Archives For David C. Winyard

Author Information:David C. Winyard, Mount Vernon Nazarene University, winyard.david@gmail.com

Winyard, David C. “The Promethean Escape.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 1-3.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Kd

Image credit: The New Atlantis

Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress
Charles T. Rubin
New Atlantis Books, 2014
186 pp.

People obsessed with novel big ideas can find a lot to like in the transhumanism movement. It imagines technoscience solutions to all manner of worldly ills, and technical challenges are of little concern to transhumanists. Things that are too difficult now (e.g., immortality) will, the thinking goes, inevitably yield to super-intelligent artificial minds that will emerge after Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity.

Charles T. Rubin’s Eclipse of Man is a big picture analysis and critique of transhumanism’s big ideas. It examines how enlightenment conceptions of progress have given way to visions of a dehumanized future. In clear and artful ways, Rubin exposes the movement’s unwarranted assumptions. He concludes that transhumanism’s long-term consequences are incomprehensible, and as a consequence, they are not worthy of rational pursuit. Anyone interested in transhumanism—critics and advocates alike—may benefit from considering both the logic and art of Rubin’s arguments.

The Moral Vision of Transhumanism

To start, Rubin justifies his broad-brush look of transhumanism, with its assorted religious persuasions: atheist, Mormon, Christian, emergent, and many more. Although they differ, Rubin notes that they “often aim to adopt a ‘big tent’ outlook that seeks to minimize the sectarian differences implicit in the different designations.” By focusing on central themes, he does not get bogged down in factional details but presses on toward his goal: to examine “transhumanism’s moral vision of the future.”

Rubin’s begins his story of dehumanization with the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). Condorcet’s enlightenment rationalism focused exclusively on improving the lot of human society. Like Francis Bacon before, and transhumanists today, Condorcet thought human reason could greatly extend lifespans, but he did not believe immortality could be attained. He did hope that “our power over nature will soften the hard edges of the human condition by improving the material conditions of life,” and this would improve “moral conditions.” Generally, Condorcet’s vision of the future is uncontroversial. Who would not want better and longer lives?

Next, Rubin considers Condorcet’s progress in view of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) and Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Malthus held that “our future holds great misery and scarcity” because “finite resources limit what human beings can ever hope to accomplish,” but Darwin spins “natural competition as a force for change over time.” According to Rubin, today transhumanists attempt to “reconcile and assimilate these ideas by advocating the end of humanity.” Is Rubin right? Are enlightenment humanism and evolutionary metanarratives leading toward dehumanization?

Transhuman or Inhuman?

Rubin considers the descent into dehumanization to begin with William Winwood Reade (1838–1875), and continues with Nikolai Federovich Federov (1829–1903), Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842–1925), J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), and finally J.D. Bernal (1901–1971). They increasingly diverge from Condorcet’s humanism, and in the end, the goal of progress is redefined: from “better humans” to a paradoxical move “beyond humanity.” Rubin mourns that society is embracing this vision, so “the eclipse of man is underway.”

Through the next three chapters, Rubin considers recent developments. Chapter Two examines the ongoing Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), including a review of its associated science and science fiction. Chapter Three focuses on nanotechnology, comparing Eric Drexler’s nanotechnology visions with Neal Stevenson’s novel The Diamond Age.

In the process, inconsistencies emerge between nanotechnology’s promise and its potential to disrupt human lives and relationships. Chapter Four looks to other transhumanist aspirations and their mysteries. The upshot is that logically transhumanism’s assumptions lead to a dehumanized future. Why? Galactic evolutionary competition requires human beings to evolve into technological artifacts. Can we not hope for something better?

Unfortunately, Rubin’s powerful analysis and critique falls flat in Chapter Five, entitled “The Real Meaning of Progress.” It can be summarized in five words: there are no easy answers. Instead of solutions, Rubin points toward attitudes (e.g., humility) that can help society deepen its understanding of what human life means, and also what can be lost by forging ahead without maintaining continuous attention to such matters.

Spectres of Icarus

Rubin frames his conclusions by interpreting three paintings of Icarus. The first shows him being launched into the sky by his father. In the second, Icarus realizes the consequences of his disobedience and is struck by terror. The last shows Icarus crashing into the sea, even as common folk go about their business nearby. The paintings effectively illustrate Rubin’s argument. Reality exists between optimistic and pessimistic views of the future, and the meaning of life today must shape the future. Ignoring or diminishing human life as we know it today will surely take us in wrong directions.

Rubin teaches political science, but he does not offer politics as the answer to transhumanism’s challenges. He notes that transhumanism is often sold in techno-libertarian terms, but this may be to distinguish it from eugenics. Freedom of choice is promised, but anyone not adopting technological enhancements would be left behind or forcibly eliminated. The force of evolution cannot be resisted.

