Jens Zimmermann: Human Flourishing in a Technological World: The First Year

Jens Zimmermann: Human Flourishing in a Technological World: The First Year November 16, 2018

Framing the Project (with the help of Karl Jaspers):

In his quest for a new humanism after the disenchantment with European civilization in the wake of World War II, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers raised three questions that help frame our project on human flourishing in a technological world. His questions were these: “First we ask: what is the human being as such? (Was ist der Mensch überhaupt?). Second: what current, concrete historical conditions [faktische Bedingungen] determine our humanity [Menschsein] today? Third, we inquire into our own way of describing humanism, knowing well that it is not the only humanism around.”[1]

Taking our cue from Jaspers, the task for our first meeting was to discuss plausible views of “the human being as such” in light of our historical moment, a moment defined by an unprecedented, near ubiquitous, presence and proliferation of technology. We want to ask about the impact of technology on anthropology, that is, how our inhabiting a technological world affects our understanding of human nature and the practical consequences these changes bring about.

Jaspers also helps us with his insistence on transcendence. He is adamant that human freedom, true self-knowledge, and consequently authentic existence require a transcendent source of meaning. On this score, at least, he and Heidegger, who did not agree on much else, did agree in rejecting the solipsistic starting point of the Cartesian subject that also fueled Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist humanism: without transcendent limit to our reason, self-knowledge will be navel-gazing and laws that govern human behavior will have no final authority. To paraphrase slightly Heidegger’s criticism of Sartre: If we made it, we can change it. Equally detrimental to objective self-understanding are totalizing myths or narratives for human identity. Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, lived for many years in constant fear of the Nazis and experienced first-hand the power of Germanic myth making geared toward the dominance of a master Aryan race, a mythology that contained a good dose of naturalism aimed at selective breeding. Against subjectivism and naturalism, Jaspers insisted that only a transcendent source of meaning, the kind of source religion calls God, could ensure true freedom and emancipation from self-delusion.

More recently, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has made the similar point that a truly human existence requires what he calls “horizons of significance” that are not self-constructed. For Jaspers, the insistence on a transcendent source of meaning unites “religions based on revelation and philosophy” against naturalism and any other form of subjectivism.[2] In tying the quest for a new humanism to the question of transcendence, Jaspers reminds us that individualism and instrumental reason, together with the eclipse of higher ends necessary for human flourishing, stem from the loss of the kind of participatory ontology common to the ancient world. For our project, we should keep in mind this loss and also remain attentive to the philosophical-theological approaches that help overcome this separation of mind and being.

Clearly, Jasper’s insistence on transcendence is congenial for those of us interested in theological anthropology, and especially Christian anthropology rooted in God’s becoming human. For Jaspers also stresses the importance of history and education, two emphases also native to a properly Christian (incarnational) view of human knowing. For Jaspers, our collective knowledge about transcendence is sedimented in tradition and entering the conversation about transcendence requires education. He believed that the greatest problem for recovering a proper understanding of what it means to be human was “the loss of a common societal base knowledge,” consisting of “an ordered totality of concepts and symbols,” he considered fundamental to being human.[3] Jaspers therefore offers us the useful reminder of how important it will be to gauge how technology affects the nature of education and our dependence on tradition. Does technology and the kind of consciousness it facilitates help or hinder society to retain a collective memory of transcendence and develop a common base knowledge on what it means to be human?

Shared Anthropological Assumption(s)

The great potential, and also the risk, of our working group lies in the different disciplinary approaches and personal convictions that influence responses to the question of human flourishing in a technological world. All of us as philosophers, theologians, biologists, or physicians will approach our topic with convictions shaped by “control beliefs” (or, if one prefers, by interpretive frameworks) comprising a combination of disciplinary habits and metaphysical convictions about reality. Such differences notwithstanding, our group rejects the Cartesian split between mind and body/consciousness and being that undergirds the modern subject and is still operative – despite a long history of critiques from the early 20th century onward (especially within the phenomenological tradition after Husserl) – in popular conceptions of science, verifiable truth, and transhumanist models of consciousness.[4]

Along with this disembodied rationalism, we also reject the reduction of consciousness to brain matter commonly referred to as naturalism or reductive physicalism.

