Sorry, did someone say ‘Transhumanism?’

Sorry, did someone say ‘Transhumanism?’ February 14, 2011

You may think no one’s mentioned transhumanism on the blog lately, but then you haven’t been keeping a close eye on the comments thread for “Time for a Few Facts,” my attempt to clarify some of the factual disputes driving the fight about appropriate uses of sacrilege.  You’re also probably not looking for any excuse to bring up transhumanism (unlike me!), so dbp’s analogy about the Eucharist and replacement knee joints may have passed you by.

I don’t want to address the analogy; I want to talk about the assumptions dbp made in his example.  S/he wrote:

Let’s talk about something very concrete: my knee and its many permutations. For example, if I were to cut it off (two quick hacks to sever it from my upper and lower leg), it would instantaneously take a big step in the transformation from being a part of me to being something else. Aside from the simple change in position (and even before any cells begin to change or die), it suddenly stops being my knee inasmuch as it can no longer function as such and inasmuch as its integral relationship to the rest of my body is lost…

Yet, to a certain degree, its identification with me, while imperfect, does continue to exist on a spectrum while the deterioration is still in progress. I can look at the newly-severed knee on the floor and say, “that’s a part of me.” But this whole mode of thought is in a way somewhat mystical, as indeed is the whole concept of “me” to begin with. (This is why some extreme flavors of materialism will steadfastly deny that “I” exist in any meaningful way.)

On the other hand, suppose I swiftly replace the severed knee with an artificial joint and synthetic tissue. Despite definitely not being human tissue as we normally think of it, it nevertheless becomes identified with me in most other meaningful ways: it harmonizes deeply with and facilitates my movements. It becomes an integral part of my body, and if you were to kneecap me with a baseball bat I could legitimately accuse you of an assault on my person and not just destruction of my property. At some point, in fact, the new knee becomes more “me” than the old one despite retaining physical characteristics which seem at a glance to be incompatible with being part of a human body. You might call this a metaphysical understanding of a physical thing.

I’m pretty much in agreement, but Matt DeStephano emphatically disagreed:

No matter how much I assert that my synthetic knee is a part of me, I am mistaken. It is an essential part of my functionality, but it does not have many of the similar features of identity that my other body parts have: nervous connections, blood flow, muscle tissue, bone, ligaments, etc. Saying that the knee is “mine” is simply an implicature that means that it serves an essential role in my functioning, not that it is composed of the same matter or actually one of my “parts.”

So let me talk a little about transhumanism and prosthetics.  I think this might even be a bit of a window on my dualism, which I know has raised some eyebrows.  I think of my body as a tool for my mind (there’s that dualism).  To me, the distinction between body and implement can feel kind of hair-splitting.  If I have a knee replaced or (as is actually the case) a Maryland bridge that replaces a congenitally-missing tooth, that’s my knee or my tooth.  I don’t think of it as some kind of foreign impostor.  It’s attached to me and serves my will.

And to take it further: why do people imagine there’s a bright line distinction between the electrical impulses firing in the synapses of my fingers and the electrical signals going off right under them in the keyboard of my laptop?  I don’t have total control over my computer, nor do I personally understand all the nuances of its functioning, but the same goes for my autonomous nervous system and the systemic biases in my reasoning caused by evolutionary baggage.

I don’t privilege my physical body (and here come more accusations of gnosticism from my friends).  It’s more useful than many technological kludges that currently exist (though I’ll admit, I’m always temped by the prospects of embedding magnets subdermally or in fingernails to acquire the ability to sense electromagnetic fields).  When there are better options, I’ll take them.

