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

Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “On a Study of Steve Fuller.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 25-29.

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

Happy birthday, Steve!

Steve Fuller, seen here just under seven years ago in New York City, gave a name to what is now the sub-discipline and community of social epistemology. Like all thriving communities, it’s gotten much more diverse and creative with time. As has Steve Fuller.
Image by Babette Babich, courtesy of Steve Fuller

 

Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have written a thorough and exhaustive account of Steve Fuller’s work, ranging (mostly) from 2003 to 2017. Fuller’s earlier work was addressed in Remedios’ previous book, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge (2003) – to which this one is the logical continuation. Back then Remedios introduced the reader to Fuller’s inaugurated field of research, “social epistemology”, encompassing the philosopher’s work from the late 1980’s until the turn of the century.

Given that Steve Fuller is one of the most prolific authors alive, having published (so far) 30 books and hundreds of articles, Remedios & Dusek’s book (as Remedios’ previous book), fill a practical need: It is hard to keep up with Fuller’s elevated rate of production. Indeed, both the seasoned reader and the neophyte to Fuller’s fairly overwhelming amount of writing, will need a panoramic and organic view of his breathtaking scope of research. Remedios & Dusek successfully accomplish the task of providing it.

The Bildung of a Person and His Concepts

Remedios & Dusek’s book starts with a Foreword by Fuller himself, followed by an Introduction (Ch. 1) by the authors. The bulk of the monograph is comprised by several chapters addressing Fuller’s ideas on Science and Technology Studies (Ch. 2), Social Epistemology (Ch. 3), the University & Interdisciplinarity (Ch. 4), Intelligent Design (Ch. 5), Cosmism & Gnosticism (Ch. 6), and the Proactionary principle (Ch. 7).

There is some connective overlap between chapters. In each one of them, Remedios & Dusek provide an articulated landscape of Fuller’s ideas, the occasional criticism, and a final summary. The book ends up with an appropriately short Conclusion (Ch. 8) and a PostScript (Ch. 9) – an interview’s transcription.

It is worth pointing out that the work is chronologically (and conveniently) in sync with Fuller’s own progressive intellectual development, and thus, the first part roughly focuses on his earlier work, whereas the second part on his later writings.[1]

The first chapter after the Introduction (Chapter 2, “Fuller on Science and Technology Studies” (STS), already provides a cue for a theme that would transfix the arc of Fuller’s thoughts spanning the last decade. As I see it, Steve Fuller is arguably going to extents that some may deem controversial (e.g., his endorsement of some type of Intelligent Design, his backing up of transhumanism, his gradual “coming out” as a Catholic) due to one main reason: A deep preoccupation with the future of humanity vis-à-vis pervasively disrupting emerging technologies.

Accordingly, Fuller wants to fuel a discussion that may eventually salvage whatever we find out that being human consists of – even if this “human” will resemble little the “humans” as we know them now. At this point, the “cue” is not self-evident: Fuller does not like Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network theory. In Fuller’s view, Latour’s framework triggers both an epistemological and an ethical problem: it diffuses human agency and by extension, responsibility – respectively. Equating human agency with the causal power attributed to the “parliament of things” ultimately reverberates in an erosion of human dignity. Here the cue becomes clearer: It is precisely this human dignity that Fuller will later defend in his attack of Darwinism.

Humanity Beyond the Human

Chapter 3, “Fuller’s Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency”, provides a further clue to Fuller’s agenda. Remedios & Dusek coined a sentence that may constitute one of the most succinct, although fundamental, pillars in Steve Fuller’s grand framework: “For Fuller, humanity would continue if homo sapiens end”.[2] This statement ingeniously captures Fuller’s position that “humanity” (a “project” started during the Medieval Ages and developed during Modernity), is something that homo sapiens earn – or not. Biology might provide a compatible receptacle for this humanity to obtain, but it is by no means an automatic occurrence. One strives to get it – and many in fact fail to reach it.

In the context of this theme, Fuller steers away from an “object-oriented” (social) epistemology to an “agent-oriented” one: Instead of endlessly ruminating about possible theories of knowledge (which would render an accurate picture of the object – social or not), one starts to take into account the possibilities that open up after considering transforming the knowing agent itself. This transition foretells Fuller’s later view: a proactionary approach[3] to experimentation where the agent commits to the alteration of reality – as opposed to a precautionary stance, where the knower passively waits for reality’s feedback before further proceeding.

