Human or inhuman? A philosophy of the posthuman

Theo Wobbes is a PhD student in the research group Philosophy. His supervisor is P.P.C.C. Verbeek from the faculty of Behavioural, Mangament and and Social Sciences.

This study investigates the relation between the human and the posthuman. Human enhancement technologies should make it possible for human beings to redesign themselves, at least partially, which might result in alterations that take the human being beyond itself, toward a ‘posthuman’ being. The philosophy behind human enhancement is often called ‘transhumanism’ and assumes that the current human being has physical and cognitive limitations that can be overcome via biomedical science and technology. The resulting ‘posthuman’ is intended to have capacities the current human does has have: a better condition, a longer life, higher productivity, a better memory, a larger capacity for enjoyment, and a higher morality. To what extent can this posthuman, defined as the self-designed successor of the current human being, still be considered a human being? And how to explain that an organism originating from nature comes to the idea to take its own evolution in hands?

To answer these questions, this study builds on and expands philosophical-anthropological analyses of what it means to be human, most notably on the theory of the German philosopher and zoologist Helmuth Plessner. The central concept in Plessner’s approach is ‘eccentricity’: the human capacity to have a relation to themselves, which gives them the intrinsic ambiguity to relate to the world from a ‘center’ while occupying a place outside that center. This eccentricity also gives human beings an ambiguous relation to their bodies: they both ‘are’ and ‘have’ a body.

On the basis of Plessner’s approach, this study develops two lines of analysis: one ‘biological’, the other ‘transcendental’. The biological line takes an evolutionary perspective, and focuses on the biological elements of Plessner’s approach. The ‘synchronic’ or ‘transcendental’ character of Plessner’s philosophy makes it impossible to think the human origin or the development of human life: it explains the structure of being-human, rather than its biological origins. To explain the technological character of human existence, and to investigate a potential development towards a posthuman being, therefore, his ideas need to be supplemented with those of other thinkers. The question is how to explain technicity as an element of the development of the human, rather than merely transcendentally. How to explain the development of technique and technology in relation to the development of the human, and in relation to the human pursuit of innovation? How does this evolutionary perspective help to understand the relation between the human and the posthuman?

The second line has a transcendental character, and refers to the relationship human beings have with their biological body. As human enhancement can only be accomplished by manipulating the physical body, a further philosophical investigation of the body is needed. Plessner’s work has a special place here because he thinks the body from a third-person perspective: the ‘eccentric positionality’. In relation to this, he makes a distinction between the physical or biological body, Körper (the body that we ‘have’), and the lived body, Leib (the body that we ‘are’). They can, however, not be separated and should be considered as a unity of two: a Doppelaspekt (double aspectivity). From this transcendental perspective, the question of the relation between the human and the posthuman takes the shape of studying the effects of manipulating the physical body on the lived body, and on the social functioning of the person who is simultaneously aware of her physical and her lived body.

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the dissertation that presents the question of this study, and briefly explains its central concepts, like the ‘posthuman’ and ‘transhumanism’. It briefly introduces what philosophical anthropology means, and gives an overview of the line of argumentation of the dissertation.

Chapter 2 investigates the idea of human enhancement from historical perspective. Even though modern medicine is only two centuries old, it originated in the seventeenth century, when Descartes started to approach the body as a machine. In the biomedical sciences this idea has remained influential up till now, and has been a basis on which these sciences have developed. I show how the work of Michel Foucault explains how, in the period around the French Revolution, a transformation of thinking about being ill totally changed the character of medical knowledge. A new epistèmè, a new medical epistemological field, came into being, giving diseases a place in the body, eventually leading to detecting specific points of application for rational treatment. The ultimate consequence of this epistemological turn is that the body became an ‘object’ that is to manipulate scientifically. I will argue that this specific property is the basis of the idea of human enhancement.

In chapter 3, I first explain what human enhancement means and give some examples of contemporary technologies and possibilities. It will become clear that enhancement technologies have existed since time immemorial and that cosmetics may be considered as human enhancement as much as plastic surgery is. While enhancing cognitive or physical capacities technologically has a more invasive character, I will argue that in the fields of pharmacological enhancement, genetic manipulation, and anti-aging technology there have not been many concrete results yet. Secondly I will discuss some critical comments of well-known bioconservative thinkers like Leon Kass, Jürgen Habermas, Michael Sandel and Francis Fukuyama, and contrast their thoughts with those of proponents of human enhancement. I will argue that bioconservative ideas on human existence are typically too essentialistic, by contesting their implicit or explicit understanding of ‘human nature’. While bioconservatives urgently advise to refrain from human enhancement as it would threaten basic human values and even the basis of human morality, I will show that human nature also entails creativity and self-design. This shows the urge to find a middle ground between bioconservative stances on the one hand and radical transhumanistic stances on the other, that aim to leave the human being behind altogether.        

Chapter 4 addresses the philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, as it is worked out in his work Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (Levels of organic life and the human). From a phenomenological perspective, Plessner defines the specific characteristics that distinguish humans from animals and plants. The core of his thinking lies in ‘Positionalität’ (positionality, being positioned): the position that living organisms have in relation to the world. He compares the positionality of plants, animals, and humans, the first having an open positionality, the second being centrically living beings and the human living eccentrically. Eccentric positionality can be understood as the position in which a human being as a person is standing behind or above him- or herself, and which enables him or her to reflect. While Plessner describes this characteristic, he does not explain it biologically – even though he also states that the human being originates from nature.

