Miguel Benasayag and the question of the “living”

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Translation by AB – April 18, 2020


Translation notice

We have chosen to translate the French substantive “vivant” (what lives) in “living”. Thus, we will write “the living” (substantive) to mean “anything that is living” as well as “life as an ongoing phenomenon”.

Question

What is the difference between “living” and “inert”?

We are taught in school the six or seven characteristic traits of living beings: the cell as the basic floor, growth and development, energy consumption, exchanges with the environment, adaptation, reproduction … Indeed, a stone does nothing all of this. But what about a computer program? Without playing excessively on words, it is possible to recognize that an algorithm “moves”: it has exchange mechanisms, growth capacities, it consumes energy, etc.

Characterizing the “living” only by its observable features is not enough to establish an irreducible singularity. There are slightly more restrictive (and more abstract) definitions of living beings, but none of them definitively rule out the possibility of life on a ground other than biological / cellular, a “digital ground” for example. However, unlike the phenomena of the mind (intelligence, emotion, even consciousness) which are already doomed to the machine, the phenomenon of life still seems to escape the technical hubris. It may be that in itself it has no practical (therefore economic) interest.

But, if there is not yet a proposal for an “artificial life1, especially carried by the big digital firms, the transhumanist current has been preparing upstream, and for a long time, a stable philosophical and political ground. The issue of the living and its technicalization is already topical and the presentation of an artifact told to be “living” is probably only a matter of years.

Miguel Benasayag

Many philosophical and scientific works have focused in life as a phenomenon. We do not pretend to explore them here, or even to give an idea of them. We rather propose to tackle the question of the living from a current and singular point of view, that of Miguel Benasayag2, philosopher, psychoanalyst, researcher in epistemology and former Franco-Argentinian Guevarist resistant […] close to the libertarian trend” … He was also a researcher in biology who worked a while with Francisco Varela (Francisco Varela the heterodox).

Miguel Benasayag

Miguel Benasayag

Why Miguel Benasayag? He is not one of the best known and most renowned thinkers of the phenomena of life, but he is certainly one of the most vibrant. Miguel Benasayag is also a survivor and, whether we adhere to his ideas or not, his body, if one dares to say, is better placed than others to talk about the phenomenon of life.

Here’s what he says about himself3 :

I served very early in the periphery of these Guevarist movements, starting by literating in the shantytowns and coordinating dispensaries, until I participated in the first armed actions. I became a fighter; I acquired military responsibilities […] The authorities captured me three times. The third time, they locked me up and tortured me for more than four years, before releasing me and extraditing me to France. […] I became very critical of thinkers like Alain Badiou who, in France, continued to defend Stalin without ever having had a slap to pay for their principles.

Having being “slapped” is not absolutely necessary to defend ideas or principles but, concerning the theme of life, it justifies a little. In any case, we understand that Miguel Benasayag’s thought takes root in his life, in his whole life. He has a keen sense of contingencies and this indisputable singularity: what happens to a living being sets it up.

Life: a “Zone to Defend”

[ Zone to Defend or ZAD (French: Zone à Défendre) is a French neologism used to refer to a militant occupation that is intended to physically blockade a development project ].

After many writings and works on the subject, Miguel Benasayag published in 2017 an essay entitled “La singularité du vivant” (“The singularity of the living”)4. It is above all an anti-transhumanist manifesto, organized around two attempts: first the examination of clues that living cannot be grasped as a mechanism, and second the presentation of an organic model, the “mamotreto“(which we will not detail here).

Let us again quote Miguel Benasayag to better place the foundation of this work:

If you live, you’ll eventually pay for it, anyway. Everyone can give themselves limits that they will not cross, an axis from which they will not turn aside without ceasing to exist, principles to which they will not give in if they want their life to remain a life. But he will never know what the cost of his resistance is.

We must therefore understand, when Benasayag speaks of “life” that it is above all a “Zone to Defend”, into which can enter only those (humans, animals …) who pay the price, sometimes very heavy, attached to the uncertainty of life:

We never know what we bet when we involve. Involving is involving ourselves in life and be taken by a gesture.

The title of his work “La singularité du vivant” thus induces a risk of misunderstanding: where we could expect a scientific and technical characterization of life, an update about its irreducibility that we could then oppose to transhumanists with the force of a scientific demonstration, Benasayag rather develops a moral delegitimization to enter this “area to defend” with artifacts to which it would not cost anything to exist (or to “be”).

Body

The original meaning of “living”, which we know by learning and culture, is worth mentioning. As the writer Pascal Quignard sets5:

Total non-locomotion is a vital hazard, that of being devoured.

Everyone has their own definition, depending on whether one is a biologist, a physicist or a transhumanist, but life is first and foremost about motricity and movement, a movement against death. It is visible to the naked eye for most animal species, but even plants move, whether by tropisms (reactions to changes in the biotope, such as the course of the sun), by rapid movements (carnivorous plants, sensitive leaves…) or by migrations6 :

Driven by the rise of the mercury column, many animal and plant species are gaining higher altitudes or latitudes, where they benefit from conditions favorable to their development.

