Elon Musk was recently claiming that the electronic brain-computer interfaces made by his company Neuralink will bring about a range of benefits including communicating with loved ones, searching the Internet, even replacing your television, streaming content straight into your brain. In this, Musk is of course also raising questions about what it means to be human.
This directly references Transhumanism, the loosely defined movement that promotes enhancing the human condition through the advancement of technology. This was originally inspired by the writer Julian Huxley who set out:
“The human species can, if it so wishes, transcend itself, not only entirely as an individual or another, but also in its integrity, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Maybe transhumanism can serve: man is still a man, but transcending himself, realizing new possibilities, of and for human nature”.
Transhumanists see humans as a work-in-progress that can be recast in any number of desirable ways. Many transhumanists hope that through the responsible use of science and technology, we shall eventually become ‘posthuman’, meaning we would have vastly more capacities than we currently have.
The movement proclaims that humans now have in their grasp the possibility to realize an evolutionary leap because of the rapid development in a wide range of biotechnologies. The goal then, is for human beings to get rid of their organic embodiment with all its associated precariousness allowing us to achieve a fuller, lengthier, and better quality, life in all senses.
What does this tell us about being human? For if we are improving the human condition then surely, we need a way of defining what the human condition is. We cannot improve on something if we have not got a benchmark. If, as Elon Musk is suggesting, we can improve on ourselves as humans, there is implicit in this an accepted understanding of what it means to be human. This question has dogged us for eternity, but transhumanists assumes that there are characteristics that define being human – that there is an ‘essence’ of humanness. Otherwise there is nothing to improve on. So, let’s look at this the notion of essences a little more closely.
Essence and appearance
The way we use the term essence of a thing is to define what makes it what it is. By contrast, appearance offers us an understanding of how things seem rather than what they actually are. There is a huge body of psychological literature showing that people have intuitions about essence and appearance. Douglas Medin and Andrew Ortony developed the term ‘psychological essentialism’ to reflect our tendency to essentialise categories of things. Since then, researchers have collected a large body of evidence that humans are eager ‘essentialist’s’. We tend to think of the world as divided into categories, each of which have a real essence.
Biological species are a prime example. We readily organise the animal kingdom into species, but we need to consider what gives an animal membership of their species. For example, why should a certain animal be a cat? It’s not the fact it has fur as a cat without fur is a still a cat. We tend to believe that what makes an animal a member of a species is less to do with its appearance but rather is some deep fact about it. In this case, it is cat essence even though we might not be able to articulate what that essence actually is!
With this in mind, we can be open to the idea that someone can be human even if they don’t look human. Or perhaps they look human and we refuse to accept they are human. This can be difficult for us to distinguish: philosopher Gary Gutting pointed out that the problem with vampires is that for much of the time it is hard to tell them apart from us mortals. We may be talking in a perfectly normal fashion and be completely taken by surprise when we suddenly feel the fangs on our neck. Despite our surprise, we are very well aware that whilst vampires may look human, they lack the essential qualities of being human.
But to return to the exam question, what does being-human mean? As robots get ever more life-like in appearance, they can seem to be human so if we do not have a clear sense of what is the essence of humans, then how will we tell apart a robot from a human? To return to Gutting, he makes the point that when we watch Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have no problem knowing that although Bottom’s head looks like that of a donkey, he is a human being ‘on the inside’. His donkey appearance is in fact concealing his human essence. As robotics and digital technology occupy our lives in ever more intimate ways and companies seek to design machines that are as life-like as possible, will we always be able to understand that these robots are not ‘human inside’?
Part of the challenge we face is that when we form emotional attachments then we ‘essentialise’ them. This means that we think there’s a property which makes them hard or impossible to replace. Bruce Hood makes the point that we don’t form these attachments to polystyrene cups or anything which is clearly duplicated. Hood undertook a series of studies where he convinced children he had a duplicating machine, convincing them it was possible to duplicate any physical object. They made boxes look very scientific, using wires and lights, placed an object in one, and ‘activate it’. After a few seconds, the other box would appear to start up by itself upon which he would you open it up to give two identical objects. So once children were in the mindset their machine could copy, he then tested what he could get away with. He found they were happy to have their toys copied but when it came to a sentimental object like a blanket or a teddy bear, then they typically did not want to accept the duplicate.
In a similar although polar-opposite vein, Hood also asked people if they’d be willing to wear a cardigan, offering a financial incentive. Most people agreed. But then he asked, ‘Would you still wear it if you knew it belonged to Fred West’ (a notorious mass murderer)? Most people would then refuse saying it felt disgusting or dirty. We imbue an object with unseen qualities if we have an emotional relationship with it, whether that relationship is positive or negative.
The distinguishing essence of humans
So, what is the essence that we might apply to humans? Because if we can understand this then we can see what transhumanists are seeking to improve upon. To answer this, we need to understand that the desire to ‘essentialise’ is a core premise of the western philosophical tradition which posits human beings as possessing an intangible ‘rational soul’ or ‘mind’. This is considered to have an affinity with an eternal or divine dimension outside of the bodily world sets us apart from all other forms of life.
Indeed, Aristotle suggested that plants have vegetal souls (which enable nourishment, growth and reproduction) whilst animals also possess an ‘animal soul’ which provides sensation and locomotion. But, importantly, neither can be separated from the earthly world of generation and decay. Humans, meanwhile, in addition to these, also possess a rational soul or intellect and it is this alone that has access to ‘less corruptible sphere’ and has affinity with the divine ‘unmoved mover’. According to Aristotle, the human ability to reason is what makes us human.
Two thousand years later Descartes continued this hierarchical continuum of living beings with the ‘Great chain of being’ – polarising the world into a dichotomy between mechanical unthinking matter (minerals, plants, animals, human body) and the pure thinking mind (exclusive to humans and God). Only humans can feel and experience their bodies and mechanical sensations; all other living things are simply automata, unable to have actual experience and as such unable to feel pleasure or suffering.
