Aristotelian Posthumans

I’ve argued that posthumans would have to be, in some sense of the term, “autonomous entities” capable of operating outside the scope of the socio-technical network I refer to as the Wide Human (Roden 2013). A being is autonomous if it is self-governing. According to the modern practical philosophy that follows Rousseau and Kant, autonomous beings (paradigmatically human beings) are those that can freely determine the principles by which they act and live.

A nonhuman animal may have desires and drives, but not being rational it cannot represent those desires to itself or attempt to be motivated by different ones (Frankfurt 1971).

It appears that a posthuman entity would need to be autonomous in something like this sense since it will have to become both functionally and existentially independent of the Wide Human (WH).

Within WH functional and existential independence are related. Entities belonging to WH accrue functions that have come to be required by biological (narrow) humans. They also tend to exist in a form that is perpetuated over time. Further, their existence in historically stable forms is explained by this contribution to narrow human ends.

We can express this relationship as a “consequence law”: where E is the dated fact that some entity ? exists in a historically stable form in a context and (E—>H) is some humanly valuable causal function F of ?. (Cohen, 1982)

Thus: (E—>H) –> E Expresses the fact that (E—>H) accounts for or causes E.

A consequence law supports counterfactuals. If (E—>H) ceased to obtain, ? would cease to occur in in a historically stable form in a context (E would become false).

Technological change is capable generating new functions and it is quite normal for realizers of those functions to be superseded by new realizers. For example, automobiles have superseded horses in the developed world because the functions associated with horses can be better served by cars. The result is that horses have ceased to occur in the contexts in which they were formerly used (public transport and the provision of motive power). However, objects can acquire new functions. So we need to complicate this formula by stating that ? exists only so long as there is some human-related function that it continues to serve in some context (EF) .

EF expresses the functional dependence of those Wide Humans that are not Narrow Humans upon WH. They exist in a given context only so long as there is some narrow human purpose that they fulfil. It also expresses the fact that WH is predicated on the existence of narrowly human individuals. Were human individuals to disappear so would the functions and thus the historically stable forms of these Wide Humans would disappear also.

Certain species of domesticated animal like pigs and cows are thus Wide Humans (as I have advertised) since they would cease to exist in most of the current contexts in which they occur were it not for the fact that they serve human needs for milk and meat. For example, if all humans converted to veganism and vegetarianism cows and pigs would likely survive only as domestic pets or as feral pigs or feral cattle. Those belonging to the former group would remain parts of the wide human while those in the latter group would be effectively outside it since their continued existence in their new context would not depend on their fulfilment of human related functions.

Important Note: the term “human related function” does not refer to something like core human needs or authentically human needs, or invariant human needs. No such essentialist commitment is implied here. A human related function is simply a function that would not exist but for the existence of narrow humans. These can be as artificial and as historically contingent as you like: computer gaming, cash dispensing and pornography are human-related functions in this sense.

Nor does EF commit us to some voluntarist conception of functions. It does not require that functions come to exist through the intentions of individuals or groups. It is quite compatible with the view the some human-relative functions come into being by incremental processes in which no individual intended that a particular function or activity come into being. We can call the independence from the human-related functions of beings outside WH negative autonomy (analogously perhaps to Berlin’s notion of negative liberty).

Arguably, however, we need a positive conception of posthuman autonomy. Here’s why. There are plenty of objects that are a) technically fashioned and b) can exist for some extended period of time after they have ceased to be technically useful: hulks and ruins, for example. However, unless they are preserved for aesthetic purposes hulks and ruins have no functions at all (having aesthetic functions would, of course, qualify them for membership of WH).

Hulks and ruins are unlike feral animals in that the latter seem to carry out many non-human-related functions: for example, mating, foraging, giving birth, etc. A conception of disconnection that resulted in hulks and ruins having posthuman status would be simply too broad. Hulks and ruins are existentially independent of WH but not functionally independent in the way, say, that feral animals are. But functional independence would require that posthumans would be able to determine non-humans purposes or functions.

Rational subjects can do this within certain parameters. They can choose the projects that will give meaning to their lives or (as Rawls puts it) their conceptions of the good.

However, I have argued elsewhere that the notion of the rational subject is too narrow to comprehend Posthuman Possibility Space (PPS). It is also not well defined since we do not have a self-standing conception of the subject that could not be revised by some future sciences of cognition.

Thus we will need a more general conception of autonomy if we are to get a sense of the kind of being that inhabits PPS. Some of these may have a mode of being that is rather like the Dasein of humans – reflecting upon their plans for life in terms formulated in shared public languages, for example – but others may lack what Thomas Metzinger refers to as a self-model. They may not think of themselves as unique individuals whose lives could go better or worse and they may not experience or participate in intersubjectivity. If so, the category of the subject is not going to furnish the general conception of autonomy we require.

The example of feral animals points us towards a different and arguably more fundamental conception of autonomy. In the philosophical tradition, the bodies of biological organisms have been understood as having functions fixed by their contribution to activity or self-maintenance of the organism.

This conception has its classical formulation in Aristotle’s biology and metaphysics who argued that the presence of certain arrangements of parts and materials in plants or animals can be explained by their specific contribution to the life activity of the creature. Thus in the Physics, Aristotle argues that the presence and specific arrangement of teeth in the mouth of animals is explained by their contribution to animal nutrition (Phys 198b25-35). Similarly, the form of the parts of organs are fixed by their contribution to the functions of those organs, whose function is determined by their contribution to the life activity of the entire organism. In animals without hard external shells, eyelids have the function of protecting the thin, moist eyes, which, in turn, realize the function of seeing in the whole organism (Ariew, Cummins and Perlman 2002, 14).

