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Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Seneca College, alci.malapi@outlook.com

Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Transhumanism and the Catholic Church.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 12-17.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WM

You don’t become the world’s oldest continuing institution without knowing how to adapt to the times.
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr / Creative Commons.

Most accounts on transhumanism coming from Catholic circles show a mild to radical rejection to the idea of a deep alteration, by means of pervasive emergent technologies, of whatever we understand as “human nature”. These criticisms come from both progressive and conservative Catholic flanks. However, as it is increasingly becoming evident, the left/right divide is no longer capturing ethical, political and philosophical stances in an accurate manner.

There are cross-linked concerns which transcend such traditional dichotomy. The Church, insofar as it also is a human institution, is not immune to this ongoing ‘rotating axis’. The perceived Catholic unfriendliness to transhumanism stems from views that do not take into account the very mission that defines the Church’s existence.

Conceptions of Human Dignity

To be sure, there are aspects of transhumanism that may find fundamental rejection when confronted to Church doctrine—particularly in what concerns human dignity. In this context, attempts for accomplishing indefinite life extension will not find fertile ground in Catholic milieus. Needless to say, the more vulgar aspects of the transhumanist movement—such as the fashionable militant atheism sponsored by some, or the attempt to simply replace religion with technology—would not find sympathy either. However, precisely due to an idiosyncratically Catholic attention to human dignity, attempts at the improvement of the human experience shall certainly attract the attention of the Magisterium.

Perhaps more importantly, and not unrelated to a distinctly Catholic understanding of personal self-realization, the Church will have to cope with the needs that a deeply altered human condition will entail. Indeed, the very cause for the Church to exist is self-admittedly underpinned by the fulfillment of a particular service to humans: Sacrament delivery. Hence, the Magisterium has an ontological interest (i.e., pertaining to what counts as human) in better coping with foreseeable transhumanist alterations, as well as a functional one (e.g., to ensure both proper evangelization and the fulfilling of its sacramental prime directive).

The Church is an institution that thinks, plans and strategizes in terms of centuries. A cursory study of its previous positions regarding the nature of humanity reveals that the idea of “the human” never was a monolithic, static notion. Indeed, it is a fluid one that has been sponsored and defended under different guises in previous eras, pressed by sui-generis apostolic needs. As a guiding example, one could pay attention to the identity-roots of that area of the globe which currently holds more than 60% of the Catholic world population: Latin America. It is well documented how the incipient attempts at an articulation of “human rights”, coming from the School of Salamanca in the 16th century (epitomized by Francisco Vitoria, Francisco Suárez—the Jesuit who influenced Leibnitz, Schopenhauer and Heidegger—and indirectly, by Bartolomé de las Casas), had as an important aspect of its agenda the extension of the notion of humanity to the hominid creatures found inhabiting the “West Indies”—the Americas.

The usual account of Heilsgeschichte (Salvation History), canonically starting with the narrative of the People of God and ending up with the Roman Empire, could not be meaningfully conveyed to this newly-found peoples, given that the latter was locked in an absolutely parallel world. In fact, a novel “theology of charity” had to be developed in order to spread the Good News, without referencing a (non-existent) “common history”. Their absolute humanity had to be thus urgently established, so that, unlike the North American Protestant experience, widespread legalized slavery would not ensue—task which was partly accomplished via the promulgation of the 1538 encyclical Sublimis Deus.

Most importantly, once their humanity was philosophically and legally instituted, the issue regarding the necessary services for both their salvation and their self-development immediately emerged (To be sure, not everyone agreed in such extension of humanity). Spain sent an average of three ‘apostolic agents’ – priests – per day to fulfill this service. The controversial nature of the “Age of Discovery” notwithstanding, the Spanish massive mobilization may partly account for the Church being to this day perhaps the most trusted institution in Latin America. Be that as it may, we can see here a paradigmatic case were the Church extended the notion of humanity to entities with profoundly distinct features, so that it could successfully fulfill its mission: Sacrament delivery. Such move arguably guaranteed the worldwide flourishing, five centuries later, of an institution of more than a billion people.

A Material Divinity

Although the Church emphasises an existing unity between mind and body, it is remarkable that in no current authoritative document of the Magisterium (e.g., Canon Law, Catechism, Vatican Council II, etc.) the “human” is inextricably linked with a determinate corporeal feature of the species homo-sapiens. Namely, although both are profoundly united, one does not depend on the other. In fact, the soul/spirit comes directly from God. What defines us as humans have less to do with the body and its features and more to do with the mind, spirit and will.

Once persons begin to radically and ubiquitously change their physical existences, the Church will have to be prepared to extend the notion of humanity to these hybrids. Not only will these entities need salvation, but they will need to flourish in this life as self-realized individuals—something that according to Catholic doctrine is solidly helped by sacrament reception. Moreover, if widespread deep alteration of humanoid ‘biologies’ were to occur, the Church has a mandate of evangelization to them as well. This will likely encourage apostolic agents to become familiarized with these novel ways of corporeal existence in order to better understand them—even embrace them in order further turn them into vehicles of evangelization themselves.

We have a plethora of historical examples in related contexts, from the Jesuit grammatization of the Inka language to Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic expertise in human communications—having influenced the Second Vatican Council’s Inter Mirifica document on the topic. Indeed, “morphological freedom” (the right and ability to alter our physical existence) might become for the Church what philosophy of communication became for McLuhan.