There is a reasonable argument to be made that Transhumanism is closely related to the notion of essentialism even if this is not necessarily a link that is explicitly made. There is surely an implication that we have characteristics that can be enhanced, we can be better quality humans. Why not have a robotic arm, life extending bio-technology or even memory implants? We do not live in a world of neat divisions between object and subject. Indeed, this is close to what philosopher Andy Clarke argues in his book Natural-born Cyborgs: we have always relied on our tools as an extension of our minds, whether wax tablets to extend our memories or computers to help us process vast amount of information. He would claim these tools mean we have always been cyborgs, at one with our technologies.
An alternative perspective
A challenge to the notion of transhumanism is that we are in danger of making ourselves ‘less human’ somehow, that at some point quantitative change becomes qualitative and we no longer recognise ourselves. There is a perfectly legitimate challenge to that the way that things are is how they ought to be: but the alternative to an essentialist, transhumanist vie of the world tends not to get much space. Let’s look at this now.
The most significant alternative to an essentialist view of humans comes in the name of existentialism. The central posit of this philosophy is that we don’t only to promulgate our species as animals do; instead, we look for meaning in our lives, and we do this by the taking of the risks to overcome the limitations of ourselves and our situations. Interestingly, this sounds an awful lot like transhumanism itself, the seeking to transcend our natural condition, towards self-chosen, concrete goals.
But there is a difference between transhumanism and existentialism and this difference is critical for our discussion. Because for an existentialist, as Skye Cleary and Massimo Pigliucci point out:
“To be human is to live in ambiguity because we are forever caught in a tension between the facts of our lives and the will to overcome them.”
The very point of human life is to recognise the resistances we face, to accept our failures, but also to creatively rebel against them. Again, as Cleary and Pigliucci point out,
“This perspective matters because it emphasises that, while there are fixed elements to our being, we are not fixed beings, since we are (or ought to be) free to choose our projects. ….An authentic life is about acknowledging these differences, and stretching ourselves into an open future. It does not follow that this openness is unlimited or unconstrained.”
So in many ways, being human involves a dance between individual freedom and submission. This is very similar to points made by Matthew Crawford in his book “The world beyond your head” where he writes about musicianship. The process of learning involves submitting ourselves not only to the direction (usually) of a teacher but “her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically”.
The important point for Crawford is that these limits are external to the self: he goes onto talk about how, with this example, “membership in a community is a prerequisite to creativity.” There would be no ‘bluegrass’ without a community of people that play bluegrass music. They offer what Crawford calls a ‘Cultural jig’, a way of offering scaffold for our creative lives, offering us a structure for our creativity and thought.
Coming full circle
The French political scientist and polymath Tocqueville, commented that Americans are Cartesians without having read Descartes. There is a widespread natural assumption in the West that the Cartesian view of rationality, that this is the defining characteristic that differentiates us from animals, therefore requires the freeing of your mind of any kind of external authority. The essence of being human then is the ability to separate oneself and operate in an entirely individualised manner, honing the skills of rational living. And in a sense, this is the notion that sits under much of the Transhumanist tradition – if only we can free ourselves from the shackles we live within and separate our core essence of rationality then we can achieve so much more.
This overlooks that, for many thinkers, being human is essentially about paradox. Spanish philosopher , Jose Ortega y Gassel considered that a person is a “being which consists not so much in what it is as in what it is going to be: therefore in what it has not yet become! This … most profound paradox is our life”.
The desire of the transhuman movement to resolve this, paradoxically at the same time flattens the notion of what being human is. As humans we aspire to change but we often don’t know what we want; what we are aiming for can often be unclear as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book, ‘A field guide to getting lost’:
“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else.”
Agnes Callard also talks to this theme of uncertainty of transformation when she suggests:
“The aspirant’s idea of the goodness of her end is characterized by a distinctive kind of vagueness, one she experiences as defective and in need of remedy.”
Callard would likely argue that people are usually aware that they will change in ways that are impossible to know and hard to understand. There is no one single point, rather a period of continuous change:
“When one makes a radical life change, one does not submit oneself to be changed by some transformative event or object; one’s agency runs all the way through to the endpoint. The nature of that agency, as I shall argue, is one of learning: coming to acquire the value means learning to see the world in a new way.”
This suggests that we are continually reviewing, anticipating, changing not only as we learn and understand but as the external environment around us changes. The very thing that transhumanists are striving for, is the very thing that makes us less than human. On this theme, anthropologist Tim Ingold suggest that “where there is human life there is never anything but happening. Life is not; it goes on.” He suggests that we are not in fact human beings, suggesting we are fixed in time, rather that we are all always life-in-the-making and as such we could call ourselves ‘human becomings.’
On being human
Technology is frequently called on to offer ways to transform our lives as humans but in this case it is used as a means to transform not just our lives but our very way of being. In this sense, transhumanism tells us something about what it means to be human although perhaps not in the way that might be expected. It is perhaps less about how we can optimise ourselves to overcome our obstacles but more about how we can recognise that it is the tension between our limitation and desires that is a significant part of being human.
Cultural theorist and philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s recent book, ‘The disappearance of rituals’, rails against the loss of ritual behaviour, acts that ‘represent and pass on the values and order on which a community is based.’ He goes on to say:
“We can define rituals as symbolic techniques of making oneself at home in the world. They transform being-in-the-world into being-at-home. They turn the world into a reliable place.”
The point I take from this is that we live in a world where thought and creativity is not something that occurs in some kind of a vacuum but from the tensions that occur in the paradox of being situated, embedded creatures with limitations, alongside our desire for transcendence and transformation.