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Avoid “Posthuman” Label

Philosophy is mainly useful in inoculating you against other philosophy. Else you’ll be vulnerable to the first coherent philosophy you hear. (source)

Long ago (’81-83 at U Chicago) I studied Conceptual Foundations of Science (mainly philosophy of science) because I wanted to really understand this “science” thing, and the main thing I learned was to avoid the word “science”. If necessary, the word can refer to obvious social groups and how they maintain boundaries, but beyond that other words and concepts are more useful.

I’ve always felt similarly wary of “transhuman” and “posthuman”, because it isn’t clear what they can or do mean. In the latest Bioethics, David Lawrence elaborates an argument for such wariness:

Human is itself a greatly abused term, especially in the context of the enhancement/posthuman debate, and the myriad of meanings ascribed to it could give posthuman a very different slant depending on ones understanding. .. There are, perhaps, three main senses in which the term human is frequently employed- the biological, the moral, and the self- (or other-) idealizing. In the first of these, human .. refer[s] to our taxonomic species, In the second sense, human generally refers to a community of beings which qualify as having a certain moral value or status; and the third .. denoting .. what matters about those who matter. ..

It is a mistake to envisage the posthuman as a different species. It is a mistake to imagine traits such as immortality or godlike powers as being changes that indicate a significant discontinuity. .. The mere act of assigning terminology is inherently one of division. .. The use of these terms is designed to classify and separate. As I hope to have shown, this is precisely the problem with the notional posthuman. ..

The commentators on both sides of the debate concerning the meaning of posthuman do so as if it had currency. .. To use the term to imply species or value change, or a radical transition (the meaning of which is unclear in any case), there needs to be justification in a way which does not seem to have been delivered within the existing dialogue. Here, I have argued that this is not a plausible understanding, and furthermore that it is based in error. The analogous changes we have undergone throughout our history have not been thought to signal a qualitative change, or at least, not to any significant degree. We are, today, post-internet age humans; we are post-neolithic, post-bronze age, post-iron age. These transitions have not changed our value or the nature of our being: machine-age man, Homo augmentus, is still man. The touted posthuman is, in general, overhyped and unwarranted by the evidence – either factual, or conceptual – and does not seem to have been subject to a close analysis until now.

Here’s what Lawrence suggests we say instead:

Enhancement technologies exist, are used, and will continue to develop; and it is idle to claim that we ought avoid them wholesale. .. It is important that we find a way to reconcile ourselves with the beings we may become, since they and we are products of the same process. .. To be posthuman is in truth to be more human than human – more successful at embodying these traits than we, who consider ourselves the model of humanity, do. It is not, as critics may claim, to be beyond, to be something to fear, something fundamentally different.

A habit of talking as if there will be a natural progression from “human” to “transhuman” to “posthuman” makes our descendants by default into “others” less worthy of our help and allegiance, without specifying the key traits on which they will be deficient. Yes, it is possible that our descendants will in fact have traits we dislike so much as to make us reject them as no longer part of the “us” that matters. But this is hardly inevitable, and those who argue that it will happen should have to specify the particular key traits they expect will cause such a divergence.

Only half those who imagine entering a star trek transporter see the person who exits as themselves, but all those who imagine exiting see the person entering as themselves. Similarly, we tend to see all our ancestors for the last million years as part of the “us” that matters, even though many of them might reject us as being part of the “us” that matters to them. And so our descendants are more likely to see us today as part of the “us” that matters to them, compared to our seeing them in that way.

So let us talk first of the various kinds of descendants we may have, the traits by which they may differ from us, and which of those traits matter most to us in deciding who matters. After that, perhaps, we might argue about which descendants will become a “them” who matter much less to us. We could perhaps call such folks “posthuman,” but know that they will probably reject such a label.

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