In chapter 4, “The University and Interdisciplinarity”, Remedios & Dusek treat Fuller’s views on the situation of institutions of higher education currently confronting the relentless compartmentalization of knowledge. Fuller praises Wilhelm von Humboldt’s reinvention of the notion of the university in the 19th century, where the individual would acquire a holistic formation (bildung), and which would produce in return tangible benefits to society out of the growth of knowledge in general and science in particular.

This model, which catapulted Germany to the forefront of research, and which was emulated by several Western nations, has been gradually eroded by neoliberalism. Neoliberal stances, spurred by an attention to clients’ requests, progressively severed the heretofore integral coexistence of research and teaching, creating instead pockets of specialization – along with their own idiosyncratic jargon. This fragmentation, in turn, has generated an overall ignorance among scientists and intellectuals regarding the “big picture”, which ultimately results in a stagnation of knowledge production. Fuller advocates for a return to the Humboldtian ideal, but this time incorporating technology as in integral part of the overall academic formation in the humanities.

Roles for Religion and God

Chapter 5, “Fuller’s Intelligent Design” (ID), deals with the philosopher’s controversial views regarding this position, particularly after the infamous Dover Trial. Remedios & Dusek have done a very good job at tracing the roots and influences behind Fuller’s ideas on the issue. They go all the way back to Epicurus and Hume, including the strong connection between these two and Charles Darwin, particularly in what concerns the role of “chance” in evolution. Those interested in this illuminating philosophical archeology will be well served after reading this chapter, instead of (or as a complement to) Steve Fuller’s two books on the topic.[4]

Chapter 6, “Fuller, Cosmism and Gnosticism” lays out the relationship of the philosopher with these two themes. Steve Fuller recognizes in Russian cosmism an important predecessor to transhumanism – along with the writings of the mystical Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin.

He is lately catering to a re-emergence of interest among Slavs regarding these connections, giving talks and seminars in Russia. Cosmism, a heterodox offspring of Russian Orthodoxy, aims at a reconstruction of the (lost) paradise by means of reactivation of a type of “monads” spread-out throughout the universe – particles that disperse after a person dies. Scientific progress would be essential in order to travel throughout the cosmos retrieving these primordial “atoms” of people of the past, so that they could be one day resurrected. Russia would indeed have a cosmic ordering mission. This worldview is a particular rendition of the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection, which was denounced by the Orthodox Church as heretical.

Nevertheless, it deeply influenced several Slavic thinkers, who unlike many Western philosophers, did have a hard time reconciling their (Orthodox) Christianity with reason and science. This syncretism was a welcomed way for them to “secularize” the mystical-prone Christian Orthodoxy and infuse it with scientific inquiry. As a consequence, rocket science received a major thrust for development. After all, machines had to be built in order to retrieve these human particles so that scientifically induced global resurrection occurs.

One of the more important global pioneers in rocket engines, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who later received approval by Joseph Stalin to further develop space travel research), was profoundly influenced by it. In fact, increasingly more scholars assert that despite the official atheism of the Soviet Union, cosmism was a major driving force behind the Soviet advances, which culminated in the successful launch of the Sputnik.

Chapter 7, “Proactionary and Precautionary Principles and Welfare State 2.0”, is the last chapter before the Conclusion. Here Remedios & Dusek deal with Fuller’s endorsement of Max More’s Proactionary Principle and the consequent modified version of a Welfare State. The proactionary approach, in contradistinction with the precautionary principle (which underpins much of science policy in Europe), advocates for a risk-taking approach, justified partly in the very nature of Modern science (experimentation without excessive red tape) and partly in what is at stake: the survival of our species. Steve Fuller further articulates the proactionary principle, having written a whole book on the subject[5] – while More wrote an article.

The Roles of This Book

Remedios & Dusek have done an excellent job in summarizing, articulating and criticizing the second half of Steve Fuller’s vast corpus – from the early 2000s until last year. I foresee a successful reception by thinkers concerned with the future of humanity and scholars interested in Fuller’s previous work. As a final note, I will share a sentiment that will surely resonate with some – particularly with the younger readers out there.

