Are We Cyborgs?

One of the distinguishing features of the human person is our capacity to communicate through symbolic language.  A symbol is that which both signifies and participates in that which it signifies.  For example, the cross both expresses God’s selfless love and is that love shown in Christ crucified.  The symbol is part of the reality it signifies, compared to a sign which points to something beyond itself without participating in that which it points to.  For example, a stop sign does no other than point to the need to stop at that very moment or else face the consequences of an accident. Words are symbols that express meaning; words have content. Words signify content or ideas and are themselves integral to those ideas. Hence the way we use words constructs the meaning of the world.

It is important to keep the concepts of “symbol” and “word” in mind as we try to understand the meaning of the word “cyborg” and why this word is an apt description of the modern person in early 21st century. I have used the word “cyborg” in several blogs on the Omega Center and each time it has invited responses that are intended to be helpful but slightly miss the mark.  So let’s try to understand why the word cyborg is helpful to our new understanding of nature today and the way this new understanding impacts human person.

Let’s begin with the word “nature” itself which is an elusive term. The word “nature” is derived from the Latin word natura meaning “essential qualities, innate disposition”; in ancient times, it literally meant “birth.” Natura was a Latin translation of the Greek word physis (φύσις), which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics that plants, animals, and other features of the world develop of their own accord.  Hence the word “nature” refers to dynamic principles of development. Teilhard de Chardin used the word “nature” more than a thousand times in his writings, often substituting the word “nature” with other words such as “earth,” “world,” “planet,” “cosmos,” and “universe.”  If we seek a more formal definition, “nature” can be defined as the existing system of things; the universe of matter, energy, time and space; the physical world; all of creation. Or perhaps the summary of everything that has to do with biological, chemical and physical states and events in the physical universe.  But these definitions do not adequately account for the fact that nature is as much defined by computations and algorithms as it is by physics, chemistry and biology. Christopher Langton suggests that nature itself is computational whereby large numbers of simple processors are locally connected (Langton 1989, 2). Other scientists postulate that the physical universe is based on the continuous process of information (Whitworth 2010, 221). If indeed “nature” includes algorithms and computation, then nature and artificial intelligence are not opposing terms but descriptive of the same reality.

In his essay on “The Question Concerning Technology”, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger describes nature as a “standing reserve”, that is, the pluri-potentiality of being itself. The term “techne” (the prefix of “technology”) is the act [or art] of “bringing forth.” (Krell 1977, 383).  Heidegger suggests that technology is a “revealing. . . a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supplies energy which can be extracted and stored as such” (Krell 1993, 324 emphasis added). This kind of unconcealment orders everything to stand by, to be ready at hand, to be rendered as a “standing-reserve.” That which exists as “standing-reserve,” something to be set-upon, no longer exists as that thing.  Heidegger says that through technology, for example, the Rhine can be seen in one way—as a source for a hydroelectric plant. However, the Rhine is also a beautiful river, a magnificent feature of the landscape that has been captured in poetry, such as in Hoelderlin’s “The Rhine.”  So, through technology, the Rhine has been revealed as a standing-reserve, specifically as a source for hydroelectric power, but it can also be a source for poetic imagination.  In either case, it ceases to be simply a river.  The term “techne” is as much a verb as it is a noun; it is linked with poiesis or crafting.  When one builds a successful helicopter or a smartphone, it is not only a reduction to Newtonian forces (techne), but also a synthesis (poiesis), that is, there is a creative vision behind the techne of nature.

Discussions of Artificial intelligence (AI) as being “outside nature,” posing either as an existential threat or opportunity, miss the deeper meaning of AI as integral to nature, insofar as information is a standing reserve of being itself.  Computer technology reveals our capacity to harness nature in the form information and creatively become something other than what already exists.  Bioengineers and computer scientists are realizing that nature itself is computational so that even cellular life may operate according to internal rules of computational assemblages. The neurons in the brain, for example, are natural processors that work concurrently and without any centralized, global control. The immune system similarly operates as a highly evolved complex adaptive system that functions by means of highly distributed computations without any central control structure (Johnston, 6)). In this respect, the aporia (logical disjunction) between “nature” and “technology” no longer holds, as scientists are helping to bridge the organic and inorganic, bios and techne, thus yielding to what we can aptly be described as the “plasticity of nature.” The language of “tool-making” misleads the aim of AI and can set up a binary system of opposing opposites, for example, the human person versus the robot. However, if AI is considered integral to nature and thus to emergent life-systems, then we can consider computer technology as part of an emerging system of complex relationships which includes human persons. Nature creates new connections, and computer technology may be described within the wider framework of connections.