Now, this explanation conforms to the consequence law schema set out above. It is teleological (explanation in terms of purposes) because the propensity of these structures (teeth, eyelids) to contribute to the functions of the organism explains their form and thus their being. Moreover, these functions depend on the continued life of the whole organism. The contribution of these parts to life-activity of the organism is thus the ontological ground of their functions: “Thus, organisms and their parts are what they are only when living. As for the products of techne … they are defined by the function they must perform.” (Moya 2000, 321).

An animal is similar to a technological artefact like a couch in that both it and its organization can only be understood in terms of the function is performs. According to Aristotle the function (and thus the form or being) of an artefact like a hammer or couch depends upon something external to the matter of the artefact.

However, the form and function of a natural thing like an animal or plant depends only on the thing itself ((Met 1070a7-8). Whereas an instrument serves a function set by its users, the body of the animal is an “instrument (organon) performing or making manifest its own act of living (its entelecheia)” (Moya 2000, 326).

The autonomy of the organism as understood by Aristotle, and by long tradition of biological thought that follows, consists in its capacity to determine its existence: where “existence” here needs to be understood as its mode of life or function – it’s being the kind of thing it is. This clearly a different conception of self-determination from the Kant-Rousseau conception of rational-autonomy since the organism does not need to consciously choose its function or being in order to have it.

So does this provide the concept of positive autonomy that we are seeking? Well, if we understood posthumans as organisms in the Aristotelian sense we would be able to explain their existential independence in terms of their functional independence. They would not need humans to set their ends because (qua organisms) they would be teleologically self-fixing.

However, the Aristotelian reading of posthuman autonomy will not do. There are at least six objections that can be levelled at it and they all carry some weight.

1) The Aristotelian account of organism is committed to objective teleology. However, post-Darwinian biology provides a far more satisfactory explanation of biological order than Aristotle and other organicists. Since it rejects objective teleology, we should too (Darwinian Objection)

2) The Disconnection Thesis implies that some posthumans could be WHD’s of artefacts, not organisms. But artefacts have only derived functions and organisms have original functions. There is thus no technological process whereby the WHD’s of artefacts could acquire original functions and thus jump ontological category (The Category Objection).

3) Contrary to Aristotle, the functions of the parts of creatures are not exclusively determined by their contribution to the whole organism. Mechanisms at a lower level than the organism have functions independently of the systems to which they belong. Treating the organisms as a self-sufficient biological totality or whole is thus a mistake (Anti-Holism Objection).

4) Organisms are not self-determining, in any case. They and their components can acquire new functions and thus new forms of existence by being “iterated” into new contexts (Functional Indeterminacy Objection).

5) The organismic perspective is a kind of vitalism; but the wrong kind. It envisages an ordered nature with functions analogous to those of the human world. But “nature is not natural” in this sense. ( Neo-Vitalist Objection).

6) The organismic perspective is, in any case, parochial. The justification for specifying the posthuman in terms of WHD is surely that posthumans are liable to be postbiological. Thus the organic/inorganic distinction would not apply to them (The Post-Biology Objection).


Ariew, Andre ; Cummins, Robert C. & Perlman, Mark (eds.) (2002). Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology. Oxford University Press.

Cohen, G.A, (1982). ‘Functional explanation, consequence explanation, and Marxism’, Inquiry, 25, 27–56. The “nature is not natural” quote comes from Graham Harman’s book Guerilla Metaphysics: phenomenology and the carpentry of things (p.251)

Collier, John (2002). “What is autonomy?”,, accessed 04/03/2011.

Colebrook, Claire (2010). Deleuze and the Meaning of Life. Continuum.

Frankfurt, Harry G. (1971). “Freedom of the will and the concept of a person”. Journal of Philosophy 68 (1):5-20.

Moya, Fernando (2000), “The Epistemology of Living Organisms in Aristotle’s Philosophy”, Theory In Biosciences 119(3-4): 318-333.

Roden, David (2012). “The Disconnection Thesis”, in The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, edited by Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.

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2 Responses

  1. Your point is well made, Joe. However, the wide human descendants that qualify as posthuman won’t be human – that is presupposed. They will not belong to our sociotechnical system. So it is not required that their autonomy should be expressed as ours is. Beings whose substrates and modes of reproduction are technically mediated to an arbitrary degree could be functionally independent thus autonomous in the sense that I have described here in a very minimal and provisional way (feral animals are not human either). I suspect that substrate is important here. Technical systems can alter at different rates to biological ones and will presumably communicate more promiscuously and widely than is possible for clumps of interdependent chemical processes. So the question what will be autonomous and to what degree and in what manner needs to be raised; but it is certainly not a requirement of my account that it be ‘us’.

  2. The transition from human to posthuman will occur in two stages: the first memetic, where the current technological culture fades into a society, loosely in control, but largely accepting and dependent on in-the-body technology for its health, enhanced abilities, security, social mobility, and economic condition. The second stage will be temetic, where control is lost and technology, as an autonomous agent will have woven itself into the fabric of the human anatomy, demarking a physical transformation, where humans will be part biological and part technological. At that point will we remain autonomous after being injected by RFIDs, infused with semiconductor sensors, modified by synthetic-DNA, and adapted with molecular and nano computers affecting our metabolic process, our mind, its perception, intuition, evaluation, and feelings? Will we retain autonomy in the sense of free will? Will we retain our identity, or will algorithmic-centric rules, built into new anatomical computers change or burden us new ways, in ways perhaps only remotely analogous to present limitations imposed by our physiology, culture, and psychological underpinnings? We may go about our business as if operating as autonomous agents, but, in reality, programs operating in a teme-like sphere of influence will be in control of what was once considered our inviolable autonomy.

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