By not reducing transhumanism to politics, Rubin differs from Steve Fuller. His transhumanism interests began with history and theology, but he has ended up settling for risky political solutions (e.g., the rehabilitation of eugenics) that can only have near-term effects. Surely, Rubin’s long view of the big picture befits transhumanism’s grand narrative. Perhaps his insights will, in Rubin’s terms, help transhumanism overcome its “peculiar farsightedness?”

Author Information: David C. Winyard Sr., Mount Vernon Nazarene University, winyard.david@gmail.com

Winyard, David C. “Polanyi Appeal: A Review of Esther Meek’s Contact With Reality.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 17-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3GX

Image credit: Cascade Books

Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters
Esther Lightcap Meek
Cascade Books, 2017
309 pp.

Geneva College epistemologist Esther Lightcap Meek is best known for Covenant Epistemology, her innovative synthesis of the work of Michael Polanyi with thoughts from John Frame, Michael Williams, John Macmurray, Marjorie Grene, and others.[1] Covenant Epistemology’s key feature is the characterization of all knowledge as personal, there being ineffable communication—even communion—between knower and known, with both embedded in an ever-unfolding and expanding reality. Such relational knowing is consistent with Meek’s Christianity because “On the Christian theological vision, all reality is either God, or God’s personal effects.”[2]

Meek’s latest book, Contact With Reality, provides background and new vistas for Covenant Epistemology by closely examining Michael Polanyi’s work to reveal his unique form of realism. Part 1, Chapters 1–11, is a lightly edited publication of Meek’s 1983 Ph.D. dissertation. Its primary purpose is to show that Polanyi held realist views, a goal reached by analyzing Polanyi’s well-known thoughts on tacit knowledge, plus the subsidiary-focal structure of knowledge and his hallmarks of discovery, especially how discoveries point toward “indeterminate future manifestations.” Meek’s dissertation concludes with an appeal to phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty to “ground” Polanyi’s realism.[3]

Part 2, Chapters 12–14, briefly reflects upon Polanyian realism and what it might add to today’s discussions of reality, especially as it relates to scientific discovery. Meek begins with a brief analysis of Retrieving Realism, published in 2015 by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor.[4]  Like Meek, Dreyfus and Taylor also look to Merleau-Ponty to justify their realism, but they never mention Polanyi. This omission opens the door for Meek to forcefully inject Polanyi’s thoughts into the discussion. In the process, she leaves behind her tentative dissertation conclusions. On the basis of three decades of Polanyi studies, Meek boldly argues for the legitimacy and superiority of Polanyi’s realism; it “proves to be its own justification” and “perhaps the only realism worthy of the designation.”[5]

In both parts, Meek expresses surprise and dismay that Polanyi’s genius is not appreciated by modern epistemology, which she regards as overly focused on after-the-fact justification of scientific claims. In turn, it neglects the messy thought processes that produce new knowledge. Meek believes that the philosophy of science, by seeking some sort of positive one-to-one correspondence, overlooks the one-to-many possibilities that drive practicing scientists forward.[6] This oversight perpetuates longstanding disconnects between philosophy and practical science. Against this philosophical rut, Meek argues that Polanyi, as a first-rate natural scientist, can bridge the gap. She recognizes that, for one reason or another, he is poorly understood and largely ignored, but she remains hopeful that Polanyi’s realism, epistemology, and ontology will be embraced.

In the climactic final chapter of Contact With Reality, Meek goes beyond simply making the case for Polanyi’s relevance to argue for realism.[7] Her launching point is the question, “have we children on modernity done a grave disservice to reality itself through our skepticism—including the very posing of the question of realism?”[8] Meek answers this question by citing David C. Schindler’s studies of theologian Hans Urs van Balthasar, who emphasized the transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty above all. Enraptured by the real, Meek embraces Schindler’s conclusion that “reason must be ecstatic” and “self-transcending.”[9] Meek’s excited advocacy for Covenant Epistemology is evident, as she appeals for a transcendent “radical attentiveness” to what reality would communicate to us, if we were not predisposed toward disbelief.

Contact With Reality is an important contribution to Meek’s trademark Covenant Epistemology. By publishing and extending her 1985 dissertation, her quest for realism is clarified, especially concerning key Covenant Epistemology concepts that her earlier works introduced. I am left wondering, where will Meek go from here?

My thought is that Meek would do well to connect her conceptions of personal knowledge with the social processes that account for it. If knowledge is indeed personal, then it is inherently social and not subject to mechanical logic. Social factors affect how knowledge claims—including those of Polanyi and Meek—are received. Social reality can be messy, with a large measure of irrealism in the mix. Meek’s references to Thomas Kuhn and the sociology of scientific knowledge suggest that she is aware of the herky-jerky nature of intellectual progress. Perhaps her promotion of Polanyian realism and Covenant Epistemology could benefit from a deeper appreciation of the social factors affecting their acceptance?

