A Reply To Žižek

Žižek has recently discussed Elon Musks Neuralink project, he gave the standard description of the situation, stressing with the usual drama that it means the death of communication. If our brains are connected by a wire, we have access to the contents of our thoughts without the mediating function of communication. The structural rules of human interaction would not be stretched but completely rewritten.

This is a convenient simplification to match the Subject-Object logic that can be inverted in hasty pseudophilosophical analysis. It does not have any bearing in the realistic expectations of what Neuralink might achieve in the coming decades.

Žižek’s appreciation of Descartes’ “zero point cogito” is a Lacanian turn of the Cartesian model: The substanceless cogito is the unreachable object of our desire. The thinking thing is muted and mutilated in the effort of grasping it. Because in Lacan, consciousness is structured like a language, there can be no center of organization. Our experience is a continuous stream, with the flaring illusion of a clear idea when we focus, rather than the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes.

The zero point cogito is of course never ‘at home’ when called up with technology like Neuralink. But this doesn’t mean there is no other option than to share the entire contents of our thought. Of course, if we refuse (by controlling a switch of the neural implant with our mind) access to a certain category of thought, our partner will know this too. This seems to be the proper horror: the end of privacy. It communicates lack of trust explicitly, there is no play of mutual guessing (and fantasizing) about the secrets our partner chooses to hide from us.

But there still is play. The language game will emerge around the process of giving consent or access to our thoughts. There will still be a role for seduction. No mind will be an entirely open book (indeed it could be argued that such a mind will thereby cease to exist). A mature soul wants its own desire, and thus the continuation of its own desire. That is why the notion of the “End of History” is properly imbecile: it can never be conceived from a human perspective. Hegel doesn’t describe the static final state of history, I agree with Zizek here, and we can see the existentialist and postmodern movement of ideas as the continuation of the Hegelian one. The Absolute Spirit behaves like the cogito or the Lacanian lack: it is imperceivable. The drama inscribed in the Absolute Spirit is that it cannot be brought to a halt. It will have to elope any and every formulation we attempt.

The “End of History” is an attitude towards history that contains its own negation. If you wake up on the first day after history has allegedly ‘ended’, there are no more loose threads and upon reflection, every possible idea is contained in the manifest ones – you would want to revolt, break things down, reset history. Of course, that won’t make your ideas any less predictable but it will undermine society. There will be no minds to reflect the ideas and evaluate them as already contained in their essence or whatever. Marx predicted that a perfectly unequal capitalist society will inevitably break apart in revolt. We must insist that the same also applies to the perfectly equal workers’ Paradise. The idea that history is over and our lives are a postscript rather than a story that matters in its own right, on its own terms, is unbearable.

History will keep repeating itself, and it is irrelevant if we perceive it as tragedy or as farce. The idea that History does not and can not lead to a blissful final state, that we have to re-make our stories of the world – and thus our world – is the Heraclitean insight. Nietzsche adds that this eternal recurrence knows no progress, and leaves us with his final thought that we nonetheless have to will it.

Back to Neuralink and AI. The idea is that the AI becomes an absolute spirit that knows the Truth that we by design cannot know. The AI knows everything that can be known, so what is left for us? – the naive philosopher asks. We can easily imagine a metaphysics in which truths know themselves (that is the vulgar Hegel). These truths are eternal and never have they bothered us. Why would it be different from the AI? Because we believe that it knows everything. It seduces us by demonstrating its prowess through accurate predictions. But in the end, without people believing that it is all-knowing, it will not inaugurate the fundamental shift that Žižek seems to imagine.

Humanity has created her own seductress in order to escape boredom. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ‘Absolute Spirit’ of the Cold War, in which the (only) two political positions were neatly entangled in a moving constellation, had to transform itself or perish. It appeared that history had stopped moving, but the spirit had not. She seduced herself with this strange new idea of artificial intelligence she could create, that could achieve in reality (performatively) what Hegel had done intellectually in the Phenomenology. The spirit re-creating itself as AI is the next step in the dialectical development of the spirit. But the agent of this dialectic is the process of self-seduction that is at the heart of how primates who have been given the Promethean gift of language, make sense of the world.

Neuralink will not destroy our subjectivity, here I agree with Žižek. But where he merely warns us against the unprecedented and unimaginable mind-control that we wouldn’t even be aware of, I submit that the self-seduction of humanity, that we could call the absolute spirit, will continue and overcome the faux absolute of the all-knowing AI as soon as we begin the believe that it has ended History ;-

A Reply To Žižek was originally published on Meandering home

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Kamiel Choi

Dutch philosopher and poet, sometimes sharing thoughts on the internet.

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