We affirm, therefore, a participatory ontology of a porous, entangled, involved or embedded subject, an “ensouled body” (to use religious language), that cannot be reduced to its organic-material base. Anthropology thus inevitably involves meta-physical convictions that affirm the human consciousness’ participation in a transcendent reality (for Christian theology, participatory ontology would be Christologically determined, therefore including the body, suffering and dying; for non-religious approaches, participatory ontology could be a neo-Aristotelianism). We also affirm the Sonderstellung or the special position of human beings among living species. While the markers of our humanity we affirm may well be on a spectrum of continuity with animals, they attain a particularly human quality in homo sapiens that raises the question whether reasoning from animal habits to human experiences provides an accurate description for human reality. Are phenomena like human suffering, awareness, sexuality, procreation etc. merely extensions of animal life?

Markers of Human Nature

The following “markers of human nature” are understood as cluster-concepts that, taken together, denote human identity. These markers are diagnostic rather than essentialist: the listed markers are common features that mark our humanity, but their varying or diminished presence, or even absence, do not vitiate human identity. Human beings are

  • Material/biological
  • Symbolic/linguistic (and therefore interpretive)
  • Social/Relational (I-Thou/sacrificial)
  • Ecological
  • Temporal
  • Historical (tradition dependent, finite)
  • Malleable/formable in a biological, evolutionary way and also through culture (we affirm the reciprocal relation between evolution and culture) (cf. Celia Deane-Drummond “Features of Our Humanitas in a Cyborg Age”)
  • Ex-centric (exzentrisch): self-reflexive, able to objectify themselves and their surroundings
  • Finite, temporal, material, and bound up with death in a way that stretches human self-awareness between birth and death, forming the ‘hermeneutical whole’ of human existence. We are “suffering flesh.” (Cf. Michael Mawson “Theological Anthropology and Extending Life” and John Behr “Dying to Live? Or How to Become a Human Being?”)
  • Religious in a broad sense: including recognition of the sacred, as indicated by burial rites from the beginnings of our evolutionary history.[5]

The Importance of Personhood

What sets human beings apart from other animals is personhood (cf. Sonderstellung). Personhood, however, cannot be reduced to mind, consciousness, spirit, or a single capability like abstract reasoning. Rather, the whole living human being is a person: human subjectivity is a totality, characterized by an embodied, socially constituted, historical, self-reflexive awareness of and relation to the world and others. Human identity is personal (personenhaft) insofar that this totality with various intensities (thus including sleeping, disabled, and comatose persons) always resonates with us when encountering the presence of a person. Even a dead person still has a personal aura. Personhood also includes finitude (entailing ‘being towards death’) and limitedness by others (recognizing others as the limit to our aspiration to objectify and understand the world around us).

Being Human as Formation (Bildung)

In discussing formation, all the ‘markers’ identified above remain, of course, operative and in view! As an embodied, malleable, temporal, historical, ecological etc. entity, being human as formation:

  • Is a task, work in progress, or vocation. Theologically it is the task to become Christlike; philosophically to develop consciously, self-reflexively the life into which one is born.[6] For both traditions, being human is to become human through personal effort. We can affirm, therefore a basic continuum and congruence between those ancient and modern (religions and secular) affirmations of education as trans-formation into humanity, including patristic, renaissance, and modern philosophies of education.
  • Includes ascetic practices (care of the self in Michel Foucault or Pierre Hadot).[7]
  • Is communal (relational).
  • Requires education/tradition (ongoing expanding of horizons).
  • Is agency marked by active passivity: formation requires a conscious acceptance of a given and in the process of interpreting or understanding creatively appropriating the given. For example, learning (including tradition and empirical experience) requires holding oneself open to instruction by what is given—an act requiring freedom and decision-making. Even the act of attending and listening constitutes a basic free act of self-denial or positional humility. The acceptance of death could be seen as the ultimate existential act of acceptance, requiring a framework of meaning that differs among religious or (secular) philosophical convictions. In Christian theology, entering into death in active passivity is holding oneself open to death as part of the process of being remade into the new humanity offered by God.
    • Active passivity also recognizes the role of the ‘mundane’ and the importance of virtues and formative practices for becoming human.
    • Theologically, active passivity may be a new way of parsing the nature-grace relation of human participation in creation.[8]


With the aforementioned assumptions about human being in mind, we understand technology to be:

  • Native and integral to being human from the beginning of our development. From simple tools, to writing, all the way to modern robotics and computing technologies, we have extended ourselves into technological aids.
  • Like language, which Heidegger describes as “the house of being,” something we have come to inhabit and live in.
  • A mindset, a particular form of (instrumental) reasoning shaping our perception of the world and others (see, for example, David Lewin “I Post Therefore I Am: The Formation of Identity in an Age of Social Media”).
  • Capable of constituting and conferring power.
  • Pervasive in all human social, political, and economic dimensions.[9]

