Defining Humanity, Defending the Person, Part 2

by | Mar 18, 2023

Yesterday I published Part 1 of this guest post by Professor Jens Zimmerman. I am please to present today Part 2, which dives deeper into the important philosophical and theological issues introduced in the first part. Enjoy!

Origins of The Scientific-Techno Vision

As my examples in Part 1 have shown, our humanity is threatened by the growing dominance of what the French philosopher Michel Henry has called “a techno-scientific” vision of reality.[7]  As we have seen, adherents of this techno-scientific vision redefine life in mechanistic, and increasingly, in computational terms. Since the 1950s, in movements like Cybernetics, but also within Neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology and psychology, we have witnessed the “mechanization” and then the digitization of biological life in general, and of human beings in particular.[8]  The computer has become the dominant metaphor of the resulting techno-scientific vision of reality. The dynamics of organic life become reduced to code, including the human genome. Biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, boldly proclaims that “Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” and he insists that this assessment “is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth.”[9]

The expression “plain truth” is, of course, another metaphor. While we may forgive a genetic scientist for misunderstanding the nature of human language, we should not forgive his own inadequate metaphor of life as digital information. Life is nothing like a computational mechanism. Rather, life, and especially human life, is a mystery beyond our comprehension, something we can try to describe but will never fully grasp or explain. Above all, organic life in which human life is rooted, is principally based in living bodies with a metabolism driven by the urge to exist.

Life is nothing like a computational mechanism. Rather, life, and especially human life, is a mystery beyond our comprehension…

From the lowest to the highest living organisms, we witness what Evan Thompson, my esteemed colleague from UBC, has described as “biological autopoiesis,” that is, a life form’s self-maintaining, self-organizing existence through metabolistic exchange in distinction from its environment.[10] Even a simple organism like a living cell sustains its own, self-enclosed existence by discerning good from bad sustenance. Thus, even at this primitive level, one can find a rudimentary form of intentionality, awareness, discernment, and cognition. In this purposeful, metabolistic, self-organizing effort of a living organism originates the sensed, bodily needs of lack and fulfillment. As we move up the ladder of complexity among living beings, with emergent sentience, these basic physical needs of lack and fulfillment become hunger, thirst, suffering, fulfilment, joy, and happiness.  

Two important conclusions follow from this this assessment of life. First, all material elements within a living organism are held together, integrated, and shaped by the purposeful self-organization of that living being. Contrary to Dawkins’ claim, genes, and genetic codes are not pre-existing information that code all of life, but they arise from and are shaped in the service of organic life itself.  Clearly, Dawkins has internalized a computational metaphor of genetic codes as software that run the evolutionary hardware, which he then misleadingly  imposes on life itself.[11]

Our second conclusion is that human interiority and consciousness are deeply rooted in biological life and therefore in continuity with it.[12]  Philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Jonas, and Evan Thompson, together with Thomas Fuchs, a clinical psychiatrist from Heidelberg, Germany, show that meaning is not what the mind makes of otherwise empty, mechanical sense-impressions. Human cognition is not based on mere pattern recognition by a computer-like brain. Rather, we experience a meaningful world as embodied subjects. Our body is not an inert exterior conductor of sense impressions to an interior, isolated mind. Rather, as Merleau-Ponty once put it, “our relationship to things is not a distant one: each speaks to our body and to the way we live. They [objects] are clothed in human characteristics (whether docile, soft, hostile or resistant) and conversely they dwell within us as emblems of forms of life we either love or hate.”[13]  In fact, this bodily perception of meaning is the very source of the intrinsic metaphoricity of language that Dawkins so obviously fails to grasp. We understand the meaning of human actions by likening them to how we relate to other objects or how we inhabit space. Thus, we say, “Love is like a Rose,” and we “get down to business.” Language itself demonstrates the corporeality of human interiority and perception.

Human interiority and consciousness are deeply rooted in biological life and therefore in continuity with it.

How did we get from the rich, embodied view of life we just described to Dawkins’ computational model of life as digital information?  In his book Barbarism, Michel Henry traces this development back to the astronomer, physicist, and engineer Galileo Galilei (1564-1652), who believed mathematics to be the language God inscribed into nature. Mathematics is the language of individuated objects and their relations, and this is certainly one way in which humans perceive the world. But it is only a very limited way of seeing. Neither life’s organic aspects of development, nor least of all human personal qualities like love, sacrifice, wisdom, and beauty can be captured by metrics.