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  • dbp

    Heh, actually, I don't remember where it was, but I do remember reading your opinion of transhumanism and thought you might enjoy the analogy. The comment was already far too long to go further on that vector, though.Perhaps ironically, I actually don't agree with or encourage transhumanism, despite my comment. Speaking as a Catholic, I feel that the soul and the body are both gifts of God and are to be honored as such; both are properly me and should be respected as such. Prosthesis does not violate this as it simply attempts to preserve the natural operations of the body in the face of debilitating and disability. Transhumanism would seek to fundamentally bypass the natural order of the body, which isn't ours to do. So I doubt Catholicism and transhumanism are compatible.Not trying to argue the point, of course; I just wanted to clear up the Catholic position as I understand it, and to note that the reason I presented the analogy was just to point out something which outwardly does not change can, in meaningful ways, affect in a very deep way our understanding of the identity of the object.–dbp (male, incidentally)

  • I tend to confuse "transhumanism" with "transhumance," which is another thing entirely:)All kidding aside, I'm very much of a dualist myself, in the sense that I would claim that what we call "the mind" is not the same thing as what we call "the body." More specifically, the mind is not the same thing as the brain. At the same time, I acknowledge that the fact that I have a mind is absolutely dependent on my having a brain. This is not, however, a two way-dependency, because the existence of a brain does not automatically imply the existence of a mind.As long as we're talking about "essences," allow me to observe that your post raises a very important question: What is the "essence" of me? More broadly, what is the "essence" of a person? This question is at the heart of some of our most enduring ethical debates. Is a fetus a person, and have the rights of person-hood? Is a brain-dead individual still a person and retain the rights of person-hood?Or do we simply make a mistake by too closely associating the concept of "rights" with "person-hood"?Note also that Christianity further complicates things by positing, not dualism, but trialism: body, mind,and soul, where it is the soul that is (if I may stoop so low as to cite Wikipedia) "the incorporeal essence of a person or living thing or object."

  • My complete and utter distaste for all things 'transhumanist' is a motivating factor that has caused me to question, quite strongly, my purely materialist view of the universe. I cannot call myself a 'dualist' however I cannot call myself a materialist anymore either.

  • @dbp: Oh I know that my position doesn't match the Catholic respect for people as embodied beings. Some of my friends have started rolling their eyes and referring to me as a crypto-gnostic.@Charles: Why are you so turned off by transhumanism and why do you think you have to ditch materialism to reject it?

  • dbp

    Leah,Yep, I was pretty sure you understood this, since you're very much on the ball. But many don't, and since I am clearly identifiable as taking the side of Catholic orthodoxy to the best of my ability, I didn't want to become the source of misunderstanding or confusion to passers-by. That's all!

  • "It's attached to me and serves my will."What's just as interesting to me, and you allude to this later in the post, in that 1) it doesn't perfect serve your will and 2) neither does your body all the time.For the record, I think that any attempt to definitively explicate what counts as "you" versus "not-you" (or "me" versus "not-me," if you don't feel comfortable with the second person here) is bound to failure. Even psychological identity is not so finely delineatable; physical identity certainly isn't. But maybe that's just me being an English major.If I have time I will write full posts on this matter: prosthetic, transhumanism, atypical anatomy, physical and psychic identity, etc. This stuff makes me excited.

  • Oh, also, the "attached to me" part might not be relevant. Consider glasses, easily understandable as external prosthetics, not attached but often sumbliminally implicated in a person's identity (such as my own).

  • I feel this may be embarrassingly over-simplistic, but I think that there are two forms of 'me':The prosthetic me, that is owned by the 'real' me;And the real me – that doesn't technically exist – that consists of the 'real' bits of me.I am obviously a proponent of the latter, but I think there is some truth in the former but it doesn't have much value in this conversation.

  • "And to take it further: why do people imagine there's a bright line distinction between the electrical impulses firing in the synapses of my fingers and the electrical signals going off right under them in the keyboard of my laptop."Another way of putting this is that the computer is part of your extended phenotype. 🙂

  • Oh I'm famous! ;)Just to point out; my comment was in response to a question of asserting prosthetics as an analogous concept to transubstantiation. However, I guess I would still assert something along the same lines.Before I would dive into any sort of response, what kind of dualist do you see yourself as? Are you a Cartesian substance dualist (there exists mind-stuff and body-stuff and they are two separate and independent existences), or a property dualist (there are two distinct types of properties: mental and physcial)?It's important to make this distinction because when you talk about a concept as philosophically loaded as "the mind" you could mean a whole lot of different things.

