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.
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.