As noted in the opening remarks, Remedios & Dusek’s book fill a gap in what concerns the possibility of acquiring an articulated overview of Fuller’s thought, given his relentless rate of publication. However, the sheer quantity to keep up with is not the only issue. These days, more than “the written word” may be needed in order to properly capture the ideas of authors of Fuller’s calibre. As I observed elsewhere,[6] reading Fuller is a brilliant read – but it is not an easy read.

It may be fair to say that, as opposed to, say, the relatively easy reading of an author like Steven Pinker, Steve Fuller’s books are not destined to be best-sellers among laymen. Fuller’s well put together paragraphs are both sophisticated and precise, sometimes long, paying witness to an effort for accurately conveying his multi-layered thought processes – reminding one of some German early modern philosophers. Fortunately, there is now a solid source of clarity that sheds effective light on Fuller’s writing: his available media. There are dozens of video clips (and hundreds of audio files[7]) of his talks, freely available to anyone. It may take a while to watch and listen to them all, but it is doable. I did it. And the clarity that they bring to his writings is tangible.

If Fuller is a sophisticated writer, he certainly is a very clear (and dare I say, entertaining) speaker. His “talking” functions as a cognitive catalyst for the content of his “writing” – in that, he is returning to the Humboldtian ideal of merged research and teaching. Ideally, if one adds to these his daily tweets,[8] now we have at reach the most complete picture of what would be necessary to properly “get” a philosopher like him these days. I have the feeling that, regardless of our settled ways, this “social media” component, increasingly integrated with any serious epistemic pursuit, is here to stay.

Contact details: alci.malapi@outlook.com

References

Fuller, S. (2007). Science Vs. Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Fuller, S. (2008). Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Cambridge, UK: Icon.

Fuller, S. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2013). “Book review: Steve Fuller, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future.” International Sociology Review of Books 28(2): 240-247.

Remedios, F. and Dusek, V. (2018). Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] With the exception of the PostScript, which is a transcription of an interview with Steve Fuller mostly regarding the first period of his work.

[2] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 34

[3] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 40

[4] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[5] Fuller 2014

[6] Malapi-Nelson 2013

[7] warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio

[8] Some of which are in fact reproduced by Remedios & Dusek 2018 (e.g. p. 102).

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: Nick Bostrom, University of Oxford, nick@nickbostrom.com

Bostrom, Nick. “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 1-10.

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

Reprint from Bostrom, Nick. “In Defence of Posthuman Dignity.” Bioethics 19, no. 3 (2005): 202-214.[1]

Please refer to:

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Image credit: RHiNO NEAL, via flickr

Abstract

Positions on the ethics of human enhancement technologies can be (crudely) characterized as ranging from transhumanism to bioconservatism. Transhumanists believe that human enhancement technologies should be made widely available, that individuals should have broad discretion over which of these technologies to apply to themselves, and that parents should normally have the right to choose enhancements for their children-to-be. Bioconservatives (whose ranks include such diverse writers as Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, George Annas, Wesley Smith, Jeremy Rifkin, and Bill McKibben) are generally opposed to the use of technology to modify human nature. A central idea in bioconservativism is that human enhancement technologies will undermine our human dignity. To forestall a slide down the slippery slope towards an ultimately debased ‘posthuman’ state, bioconservatives often argue for broad bans on otherwise promising human enhancements. This paper distinguishes two common fears about the posthuman and argues for the importance of a concept of dignity that is inclusive enough to also apply to many possible posthuman beings. Recognizing the possibility of posthuman dignity undercuts an important objection against human enhancement and removes a distortive double standard from our field of moral vision.

Transhumanists vs. Bioconservatives

Transhumanism is a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades, and can be viewed as an outgrowth of secular humanism and the Enlightenment. It holds that current human nature is improvable through the use of applied science and other rational methods, which may make it possible to increase human health-span, extend our intellectual and physical capacities, and give us increased control over our own mental states and moods.[2] Technologies of concern include not only current ones, like genetic engineering and information technology, but also anticipated future developments such as fully immersive virtual reality, machine-phase nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