Thus, chances are that the Church will need to embrace a certain instantiation of a transhuman future, given that the institution will have to cope with a radically changed receptacle of the grace-granting devices – the Sacraments. Indeed, this shall be done in order to be consistent with the reason for its very existence as mandated by Christ: guaranteeing the constant flow of these efficacious means which collaborate towards both a fulfilled existence in this life and salvation in the next one. Steve Fuller foresees a possible scenario that may indeed become just such transhuman ‘instantiation’ favoured by the Church:

A re-specification of the “human” to be substrate-neutral (that is to say, a “human” need not be the descendant of another member of Homo sapiens but rather could be a status conferred on any suitably qualified entity, as might be administered by a citizenship test or even a Turing Test).

Judging from its track record, the Church will problematically but ultimately successfully raise up to the challenge. A substrate-neutral re-specification of the human may indeed be the route taken by the Church—perhaps after a justifiably called Concilium.

An homage to a legendary series of portraits by Francis Bacon.
Image by Phineas Jones via Flickr / Creative Commons

Examining the Sacraments

The challenge will be variously instantiated in correlation with the sacraments to be delivered. However, all seven of them share one feature that will be problematized with the implementation of transhumanist technologies: Sacraments perform metaphysically what they do physically. Their efficacy in the spiritual world is mirrored by the material function performed in this one (e.g., the pouring of water in baptism). Since our bodies may change at a fundamental level, maintaining the efficacy of sacraments, which need physical substrata to work, will be the common problem. Let us see how this problem may variously incarnate.

Baptism. As the current notion of humanity stands (“an entity created in the image and likeness of God”) not much would have to change in order to extend it to an altered entity claiming to maintain, or asking to receive, human status. A deep alteration of our bodies constitutes no fundamental reason for not participating of the realm “human” and thus, enter the Catholic Church by means of Baptism: The obliteration of the legacy of Original Sin with which humans are born—either by natural means, cloned or harvested (A similar reasoning could be roughly applied to Confirmation). Holy water can be poured on flesh, metal or a new alloy constituting someone’s forehead. As indicated above, the Church does not mention “flesh” as a sine qua non condition for humanity to obtain.

On the other hand, there is a scenario, more post-human than transhuman in nature, that may emerge as a side effect out of the attempts to ameliorate the human condition: Good Old Fashion Artificial Intelligence. If entities that share none of the features (bodily, historically, cognitively, biologically) we usually associate with humanity begin to claim human status on account of displaying both rationality and autonomy, then the Church may have to go through one of its most profound “aggiornamentos” in two millennia of operation.

Individual tests administered by local bishops on a case-by-case basis (after a fundamental directive coming from the Holy See) would likely have to be put in place – which would aim to assess, for instance, the sincerity of the entity’s prayer. It is a canonical signature of divine presence in an individual the persistent witnessing of an ongoing metanoia (conversion). A consistent life of self-giving and spiritual warfare could be the required accepted signs for this entity being declared a child of God, equal to the rest of us, granting its entrance into the Church with all the entailing perks (i.e. the full array of sacraments).

There is a caveat that is less problematic for Catholic doctrine than for modern society: Sex assignation. Just as the ‘natural machinery’ already comes with one, the artificial one could have it as well. Male or female could happen also in silico. Failure to do so would carry the issue to realms not dissimilar with current disputes of “sex reassignation” and its proper recognition by society: It might be a problem, but it would not be a new problem. The same reasoning would apply to “post-gender” approaches to transhumanism.

Confession. Given that the sacrament of Reconciliation has to be obligatorily performed, literally, vis à vis, what if environmental catastrophes reduce our physical mobility so that we can no longer face a priest? Will telepresence be accepted by the Church? Will the Church establish strict protocols of encryption? After all it is an actual confession that we are talking about: Only a priest can hear it—and only the Pope, on special cases, can hear it from him.

Breaking the confessional seal entails excommunicatio ipso facto. Moreover, regarding a scenario which will likely occur within our lifetimes, what about those permanently sent into space? How will they receive this sacrament? Finally, even if the Church permanently bans the possibility of going to confession within a virtual environment, what would happen if people eventually inhabit physical avatars? Would that count as being physically next to a priest?

Communion. The most important of all sacraments, the Eucharist, will not the void of issues either. The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the portion of Catholics who are properly ‘Roman’) mandates that only unleavened bread shall be used as the physical substratum, so that it later transubstantiates into the body of Christ. The Church is particularly strict in this, as evinced in cases were alternative breads have been used (e.g., when stranded for years on a deserted island), not recognizing those events as properly Eucharistic: the sacrament never took place in such occasions.

Nevertheless, we will have to confront situations were the actual bread could not be sent to remote locations of future human dwelling (e.g., Mars), nor a priest will be present to perform the said metaphysical swapping. Facing this, would nanotechnology provide the solution? Would something coming out of a 3D printer or a future “molecular assembler” qualify as the actual unleavened bread?

