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1093/jmp/jhq050 Advance Access publication on November 12, 2010
At the Roots of Transhumanism: From the Enlightenment to a Post-Human Future
University of Texas Medical Center, Dallas, Texas, USA *Address correspondence to: Fabrice Jotterand, PhD, MA, Division of Ethics and Healthy Policy, University of Texas Medical Center, 5323 Harry Hines Boulevard, Dallas, TX 75390-9070, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
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The development of emerging biotechnologies is on the verge of redesigning the boundaries of human existence. Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), radical life extension, neuroenhancements, and bionic limbs constitute only few instances of technologies that could potentially allow transcending human biological limitations. Among the strongest proponents of these emerging technologies, transhumanists seek the radical removal of the constraints of our bodies and brains and the reconfiguration of human existence according to technological opportunities. But transhumanism is more than a technoscientific project. It is also an ideological one with particular assumptions rooted in Enlightenment philosophies. This special issue of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy provides an overview of the origin, the nature, and the aims of the transhumanist movement as well as a critical assessment. In the first contribution, James Hughes locates the roots of the transhumanist movement in the Enlightenment and its advocacy of the supremacy of reason. Transhumanism, he writes, is “the belief that science can be used to transcend the limitations of the human body and brain, . . . an ideological descendent of the Enlightenment, a part of the family of Enlightenment philosophies” (Hughes, 2010, 622). The Enlightenment encompasses various interpretations and ideas, at times competing against each other, on questions concerning religion, political power, ethical norms, and personal identity. On Hughes’ account, the transhumanist movement inherited these tensions and divisions due to the self-eroding of the project of reason and created its own irrational validation to support core Enlightenment values. In reading Hughes’ contribution, one can clearly see the continuum between Enlightenment thought and transhumanism. However, it is important to note that transhumanists reformulated what some Enlightenment philosophers rejected concerning questions on (1) theology: scientific or materialist theology replaces traditional theology, (2) state power: technocratic authoritarianism
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In their view. 658). 2010. transhuman beings could have a higher moral status based on higher values. and C belong to the same species. Michael Bess raises critical questions related to the use of the term enhancement and its elusiveness in debates about enhancement. Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu challenge the idea that essential properties intrinsic to organisms confer species membership. 2010. The traditional argument of interfertility for species membership is problematic because “interfertility is not a transitive relation” (Persson and Savulescu.oxfordjournals. The implications of this move away translate into ideological variants that. we should abandon the notion of human species membership as biologically determined.” The main problem with the use of normal. B being the link between A and C. (4) moral authority: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights replaces traditional sources of moral authority. cyborgs. (5) enhancement versus authenticity.” Transhumanism is not only an heir of the Enlightenment but also a radical move away from one of its core value: the autonomy of reason. we ought to give up an essentialist approach to species membership and accept that an organism could belong to different species throughout its existence and even at the same time (Persson & Savulescu.) should not worry because species membership is irrelevant in the determination of their status. reappropriate what the Enlightenment attempted to disavow. Their anti-essentialist approach to species membership provides. In the latter part of their contribution. Bess argues that we find ourselves in an “epistemological middle zone” where we should avoid extremes. Hence.org by guest on February 4. other than biological characteristics.. but based on the interfertility argument they actually do not. lies in the lack of fixity of these terms. that is church authority. either consider the term useless or assume it can do all the moral and epistemological work to set an issue (Bess. (2) enhancement versus therapeutics or healing. 656–669). 653). that is. B. (3) teleology: self-directed evolution toward a technocratic future replaces teleology. In the third contribution. Persson and Savulescu provide another justification for human Downloaded from jmp. etc. Actually. authenticity. a justification for human enhancement. 2010. human nature. and (5) immortality of the soul: the hope to be able to upload the brain on a computational substrate represents a new conceptualization of the religious notion of the “immortality of the soul. 2011 . etc. Those concerned with the moral status of different human and human-like beings (transhumans. the ambiguity between “more” and “better. He outlines six areas where the use of enhancement is conceptually ambiguous: (1) enhancement versus normal or species-typical functioning. paradoxically. In the second contribution. for Persson and Savulescu. natural. (3) enhancement versus natural functioning. This leads to a paradox in the sense that A. and (6) enhancement.618 Fabrice Jotterand operates as a new form of state power. in their view. (4) enhancement versus human nature. Interfertility might occur between A and C even though they belong to the same species.