Transhumanists promote the view that human enhancement technologies should be made widely available, and that individuals should have broad discretion over which of these technologies to apply to themselves (morphological freedom), and that parents should normally get to decide which reproductive technologies to use when having children (reproductive freedom).[3] Transhumanists believe that, while there are hazards that need to be identified and avoided, human enhancement technologies will offer enormous potential for deeply valuable and humanly beneficial uses. Ultimately, it is possible that such enhancements may make us, or our descendants, “posthuman,” beings who may have indefinite health-spans, much greater intellectual faculties than any current human being—and perhaps entirely new sensibilities or modalities—as well as the ability to control their own emotions. The wisest approach vis-à-vis these prospects, argue transhumanists, is to embrace technological progress, while strongly defending human rights and individual choice, and taking action specifically against concrete threats, such as military or terrorist abuse of bioweapons, and against unwanted environmental or social side-effects.

In opposition to this transhumanist view stands a bioconservative camp that argues against the use of technology to modify human nature. Prominent bioconservative writers include Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, George Annas, Wesley Smith, Jeremy Rifkin, and Bill McKibben. One of the central concerns of the bioconservatives is that human enhancement technologies might be “dehumanizing.” The worry, which has been variously expressed, is that these technologies might undermine our human dignity or inadvertently erode something that is deeply valuable about being human but that is difficult to put into words or to factor into a cost-benefit analysis. In some cases (e.g. Leon Kass) the unease seems to derive from religious or crypto-religious sentiments whereas for others (e.g. Francis Fukuyama) it stems from secular grounds. The best approach, these bioconservatives argue, is to implement global bans on swathes of promising human enhancement technologies to forestall a slide down a slippery slope towards an ultimately debased posthuman state.

While any brief description necessarily skirts significant nuances that differentiate writers within the two camps, I believe the above characterization nevertheless highlights a principal fault lines in one of the great debates of our times: how we should look at the future of humankind and whether we should attempt to use technology to make ourselves “more than human.” This paper will distinguish two common fears about the posthuman and argue that they are partly unfounded and that, to the extent that they correspond to real risks, there are better responses than trying to implement broad bans on technology. I will make some remarks on the concept of dignity, which bioconservatives believe to be imperiled by coming human enhancement technologies, and suggest that we need to recognize that not only humans in their current form, but posthumans too could have dignity.

Two Fears About the Posthuman

The prospect of posthumanity is feared for at least two reasons. One is that the state of being posthuman might in itself be degrading, so that by becoming posthuman we might be harming ourselves. Another is that posthumans might pose a threat to “ordinary” humans. (I shall set aside a third possible reason, that the development of posthumans might offend some supernatural being.)

The most prominent bioethicist to focus on the first fear is Leon Kass:

Most of the given bestowals of nature have their given species-specified natures: they are each and all of a given sort. Cockroaches and humans are equally bestowed but differently natured. To turn a man into a cockroach—as we don’t need Kafka to show us—would be dehumanizing. To try to turn a man into more than a man might be so as well. We need more than generalized appreciation for nature’s gifts. We need a particular regard and respect for the special gift that is our own given nature.[4]

Transhumanists counter that nature’s gifts are sometimes poisoned and should not always be accepted. Cancer, malaria, dementia, aging, starvation, unnecessary suffering, cognitive shortcomings are all among the presents that we wisely refuse. Our own species-specified natures are a rich source of much of the thoroughly unrespectable and unacceptable—susceptibility for disease, murder, rape, genocide, cheating, torture, racism. The horrors of nature in general and of our own nature in particular are so well documented[5] that it is astonishing that somebody as distinguished as Leon Kass should still in this day and age be tempted to rely on the natural as a guide to what is desirable or normatively right. We should be grateful that our ancestors were not swept away by the Kassian sentiment, or we would still be picking lice off each other’s backs. Rather than deferring to the natural order, transhumanists maintain that we can legitimately reform ourselves and our natures in accordance with humane values and personal aspirations.