Marriage. This sacrament will likely confront two main challenges; one fundamentally novel in nature and the second one an extension of already occurring issues. Regarding the latter, let us take in consideration a particular thread in certain transhumanist circles: The pursuit of indefinite life extension. It is understood that once people either become healthier longer (or stop aging), the creation of new life via offspring may become an after-thought. Canon Law clearly stipulates that those who consciously made a decision not to procreate can not enter this sacrament. In that sense, a children-less society would be constituted by sacramentally unmarried people. Once again, this issue is a variation of already occurring scenarios—which could be extended, for that matter, to sex-reassigned people.

The former challenge mentioned would be unprecedented. Would the Church marry a human and a machine? Bear in mind that this question is fundamentally different from the already occurring question regarding the Church refusing to marry humans and non-human animals. The difference is based upon the lack of autonomy and rationality shown by the latter. However, machines could one day show both (admittedly Kantian) human-defining features. The Church may find in principle no obstacle to marry a human “1.0” and a human “2.0” (or even a human and an artificial human—AI), provided that the humanity of the new lifeforms, following the guidelines established by the requirements for Baptism, is well established.

Holy Orders. As with Marriage, this sacrament will likely face a twist both on an already occurring scenario and a fairly new one. On the one hand, the physical requirement of a bishop actually posing his hands on someone’s head to ordain him a priest, has carried problematic cases for the Church (e.g., during missions where bishops were not available). With rare exceptions, this requirement has always been observed. A possible counter case is the ordination of Stylite monks between the 3rd and 6th century. These hermits made vows to not come down from their solitary pillar until death.

Reportedly, sometimes bishops ordained them via an “action at a distance” of sorts—but still from merely a few meters away. The Church will have to establish whether ordaining someone via telepresence (or inhabiting an avatar) would count as sacramentally valid. On the other hand, the current requirement for a candidate for priesthood to have all his limbs—particularly his hands—up until the moment of ordination might face softening situations. At the moment where a prosthetic limb not only seamlessly becomes an extension of the individual, but a better functional extension of him, the Church may reconsider this pre-ordination requirement.

Extreme Unction. The Last Rites will likely confront two challenges in a transhuman world. One would not constitute properly a problem for its deliverance, but rather a questioning of the point of its existence. The other will entail a possible redefinition of what is considered to be ‘dead’. In what refers to the consequences of indefinite life extension, this sacrament may be considered by Catholics what Protestants consider of the sacraments (and hence of the Church): Of no use. Perhaps the sacrament would stay put for those who choose to end their lives “naturally” (in itself a problem for transhumanists: What to do with those who do not want to get “enhanced”?) Or perhaps the Church will simply ban this particular transhumanist choice of life for Catholics, period—as much as it now forbids euthanasia and abortion. The science fiction series Altered Carbon portrays a future where such is the case.

On the other hand, the prospect of mind uploading may push to redefine the notion of what it means to leave this body, given that such experience may not necessarily entail death. If having consciousness inside a super-computer is defined as being alive—which as seen above may be in principle accepted by the Church—then the delivery of the sacrament would have to be performed without physicality, perhaps via a link between the software-giver and the software-receiver. This could even open up possibilities for sacrament-delivery to remote locations.

The Future of Humanity’s Oldest Institution

As we can see, the Church may not have to just tolerate, but actually embrace, the transhumanist impulses slowly but steadily pushed by science and technology into the underpinnings of the human ethos. This attitude shall emerge motivated by two main sources: On the one hand, a fundamental option towards the development of human dignity—which by default would associate the Church more to a transhumanist philosophy than to a post-human one.

On the other, a fundamental concern for the continuing fulfilling of its own mission and reason of existence—the delivery of sacraments to a radically altered human recipient. As a possible counterpoint, it has been surmised that Pope Francis’ is one of the strongest current advocates for a precautionary stance—a position being traditionally associated with post-human leanings. The Pontiff’s Laudato Si encyclical on the environment certainly seems to point to this direction. That may be part of a—so far seemingly successful—strategy put in place by the Church for decades to come, whose reasons escape the scope of this piece. However, as shown above, the Church, given its own history, philosophy, and prime mandate, has all the right reasons to embrace a transhuman future—curated the Catholic way, that is.

Contact details: alci.malapi@outlook.com

References

Fuller, Steve. “Ninety Degree Revolution.” Aeon Magazine. 20 October 2013. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/left-and-right-are-over-the-future-is-up-and-down.

Fuller, Steve. “Which Way Is Up for the Human Condition?” ABC Religion and Ethics. 26 August 2015. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/08/26/4300331.htm.

Fuller, Steve. “Beyond Good and Evil: The Challenges of Trans- and Post-Humanism.” ABC Religion and Ethics. 20 December 2016. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/12/20/4595400.htm.

Author Information: Glen Miller, Texas A&M University, glenmiller@tamu.edu

Miller, Glen. “Animal Laborans, Homo Faber, or Something Else?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 1-4.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3V5

Please refer to:

    • Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.
    • Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.
Chamalow the cat escapes from his neighbours for some peace and quiet

“As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth.”
Image by Portier Jean Louis via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is an interdisciplinary inquiry that incorporates resources from philosophical investigations into technology and biology, from scientists and others who work on animal behavior and cognition, and popular culture. These resources allow her to take on her central question, “do animal behaviors and constructions count as technological knowledge in the same way that human enterprises do?” (p. 3) She aims to “advance a more inclusive account of technology and tool use, give an argument for ‘technological knowledge’ as including animal tool-making and tool use, and look at actual cases of tool use in non-human animals” (p. 2).

