Flight into the trans-human realm and the misery of power
But homo faber has not yet reached the end. It is not just the environment we can change, but the human organism can be changed, too. When improvement of the environment hits its limits - even triggering developments which run counter to our intentions - then the question arises of why human beings do not simply adjust to their environment instead of subjecting the environment to their human needs and greeds. Should someone invent a new body for us, less demanding, tougher, more long-lasting? Or is it not true, that the difficulties in the relationship between humans and the environment are actually rooted in us human beings? Are we a flawed product of nature?
The human body in this view is characterized by deficits; we need to use our intellectual strengths to compensate for what we are lacking in instinctual security and adaptation to nature. This is an old anthropological idea -except that there is no natural niche in the environment for human beings to adapt to. It is also an age-old dream that our intelligence may not just help us to cope with our biological deficits by manipulating our environment - that is by working on nature - but that we may become able to undo these deficits themselves. It is the dream of the fountain of youth, of life everlasting, of human beings becoming creators of themselves.
Today humanity pursues the traces of this dream in two scientific-technical ways; a biological one and a mechanical one. At the biological frontier researchers are currently busy working on the most serious biological flaws through embryo-medical and stem cell biological technologies, hoping to eventually improve the physical substratum of our species as a whole. Medical research, of course, also includes pharmacology on which rests no small hope of human enhancement, as it is called today. At present, the peak of this development is the attempt to manipulate our emotions, and especially the feeling of love in the form of erotic attraction and even aversion (Young I Alexander, 2014). Here we are finally promised medical cures for love-sickness, vain longing, dying feelings between people married for a long time, fears of being unattractive - the whole enterprise geared not to relieving us from the emotional causes of impotence and frigidity, but to dealing with the symptoms. What a promised land we are entering! The connection of love with suffering and tragedy would finally become obsolete. But would the loss of all spontaneity be acceptable in the light of this paradise? 1 don’t think so: it would be the denial of the end of an age-old pillar of human civilization (maybe even of the universe) - love as an emotion. Already sexuality in its function as the most intimate and very effective bond between two individuals is becoming undermined by the misuse of pharmaceuticals. The possibility and availability of means to manipulate the hormonal dimension of our feelings would be a disaster, even for sexuality.
The other frontier of “enhancement” research and development is concerned with constructing materials, machines and control instruments with which to actually replace or at least strengthen deficient organs. “In the light of the far-reaching progress we are expecting in synthetic chemistry, information theory and general systems theory”, Stanislaw Lem already wrote in 1964 in his Summa Technologia:
... the human body is going to be shown up as the most imperfect element of the world of the future. Human knowledge will outstrip the biological knowledge that has been accumulated in living organisms. Then plans, which now we consider ridiculous in the light of evolution’s achievements, will be realized.
Without doubt, such developmental orientations belong to the inventory of Western civilization, part of the essential nature of the European mind. Who would like to do without dental prostheses, contact lenses or pacemakers? Only when it comes to artificial intelligence do we feel a little queasy, but at the current stage of its development no problems have yet arisen which are essentially different from those that come up with other forms of extensive technology.
In the realm of biological interventions, we more quickly reach a limit where, on a moral level, problems cannot be resolved. Without doubt the huge growth in world population creates inconceivable suffering, directly in the form of hunger and persistent illness, indirectly by creating an ecological disaster. At the same time, our growing knowledge of the prenatal life of human beings makes any thought about abortion difficult to contemplate, even without considering religious dogma. Is it not just an impertinence to have to decide whether a child with a genetic disease should perhaps not be born in view of the amount of suffering for child and parents brought about by such a birth? But such dilemmas are coming up more and more frequently, and they are rooted in our own demiurgic essence. Here emotions run high and aggression abounds. It is “interesting,” to use a “cool” expression, that pro-lifers have turned to violence, even murder in the States.
For in trying to improve our physical basis, using the means of instrumental reason, in the final analysis we humans do nothing but follow our instinct for self-preservation. The problem does not really lie in the attempt itself, but in the one-sided mechanistic understanding of nature with which this agenda is promoted. In the research practice of the natural sciences too, increasingly sinister questions arise with urgency. As we gradually learn more about the body’s capacity to remember as far back as the pre-natal state -what kinds of psychological consequences may arise from in-vitro inseminations and other techniques of embryological interventions? At present, excessive belief in progress based on a mechanistically delimited understanding of nature is pitted against a somehow religiously inspired sanctification of nature - and there is no common language between these positions.
From a Gestalt therapeutic perspective however, we are mainly concerned with developing a mode of perception which is attentive, concentrated and entails all senses; a perception able to notice all aspects of the presenting situation in their interdependent entanglement. The point is to sense what we touch and to allow it to speak to our senses, before the touch becomes an intrusion. Of course, this does not disregard the fact that some interventions are necessary, but with sharpened perception they might be carried out with embodied mindfulness and empathy deriving from it and therefore also perhaps with other ways and means of establishing limits. From this perspective we are always concerned with a calm, relaxed concentration on our sensuous experience of the world as it is given to our bodies and particularly to our senses. This perspective assumes that only through contact with the senses do hidden interconnections become accessible to awareness, which we have to respect. For the history of the sciences teaches us that the more interconnections we decode, the more mysterious the overall interdependence which is revealed - so that it pays to accept the unknown more deeply and widely than we are currently doing.