If one rejects nature as a general criterion of the good, as most thoughtful people nowadays do, one can of course still acknowledge that particular ways of modifying human nature would be debasing. Not all change is progress. Not even all well-intended technological intervention in human nature would be on balance beneficial. Kass goes far beyond these truisms however when he declares that utter dehumanization lies in store for us as the inevitable result of our obtaining technical mastery over our own nature: the final technical conquest of his own nature would almost certainly leave mankind utterly enfeebled. This form of mastery would be identical with utter dehumanization. Read Huxley’s Brave New World, read C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, read Nietzsche’s account of the last man, and then read the newspapers. Homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, drug-induced contentment, debasement of taste, souls without loves and longings—these are the inevitable results of making the essence of human nature the last project of technical mastery. In his moment of triumph, Promethean man will become a contented cow.[6]

The fictional inhabitants of Brave New World, to pick the best-known of Kass’s examples, are admittedly short on dignity (in at least one sense of the word). But the claim that this is the inevitable consequence of our obtaining technological mastery over human nature is exceedingly pessimistic—and unsupported—if understood as a futuristic prediction, and false if construed as a claim about metaphysical necessity.

There are many things wrong with the fictional society that Huxley described. It is static, totalitarian, caste-bound; its culture is a wasteland. The brave new worlders themselves are a dehumanized and undignified lot. Yet posthumans they are not. Their capacities are not super-human but in many respects substantially inferior to our own. Their life expectancy and physique are quite normal, but their intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual faculties are stunted. The majority of the brave new worlders have various degrees of engineered mental retardation. And everyone, save the ten world controllers (along with a miscellany of primitives and social outcasts who are confined to fenced preservations or isolated islands), are barred or discouraged from developing individuality, independent thinking and initiative, and are conditioned not to desire these traits in the first place. Brave New World is not a tale of human enhancement gone amok but a tragedy of technology and social engineering being used to deliberately cripple moral and intellectual capacities—the exact antithesis of the transhumanist proposal.

Transhumanists argue that the best way to avoid a Brave New World is by vigorously defending morphological and reproductive freedoms against any would-be world controllers. History has shown the dangers in letting governments curtail these freedoms. The last century’s government-sponsored coercive eugenics programs, once favored by both the left and the right, have been thoroughly discredited. Because people are likely to differ profoundly in their attitudes towards human enhancement technologies, it is crucial that no one solution be imposed on everyone from above but that individuals get to consult their own consciences as to what is right for themselves and their families. Information, public debate, and education are the appropriate means by which to encourage others to make wise choices, not a global ban on a broad range of potentially beneficial medical and other enhancement options.

The second fear is that there might be an eruption of violence between unaugmented humans and posthumans. George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario Isasi have argued that we should view human cloning and all inheritable genetic modifications as “crimes against humanity” in order to reduce the probability that posthuman species will arise, on grounds that such a species would pose an existential threat to the old human species:

The new species, or “posthuman,” will likely view the old “normal” humans as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter. The normals, on the other hand, may see the posthumans as a threat and if they can, may engage in a preemptive strike by killing the posthumans before they themselves are killed or enslaved by them. It is ultimately this predictable potential for genocide that makes species-altering experiments potential weapons of mass destruction, and makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist.[7]

There is no denying that bioterrorism and unaccountable genetic engineers developing increasingly potent weapons of mass destruction pose a serious threat to our civilization. But using the rhetoric of bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction to cast aspersions on therapeutic uses of biotechnology to improve health, longevity and other human capacities is unhelpful. The issues are quite distinct. Reasonable people can be in favor of strict regulation of bioweapons while promoting beneficial medical uses of genetics and other human enhancement technologies, including inheritable and “species-altering” modifications.

Human society is always at risk of some group deciding to view another group of humans as fit for slavery or slaughter. To counteract such tendencies, modern societies have created laws and institutions, and endowed them with powers of enforcement, that act to prevent groups of citizens from enslaving or slaughtering one another. The efficacy of these institutions does not depend on all citizens having equal capacities. Modern, peaceful societies can have large numbers of people with diminished physical or mental capacities along with many other people who may be exceptionally physically strong or healthy or intellectually talented in various ways. Adding people with technologically enhanced capacities to this already broad distribution of ability would not need to rip society apart or trigger genocide or enslavement.

The assumption that inheritable genetic modifications or other human enhancement technologies would lead to two distinct and separate species should also be questioned. It seems much more likely that there would be a continuum of differently modified or enhanced individuals, which would overlap with the continuum of as-yet unenhanced humans. The scenario in which “the enhanced” form a pact and then attack “the naturals” makes for exciting science fiction but is not necessarily the most plausible outcome. Even today, the segment containing the tallest ninety percent of the population could, in principle, get together and kill or enslave the shorter decile. That this does not happen suggests that a well-organized society can hold together even if it contains many possible coalitions of people sharing some attribute such that, if they ganged up, they would be capable of exterminating the rest.