  • @Christian H: please do write those series, I'd love to see them. Glasses and contacts aren't organic but interface so well that we stop thinking of them as foreign.@Ebonmuse: Excellent link! :)@Matt: I wish I could give you a clear explanation, but I'm not very good at this and I don't always feel like I have the language I want. I've read Descartes Meditations but I honestly don't understand the nuanced distinctions between the two dualisms you've named to pick a side. I do perceive an important difference between me-as-leah and me-as-flesh+tools and I see that difference as not just one of type but of value. I respect my mind, but my body is just a sometimes useful tool.Does that help? It doesn't help me much.

  • Thanks Leah.The key difference between these two notions of is that substance dualism supposes that the mind exists as a separate substance (i.e. bodies are material, minds are immaterial). It's not a position that's very popular within current philosophical thought, as it has some obvious faults about how the mind can possibly interact with the body if they are in fact material/immaterial (Descartes said it was through the pineal gland, interestingly enough). On the other hand, it sounds like you are a property dualist. You believe that the physical account of you (leah as flesh-and-tools) is not sufficient for an explanatory account of what there is. These other properties (mental properties, in this case) also account for what there is.I'm inclined to argue against both ideas in favor of a monistic physicalism, but I believe property dualism is certainly the lesser of two evils. 😉

  • @Leah: I'll see what I can do. It's a busy few weeks for me, and I'm behind on my work. I've written about tangentially related topcs before (Sexy Body, Disfigured Body), but it won't really be what you're looking for I don't think. Have you read Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto? I have some really big problems with it, but it might be worth your time if you're interested in transhumanism.@March Hare: This conversation (if by that you mean this post) is about the latter of the two. I'm not sure what you mean when you say it's irrelevant. Anyway, can you give a substantial argument to support a distinction between 'real' and 'not-real' self? There's a whole host of disability, affect, and transhumanist theories which challenge that distinction, with (in my opinion, and in the opinion of most academics I have encountered) considerable success.Mind you, I don't specialize in these fields(not yet, anyway), so I probably won't be able to reproduce their arguments faithfully. (And, anyway, trying to paraphrase Haraway or Butler is like trying to fingerpaint with mercury.) I suggest you take a look at the discourses I outlined above. If you really want, I can probably ask around and get the titles of some related articles.

  • No rush, Christian H., I'm just looking forward to your thoughts when you get free time. Believe me, you have my schedule sympathies.

  • Thanks for the explanation, Matt. That does sound more like me than what I remember of Descartes.

  • @LeahI didn't say I had to ditch materialism to reject it I just said it is/was a motivating factor in me questioning it. I used to safely be able to say that I was a 100% Daniel Dennet style materialist. However the free will issue, amongst others, is a troubling one for me on that front. As to the moral side of the issue I just on a very personal level can think of very few future scenarios as dystopian as the one Ray Kurzweil holds up. Perhaps this is personal taste, or some quaint tinge of conservatism 🙂 But I feel like the desire to destroy that which makes us most human (at least with regard to the history of recorded human culture) is not natural to me.This is not a causality type situation for me, however if you can see the logical end of a viewpoint as being distasteful you maybe start to question your assumptions.

  • @Leah: For future, "Christian" will do fine. I have the H just so people clue in that it's a name, not just a religious designation.I might have something for next week, and your interest will help goad me into producing an interesting post, I hope. We'll see. A related idea (one that perfectly indicates one of the problems of identifying body completely with self) appeared in a book I'm reading for class, but it's somewhat risque. I'll need to think carefully about how I will formulate my thoughts on this topic.