The flight into the trans-human realm, into a fantasy of a biologically or technically essentially different form of physicality, thoughtlessly passes by the barely known and as yet unfathomed richness of our senses. For it isn’t those prostheses for our senses - microscopes and telescopes and hearing aids - which truly improve our perceptual capacity. Our senses, however expanded and refined by prostheses, are always components of our cerebral being-in-the-world-in-just-this-way. It pays to pursue an understanding of our physical condition, of our evolved bodies, more deeply and widely than we do at present. We should pursue our sensory experience with embodied awareness before we should even begin to think about changing our physical nature, possibly changing it in its very essence. What makes some modern science limited as it spreads everywhere in a technically biased and foreshortened way, is the fact that it seems to always give priority to what is practicable as opposed to allowing space for nature’s wonderful complexity, its mysterious constitution to rise into awareness The foremost place in this mysterious realm is occupied by our brain, this “Three-pound Universe’’ (Hooper I Teresi, 1986), of which our senses and emotions make up an essential part. And exactly here Lem commits a major anthropological error when implicitly he thinks about the brain without a body, an un-embodied brain. The brain thinks and feels with the body; an un-embodied brain is the product of bad science-fiction fantasy, anthropologically unthinkable due to the holistic nature of our organism and the process character of its being-in-environment. We are far removed from comprehending our one and only irreplaceable organ of understanding, but even where it has deficits we recognize its wonders.4 This is true for all the particular senses: what hearing and seeing, touching and tasting actually mean for our reality construction we may best learn from those intrepid researchers who investigated their own loss of sensory input, who - even in the silence of their deafness, the darkness of their blindness - turned to these phenomena with a great deal of embodied awareness. In principle there is no objection against the undertaking of further developing the “auto-evaluative potency” of human beings (Lem). But even with all our demiurgic capabilities, we humans must always perceive ourselves as embedded in environments on which we existentially depend -indeed, they co-define us. We still know far too little about this interdependent relationship and cannot therefore afford to take action other than with the greatest caution and awareness - very slowly in any case -whenever we think we can improve something in the evolutionary process. It is far less important today to transform the world than to experience it with all our senses - in leisure and with love.
Finally, there is the question of why we have so intransigently declared war on our mortality, even as we know that death will conquer all anyway. It is almost as if we had begun to hate whatever is organic because it is transient. But even in that hate we are still tied to our senses, since it is only through our capacity for sensory perception in human time-span parameters that the transience of organic matter has a special status compared to the transience of inorganic life forms. We just might eventually learn to experience even weakness, decay, dying and disappearing with embodied mindfulness - with appreciation.
The German philosopher and theologian Christopher Quarch summarized in a wonderful way what we are concerned with here,
Profound humanity - as we can learn from the (old) Greeks - is fed by knowledge about our mortality. To acknowledge this, embrace it with love and to celebrate life - in the knowledge of its unavoidable end - in all its facets as a play - that still has to be the appropriate program for a conscious humanity. Simply to be a human being, this also means not to have to be God, not immortal, not limitless. The expansion of the limits set to human beings as promoted by contemporary trans-humanists and apostles of Human Enhancement like Ray Kurzweil, from a Greek perspective is nothing but hubris, an assault on humanity. Considered in the light of day, trans-humanism is the end of humanity. Deeper humanity will not unfold through technical optimization but will emerge from celebrating our mortality.
Those life-denying efforts that go into not wanting to die - so characteristic for our culture - are a consequence of our society demanding autonomy from its individual members even while it increasingly denies autonomy to its collective membership. In consequence, the modern character experiences a deep fear of letting go, of surrender, letting itself fall into full contact - as if when the other acknowledges and touches me I was losing myself; as if 1 was delivered into the other’s power. The desire for power is only the other side of fearing powerlessness; loss of individual autonomy. At this point we should ask a question we usually avoid: What is the relationship of power and identity? For it seems as if a stable and secure sense of Ego-identity depended on an oppressive relationship with one’s own self and one’s environment, apparently dependent on self-control and world domination. The price for this false security is life itself: the feeling of aliveness, and the experience of being enriched. The more we cultivate our ability for embodied mindfulness the less the ever-new processes of self-unfolding-in-contact need to use the crutches of power and identity.
1 For James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, see Lovelock (2000; 2006); also compare Durrell (1986). The best recent summary of the climate catastrophe I know of was for some time: Jorgen Randers’ 2052 - A Global Forecast for the next Forty Years
- (2012). But since then the new IPCC (International Panel of Climate Change) report by the UN was published in October 2019 showing that climate change progresses much faster than scientists had been able to forecast in the decades before (www.ipcc.ch).
- 2 I am not speaking here of the German “Angst”, which is a more existential feeling related to melancholia. Compare: Anna Wierzbicka's fascinating book Emotions across Languages and Cultures (1999), with a special case study on "German Angst”.
- 3 The unexpected consequences of planned action have been a well-known topic for a long time in the social sciences. Compare Robert K. Merton’s classic text Manifest and latent functions (Merton, 1957); also compare Dreitzel I Stenger, 1990.
- 4 Compare the amazing case histories which the neurologist Oliver Sacks reports in his books. See for instance Sacks (1985; 1984). In these books he clearly shows - as Freud said - that even in adults the Ego is first and foremost a bodily Ego.