To note that the extreme case of a war between humans and posthumans is not the most likely scenario is not to say that there are no legitimate social concerns about the steps that may take us closer to posthumanity. Inequity, discrimination, and stigmatization—against, or on behalf of, modified people—could become serious issues. Transhumanists would argue that these (potential) social problems call for social remedies. One example of how contemporary technology can change important aspects of someone’s identity is sex reassignment. The experiences of transsexuals show that Western culture still has work to do in becoming more accepting of diversity. This is a task that we can begin to tackle today by fostering a climate of tolerance and acceptance towards those who are different from ourselves. Painting alarmist pictures of the threat from future technologically modified people, or hurling preemptive condemnations of their necessarily debased nature, is not the best way to go about it.

What about the hypothetical case in which someone intends to create, or turn themselves into, a being of so radically enhanced capacities that a single one or a small group of such individuals would be capable of taking over the planet? This is clearly not a situation that is likely to arise in the imminent future, but one can imagine that, perhaps in a few decades, the prospective creation of superintelligent machines could raise this kind of concern. The would-be creator of a new life form with such surpassing capabilities would have an obligation to ensure that the proposed being is free from psychopathic tendencies and, more generally, that it has humane inclinations. For example, a future artificial intelligence programmer should be required to make a strong case that launching a purportedly human-friendly superintelligence would be safer than the alternative. Again, however, this (currently) science-fiction scenario must be clearly distinguished from our present situation and our more immediate concern with taking effective steps towards incrementally improving human capacities and health-span.

Is Human Dignity Incompatible with Posthuman Dignity?

Human dignity is sometimes invoked as a polemical substitute for clear ideas. This is not to say that there are no important moral issues relating to dignity, but it does mean that there is a need to define what one has in mind when one uses the term. Here, we shall consider two different senses of dignity:

  1. Dignity as moral status, in particular the inalienable right to be treated with a basic level of respect.
  1. Dignity as the quality of being worthy or honorable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence (The Oxford English Dictionary[8]).

On both these definitions, dignity is something that a posthuman could possess. Francis Fukuyama, however, seems to deny this and warns that giving up on the idea that dignity is unique to human beings—defined as those possessing a mysterious essential human quality he calls “Factor X” [9]—would invite disaster:

Denial of the concept of human dignity—that is, of the idea that there is something unique about the human race that entitles every member of the species to a higher moral status than the rest of the natural world—leads us down a very perilous path. We may be compelled ultimately to take this path, but we should do so only with our eyes open. Nietzsche is a much better guide to what lies down that road than the legions of bioethicists and casual academic Darwinians that today are prone to give us moral advice on this subject.[10]

What appears to worry Fukuyama is that introducing new kinds of enhanced person into the world might cause some individuals (perhaps infants, or the mentally handicapped, or unenhanced humans in general) to lose some of the moral status that they currently possess, and that a fundamental precondition of liberal democracy, the principle of equal dignity for all, would be destroyed.

The underlying intuition seems to be that instead of the famed “expanding moral circle,” what we have is more like an oval, whose shape we can change but whose area must remain constant. Thankfully, this purported conservation law of moral recognition lacks empirical support. The set of individuals accorded full moral status by Western societies has actually increased, to include men without property or noble decent, women, and non-white peoples. It would seem feasible to extend this set further to include future posthumans, or, for that matter, some of the higher primates or human-animal chimaeras, should such be created—and to do so without causing any compensating shrinkage in another direction. (The moral status of problematic borderline cases, such as fetuses or late-stage Alzheimer patients, or the brain dead, should perhaps be decided separately from the issue of technologically modified humans or novel artificial life forms.) Our own role in this process need not be that of passive bystanders. We can work to create more inclusive social structures that accord appropriate moral recognition and legal rights to all who need them, be they male or female, black or white, flesh or silicon.