One important outcome of her analysis is a two-dimensional chart on which various artifacts of human and non-human origin can be mapped. One dimension tracks the amount of knowledge “embodied” in the object, an amended version of Davis Baird’s “thing knowledge”; the second dimension measures the “know-how” or the learned skill that the object requires of its user. By mapping out the overlap between human and non-human tools, Shew hopes that this book “unites dialogues about biological and engineering design and provides a more coherent, unified account of made things” (p. 3) and functions “to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and to induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology” (p. 11). The two-dimensional chart provides visual support for another goal of the book, which is to flatten the hierarchical view that sees humans as categorically different and superior to humans: based on her research, she wishes to “deny vehemently” the prospect that “humanity is somehow divorced from other life” (p. 32).

Shew’s concise yet wide-ranging summary of the tool-using behavior of other animals is enlightening and an important contribution to the philosophy of technology literature. (I do not have the expertise necessary to assess its contribution to animal researchers, but given the rigidity of disciplinary strictures and the limited dissemination of ideas of philosophy of technology even into the broader philosophical circles, much less other sciences, I would surmise it to be of value there as well.) I regularly ask my ethics students to ponder whether Aristotle would have amended De Anima and what he derives from it in Nicomachean Ethics given what we now know about communication between dolphins and primate behavior but have never had the time to pursue this non-philosophical research.

Of course, as Shew points out, we must make an educated guess about what animals such as apes, dolphins, and whales, and New Caledonian crows are thinking about or thinking through when they are making or using tools because we cannot ask them in language they understand, and even if we could, we would not understand their responses. Moreover, scientific analyses that simply report observed actions seem even more susceptible to the kind of risks that Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar identified in Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), where anthropological techniques miss the meaning behind the acts that take place even as the target of their critique is one of the human sciences.

I am also sympathetic to Shew’s goal of persuading more people to place non-human animals on a continuum with humans. The “divorce” between humans and our evolutionary ancestors that she identifies is relatively new, at least in a historical context. Our predecessors had it right: our commonality—evident in the Scholastics interpretation of Aristotle, where human are rational animals and in the middling spot in the hierarchy of Arthur Lovejoy’s famous “Great Chain of Being” (Soper 1995, pp. 21-25)—has been lost in the wake of Enlightenment glorification of science and technology. As preservationist Aldo Leopold put it, we should see non-human organisms as “fellow-members” in the citizenship of the earth (1966, p. 240).

Shew’s extensive review of animal studies research shows that many characteristics of technical activities thought by many to be uniquely human, including intentionality, problem solving, and innovation, are performed by other species, an insight that is not at all obvious to people who spend most of their time surrounded by other humans, often engrossed with their flat screens. This insight has received minimal attention recently in philosophy of technology literature, which, as Shew points out, has focused more on technologies associated with engineering sciences.

Having apprehended this important insight, it seems worth asking the question of whether what occurs in the making and use of modern technology is in fact categorically different than the tool making and construction that humans share with other animals. Put another way, the discontinuity that matters is not between human technologies and their animal counterparts, but rather between modern technology and its primitive human and animal counterparts. (Distinction, of course, need not imply superiority.)

Another way to express this discontinuity is to say that while humans and non-humans share technics and technique, though perhaps to varying degrees, some human technology seems like a different animal altogether. While neither Plato nor Aristotle “felt drawn to join the two words—to speak of a logos of techne,” the cognitive dimension of high-tech objects has been present since the origins of the Greek term, i.e., “techne simply used logos” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 34). As Mitcham and Schatzberg put it, for Aristotle, techne itself is part of a “spectrum of different forms of engagement with reality, moving from sensation through experience to theory” (Mitcham and Schatzberg 2009, p. 33).

The theoretical dimension of technology functions for humans as a way of revealing the world. While it is possible that analogous cognitive processes occur in animals—we cannot be certain because we cannot communicate abstract and complex ideas with them—the evidence does not seem to me to support it, although perhaps I simply need to hear the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the New Caledonian crow that falls into a well while staring into the heavens.

Moreover, several characteristics of modern technologies elucidate their human distinctiveness. Hans Jonas (1984) notes that modern technology, which is made possible by theory, operates at a more fundamental level, e.g., genetic or nano scales, than primitive technologies; their effects last longer; they have greater power and operate on a greater scale; and, at least in some cases, they operate on objects—such as humans themselves—in a different way than primitive or non-human technologies. Consider genetic engineering, especially to the human germline, and atomic weapons.

While tools and technics for humans and non-humans can satisfy practical concerns and provide a source of play or amusement, they do something more for humans. As Jonas writes, “technology, apart from its objective works, assumes ethical significance by the central place it now occupies in human purpose. Its cumulative creation, the expanding artificial environment, continuously reinforces the particular powers in man that created it, by compelling their unceasing inventive employment in its management and further advance, and by rewarding them with additional success—which only adds to the relentless claim” (Jonas 1984, p. 9). According to Jonas, it is this characteristic that differentiates homo faber from homo sapiens and, similarly, it seems to me, from other animals and their techniques. These characteristics of modern technology, Jonas argues, also make it a suitable topic for ethics.

