iHuman or inhuman?

There is increasing concern amongst a wide range of commentators that human nature is in the process of being irrevocably changed by technological advances which either have been achieved or are in the pipeline. According to a multitude of op-ed writers, cultural critics, social scientists and philosophers, we have not faced up to the grave implications of what is happening. We are sleep-walking and need to wake up. Human life is being so radically transformed that our very essence as human beings is under threat. ...

We humans are unique among the animals in having a coherent sense of self, and this begins with our appropriating our own bodies as our own. This is our most fundamental human achievement: that of transforming our pre-personal bodies – with their blood and muscles and snot and worse – into the ground floor of our personal identity (see my forthcoming book, My Head: Portrait in a Foxed Mirror, Atlantic Books). Looked at objectively, our bodies beneath the skin are not terribly human; indeed, they are less human than our human technologies. There is very little in my purely organic body that I could say is me. ...

At the root of humanity is what in I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being I have called ‘the Existential Intuition’ – the sense that ‘I am this’; our appropriation of our own bodies as persons who participate in a collective culture. Even at a bodily level, this intuition withstands quite radical changes. And by this I don’t just mean coping with a wooden leg or a heart transplant, or being able to reassume ourselves and our responsibilities each morning when we wake up or when we come round from a knock-out blow. I mean something more fundamental – namely, normal development. We grow from something about a foot long and weighing about 7 pounds, to something about 6 foot long and weighing about 150 pounds, and for the greater part of that period we feel that we are the same thing. We assimilate these changes into an evolving and continuous sense of our own identity.

This is possible because change happens gradually and because it happens to all of us. Gradualness ensures continuity of memory alongside an imperceptible change in our bodies and the configuration of the world in which we live. That is why my earlier reassurances emphasised the gradualness of technological advance. If I look at myself objectively, I see that I am the remote descendent of the 10-year-old I once was, and yet my metamorphosis is quite unlike that of Kafka’s man who turns into a beetle. My dramatic personal growth and development is neither sudden nor solitary; and this will also be true of the changes that take place in human identity in the world of changing technologies.

Yes, we shall change; but the essence of human identity lies in this continuing self-redefinition. And if we remember that our identity and our freedom lie in the intersection between our impersonal but unique bodies and our personal individual memories and shared cultural awareness, it is difficult to worry about the erosion of either our identity or our freedom by technological advance.

If, as I believe, the distinctive genius of humanity is to establish an identity which lies at an ever-increasing distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and dominated by experiences which are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare: bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation or spraying with pesticides). Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or as a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Better still, they should spend five uninterrupted minutes imagining the impact of a major stroke, of severe Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease on their ability to express their humanity. Those such as [Francis] Fukuyama who dislike biotechnology do not seem to realise that the forms of ‘post-humanity’ served up by the natural processes going on in our bodies are a thousand times more radical, more terrifying, and more dehumanising than anything arising out of our attempts to enhance human beings and their lives. Self-transformation is the essence of humanity, and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part, and from which we are apart.

—Raymond Tallis, “Enhancing Humanity,” Philosophy Now


Shane said…
As a counterpoint to this, I recommend Alastair MacIntyre's book "Dependent Rational Animals", whose early chapters stress the importance of our continuity with other animals and the fact that like other animals we are dependent creatures, dependent upon our physical bodies, dependent upon our societies, and so forth.

I haven't made up my mind about MacIntyre yet, but it's definitely worth perusing.
Anonymous said…
Fascinating commentary. I do, however, find problems in this section:

"Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare: bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation or spraying with pesticides)"

Human technology certainly appears less alien to us, but this may only be because we are situated within a technological society. Furthermore, Tallis' examples are blatantly one-sided. What about the alienation of the architecture of the modern suburb, what Jim Kunstler calls "nowhere?" Examples could abound precisely contra to what he is saying.

Still, the idea that we retain a sense of self over the course of a life where our body changes drastically is something worth further reflection.