The technical approach to life and its possible artificial reproduction, epistemologically implying a cutting up and a progressive reduction of the phenomenon to its most basic components (the “Lego world” of Benasayag), screens this evidence: for life to be, there must be a body permanently on the verge of death, of final immobility. However, the classical reductionist approach fails to account for this dynamic global state.

With the idea of a pure living algorithm, of a pure informational living, which Miguel Benasayag rejects, we must confront this simple and deep idea: an environment is necessary, which defines the modalities of the “fight” against final immobility, and there must be a body to “embody” this fight. We share with Miguel Benasayag the idea that such an incarnation is necessary to access the “Zone to Defend” of living (and therefore all its own phenomena like intelligence or consciousness). The introduction to “La singularité du vivant” is thus entitled “Il y a des corps” (“There are bodies”) and reminds us of common sense:

It is because living bodies are affected by stimuli “x” that they can, in accordance with the conformation of their bodies, experience and be in relation with existing objects.

Let’s add: and there are environments7! Indeed, one objection to Miguel Benasayag’s purely biological thesis is that the digital world, even a dummy one, is an environment; obviously, not for us, plants or animals, nor even for their eventual digital twins, but for pure “digital bodies”. These forms of life would be very strange but nothing prevents in theory their existence.

This being said about bodies and environments, Benasayag proposes at least two clues that “living” is not digitizable. Each of them is disputable.

Clue # 1: intensive parts, extensive parts

Miguel Benasayag repeatedly distinguishes the living (the “organism”) from the artefact by drawing on the Spinozian notions of “intensive parts” and “extensive parts”.

Let us remind that the extensive quantities add up (length, mass, etc.) while the intensive quantities are identical in all parts of a homogeneous system (temperature, density, etc.) and therefore fall within an intrinsic characteristic of the system in its entirety. Non-philosophers like us will therefore have a little but sufficient intuition concerning these “parts” thought by Spinoza8 (additions in square brackets) :

The intensive part is the essence. In itself, essence is a degree of power or intensity [part of “divine power”]. Related to the extensive parts that make up the body, it is the essence or idea of this body.

Then a quote from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (we underline):

There are two absolutely opposite meanings of the word “part”, namely that there are parts that I have, these are extensive parts, I have them temporarily … But when I say “intensive parts equal essence”, these are no parts than I have but parts that I am

We can therefore hear this argument, fundamental for Miguel Benasayag, evoking the extensive and intensive parts of life (additions in square brackets):

A [living] organism owes its “sameness” (its quality of remaining the same) to its capacity to lose extensive parts and to capture others which it transforms to produce its constituent parts thereby updating its “intensive” part. On the other hand, the aggregate [the artifact], it will be understood, owes its “sameness” to the fact of keep its extensive parts.

What we call “intensive part” therefore corresponds not to modeling as an additional extensive part, but to a mode of operation which is constantly updated in organisms.

We recognize here the Spinozian “conatus”, the essence which tends to persevere in existence, that is to say to maintain and renew the extensive parts which belong to it according to this essence. The objective is perceptible: if the living organism was made up only of extensive parts, then it would be accessible to modeling. But as its intensity escapes all schema, the living remains out of all possible fabrication.

But this philosophical argument seems rather tenuous. A car owes its “sameness” to its “intensive” quality of transporting passengers. Its extensive parts (pinions, pistons, cigarette lighter, etc.) belong to the car according to this “essence”. They can be lost and replaced (repaired) without affecting the sameness of the object. We can also add to this car “pieces”, “parts” or remove some: as an extensive diagram, the car has a certain space of variation which does not compromise its sameness.

Nevertheless, the intensive “functional” quality of the car is regulated from the outside: maintaining the extensive parts in order to maintain the intensive qualities still requires humans. It is specific to the Simondian technical object. Benasayag also says it in his own way:

An artifact is never self-cut. It is its utility, established from the outside, that gives it unity.

But therefore, the question is not so much that of the existence of an intensive part as of the origin of this “conatus”: does it come from “inside” (the object is then reflexively its own intention, intention which can only be to exist, that is to say to move on the threshold of disappearance according to changes in its environment) or does it come from “outside”? To handle the second case, that of the artefact, it would be necessary to question the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon9 :

A technical object is characterized by the fact of its inscription within a technical line which increases with each generation its life expectancy by the trick of an autocorrelation.

Without going into too much detail, a “technical line” starts from the pure artificial artifact, therefore from a very imperfect addition of extensive parts according to a scheme determined by man (a DIY). Then, this lineage embarks on a path of naturalization: the object, to extend its existence in its environment, requires less and less external (human) intervention and develops “autocorrelations”, internal and external closings. Thus, the “technical lineage” of the robot inexorably tends towards the natural object. What threshold of autonomy by autocorrelations will he have to reach to be declared “alive”? Nothing clearly indicates that this bound does not exist.

Clue #2: Map and Territory

Miguel Benasayag mentions the claims of the digital, which would tend to make us take the map (digital models) for the territory (life):

Digitalization is based on the belief that the world, modeled in bits of information, is composed, in its concrete reality, by discrete points.