Yet Jonas and Shew are not as adversarial as the preceding makes it seem. Jonas’s analysis of technology is paired with a philosophical inquiry into evolutionary connections in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (2001), a project first published in 1966, completed before The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (1984), originally published in 1979. He argues that a philosophical approach to evolution highlights continuity of organisms, rather than rupture, and that advanced complexity is accompanied by increasing risk. In both of these respects, Jonas is a kindred spirit of Shew’s, who argues for continuity and notes that other organisms may be better adapted to their niches than humans (Shew 2017, p. 18).

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge left me wanting more. In particular, a longer second chapter, which sought to “disambiguate the relevant terminology—artifacts, tools, technology, and knowledge—in order to set up my argument that some non-human animal tool-related behavior should be seen as existing on a spectrum with technology” (p. 13), could have clarified the implications of her project for engineering design.

An expanded explanation of why the two dimensions that she used to map human and non-human artifacts are sufficient, or at least determinative, would have enabled the reader to more easily decide whether they should be considered on a continuum. Some mention of the ethical implications of her argument, however short, would have been welcome, although this concern is peripheral to her focus. A more expansive explanation of the benefits that animal researchers who employ her ideas would obtain would have also helped, though these may be obvious to practitioners in that field.

Finally, some comparison of her claims and those of Jonas mentioned above; Aristotle, whose work also integrated biological research and philosophy; and, relatedly, Martin Heidegger (2008), whose diagnosis of the flawed trajectory of Western culture begins with Aristotle’s techne that becomes the dominant way to see the world, a flaw that other species do not share, would have added helpful context her argument. Hopefully Shew is working on a sequel!

Shew’s book, which Andrew Feenberg called “revolutionary” for philosophy of technology, is lucid and thought-provoking. It stimulates reflection on our relationships with non-humans and our technologies. It is worth reading.

Contact details: glenmiller@tamu.edu

References

Aristotle. 2017. De Anima. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.

Aristole. 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Joe Sachs. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Focus Publishing.

Feenberg, Andrew. 2017. Back cover of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. London: Harper Perennial.

Jonas, Hans. 1984. Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverley Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Leopold, Aldo. 1966. “The Land Ethic.” In A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mitcham, Carl and Eric Schatzberg. 2009. “Defining Technology and the Engineering Sciences.” In Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences, edited by Anthonie Meijers. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Shew, Ashley. 2017. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Soper, Kate. 1995. What Is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the non-Human. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Uh

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is Ashley Shew’s debut monograph and in it she argues that we need to reassess and possibly even drastically change the way in which we think about and classify the categories of technology, tool use, and construction behavior. Drawing from the fields of anthropology, animal studies, and philosophy of technology and engineering, Shew demonstrates that there are several assumptions made by researchers in all of these fields—assumptions about intelligence, intentionality, creativity and the capacity for novel behavior.

Many of these assumptions, Shew says, were developed to guard against the hazard of anthropomorphizing the animals under investigation, and to prevent those researchers ascribing human-like qualities to animals that don’t have them. However, this has led to us swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, engaging in “a kind of speciesist arrogance” which results in our not ascribing otherwise laudable characteristics to animals for the mere fact that they aren’t human.[1]

Shew says that we consciously and unconsciously appended a “human clause” to all of our definitions of technology, tool use, and intelligence, and this clause’s presumption—that it doesn’t really “count” if humans aren’t the ones doing it—is precisely what has to change.

In Animal Constructions, Shew’s tone is both light and intensely focused, weaving together extensive notes, bibliography, and index with humor, personal touches, and even poignancy, all providing a sense of weight and urgency to her project. As she lays out the pieces of her argument, she is extremely careful about highlighting and bracketing out her own biases, throughout the text; an important fact, given that the whole project is about the recognition of assumptions and bias in human behavior. In Chapter 6, when discussing whether birds can be said to understand what they’re doing, Shew says that she

[relies] greatly on quotations…because the study’s authors describe crow tool uses and manufacture using language that is very suggestive about crows’ technological understanding and behaviors—language that, given my particular philosophical research agenda, might sound biased in paraphrase.[2]

In a chapter 6 endnote, Shew continues to touch on this issue of bias and its potential to become prejudice, highlighting the difficulty of cross-species comparison, and noting that “we also compare the intelligence of culturally and economically privileged humans with that of less privileged humans, a practice that leads to oppression, exploitation, slavery, genocide, etc.”[3] In the conclusion, she elaborates on this somewhat, pointing out the ways in which biases about the “right kinds” of bodies and minds have led to embarrassments and atrocities in human history.[4] As we’ll see, this means that the question of how and why we categorize animal construction behaviors as we do has implications which are far more immediate and crucial than research projects.

The content of Animal Constructions is arranged in such a way as to make a strong case for the intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity of animals, throughout, but it also provides several contrast cases in which we see that there are several animal behaviors which might appear to be intentional, but which are the product of instinct or the extended phenotype of the species in question.[5] According to Shew, these latter cases do more than act as exceptions that test the rule; they also provide the basis for reframing the ways in which we compare the behaviors of humans and nonhuman animals.