The objectifying method of quantifying observation is only adequate for certain kinds of truths. As we all know, the objectifying method of scientific experiments requires scientists to abstract whatever they examine from the complex flow of life to observe and quantify an isolated “object” under stable, artificial laboratory conditions.  Over time, unfortunately, scientists began to take the abstraction for the real thing, and thus began to define life itself in non-living, quantifiable, functional terms. When this method is turned upon the living human subject, the interiority and intentionality—indeed all the sensible qualities that make up human experience—are set aside as secondary considerations, or even as illusions.

This mathematization of human experience developed gradually into an entire scientific-technological worldview that reduces everything to measurable  and predictable functions. This belief that life is fundamentally to be understood functionally, in which every human experience is boiled down to some kind of code, program, or mechanism, became most firmly entrenched with the rise of modern computational technology. The advent of cybernetics, computers, and robotics apparently has given us unprecedented license to explain everything from biological evolution to the function of the human mind and, indeed, life itself in terms of coded programs and mere exchange of information.

Over time, unfortunately, scientists began to take the abstraction for the real thing, and thus began to define life itself in non-living, quantifiable, functional terms.

Thus, we are creating a “techno-scientific world.” In this world, the living human subject becomes replaced by dead material and digitized functions. The natural sensations, perceptions, sufferings, and joys of our embodied, socially-oriented human life are replaced by the supposedly more objective truth that all of our subjective experiences are explicable as bio-chemical processes directed by evolutionary algorithms. As a result of this shift, we begin to treat human beings like quantifiable, programmable mechanisms subject to technical modification and improvement. As Henry explains, “in a society engendered by the blind self-development of techno-science… technical devices gradually replace the subjective practice of human beings.”[14] We have seen this replacing of subjective practice by technology in the policy announcements earlier: increasingly, human nature and human relations are becoming defined by and subservient to the possibilities of modern bio-technologies.

Conversely, as our understanding of human life diminishes, we no longer have a problem with attributing human qualities to machines. The transhumanist obsession with intelligence or even sentience in artificial intelligence is only possible once we have forgotten that sentience and intelligence are possible only on the basis of organic life. No body, no sentience; no human body, no intelligence or understanding. One of most important insights I gained over the last five years of research into technology and human flourishing comes from the computer scientist and Microsoft engineer Jaron Lanier. “AI,” he reminds us, “is nothing but a story we tell about our code.”[15]  This story, he confesses, was originally invented by tech engineers to procure funding from government agencies.

AI, in short, does not exist if one implies that machines actually think or feel with even the lowest form of consciousness we find in  organic life. Lanier warns that the whole gamut of computing technology erodes our self-understanding of what it means to be truly human. Lanier worries: “If you design a society to suppress belief in consciousness and experience—to reject any exceptional nature to personhood—then maybe people can become like machines.” The greatest danger, he concludes, is the loss of what sets us apart from all other entities, the loss of our personhood. His warning echoes the prophetic voices of other critics like the former software coder Steve Talbot, or the  philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who also worried that instead of adapting technology to human intelligence, we slowly conform human consciousness to the functional logic of machines.

As our understanding of human life diminishes, we no longer have a problem with attributing human qualities to machines.

Already in 1943, the Oxford Don and public Christian intellectual C.S. Lewis warned about the dire consequences of this development. In his prescient book The Abolition of Man, Lewis identified the human desire to master nature as the fundamental motivation behind the rising mechanization of life. He predicted three detrimental consequences of this scientific techno vision. First, to conquer nature we have to shrink it to a manageable size. Prior to the scientific revolution, nature stood for a material and spiritual order that contained objective norms for human flourishing. Nature contained not only the material, but also the noumenal, the sacred, and the spiritual dimensions that corresponded to human questions about the meaning of life. The Greek word cosmos we still use means “order” and harkens back to this original view of nature. Modern science stripped nature of all non-material values that formerly provided objective norms for human nature and human flourishing. Without recourse to this universal order, or what used to be called natural law, nothing is sacred, and we can no longer appeal to objective, natural standards for human flourishing or ethics.

Second, once nature has been reduced to raw material, human nature is sure to follow. “Human nature,” Lewis writes, “will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will be won. We [shall knit our own fate] and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.”[16] As we did with nature, we will re-imagine human beings as soulless, raw material that can be shaped at will by the power of technology.[17]  We will say, “let us decide for ourselves what a human being is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.”[18] This is exactly the position taken by transhumanists.

Third, and finally, Lewis raises the all-important political question: once the battle to conquer nature through technology has been won, whose victory is this?  “The battle [to master nature], he writes, will indeed be won, but who, precisely, will have won it?”[19]  Lewis’ answer  to this question is as insightful as it is sobering: “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.”[20] Lewis argues that our supposed mastery of nature will result in slavery— slavery to a functionalist view of nature, and to applied technology which will then be exercised by a political, technocratic elite who controls access to the power of technology over less privileged people.