Questions and Areas of Inquiry for Next Year (Oxford 2019)

  • How does technological reasoning atrophy or diminish the fullness of our embodiedness (Leiblichkeit) understood as subjectively experienced in the totality of human meaning assignations in our dependency on the material and cultural substance that belong to being human? (Cf. Thomas Fuchs “In Defense of the Human Person.”)
  • Does technology replace grace in the traditional Christian nature-grace paradigm? Do technologies, and technological enhancements replace personal transformation through divine grace?
  • The impact of technology on the active passivity that characterizes human agency: technology purports to emphasize activity insofar as it enables us to get things done with greater efficiency; yet in doing so, technology effects a condition of active passivity. Humans normally engage creatively what they are given either by nature or through tradition. In seeking to empower efficiency, technology ironically encourages an active-passivity that masks inactivity and atrophy of concentration as ‘busyness’.
  • Technology also fosters the denial of death as a given by holding out the promise of an engineered death tailored to our personal preferences. What are the effects of this shift in medicine and patient care?
  • The benefits of technology are profoundly ambivalent, often enhancing one human marker at the exclusion and dishabituation of others, therefore diminishing human flourishing. For example, how well online education works will depend on an educational ethos established prior to the online classroom through embodied formation in a community. Given the prevalence of technology in all areas of human activity, how do we guard against adopting a computational, machine-like perspective through incessant use of technology? How might we establish the “devices of the soul” (Steve Talbott)[10] that allow for a truly human use of technology? (Cf. Brent Waters on the mundane as daily practices that demand non-technological forms of being; fidelity, habits, practices etc. in “Aspiring to be Habitually Ordinary.”)
  • The above issue of cultivating “devices of the soul” is especially pressing in the professions that nourish the human spirit and body, in the areas of education and medical care: addressing the instrumentalization of education and medical practices as reflected in changing language of measuring outcomes, patients or students as ‘clients’. How do we detect and resist the commercialization of learning and caring?
  • Living in technology and being shaped in perception and even expression by the instrumental mode of reasoning native to technique makes it hard to reflect on technology in ways different from this mode of being. How can our reasoning break out of the logic of instrumental, computational logic?
  • What effects does technology have on the way we understand the nature of work? Work was formerly understood not as a job but as a calling (Beruf/vocation), which the Protestant reformation in particular made part of one’s formation into the humanity established by Christ. To what extent has technology (robotics and AI) changed the way we integrate work with the totality of our existence? Does the technologization of industry and manufacturing processes allow for the qualitative improvement of extant goods or does it privilege the creation of – and thus innovation in relation to – new products only?
  • What are the self-contradictions of transhumanist utopias? How do the promises of humanism+ for enhancing markers of our nature (or overcoming those deemed a hindrance) actually undermine a human existence and/or become unworkable?
  • What dangers does the transhumanist promise for overcoming finitude and human limitations pose for society? How do social attitudes, including care for the elderly, medical research foci, and attitudes toward those with a broad range of disabilities change?

[1]Über Bedingungen und Möglichkeiten eines neuen Humanismus, 25. Paraphrasing the last question: “Drittens fragen wir nach unserem Wege des Humanismus, wohl wissend, daß er nicht der einzige ist.”

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] For a recent philosophical critique of this model, see Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Charles Taylor. Retrieving Realism. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2015. (Die Wiedergewinnung des Realismus. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2016).

[5] See here also Mircea Eliade (philosophical anthropology), or Rudolf Otto Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy).

[6] Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, recognizing the socio-familial and political relations into which one is born is better suited to the relational aspect of our humanity than Heidegger’s thrownness.

[7] Noting the fundamental difference between these two projects, Hadot criticizes Foucault’s egocentrically conceived care of the self in contrast to the more communal, participatory ancient concept of philosophy as a way of life in conformity with transcendent norms of truth, beauty, and the good.

[8] We also noted the importance of linguistic nuances: designations like ‘nature’ or ‘creation’ (physis/natura vs. ktisis) harbor fundamentally different assumptions about reality.

[9] We expect to develop a much fuller definition of technology and its various aspects during our 2019 Oxford workshop.

[10] Talbott, Steve. Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines. Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2007.

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