If we can accept that construction behavior exists on a spectrum or continuum with tool use and other technological behaviors, and we can come to recognize that animals such as spiders and beavers make constructions as a part of the instinctual, DNA-based, phenotypical natures, then we can begin to interrogate whether the same might not be true for the things that humans make and do. If we can understand this, then we can grasp that “the nature of technology is not merely tied to the nature of humanity, but to humanity in our animality” (emphasis present in original).[6]

Using examples from animal studies reaching back several decades, Shew discusses experimental observations of apes, monkeys, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and birds. Each example set moves further away from the kind of animals we see as “like us,” and details how each group possess traits and behaviors humans tend to think only exist in ourselves.[7] Chimps and monkeys test tool-making techniques and make plans; dolphins and whales pass hunting techniques on to their children and cohort, have names, and social rituals; birds make complex tools for different scenarios, adapt them to novel circumstances, and learn to lie.[8]

To further discuss the similarities between humans and other animals, Shew draws on theories about the relationship between body and mind, such as embodiment and extended mind hypotheses, from philosophy of mind, which say that the kind of mind we are is intimately tied to the kinds of bodies we are. She pairs this with work from disability studies which forwards the conceptual framework of “bodyminds,” saying that they aren’t simply linked; they’re the same.[9] This is the culmination of descriptions of animal behaviors and a prelude a redefinition and reframing of the concepts of “technology” and “knowledge.”

Editor's note - My favourite part of this review roundtable is scanning through pictures of smart animals

Dyson the seal. Image by Valerie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the book’s conclusion, Shew suggests placing all the products of animal construction behavior on a two-axis scale, where the x-axis is “know-how” (the knowledge it takes to accomplish a task) and the y-axis is “thing knowledge” (the information about the world that gets built into constructed objects).[10] When we do this, she says, we can see that every made thing, be it object or social construct (a passage with important implications) falls somewhere outside of the 0, 0 point.[11] This is Shew’s main thrust throughout Animal Constructions: That humans are animals and our technology is not what sets us apart or makes us special; in fact, it may be the very thing that most deeply ties us to our position within the continuum of nature.

For Shew, we need to be less concerned about the possibility of incorrectly thinking that animals are too much like us, and far more concerned that we’re missing the ways in which we’re still and always animals. Forgetting our animal nature and thinking that there is some elevating, extra special thing about humans—our language, our brains, our technologies, our culture—is arrogant in the extreme.

While Shew says that she doesn’t necessarily want to consider the moral implications of her argument in this particular book, it’s easy to see how her work could be foundational to a project about moral and social implications, especially within fields such as animal studies or STS.[12] And an extension like this would fit perfectly well with the goal she lays out in the introduction, regarding her intended audience: “I hope to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology.”[13]

In Animal Constructions, Shew has built a toolkit filled with fine arguments and novel arrangements that should easily provide the instruments necessary for anyone looking to think differently about the nature of technology, engineering, construction, and behavior, in the animal world. Shew says that “A full-bodied approach to the epistemology of technology requires that assumptions embedded in our definitions…be made clear,”[14] and Animal Constructions is most certainly a mechanism by which to deeply delve into that process of clarification.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

[1] Ashley Shew, Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge p. 107

[2] Ibid., p. 73

[3] Ibid., p. 89, n. 7

[4] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[5] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[6] Ibid., p. 19

[7] On page 95, Shew makes brief mention various instances of octopus tool use; more of these examples would really drive the point home.

[8] Shew, pg. 35—51; 53—65; 67—89

[9] Ibid., p. 108

[10] Ibid., pg. 110—119

[11] Ibid., p. 118

[12] Ibid., p. 16

[13] Ibid., p. 11

[14] Ibid., p 105

Author Information: Emma Stamm, Virginia Tech, stamm@vt.edu

Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3SW

Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge challenges philosophers of technology with the following provocation: What would happen if we included tools made and used by nonhuman animals in our broad definition of “technology?”

Throughout Animal Constructions, Shew makes the case that this is more than simply an interesting question. It is, she says, a necessary interrogation within a field that may well be suffering from a sort of speciesist myopia. Blending accounts from a range of animal case studies — including primates, cetaceans, crows, and more — with pragmatic theoretical analysis, Shew demonstrates that examining animal constructions through a philosophical lens not only expands our awareness of the nonhuman world, but has implications for how humans should conceive of their own relationship with technology.

At the beginning of Animal Constructions, Shew presents us with “the human clause,” her assessment of “the idea that human beings are the only creatures that can have or do use technology” (14). This misconception stems from the notion of homo faber, “(hu)man the maker” (14), which “sits at the center of many definitions of technology… (and) is apparent in many texts theorizing technology” (14).

It would appear that this precondition for technology, long taken as dogma by technologists and philosophers alike, is less stable than has often been assumed. Placing influential ideas from philosophers of technology in dialogue with empirical field and (to a lesser extent) laboratory studies conducted on animals, Shew argues that any thorough philosophical account of technology not only might, but must include objects made and used by nonhuman animals.

Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge lucidly demonstrates this: by the conclusion, readers may wonder how the intricate ecosystem of animal tool-use has been so systematically excluded from philosophical treatments of the technical. Shew has accomplished much in recasting a disciplinary norm as a glaring oversight — although this oversight may be forgivable, considering the skill set required to achieve its goals. The author’s ambitions demand not only fluency with interdisciplinary research methods, but acute sensitivity to each of the disciplines it mobilizes.

