24 Sep

After humanism

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/24/13

Transcending limits, abolishing the human

Early in my interview with Gilbert Meilaender about his recent book, Should We Live Forever? (Journal Volume 118), he said that the subject of the ethics of anti-aging research was something he could not discuss in a “metaphysically neutral” way. The need for a starting point in evaluating technical means to extend human life becomes dramatically obvious when interacting with the most radical advocates of anti-aging research, the so-called “transhumanists.” As their self-designation suggests, the transhumanists (also known as “immortalists”) aren’t so much interested in extending human life as transcending it. 

Some of this movement’s assumptions about the meaning of the human (or the absence of meaning in “the human”) are discussed in a 2010 article by Fred Baumann, professor of political science at Kenyon College. Published in The New Atlantis (Fall 2010), “Humanism and Transhumanism” explains how this utopian commitment depends on “a new science that accepts reductionist materialism as a matter of course, both as an account of nature and of man.” As Baumann writes:

The new science isn’t squeamish about man as machine; transhumanism goes a step further and embraces man’s becoming a different machine, or any number of kinds of machines. If that were to come to pass, even if only among elites, it would be a change of world-historical proportions, because it would mean that the new science was no longer merely seeking to transform the world to suit human beings, but rather transforming human beings into whatever they chose.

Because they are committed to eliminating all limits to human willing — limits historically regarded as necessities — the transhumanists imagine a bright future without true inwardness.

[I]nwardness arises from reflection on the self; from struggling with the challenges the world presents to you and you present to yourself; from meeting those challenges or failing to meet them; from working to make sense of them; and from the result of all these things: the progressive unfolding of the self over time. Inwardness, then, requires necessities, and arises in no small part from accepting them and reflecting on the difficulties inherent in them.

Baumann examines four possible objections to the transhumanist agenda, but acknowledges that such objections are not likely to be regarded compelling. There is, after all, no metaphysically neutral basis on which to advocate or criticize such a project. As long as we believe we must check our metaphysical convictions at the door when entering into public debate about public matters (government funds such research), the position that seems to advance more choices is likely to win. As Baumann muses, “few people seem to see that our technological motion ought to have some sensible guidance rather than continuing its relentless and blind inertia forward.”

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