Further, Meek’s focus on epistemology minimizes the differences between the underlying ontological commitments of Polanyi and Meek on the one hand, and those of “mainstream” epistemologists on the other. It seems that Christian presuppositions account for the mystical or spiritual elements of Polanyi’s realism and Covenant Epistemology, but Meek often leaves theological matters in the background. Only in her conclusion does theology (i.e., Schindler and Balthasar) approach center stage. This is unfortunate, for since Weber mourned modernity’s “iron cage” social science has earnestly sought ways to “re-enchant” our scientific world. Meek’s Christian approach may be more acceptable than she might anticipate.

Clearly, if Covenant Epistemology is the best way forward, much more work is required to reconnect God with His “personal effects.” Others have begun this work, and it would be very interesting to bring Meek’s thought into dialogue with the likes of Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller. It also seems that Covenant Epistemology’s all-knowledge-is-personal paradigm could shed light on the emerging relationships between human beings and advanced artificial intelligence. Above all, as I reflect on Meek’s Contact With Reality I look forward with anticipation to its “indeterminate future manifestations.”

[1] Meek, Esther Lightcap. Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] Meek, Contact With Reality, “Chapter 11: Grounding Polanyi’s Realism: Merleau-Ponty,” 205–235.

[4] Dreyfus, Hubert, and Taylor, Charles. Retrieving Realism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

[5] Meek, Contact With Reality, 259.

[6] Ibid., 270.

[7] Ibid., “Chapter 14: Recovering Realism,” 278–297.

[8] Ibid., 278.

[9] Ibid., 281.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk, Homepage: http://bit.ly/q3GBmi

Fuller, Steve. 2013. “What’s the Difference between the Second Coming and Humanity 2.0? Response to Winyard.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (3): 8-14.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Gz

Please refer to:

David Winyard (2013) is correct to say that trying to reconcile the claims of theology and biology in any understanding of the human condition is bound to be an unhappy affair. He forgot to add that this is especially true, if both sides insist on operating with a backward-looking conception of what it means to be human. Transhumanism is interesting — and challenging to both sides — precisely because of its resolutely forward look at the human. In the end, the transhumanist treats the human past, including what both theologians (qua “original sin”) and biologists (qua “evolutionary history”) might call our “inheritance”, as raw material out of which — along with some other ingredients — Humanity 2.0 might be built.

Here it is worth recalling that until the molecular (DNA) revolution in biology in the 1950s, it was common to think of our genetic makeup as a “burden”, very much like sin, that had to be suffered through or perhaps mitigated through propitious changes in one’s environment. The only other alternative course of action was some form of genocide. Modern drama after Ibsen brought this world-view into middle class drawing rooms. And of course, the violent directions in which eugenics — the prototype for today’s transhumanist projects — was often drawn in the first half of the 20th century projected these burdens of the flesh onto the world’s political stage. But already in 1943, Erwin Schrödinger’s Dublin lecture, “What Is Life?” had proposed that life is more an exploratory search for biochemically stable possibilities than the sort of path-dependent journeys either started (in religious terms) by Adam’s deed or pursued (in scientific terms) by Darwin’s theory. Despite speaking from the standpoint of a theoretical physicist for whom data are generated by thought experiments, Schrödinger’s vision managed to recruit a generation of molecular revolutionaries by providing a new take on the meaning of life — or at least resurrecting an older one that allowed humanity to recover its creative responsibility for life, as per a strong reading of the imago dei doctrine. Continue Reading…

Author Information: David C. Winyard, Virginia Tech, winyard.david@gmail.com

Winyard, David C. 2013. “Review of Steve Fuller, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (2): 16-18.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Fe

Please refer to:

Steve Fuller. Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, Pp. 1, 265.

In his introduction to Humanity 2.0, Steve Fuller writes: “I have spent much of the past decade engaged in redefining the foundations of the social sciences in the face of a pincer attack from biology and theology” (3). The warfare analogy seems apt, for Fuller has made a habit of stepping into the no-man’s land between these rivals to seek peace. Unfortunately, his courage has exceeded his persuasiveness, for he continues to take fire from both sides.

The new fighting front is transhumanism, the application of technology to enhance human capabilities. Its advocates foresee an end to biological evolution — the old battleground — as an anthropogenic alternative takes over, with convergent technologies (CT) yielding god-like power to upgrade, alter, and even eliminate our physical bodies. Transhumanism’s pace, scope, and ethics raise anew old struggles over human nature and its place in the universe. Theology and then biology have offered their definitions of humanity, but transhumanism has raised new questions and rekindled simmering animosities. Fuller’s proposed peace treaty seeks to balance Christianity’s investments in science with biology’s need for religious motivations and heuristics. How does this deal appear to the combatants? Continue Reading…