The 1921 conference poster promises a “self-directed human evolution” whereas Harris calls for the enhancement of human evolution. 666).org by guest on February 4. we ought to ask the fundamental question whether indeed we have a moral obligation to enhance ourselves. However. According to Koch. does morphological freedom go both ways? Do people with disabilities have the right not to enhance themselves the same way transhumanists have the right to enhance themselves? Bradshaw and ter Meulen examine these questions in light of the work of Isaiah Berlin on questions of freedom and oppression. metaphysics determines Downloaded from jmp. 687). the old version was oppressive whereas the more recent is democratic and open (Koch. Disabled people might find Persson and Savulescu’s claim threatening to their own identity. Bishop demonstrates how transhumanist metaphysics attempt to dislodge prior accounts of human existence and self-understanding. the transhumanists perpetuate the ideology of the eugenics movement of the 20th century: the quest for the betterment of humans through technological means and the control of the vagaries of evolution. old and new eugenics. For Heidegger.At the Roots of Transhumanism 619 enhancement. Heather Bradshaw and Rudd ter Meulen tackle this question. Recognition of this fact puts a moral obligation on society to “heighten moral sensitivity to reverse [a] descent of humanity down a spiral of ever-increasing existential risks” (Persson & Savulescu. They conclude that debate over enhancement and morphological freedom should consider a greater level of freedom while minimizing abandonment and oppression. The analogy between the 1921 Second International Eugenics Conference and the work of enhancement enthusiasts such John Harris (2007) is striking. both instances exhibit two simplistic and fallacious assumptions: (1) a mechanistic view of human beings as machines whose components can be easily manipulated and (2) a similar mechanistic view of human society whose individuals are nonessential on behalf of the whole (Koch. 2010. 694). whatever ‘those’ people may say. 2010. The limitations of human moral psychology could endanger the survival of the human future due to the emergence of power biotechnologies. In his view. according to Koch. Drawing on Martin Heidegger’s work on metaphysics and his critique of technology. Koch concludes that the advancement of human society should start with the enhancement of the social context that will allow “mere citizens” to flourish. 2011 . They ask whether disabled people have an obligation to enhance themselves. Tom Koch takes a different and critical stand on issues of morphological freedom.oxfordjournals. In the final article of this issue. In other words. This ideological posture is problematic because it undermines the lives of people with physical differences.” Both. Jeffrey Bishop critically examines the metaphysical assumptions of transhumanism. To deny the morphological freedom of people with disabilities represents. have similar agendas. Whether or not emerging technologies pose a threat to humanity is beyond the scope of this issue. “[an] arrogant and dictatorial assertion that ‘I’ know what’s best. However.
Enhanced humans vs. not in the strict religious sense of Heidegger’s account.org by guest on February 4. and the posthuman God. would be to polarize the issues in terms of the bioconservative resistance to embark on the enhancement train and the blind acceptance of the transhumanist agenda. Downloaded from jmp. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35:641–55. However. 704). 2010. A transhumanism fault line around disability: morphological freedom and the obligation to enhance.. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35:700–20.620 Fabrice Jotterand the nature of all things and includes two components: ontology and theology. Ontology looks at the being of things in order to establish the basic essence of reality. I think. with the overturning of a previous ontotheology by the next ontotheology” (Bishop. which were unable to secure their own ground. It allows the creative force of the human mind to express itself but it hampers the possibility for deep questioning about the desirability of a post-human future. “for Heidegger the history of metaphysics is a history of founding onto-theologies. REFERENCES Bess. 2010. This issue of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy aims at setting the stage for further robust critical debates on transhumanism. 702) to reach a higher level of existence. 2010. 700–720). This new metaphysical framework captures the essence of what Hughes describes in the first essay as “scientific or materialist theologies. We cannot escape the realities of technological and scientific progress. ter Meulen. is concerned with the ultimate foundation for the existence of things. and improve our lives and environment. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35:670–84. It is also part of our responsibility to assess how these emerging technologies could affect us and future generations. theology. is a history of swinging between foundation and abyss. then. H. On the other hand. J. 2010. Bishop contends that the new onto-theology expressed in the synergy between biotechnology and biopolitics has a dark side. As Bishop points out. The history of metaphysics. Indeed to question the post-human future is to commit a sacrilege because it is questioning the post-human god (Bishop. Bishop. Bradshaw. 2011 . ‘normal people’: elusive definitions.oxfordjournals. These two elements form a metaphysic called ontotheology as a way to order and reveal the nature of human existence. transhumanist philosophers seek to relieve us of the human condition itself (Bishop. The metaphysic of transhumanism exerts the power of creative forces to redirect human evolution according to its own will and discredit competing metaphysical accounts. 2010. It is part of our nature to discover. The mistake. Ultimately. 2010. and R. M. Transhumanism is part a scientific endeavor and part an intellectual and cultural movement that raises deep questions about the identity and the future of the human species. invent. metaphysics. Transhumanism. G.” These emerging immanent theologies replace traditional transcendent theology in order to establish a new order of things.
bioethics. Downloaded from jmp.org by guest on February 4. Persson. Contradictions from the enlightenment roots of transhumanism. Enhancing who? Enhancing what? Ethics. 2010. Moral transhumanism. T. 2010. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35:622–40. Savulescu.oxfordjournals. J. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35:685–99. 2011 . I. and J. Koch. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35:656–69. and transhumanism. 2010.At the Roots of Transhumanism 621 Hughes..
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