Enhanced, Improved, Perfected?

Does the promise of technological enhancement of the body encourage us to abandon what we are in pursuit of some ideal? Is a reliance on scientific endeavour an inhibiting factor in coming to understand ourselves in certain ways? With reflection on the place of humans in nature, and to Kant on the tendency to imagine ideals, this paper suggests that we’d do well to mark the distinction between advancement in technological development and human progress in a broader sense. The argument will follow two distinct but related paths — Hubris and apotheosis and hubris and technology.

The idea of the place of humans not as a crowning glory of creation but as a part of nature needn’t be altered in a technologically developed world. Just because the products of scientific advance and technological innovation are human artifice, this oughtn’t to be taken as meaning humanity has somehow transcended itself. The avoidance of hubris in this kind of world ought to be the chief concern for human beings.

I fear animals regard man as a creature of their own kind which has in a highly dangerous fashion lost its healthy animal reason — as the mad animal, as the laughing animal, as the weeping animal, as the unhappy animal.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzschean thought on the relation between animal and human life is continuous: more Darwinian than Aristotelian, with human beings a part of the animal kingdom, not its crowning glory. Herman Hesse writes a short story detailing A man by the name of Ziegler’s visit to the zoo illustrating the same theme. The visit begins as an hubristic expression of anthropocentric vanity. In looking at the rude beasts lolling, fretting and rutting, the zoogoer takes the opportunity to bask in his own sophistication: How far we have come, beyond these savage creatures!

However, this presupposition is destabilised when, through the swallowing of a pill, Ziegler comes to be able to understand the animals’ discussions. He realises the place of man within nature and begins to feel shame for his vanity. Finally in despair he strips out the trappings of the gentleman he was hitherto wearing, only to be then labelled a madman and locked up by his fellow men in a presumably zoo-like asylum.

Dejected and wrenched out of all habits of thought, Ziegler turned back to his fellow men in despair. He looked for eyes that would understand his terror and misery; he listened to conversations in the hope of hearing something comforting, something understandable and soothing; he observed the gestures of the visitors in the hope of finding nobility and quiet, natural dignity.

But he was disappointed. He heard voices and words, he saw movements, gestures and glances, but since now saw everything as through the eyes of an animal, he found nothing but a degenerate, dissembling mob of bestial fops, who seemed to be an unbeautiful mixture of all the animal species.

Herman Hesse, A Man by the Name of Ziegler

The irony, apparent to the Nietzschean perspective and Hesse’s short story, is that the dismissal of lifeforms as irrelevant, or mere foils to our own sophistication, betrays a limit in our capacity to appreciate difference — It’s a narrow vanity that prompts unreflective exclusion, not sophisticated self-possession.

The issue of technological intervention in the human species represents another axis of investigation to do with this problematic. What difference, if any, does such intervention create, and what ramifications, if any, ought this to have for human self-perception? In order to move toward addressing these questions, we should first examine the related ideas of improvement and objectivity as there is a straightforward notion that technological improvement of the body could, sorites-like, eventually lead to a completely synthetic, ideal human form.

One seemingly inevitable conclusion of thinking about being and non-being (at least for those up until the 18th century) was the ens realissimum or the existence of a real and ultimate being. This conclusion was made from an analysis of ideas of perfection, among others. Kant sums up the impulse towards it as follows:

If we admit the existence of some one thing, whatever it may be, we must also admit that there is something which exists necessarily. For what is contingent exists only under the condition of some other thing, which is its cause; and from this we must go on to conclude the existence of a cause which is not contingent, and which consequently exists necessarily and unconditionally. Such is the argument by which reason justifies its advances towards a primal being.

Critique of Pure Reason, BkII, §II, Pt. IV

Kant is talking about undermining arguments for the existence of god, but the intellectual impulse he diagnoses he supposes to be quite general. He goes on to undermine this type of thinking on the basis that the idea of something, no matter how seemingly compelling its reality, does not in any way add to the scope we have to reason that it exists. In fact, ideas of completeness, perfection, necessary being and so on serve to demonstrate to us the limits of our reasoning as we find ourselves feeling compelled to acquiesce in the ascription of reality to something our mind can’t completely grasp.

In concrete terms, we can always imagine something as being incrementally better than it is, in any number of respects. We suppose athletes will go on breaking records, artists will produce finer works, the next firmware update will make life so much better. Kant’s point is that the tendency to imagine this linear progress is a sticky one, and being open-ended, seems to lead to perfection as an attainable end: There seems to be a something against which every instance of every thing seems somehow defective.