What Giuseppe Longo calls a “digital rounding” aims precisely at this operation which consists in treating the represented world as if it were made up of the same substance as the models which seek to reproduce it. […] in this gesture of ontologization of discrete “information” units lie the foundations that make the “Lego world” possible. These discrete ontologized units, which come from the modeling of an object or any process, could thus be recombined to constitute a completely different object.

In our opinion, there are at least four problems here and as many courses to follow.

Let’s start with a detour, a “meta question”, which we will call the “question of the subject”, and which runs through all of Benasayag’s work: who performs this “gesture of ontologization” and for what purpose? We are willing to assume that someone is mistaken or is cheating on us, but the main methodological blind spot, which somewhat weakens the analysis, is that no one is designated when there seems to be a subject that is “plotting” . Our proposition is already known: there is nobody and therefore there is no ontologization. There is only a Technological System that deploys.

Second, “digitalization” (a rather imprecise concept) does not propose a model, even an informational one, of the world. On the one hand, it offers representations and measurements of the real world. On the other hand, it gives access to a digital world which is not a sham but which has its own objectivity.

Third, there is no explicit claim by anyone (the invisible “subject”) to model living things based on “0” and “1”. Even more, if the living perhaps escapes any form of drawing, an artefact itself does not necessarily require (or no longer) a diagram (think for example of neuromimetic networks) and under this argument, the possible “rounded digital” is not an issue.

The “continuous” is, let us remember, a phenomenal background for the mathematical sciences which deal with the real world. It’s an infinite in action, you could say, so just as problematic to consider as a model. Consequently, neither the continuous, nor the digital rounding (nor any atomic model) can claim to be one more than the other the fabric of the world. Longo and Bailly do not say anything else10 ((“we do not defend the idea that the world would be continuous in itself“) but they use an argument of a mathematical nature to dismiss the digital: small perturbative phenomena, smaller in scale than digital rounding, can be the source of macroscopic phenomena in the continuous world (the famous Butterfly Effect), in particular the “broken symmetry” and “phase transitions” at work in the alive, at least according to their theory. So (we underline) :

The intelligibility of these phenomena […] is conceptually lost if we organize the world by means of the exact values imposed by arithmetic discretization. Or, rather, and this is our thesis, we get a different intelligibility.

We must first admit, like Miguel Benasayag, the mathematical theses of Bailly and Longo before following the argument that the living does not emerge from an arithmetic (discrete) but geometric (continuous) model. However, these theses remain epistemologically to be tested.

Finally, if it is “discreet”, the digital today returns by power effect the “0” and the “1” to subatomic invisibility. Digital technology thus acquires a sort of “realism” capacity, the limits of which are difficult to perceive. In addition, with this irony specific to techniques, in which all our representations circulate in a loop, the quantum computer perhaps promises to solve the aporia of Longo and Bailly since in this computer the empty space between the “0” and the “1” is infinitely populated: it signs the return of the continuous! It is perilous to “think” in place of a Technological System which often unexpectedly goes beyond the limits. It is the characteristic of scientific discovery that causes excitement and upsets our representations.

Nature of the question of the “living”

We share with Miguel Benasayag a certain annoyance concerning the desacralization of the body, the so-called prophecies, the ambient reductionism touching on the phenomena of the mind, today’s transhumanism, etc. But we are less convinced by some of his arguments, which claim to designate an insurmountable limit between the living and, in particular, numerical modeling. We believe, on the contrary, that such a limit does not exist. On the other hand, the nature of a possible “technical living” remains to be thought about and must relate to the representation of a technical body which would seek to persist in an environment with a “different intelligibility“, as Bailly and Longo say.

Miguel Benasayag’s work is rooted in life as a proposition of ordeal, and his point of view is situated on a crest line between science and ethics. He then confronts us with a precious doubt in these digital times: is the question of the living scientific or rather moral and political? In particular, if artefacts can naturalize to the point of subsiding alone in their environment, then on what moral grounds would they be granted to be declared alive? With what consequences for humans?


1. Wikipedia – Artificial life
2. Wikipédia – Miguel Benasayag
3. Cédric Enjalbert / Philosophie Magazine – February 28, 2014 – Miguel Benasayag: « S’engager c’est être happé par la vie »
4. Miguel Benasayag / éditions Le Pommier – 2017 – La singularité du vivant
5. Aliocha Wald-Lasowski / l’Express – October 14, 2018 – Pascal Quignard : « Le bouleversant vient du mystère en nous »
6. Pierre Le Hir / Le Monde – April 4, 2018 – Le réchauffement accélère la migration des plantes vers les cimes
7. We will not enter here into the debate induced by the idea of “enaction”. Suffice it to say that we imagine that there are environments.
8. Anthony Le Cazals on the blog « La philosophie aujourd’hui en France » – February 14, 2013 – Immortalité et éternité de coexistence chez Spinoza
9. Hicham-Stéphane Afeissa / Slate – April 11, 2014 – Gilbert Simondon et la libération par les techniques
10. Francis Bailly et Giuseppe Longo – February 17, 2004 – Causalités et Symétries dans les Sciences de la Nature. Le Continu et le Discret Mathématiques

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