Animal Constructions is a philosophical text wholly committed to representing science and technology on their own terms while speaking to a primarily humanities-based audience, a balance its author strikes gracefully. Indeed, Shew’s transitions from the purely descriptive to the interpretive are, for the most part, seamless. For example, in her chapter on cetaceans, she examines the case of dolphins trained to identify man-made objects of a certain size category (60), noting that the success of this initiative indicates that dolphins have the human-like capacity to think in abstract categories. This interpretation feels natural and very reasonable.

Importantly, the studies selected are neither conceptually simple, nor do they appear cherry-picked to serve her argument. A chapter titled “Spiderwebs, Beaver Dams, and Other Contrast Cases” (91) explores research on animal constructions that do not entirely fit the author’s definitions of technology. Here, it is revealed that while this topic is necessarily complicated for techno-philosophers, these complexities do not foreclose the potential for the nonhuman world to provide humans with a greater awareness of technology in theory and practice.

Ambiguous Interpretations

That being said, in certain parts, the empirical observations Shew uses to make her argument seem questionable. In a chapter on ape and primate cases, readers are given the tale of Santino, a chimpanzee in a Switzerland zoo with the pesky habit of storing stones specifically to throw at visitors (40). Investigators declared this behavior “the first unambiguous evidence of forward-planning in a nonhuman animal” (40) — a claim that may seem spurious, since many of us have witnessed dogs burying bones to dig up in the future, or squirrels storing food for winter.

However, as with every case study in the book, the story of Santino comes from well-documented, formal research, none of which was conducted by the author herself. If it was discovered that factual knowledge such as the aforementioned are, in fact, erroneous, it is not a flaw of the book itself. Moreover, so many examples are used that the larger arguments of Animal Constructions will hold up even if parts of the science on which it relies comes to be revised.

In making the case for animals so completely, Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge is a success. The book also makes a substantial contribution with the methodological frameworks it gives to those interested in extending its project. Animal Constructions is as much conceptual cartography as it is a work of persuasion: Shew not only orients readers to her discipline — she does not assume readerly familiarity with its academic heritage — but provides a map that philosophers may use to situate the nonhuman in their own reflection on technology. This is largely why Animal Constructions is such a notable text for 21st century philosophy, as so many scholars are committed to rethinking “the human” in the wake of recent innovations in technoscience.

Animal Knowledge

Animal Constructions is of particular interest to critical and social epistemologists. Its opening chapters introduce a handful of ideas about what defines technical knowledge, concepts that bear on the author’s assessment of animal activity. Historically, Shew writes, philosophers of technology have furnished us with two types of accounts of technical knowledge. The first sees technology as constituting a unique case for philosophers (3).

In this view, the philosophical concerns of technology cannot be reduced to those of science (or, indeed, any domain of knowledge to which technology is frequently seen as subordinate). “This strain of thought represents a negative reaction to the idea that philosophy is the handmaiden of science, that technology is simply ‘applied science,’” she writes (3). It is a line of reasoning that relies on a careful distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” claiming that technological knowledge is, principally, skillfulness in the first: know-how, or knowledge about “making or doing something” (3) as opposed to the latter “textbook”-ish knowledge. Here, philosophy of technology is demarcated from philosophy of science in that it exists outside the realm of theoretical epistemologies, i.e., knowledge bodies that have been abstracted from contextual application.

If “know-how” is indeed the foundation for a pragmatic philosophy of technology, the discipline would seem to openly embrace animal tools and constructions in its scope. After all, animals clearly “know how” to engage the material world. However, as Shew points out, most technology philosophers who abide by this dictum in fact lean heavily on the human clause. “This first type of account nearly universally insists that human beings are the sole possessors of technical knowledge” (4), she says, referencing the work  of philosophers A. Rupert Hall, Edwin T. Layton, Walter Vincenti, Carl Mitcham, and Joseph C. Pitt (3) as evidence.

The human clause is also present in the second account, although it is not nearly so deterministic. This camp has roots in the philosophy of science (6) and “sees knowledge as embodied in the objects themselves” (6). Here, Shew draws from the theorizations of Davis Baird, whose concept “thing knowledge” — “knowledge that is encapsulated in devices or otherwise materially instantiated” (6) — recurs throughout the book’s chapters specifically devoted to animal studies (chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7).

Scientific instruments are offered as perhaps the most exemplary cases of “thing knowledge,” but specialized tools made by humans are far from the only knowledge-bearing objects. The parameters of “thing knowledge” allow for more generous interpretations: Shew offers that Baird’s ideas include “know-how that is demonstrated or instantiated by the construction of a device that can be used by people or creatures without the advanced knowledge of its creators” (6). This is a wide category indeed, one that can certainly accommodate animal artefacts.

Image from Sergey Rodovnichenko via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The author adapts this understanding of thing-knowledge, along with Davis Baird’s five general ideals for knowledge — detachment, efficacy, longevity, connection and objectivity (6) — as a scale within which some artefacts made and used by animals may be thought as “technologies” and others not. Positioned against “know-how,” “thing knowledge” serves as the other axis for this framework (112-113). Equally considered is the question of whether animals can set intentions and engage in purpose-driven behavior. Shew suggests that animal constructions which result from responses to stimuli, instinctive behavior, or other byproducts of evolutionary processes may not count as technology in the same way that artefacts which seem to come from purposiveness and forward-planning would (6-7).

