and responsible intellectual autonomy, which are in turn essential to individual and collective human well-being.

3.KN: Assuming that the posthuman will become a reality in the near future, how do you think critical thinking will change?

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JR: If I understand this concept of the “posthuman”, what you’re inviting me to assume here is something like this: that in the foreseeable future a range of technological developments – advances in neuro-chemistry and neuro-physiology, with accompanying psycho-pharmacology, genetic engineering, nano-technology, computer interfacing, and so on – will result in a “race” or “species” of humanoid creatures with capabilities in many areas (eg. mental abilities) vastly superior to those we have ever known as human beings. Let’s not lose sight of the obvious fact that the technologies we’re talking about are all outcomes and expressions of human experimentation and design. So, we’re contemplating a process of mass human self-transformation already well underway.

To return to your question, in such a scenario someone might wonder, Will posthumans need critical thinking skills? And if so, will posthumans recognize such a need? Or will humans evolve in such a way that critical thinking becomes superfluous, irrelevant, obsolete, or perceived as such? I think the answer to the first of these questions is that humans will always need to work toward self-knowledge and responsible intellectual autonomy, and so what we now call “critical thinking” will always be essential to individual and collective (even post-) human well-being. As to whether or not such a need will be recognized by posthumans, I think the answer is that it depends on how we choose to further develop ourselves along with our self-transformative technologies.

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4.KN: Some believe that the posthuman will utilize their critical thinking skills in a malicious manner towards humans. I believe that if the posthuman truly has sped-up cognition and lighting speed reason and critical thinking that they will be friendly. In your opinion how do you think the posthuman will utilize critical thinking: friendly or unfriendly?

JR: This strikes me as an essentially “fearful” question (even though you’ve resolved it for yourself by betting on “friendly” posthumans). Still the question betrays a basic fear rooted in perennial doubt about good and evil in human nature. We’re afraid of ourselves or of what we’re turning ourselves into, perhaps with good reason. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy . . . and he is us.” So, coming back to this matter of how we choose to develop ourselves and our technologies, I’d prefer to bring this and other similar questions firmly into the present. Rather than ask what the posthuman encounter will someday be like, we should be looking at what is driving development in the relevant technological areas today.

To what extent are these technological developments being aimed inward toward the deepening of human consciousness and the expansion of self-knowledge and driven wisely toward genuine understanding and improvement of the conditions of human and other forms of life? To what extent are they being driven by a lust for power and “control”, or toward the expansion of profitable global markets for commercial exploitation? In thinking critically about questions like these, rather than be fearful we could try to be mindful. There’s an important difference between fear and caution. Care and caution, mindful of the moral risks inherent in the development of powerful technologies of human transformation, that’s what’s called for - a worthy application of critical thinking in the here and now.

5.KN: How do you think posthumans whether friendly or not might view capitalism and the current world order?

JR: Again, if I may bring this question firmly into the present, it seems to me that the current world order, in terms of the structure and distribution of both power and wealth, is totally up for grabs. We might just as well pose the question to ourselves in the here and now. We may, if we like, imagine ourselves as posthumans with accelerated and expanded information processing and decision-making capacity. Or we could just confront the question as human beings. Either way, what do we think of capitalism and the current world order? What’s our role in all of this? How’s it all working for us? Thus, yet another worthy application of critical thinking in the here and now - we should each be paying close attention to how we’re involved in the dynamic processes of radical global transformation now unfolding all around us.

6.KN: Assuming that some people will not have their minds upgraded, how do you think a human mind would cope with understanding a posthuman's argument or analysis?

JR: I’m not sure it’s going to be so dichotomous, you know: on or off, upgraded or not. Why won’t it be more like a smorgasbord? You know, people picking and choosing among an evolving menu of incremental upgrade options in multiple areas (perception, memory, analytical processing, data-mining, algorithmic decision-making, and so on) resulting in a constantly shifting kaleidoscopic diversity of configurations? In some ways we’re already there. Look at all the different platforms and apps and versions there are in the world of smartphones. The communication problems that are bound to arise are also bound to be surmountable.

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7.KN: Do you think critical thinking is a priori or a posteriori?

JR: Some of each. For example, a contradiction will always be a sign that something’s haywire somewhere. That’s a priori. But in considering matters of cause and effect we won’t get very far without experience.

8.KN: How can critical thinking be used to diminish inequality, poverty, and injustice?

JR: If critical thinking is understood simply in terms of information processing and inferential protocols - the kinds of things computers are good at - then critical thinking is just another set of tools that can be used in deliberate, skillful, artful, playful, willful, whimsical, artless, clumsy, frivolous, wise and/or foolish ways for any purpose or agenda. Merely multiplying the thinker’s processing speed or memory capacity or database size will not by itself make the posthuman more skillful, artful or wise in the use of all this prodigious capacity. There will never be a pill for wisdom (if there were, would you want to be dependant on it?) It comes down to this: the thinker must be committed to a responsible and autonomous intellectual practice aimed at self-knowledge.

The key here is never to forget the inward directed, self-critical application of the tools, at whatever level of development. You know, there’s so much excitement always buzzing around these cutting edge technologies! So noisy and seductive and ominous and distracting that we lose sight of the fact that techniques of self-transformation are as old as disciplined human pursuit of the truth. So, if we want to apply critical thinking, whether now or in the posthuman future, to large problems of inequality, poverty, and injustice, the place to begin is with ourselves in the here and now. What emerging technologies are we incorporating into our daily lives? How are we using them? How are they affecting us? Are we using them wisely? What are the personal, local, and global implications of the technological as well as the political and economic options open to us here and now?

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