Dignity in the second sense, as referring to a special excellence or moral worthiness, is something that current human beings possess to widely differing degrees. Some excel far more than others do. Some are morally admirable; others are base and vicious. There is no reason for supposing that posthuman beings could not also have dignity in this second sense. They may even be able to attain higher levels of moral and other excellence than any of us humans. The fictional brave new worlders, who were subhuman rather than posthuman, would have scored low on this kind of dignity, and partly for that reason they would be awful role models for us to emulate. But surely we can create more uplifting and appealing visions of what we may aspire to become. There may be some who would transform themselves into degraded posthumans—but then some people today do not live very worthy human lives. This is regrettable, but the fact that some people make bad choices is not generally a sufficient ground for rescinding people’s right to choose. And legitimate countermeasures are available: education, encouragement, persuasion, social and cultural reform. These, not a blanket prohibition of all posthuman ways of being, are the measures to which those bothered by the prospect of debased posthumans should resort. A liberal democracy should normally permit incursions into morphological and reproductive freedoms only in cases where somebody is abusing these freedoms to harm another person.

The principle that parents should have broad discretion to decide on genetic enhancements for their children has been attacked on grounds that this form of reproductive freedom would constitute a kind of parental tyranny that would undermine the child’s dignity and capacity for autonomous choice; for instance, by Hans Jonas:

Technological mastered nature now again includes man who (up to now) had, in technology, set himself against it as its master… But whose power is this—and over whom or over what? Obviously the power of those living today over those coming after them, who will be the defenseless other side of prior choices made by the planners of today. The other side of the power of today is the future bondage of the living to the dead.[11]

Jonas is relying on the assumption that our descendants, who will presumably be far more technologically advanced than we are, would nevertheless be defenseless against our machinations to expand their capacities. This is almost certainly incorrect. If, for some inscrutable reason, they decided that they would prefer to be less intelligent, less healthy, and lead shorter lives, they would not lack the means to achieve these objectives and frustrate our designs.

In any case, if the alternative to parental choice in determining the basic capacities of new people is entrusting the child’s welfare to nature, that is blind chance, then the decision should be easy. Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder. And transhumanists can accept, of course, that just as society may in exceptional circumstances override parental autonomy, such as in cases of neglect or abuse, so too may society impose regulations to protect the child-to-be from genuinely harmful genetic interventions—but not because they represent choice rather than chance.

Jürgen Habermas, in a recent work, echoes Jonas’ concern and worries that even the mere knowledge of having been intentionally made by another could have ruinous consequences:

We cannot rule out that knowledge of one’s own hereditary features as programmed may prove to restrict the choice of an individual’s life, and to undermine the essentially symmetrical relations between free and equal human beings.[12]

A transhumanist could reply that it would be a mistake for an individual to believe that she has no choice over her own life just because some (or all) of her genes were selected by her parents. She would, in fact, have as much choice as if her genetic constitution had been selected by chance. It could even be that she would enjoy significantly more choice and autonomy in her life, if the modifications were such as to expand her basic capability set. Being healthy, smarter, having a wide range of talents, or possessing greater powers of self-control are blessings that tend to open more life paths than they block.

Even if there were a possibility that some genetically modified individuals might fail to grasp these points and thus might feel oppressed by their knowledge of their origin, that would be a risk to be weighed against the risks incurred by having an unmodified genome, risks that can be extremely grave. If safe and effective alternatives were available, it would be irresponsible to risk starting someone off in life with the misfortune of congenitally diminished basic capacities or an elevated susceptibility to disease.

Why We Need Posthuman Dignity

Similarly ominous forecasts were made in the seventies about the severe psychological damage that children conceived through in vitro fertilization would suffer upon learning that they originated from a test tube—a prediction that turned out to be entirely false. It is hard to avoid the impression that some bias or philosophical prejudice is responsible for the readiness with which many bioconservatives seize on even the flimsiest of empirical justifications for banning human enhancement technologies of certain types but not others. Suppose it turned out that playing Mozart to pregnant mothers improved the child’s subsequent musical talent. Nobody would argue for a ban on Mozart-in-the-womb on grounds that we cannot rule out that some psychological woe might befall the child once she discovers that her facility with the violin had been prenatally “programmed” by her parents. Yet when it comes to e.g. genetic enhancements, arguments that are not so very different from this parody are often put forward as weighty if not conclusive objections by eminent bioconservative writers. To transhumanists, this looks like doublethink. How can it be that to bioconservatives almost any anticipated downside, predicted perhaps on the basis of the shakiest pop-psychological theory, so readily achieves that status of deep philosophical insight and knockdown objection against the transhumanist project?