Noting that intentionality is a tenuous issue in animal studies (because we can’t interview animals about their reasons for making and using things), Shew indicates that observations on intentionality can, at least in part, be inferred by exploring related areas, including “technology products that encode knowledge,” “problem-solving,” and “innovation” (9). These characteristics are taken up throughout each case study, albeit in different ways and to different ends.

At its core, the manner in which Animal Constructions grapples with animal cognition as a precursor to animal technology is an epistemological inquiry into the nonhuman. In the midst of revealing her aims, Shew writes: “this requires me to address questions about animal minds — whether animals set intentions and how intentionality evolved, whether animals are able to innovate, whether they can problem solve, how they learn — as well as questions about what constitutes technology and what constitutes knowledge” (9). Her answer to the animal-specific queries is a clear “yes,” although this yes comes with multiple caveats.

Throughout the text, Shew notes the propensity of research and observation to alter objects under study, clarifying that our understanding of animals is always filtered through a human lens. With a nod to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” (34), she maintains that we do not, in fact, know what it is like to be a chimpanzee, crow, spider or beaver. However, much more important to her project is the possibility that caution around perceived categorical differences, often foregrounded in the name of scholarly self-reflexivity, can hold back understanding of the nonhuman.

“In our fear of anthropomorphization and desire for a sparkle of objectivity, we can move too far in the other direction, viewing human beings as removed from the larger animal kingdom,” she declares (16).

Emphasizing kinship and closeness over remoteness and detachment, Shew’s pointed proclamations about animal life rest on the overarching “yes:” yes, animals solve problems, innovate, and set intentions. They also transmit knowledge culturally and socially. Weaving these observations together, Shew suggests that our anthropocentrism represents a form of bias (108); as with all biases, it stifles discourse and knowledge production for the fields within which it is imbricated — here, technological knowledge.

While this work explicitly pertains to technology, the lingering question of “what constitutes knowledge overall?” does not vanish in the details. Shew’s take on what constitutes animal knowledge has immediate relevance to work on knowledge made and manipulated by nonhumans. By the book’s end, it is evident that animal research can help us unhinge “the human clause” from our epistemology of the technical, facilitating a radical reinvestigation of both tool use and materially embodied knowledge.

Breaking Down Boundaries

But its approach has implications for taxonomies that not only divide humans and animals, but humans, animals and entities outside of the animal kingdom.  Although it is beyond the scope of this text, the methods of Animal Constructions can easily be applied to digital “minds” and artificial general intelligence, along with plant and fungus life. (One can imagine a smooth transition from a discussion on spider web-spinning, p. 92, to the casting of spores by algae and mushrooms). In that it excavates taxonomies and affirms the violence done by categorical delineations, Animal Constructions bears surface resemblance to the work of Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway. However, its commitment to positive knowledge places it in a tradition that more boldly supports the possibilities of knowing than does the legacies of Foucault and Haraway. That is to say, the offerings of Animal Constructions are not designed to self-deconstruct, or ironically self-reflect.

In its investigation of the flaws of anthropocentrism, Animal Constructions implies a deceptively straightforward question: what work does “the human clause” do for us? —  in other words, what has led “the human” to become so inexorably central to our technological and philosophical consciousness? Shew does not address this head-on, but she does give readers plenty of material to begin answering it for themselves. And perhaps they should: while the text resists ethical statements, there is an ethos to this particular question.

Applied at the societal level, an investigation of the roots of “the human clause” could be leveraged toward democratic ends. If we do, in  fact, include tools made and used by nonhuman animals in our definition of technology, it may mar the popular image of technological knowledge as a sort of “magic” or erudite specialization only accessible to certain types of minds. There is clear potential for this epistemological position to be advanced in the name of social inclusivity.

Whether or not readers detect a social project among the conversations engaged by Animal Constructions, its relevance to future studies is undeniable. The maps provided by Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge do not tell readers where to go, but will certainly come in useful for anybody exploring the nonhuman territories of 21st century. Indeed, Animal Construction and Technical Knowledge is not only a substantive offering to philosophy of technology, but a set of tools whose true power may only be revealed in time.

Contact details: stamm@vt.edu

References

Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

Author Information: Justin Garson, Hunter College, City University of New York, jgarson@hunter.cuny.edu

Garson, Justin. “Realism, Conventionalism, and Irrealism about Biological Functions: A Reply to Schyfter.”Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014): 77-81.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1uv

Please refer to:

As a philosopher of biology who works on the topic of biological function, I found Schyfter’s article, “Function by Agreement,” intriguing and challenging. Above all, I was happy to see the topic get some interdisciplinary attention. There are three points I’d like to raise; two are questions and one is a comment. First, I wondered whether Schyfter’s “communitarian” approach to biological function really differs from one well-established tradition in the philosophy of biology spearheaded by Robert Cummins (1975). Second, if it does differ, why and how is that difference particularly beneficial to the sociology of scientific knowledge, as he claims? Finally, I wanted to defend a theory of function that Schyfter criticizes, the “etiological” theory, to which I am quite sympathetic (Garson 2014, particularly Chapter 7, and references therein).  Continue Reading…