The term cyborg reflects to the plasticity of nature and arose in the 1960s as humans were sent into space. In order to survive in space, human astronauts had to be strapped to machines to maintain normal physiological function. Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline who coined the term cyborg in a 1960, envisioned that a cyborgian man-machine hybrid would be needed in the next great technohuman challenge of space flight (Cline sand Kline 1960, 27-8). The term cyborg is an abbreviation of “cybernetic organism” and expresses the capacity of biological nature to be joined to or hybridized with non-biological nature such as the machine. Cybernetics is based on complex dynamical systems and refers to the closed signaling loop—originally referred to as a “circular causal” relationship—whereby the systems’ action generates some change in its environment and that change is somehow reflected in the system (feedback) evoking a change in the system.  Donna Haraway’s 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto” brought prominent attention to the concept of cyborg as a symbol of hybridity, indicating that nature is not fixed but permeable and dynamic. Because cyborgs appear where boundaries are transgressed, Anne Kull writes, “the conceptual boundaries of what it means to be human or what we human beings mean by nature have never been less secure” (Kull 2001, 50). Emerging from and integrated into a chaotic world rather than a position of mastery and control removed from it, “the cyborg has the potential not only to disrupt persistent dualisms (body and soul; matter and spirit) but also to refashion our thinking about the theoretical understanding of the body as a material entity and a discursive process,” Kull writes (Kull, 2001, 282). The significance of the human cyborg means that subjectivity is emergent rather than given, distributed rather than located solely in consciousness; “boundaries have meaning only for particular, locatable, and embodied subjects” (Kull, 281).  The most powerful thing that happens in the cyborg boundary-crossing is that the dualisms we often use to distinguish human being, nature, culture, and technology are rendered obsolete. What the cyborg signifies is that there are no fixed or lasting ontological distinctions.  Cyborgs indicate that the old mechanistic framework is giving way to something new. This new entity will not be a major rehabilitation of the organismic model of nature; rather, a new hybrid is emerging which is both machine and organism and is less substantive than an information-processing entity.

The cyborg is a key interpretative symbol for the human person today, offering us a way out of the maze of dualisms (for example, male/female, black/white) in which we have identified ourselves.  A cyborg body “is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel” (Bateson, 1972, 391).  In this respect, the boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, physical and non-physical have become imprecise giving rise to a new understanding of social subjectivity.  Today a patient can receive a pig heart valve and resume normal life; the animal and the human form a new type of entity.  As we become hybridized with our technologies, we are refashioning our understanding of the body as a material entity and a discursive process; hence what counts as human is not self-evident. The symbol of the cyborg alleviates the slippery slope between what we define as “human” and “technology,” preventing a misconception that technology makes us less human or “trans-human” in way that seems to take us “out of” creation.

Lynn Margulis, a renowned microbiologist who died in 2011, argued that the blurring of technology and biology isn’t really all that new.  She observed that the shells of clams and snails are a kind of technology dressed in biological clothing.  Is there really that much difference between the vast skyscrapers we build or the malls in which we shop, even the cars we drive around, and the hull of a seed?  Seeds and clam shells, which are not alive, hold in them a little bit of water and carbon and DNA, ready to replicate when the time is right, yet we don’t distinguish them from the life they hold. Why should it be any different with office buildings, hospitals and space shuttles?  Put another way, we may make a distinction between living things and the tools those things happen to create, but nature does not. Nature does not distinguish between the clamshell and the clam, or the first flint knife and the human that made it. Rather nature is a social construct so that neither the artifice (such as the knife) nor the organism alone is adequate any more as a cultural root symbol.

The cyborg symbolizes the extension of nature into new forms. Cyborgs indicate that the old mechanistic framework is giving way to something new.  They destabilize our fixed understandings of nature because the cyborg has as much affinity with technology as it does with wilderness.  Cyborgs, therefore, are hybrid entities that are neither wholly technology nor completely biological and have the potential not only to disrupt persistent dualisms but also to refashion our thinking about the theoretical understanding of the body as a material entity and a discursive process.  The cyborg has radicalized the modern subject, dismantling the centered and masterful subject as an affirmative project, ending not in the absence of the subject but in new and positive conceptions of social subjectivity.  Integral to this new conception is the idea that a cyborg body is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel. Boundaries have meaning only for particular, locatable, and embodied subjects.  Cyborg bodies cut across a dominant cultural order, not so much because of their “constructed” nature, but because of their kinship with both culture and nature. In a sense we have never been purely human. We are (and have always been) a mix of technologies that help us to survive and thrive in the world. However, the rapid development of artificial intelligence today, and the cyborgization of modern life impels us to reconsider the “stuff” of what we are and what God is doing in our midst.  Technology or artificial intelligence is not contrary to God’s love or God’s salvific plan; rather, it is part of it. The symbol of the cyborg tells us that what we are becoming with our technologies will not be a major rehabilitation of the organismic model of nature; rather both our machines and organisms are explained by information-processing entities. Technology is not annihilating human nature; rather, we humans are discovering our own nature through technology and realizing that nature is both computational and biological.  As we continue to develop along these lines, we can anticipate that a new type of human person will emerge up ahead.