Perhaps a part of the answer can be found in the different attitudes that transhumanists and bioconservatives have towards posthuman dignity. Bioconservatives tend to deny posthuman dignity and view posthumanity as a threat to human dignity. They are therefore tempted to look for ways to denigrate interventions that are thought to be pointing in the direction of more radical future modifications that may eventually lead to the emergence of those detestable posthumans. But unless this fundamental opposition to the posthuman is openly declared as a premiss of their argument, this then forces them to use a double standard of assessment whenever particular cases are considered in isolation: for example, one standard for germ-line genetic interventions and another for improvements in maternal nutrition (an intervention presumably not seen as heralding a posthuman era).

Transhumanists, by contrast, see human and posthuman dignity as compatible and complementary. They insist that dignity, in its modern sense, consists in what we are and what we have the potential to become, not in our pedigree or our causal origin. What we are is not a function solely of our DNA but also of our technological and social context. Human nature in this broader sense is dynamic, partially human-made, and improvable. Our current extended phenotypes (and the lives that we lead) are markedly different from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We read and write; we wear clothes; we live in cities; we earn money and buy food from the supermarket; we call people on the telephone, watch television, read newspapers, drive cars, file taxes, vote in national elections; women give birth in hospitals; life-expectancy is three times longer than in the Pleistocene; we know that the Earth is round and that stars are large gas clouds lit from inside by nuclear fusion, and that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old and enormously big. In the eyes of a hunter-gatherer, we might already appear “posthuman.” Yet these radical extensions of human capabilities—some of them biological, others external—have not divested us of moral status or dehumanized us in the sense of making us generally unworthy and base. Similarly, should we or our descendants one day succeed in becoming what relative to current standards we may refer to as posthuman, this need not entail a loss dignity either.

From the transhumanist standpoint, there is no need to behave as if there were a deep moral difference between technological and other means of enhancing human lives. By defending posthuman dignity we promote a more inclusive and humane ethics, one that will embrace future technologically modified people as well as humans of the contemporary kind. We also remove a distortive double standard from the field of our moral vision, allowing us to perceive more clearly the opportunities that exist for further human progress.[13]

References

Annas, George J., Lori B. Andrews and Rosario M. Isasi. “Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations.” American Journal of Law and Medicine 28, no. 2&3 (2002): 162.

Bostrom, Nick. “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective.” Journal of Value Inquiry 37, no. 4 (2003): 493-506. http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/genetic.html.

Bostrom et al., “The Transhumanist FAQ, v. 2.1.” World Transhumanist Association, 2003. www.transhumanism.org/resources/faq.html.

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

Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Future of Human Nature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Jonas, Hans H. Technik, Medizin und Ethik: Zur Praxis des Prinzips Verantwortung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985.

Kass, Leon R. Life, Liberty, and Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002.

Kass, Leon R. “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Perfection.” The New Atlantis (2003): 1.

Simpson, John and Edmund Weiner, eds. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[1]. Our thanks to Professor Bostrom for his permission to re-print this article in our Special Issue of the SERRC.

[2]. Bostrom et al., “The Transhumanist FAQ, v. 2.1.”

[3]. Bostrom, “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective.”

[4]. Kass, “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Perfection,” 1.

[5]. See e.g. Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.

[6]. Kass, Life, Liberty, and Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics, 48.

[7]. Annas, Andrews and Isasi, “Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations,” 162.

[8]. Simpson, John and Edmund Weiner, eds, The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

[9]. Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, 149.

[10]. Fukuyama, op cit. note 8, 160.

[11]. Jonas, Technik, Medizin und Ethik: Zur Praxis des Prinzips Verantwortung.

[12]. Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, 23.

[13]. For their comments I am grateful to Heather Bradshaw, John Brooke, Aubrey de Grey, Robin Hanson, Matthew Liao, Julian Savulescu, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Zangwill, and to the audiences at the Ian Ramsey Center seminar of June 6th in Oxford, the Transvision 2003 conference at Yale, and the 2003 European Science Foundation Workshop on Science and Human Values, where earlier versions of this paper were presented, and to two anonymous referees.

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

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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…