Recovering our Humanity: The Importance of Personhood

I conclude with what I consider to be the only viable counter move to the current erasure of our human identity. I have learned over the years that criticism itself, as important as it is, cannot produce real change. It will do no good to attack the prevalent scientific-techno vision of reality unless we have something positive to put its place. We have to articulate and promote a more adequate understanding of ourselves as persons. We have said that the techno-scientific vision does away with the person, but what is a person?  To note the disappearance of something implies that we know what is missing. What exactly a person is, however, remains difficult to say. In one of the best modern books on personhood, the sociologist Christian Smith defines a person as follows:

By person I mean a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending centre of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who—as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions—exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with a non-personal world.[21]

Three features of the person in Smith’s definition are especially important. First, a person has a body. The spirit or presence of a human person exists for us only in bodily form. Second, a person is a free moral agent. Unlike other animals, human beings as persons can step outside of their immediate environment, and evaluate the world, themselves and others according to abstract ideals. This ability is the basis for the particular human quality of reasoning that makes possible art, literature, science, and religion.

Smith’s third feature of the person is the most crucial, because it takes us beyond the notion that human beings are merely rational animals. The human person is an “incommunicable self.”  That is to say, a person is not something exhausted by its definition. A person is not a thing nor merely the sum of certain characteristics. No doubt, certain abilities and features are always intrinsically part of a person, and help us to identify someone as John, Ruth, or Mary.  Yet a person’s self, as Smith says, is “incommunicable” and cannot be captured by even the most complete list of characteristics. This is so, because a person is not something, consisting of many individual parts, but rather a unique someone, who has, holds, and inhabits these features. In other words, persons are not like an onion, made up from layers of qualities, and when we peal back the last feature, we hold nothing in our hands.

The most severely handicapped person is as precious and worthy of our attention as great leaders in society. On this basis, and on this basis alone, can we approach social issues in a way that ensures humane solutions; neither disability nor human suffering and death are program malfunctions!

This incommunicable self, a presence irreducible to any particular identifiable quantity or quality, is the essence of personhood. It is a mystery impossible to capture in concepts or words, and yet nonetheless real. Our society must uphold this reality as the anthropological basis for our social practices and policies. Human beings are persons, and every person is an irreplaceable presence, no matter what his or her capabilities may be. The most severely handicapped person is as precious and worthy of our attention as great leaders in society. On this basis, and on this basis alone, can we approach social issues in a way that ensures humane solutions; neither disability nor human suffering and death are program malfunctions!

Earlier in this essay, I have already mentioned some philosophical resources for establishing human identity as that of living, embodied subjects. The Judeo-Christian tradition, in which my convictions are rooted, has contributed much to this view of human dignity. The Jewish tradition already taught that a personal creator God structures all of reality. Martin Buber made that clear in his pathbreaking work I and Thou. Christianity added to this teaching that God became human to demonstrate the true nature of this personal reality. The incarnation certainly confirmed, against all gnostic influences, the intrinsic importance of the body for being human.

Equally important, however, the incarnation also sketched out more fully what it meant to insist that human beings are made in God’s image. God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, showed human identity to be personal freedom lived in response to others, and so allowed individual freedom and difference to exist in communion bound together by love. Hear me well: I am not saying that Christianity single-handedly invented the concept of the person, nor were Christians consistently interested or successful in pursuing human dignity through their actions. At the same time, however, the concept of human persons would not have developed in the way I have described without the Christian message of God’s becoming human, suffering, and dying on the behalf of all, even for the “least of these,” in order to restore and perfect creation in the new humanity of Jesus Christ.

Those of you who are ancient world scholars will know how radically the idea of the incarnation changed the perception of human identity. Social status, race, or gender became secondary to the fundamental equality people had as those being made in God’s image. Moreover, the sacredness of the person now grounded the right to the sovereignty of the self and to bodily autonomy. No one could be sacrificed to a higher cause no matter what it is; not to the fatherland, not to the economy, not to the common good, not to saving the planet or whatever else media and politicians deem the highest cause.