Some Points to Ponder:

  • Nature is relational. The cyborg is fundamentally a relationship between artifice and organism. Matter is marked by a fundamental relationship between mass and energy and the interconvertibility between these two aspects. Hence, there is a type of intrinsic hybridization in matter.
  • Nature is informational. If connectivity is essential to nature, then the importance of connectivity is the flow of information between two points or entities. In this respect, what comprises “nature” is less form than flow. The strength of the connection is the degree of vitality. New studies on the brain show that connectivity is the basis of neural output; meaning emerges from the links between things.
  • Nature is creative. The intrinsic pluralism of nature undergirds openness in nature to new possibilities. The admixture of physical connectivity, environment, subject-object interaction and the expression of meaning in culture reflects a level of play or spontaneity in nature that cannot be ascribed to genes or environment alone. Natural selection or adaptability may have some role in nature’s creativity but more so, nature has a real openness to the future and thus to novelty. The emergence of novelty in nature (at least on the human level) seems less tied to survival than to a deeper vitality, unity, relationality; that is, new ways of enhancing personal relationality.
  • Nature is transcendent. The openness of nature to creativity indicates that no aspect of nature can be constrained by form or boundaries. Given a sufficient amount of time and the right conditions, nature will transcend its limits if the limits constrain rather than liberate the subject. Transcendence complements creativity. The openness of nature to newness and future means that nature is unfinished; rather it is open to completion in the future, up ahead.
  • Nature is evolutive. The characteristics of nature: relationality, creativity, transcendence and informational flow, undergird the process of cosmic and biological evolution. Non-human life proceeds from simple, more isolated forms to complex, interactive forms, accompanied by a rise of consciousness or informational flow between subject, community and environment. The human person emerges in evolution as a complex, individual, self-reflective subject of nature who continues to evolve in nature by way of relationships, creativity, transcendence and information.
  • Technology is integral to nature. Technology is the creative artifice of nature’s creative propensity toward newness. Technology is not pertinent to the human alone; rather it is endemic to nature and appears more prominently [insofar as it becomes more complex] with the rise of intelligent life. In this respect, nature is artifactual; it is constructed and not just by us. Darwin’s theory of nature gave us the assurance that we were ‘in sync’ with the natural order of things because technology was considered to be an artifice outside nature. In the new technonature, both nature and machines are thought about primarily in terms of information processing. The logical conclusion is that nature is, in fact, genetic engineer so that the boundaries between natural and technological are not so clear. Rather, nature is a social construct.
  • Nature is symbolic. The Cyborg is a creature of both culture and nature and symbolizes the ability of nature to hybridize. The cyborg is a lively actor who inhabits those regions once occupied by fixed boundaries; it has as much affinity with technology as it does with wilderness Cyborgs indicate that the old mechanistic framework is giving way to something new. This new thing will not be a major rehabilitation of the organismic model of nature; rather both our machines and organisms are explained by cyborgs – information-processing entities.
  • The cyborg signifies that human “nature” is not self-evident. Rather, nature is an emerging process of evolving life that is now marked by a co-creation among humans and nonhumans, machines and other partners. A cyborg body is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel. Boundaries have meaning only for particular, locatable and embodied subjects. Boundary making is a political act; boundaries can be unmade.


Suggested Reading

Clayton, Philip.  2006. Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Clynes, Manfred E. and Nathan S. Kline. 1960. “Cyborgs and Space.” Astronautics 9:26-7;74-6.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2002. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge

Haraway, Donna. 1997.  Modest_Witness@ Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets Onco Mouse:Feminism and Technoscience.  New York: Routledge.

Hayles, Katherine. 1999.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hefner, Philip J. 2002. “Technology and Human Becoming.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 37: 655-65.

——–. 2003. Technology and Human Becoming.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Heidegger, Martin. 1993. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings.  Edited by David Krell.  New York: HarperCollins.

Johnston, John. 2003. The Allure of Machinic Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kull, Anne. 2001. “The Cyborg As An Interpretation of Culture-Nature.” Zygon 36:49-56.

——–. 2001. “Cyborg Embodiment and the Incarnation.” Currents in Theology and Mission 28:279-84.

Langton, Christopher G. (ed.). 1989. Artificial Life: The Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Marrotti, Paola. 2010. “The Natural Cyborg:  The Stakes of Bergson’s Philosophy of Evolution,” The Scottish Journal of Philosophy 48:16.

Mitcham Carl. 1996. “The Philosophical Challenge of Technology,” American Catholic Philosophical Association Proceedings 40: 45.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. 1964. The Future of Man. Translated by Norman Denny. New York:  Harper & Row.


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