Out of context, however, this can be dangerous. Why is a record-breaking feat better than a diurnal one? Is an Olympic sprinter’s 100m better than my breathless scramble for the about-to-depart bus? It depends what you’re looking for in your evaluation. If we posit a somehow unattainable, notional, hard-to-grasp perfection as a telos of action per se we’re likely to imagine linear progress as a reality. The sprinter should thereby attain something more like Running (capitalised). My bus stop effort would be a mere candle to this sun. In doing this, we conflate two notions, those of advance in a field and progress. The latter is a highly nuanced notion whereas the former can generally be settled among a cadre of individuals interested in the nitty-gritty of some predetermined field.

The pernicious side of the idea here can be drawn out with reference to the inapplicability of the idea of simple linear progress for human beings. This idea can be especially problematic when it combines with that of an objective, perfect end-state.

When we suppose that we are using technology to improve ourselves, or maybe move toward perfecting ourselves, we cannot afford to let these terms remain out of context. We have to ask in what respect we improve some feature of ourselves — what does it mean to say x improves me? The important issues here to be borne in mind are those of advance versus progress, change versus improvement, and the reasons why we seek to intervene at all.

In action, in evaluation and in appreciation of the people and things around us, we ought to be more concerned with having reasons for the stances we take than with justifying positions already assumed, such as the speculative reality of a perfect end-state. Casuistry and sophistry are the practices that involve justifying positions already assumed. These aren’t intrinsically bad practices, but taken as supplanting authentic investigation, they make a parlour game of philosophy.

Where we assume something like objective, linear progress, and especially where we connect this to one sector of human endeavour, we condemn ourselves to an intellectual shallowness that will only ever result in deformed or malformed ways of being: in such circumstances we assume the advances relative to the field mean progress tout court.

In taking a scientistic stance, one can easily and unreflectively conflate scientific advance with human progress. In so doing, this obliterates any reflection. Straight lines make some kind of sense for scientism, not least in the guise of ‘Moore’s Law.’

Innovation is widely imagined as a straight line. In the beginning, there is research. Next, follows research-based development of new technologies. Lastly, innovative new products are built on the back of the new technologies. The end point, and marker of progress, of all of this is economic success. Research is worth it when it results in marketable technologies. That’s progress.

As a model of a real phenomenon, that’s fine. But it’s a model – A model of one aspect of one phenomenon among myriad human endeavours. When taken as a definition of progress, suddenly everything goes wrong. Firstly, distance from the market suddenly becomes an impediment to research – non-commodifiable, or hard to market notions, have no place in progress. ‘Investment in knowledge’ comes to mean, ‘investment in endeavours likely to produce toys.’

Another effect is that the opinions of non-scientists are sidelined. Since progress itself is now linked to scientific research, and money is poured into their pursuits, ordinary voices appear as impediments. Those problematic voices are a problem because of the straight line from research to technology to products to market success. Awkward questions can deflect the line. And because we think the line means progress, deflections mean we’re undermining ourselves in a cosmic sense.

If we locate this in the idea of improving humanity with scientific enhancement, then, we can imagine much of the same: unwillingness to seek such enhancements becomes an impediment, or a marker of poor vision. Raising problems becomes a reason to be judged harshly as impeding the proper unfolding of human nature.

But following the line is contingent. Why are we following the line? Who are ‘we’ anyway, in all of this?

The idea of objectivity serves us best as a limit to the things we do understand, rather than a telos for understanding itself. It can’t be avoided that new abilities mean changes to established ways. E.g. for a lion to speak, it would have to cease being a lion and become a human being. The point is that our plans, relations and values need to guide our appraisals of what we can and ought to do. This includes the technological.

In transcending the linear progress model, we are placed in the position of having to consider why we might act in one way rather than another: why this is better than that: on what grounds, and so on. When we swap the idea of a change as meaning progress for the question of that change’s significance, we re-invest our endeavours with reflection. It’s the equivalent of swallowing Ziegler’s pill as we confront our situation with questions, rather than continuing to gloss it with presumption.

Hubris could have our technological interventions in the body as a means to escape our animality. As if each incremental intervention, each enhancement of hearing, vision or memory is a step toward some end-state: the homo realissimum. But technology doesn’t generate apotheosis. The drives we have are human. To remain human is to use our technological means for human ends, not to attempt to replace them, or ‘overcome’ them

Transhumanism bears the burden of proof that humanity is an impediment, given the absence of an objectivity we can all perceive or conceive of.

A full paper on this topic can be found here.


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