Theologians of the early church constantly appealed to God’s philanthropy, his love for all of humanity regardless of status or ethnicity to  ground our recognition of every other fellow human being’s inviolable dignity.[22]  The early church preached that the eternal Word of God, Christ, in whose image we were created, loved the creature who had arrogantly turned away from him, so much that he entered into creation to the point of death to save it. The all-powerful God used his power in responsibility to redeem the weaker. For example, the patristic theologian Basil of Caesaria taught that Christ calls people to follow his example in becoming koinonikos anthropoi, that is, communal or social human beings who promote one another’s well being.[23]

Likewise, my favourite modern theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, argued that the incarnation not only founds the dignity of every human being but also teaches us that being human means to live in responsibility for other people. Because of Christ, who chose in his freedom to die for the sake of every human being, the human freedom that belongs to being made in God’s image is immediately tied to responsibility. Christ showed us, as patristic theologians were fond of saying, that being made in Christ’s image means being logikoi, that is, in conformity with Christ, the universal Logos  through whom all things were made. To be Christlike means to follow his example of recognizing in every other person the image of God; most importantly, Christ’s example defines love as the will to promote another’s well being. Perhaps the best image to describe this love is the mother-child relation. Ideally, from the first moment, a mother wills her child to flourish, and, ultimately, to become independent of her as another free, flourishing individual.

I hope that you, the reader of this essay, is getting a sense of the difference between this personalist vision of human identity and the computational metaphor evoked in the recent examples of public policy on societal improvement that I mentioned earlier. Shifting human identity from persons to functionality has a profoundly dehumanizing effect on how we conceive society. One does not respect a program, but rather control it, improve it, rewrite it; today, China’s current totalitarian technology-based surveillance state illustrates in real time the social and political future of a technocratically conceived society.  When persons become cell-phone batteries, compassion dies. When a technology no longer functions, we junk it and replace it with the next version.

Personhood negates utilitarianism, while the scientific-techno vision places functionality, efficiency, and usefulness at the heart of reality. Personhood cherishes freedom, difference, and creativity, within a framework of personal communion founded on mutual recognition in love. The scientific techno-vision, on the other hand, promotes conformity, groupthink, and reduces love to an emotion that can be simulated by robots. Personhood requires the proximity of the skin for schooling in empathy and neighbourly love. The techno-vision is satisfied with digital, remote contact because all we need is information exchange.

I don’t think it is too melodramatic to say that our only hope for stemming the immense force of the increasingly prevalent techno-vision is to establish to recover a more robust sense of our human identity. We need communities and institutions where we explore and celebrate together what it means to be human persons so that we may learn to use technology wisely, and perhaps even reverse the current trend of dehumanizing ourselves. Educational institutions and especially post-secondary research should focus on philosophical and theological anthropology to tackle the sociological, economic, medical, political, and ethical questions of our time. Moreover, religious communities, who have a tremendous formative and socializing power, have to recall their anthropological beliefs and speak out against inhumane, technocratic practices. Indeed, when necessary, we all need to resist political and structural impositions of the prevalent techno-vision. Nothing less than our humanity is at stake.

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[7] Michel Henry. Barbarism, 128.

[8] For those interested in this fascinating history and a corrective view of the scientific-technological vision, I highly recommend three books:  Jonas, Hans. The Phenomenon of Life (Evanston Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2001);  Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. On the Origins of Cognitive Science: The Mechanization of the Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009); Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Science of Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[9] Qtd. in Thompson, Mind in Life, 180. To be sure, there is a strong philosophical countercurrent to this techno-vision of life. Called variously “embodied cognition” or “enactive evolution,” this approach roots human consciousness and perception firmly in the complex dynamics of organic life and therefore rejects the reigning functionalism of cognitive science. See, for instance Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and the Human Experience (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2016), or Evan Thompson. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and The Sciences of the Mind (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010); Fuchs, Thomas. Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018). Embodied cognition, however, makes no perceivable impact on the trend to define and solve socio-economic issues in terms of the ruling techno-vision.

[10] See Evan Thompson, Life in Mind, chapter five “autopoiesis” pp. 91-127.

[11] Thompson, Life in Mind, 186-187.

[12] Thompson, Mind in Life, 129. This continuity must not mean that the human spirit is merely an upgraded, but otherwise seamless continuation of animal awareness. However, as Jonas puts, it, nothing speaks against the “prefiguration” of the human spirit in organic life (Das Prinzip Leben, 20).

[13] Ponty, The World of Perception, 49-50. (emphasis mine).

[14] Ibid., 135.

[15] Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

[16] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 59.

[17] Ibid. “It is in man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it . . . . The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be” (72-73).

[18] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 51.

[19] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 59.

[20] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 58.

[21] Christian Smith, What is a Person (University of Chicago Press 2010), 61.

[22] See here, for instance, Basil of Caesaria’s sermons on justice, “I will tear down my barns” in Basil the Great. On Social Justice. New York: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2009, 63.

[23] Ibid. Introduction, 32.

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