He clarifies the character of beings that have this characteristic of eccentricity in terms of the ‘boundary principle’; the human is living at both sides of a boundary, both as body and as a mind, and at the same time being a unity of both. In addition, he holds the idea that the human is ‘undetermined’ (auf Nichts gestellt): it has to make itself. It is free in its actions, but without natural certainties to lead it and to show it the way. From this positionality, the human becomes conscious of having a Körper (physical body), having that Körper as Leib (lived body), and of living in a Mitwelt (shared world) that is carrying him or her. Plessner defines the ambiguity of having a body and being a body at the same time as the Doppelaspekt (double aspectivity) of human existence. Human’s eccentric positionality enables to see that it is a constitutive part of a shared world. Being is in essence being one with the other.

Plessner defines three basic laws of anthropology founded in the eccentric positionality of the human. The first law is called that of natural artificiality, meaning that human beings are dependent by nature on artificial resources. The human is continuously in a constitutive condition of unbalance (konstitutive Gleichgewichtslosigkeit) due to his eccentric positionality; he has no ‘natural’ place and has to rely on artificial means to satisfy its needs (clothing, housing). Due to this on-going condition of unbalance, it is constantly trying to restore the lost balance or equilibrium (Herstellung des Gleichgewichts) through continuously pursuing the new. By developing ways to be less dependent of nature the human is able to take life in its own hands, which is a driving force for all cultural manifestations.

The second anthropological law is that of mediated immediacy. The human has a direct as well as an indirect relation to the world around it and to itself. He experiences the consequences of this mediated immediacy in various cultural manifestations. Plessner ascribes great importance to language as a means to express oneself and as a socially stabilizing factor. Language makes it possible for humans to function in a shared world.

The third, and final, anthropological law is that of the utopic standpoint. It can be formulated shortly as follows: as the human being is reflecting on itself, it realizes to be null and void. This raises the desire for the existence of something absolute, a Definitivum, a solid ground to counterbalance the human’s instability. The three anthropological laws lead to the assumption that the human is constantly under way and restless, trying to compensate for the disturbances in his balance (Herstellung des Gleichgewichts).

Chapter 5 is dealing with the empirical-transcendental distinction that arises studying Plessner’s philosophical anthropology. His philosophy has a ‘synchronic’ character and for that reason it is not able to explain the origin of eccentric positionality or developments in human existence. I explicate how Plessner’s idea of eccentric positionality may be interpreted against the background of the way in which he presents the differences between the human and other living organisms. Eccentric positionality may be considered as a transcendental condition that makes being human possible. But if the human originates from nature, this eccentric positionality is not only transcendental, but empirical as well. I therefore analyse the synchronicity of Plessner’s philosophy, and the tensions that arise between transcendental and empirical thinking. Its aim is to historicize eccentric positionality and particularly the anthropological law of natural artificiality and the origin of the social community (Mitwelt) that can be traced back on it. I demonstrate that eccentric positionality and its connections to the anthropological laws have indeed a biological and material history and should not be interpreted exclusively transcendentally.

Philosophical arguments for this are given by the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who, in his work Technics and Time 1, shows that the human has always been a ‘technological’ or ‘prosthetic’ being, dating as far back as the Stone Age when it used the hard quartz flint to manufacture tools. He explains that the human relationship with technics has no a priori. During its evolution a process of exteriorization (extériorisation) happened, which means that tools are externalized but at the same time the exterior was internalized. The interior and exterior have shaped each other. This way of thinking challenges a purely transcendental approach.

Stiegler makes clear that at the same time also the development of language in relation to technics (techno-logic) may be considered as the basis of a social community and cannot be thought separately. The furtherance of the human can be attributed partly to technology, which is, in its turn, developed by the human itself. This relationship between humans and technology is gradually established genetically and epiphylogenetically, and is, according to Stiegler, the most important step in the evolution of the human species. This is how the synchronic character of Plessner’s philosophy can be placed in a diachronic perspective. The process of human development that Stiegler develops philosophically is in agreement with the theory of niche construction that I will describe in the next chapter.

In chapter 6 I explain how the development of a technological culture can be investigated with Plessner’s philosophical anthropology. The chapter consists of three sections. The first section starts with a short reflection on the interpretation of culture in the early years of the twentieth century and shows that Plessner differs at that point from some of his contemporaries. I go into ideas of some others about the essence of culture and show that unlike Plessner’s idea, culture was not connected with a natural origin. As explained, Plessner’s philosophy has a synchronic character, and critics indicate that it is impossible to think it diachronically. I show, however, that the concept of unbalance (konstitutive Gleichgewichtslosigheit) may be considered as a heuristic instrument in order to understand a development in a culture. Plessner indicates explicitly that in human’s quest for balance, striving for the new is necessary to obtain balance. If the human is continuously both striving for balance and looking for the new, the interaction between these activities may be considered as an adaptation mechanism. Creativity is of crucial importance in this process. This adaptation mechanism gives human culture a dynamic property and makes it possible to think Plessner’s philosophical anthropology diachronically.

In the second section I discuss modern theories on cultural development. A current view is that, next to other mechanisms, there is a coevolution between genome and culture, which reciprocally influence each other. Innovative activities, including technology, eventually had a great influence on the development of the human species. In a reciprocal relationship, the human being has created a niche in its culture that enabled it to grow into the being that we call now the modern human. This approach is named ‘niche construction theory’. This mechanism of niche construction, according to Wheeler and Clark, has also changed the cognitive capacities of the human. In other words: The human is continuously adapting to the environment through which it is changing itself, a reciproque process that, in fact, is analogous to the human tendency to find balance. The knowledge of successive generations has anchored in the brain of our offspring and resulted in the extended cognitive system of the contemporary human, a brain in which all knowledge and resources from the past are at his disposal. The extended cognitive architecture, the orientation to its environment, guarantees that the human is open to change.

What is the position of the philosophical anthropology of Plessner in this discourse? Is there really such a thing as an extended cognitive architecture or an extended mind, as claimed by Wheeler and Clark? Isn’t that in fact reinstating a dualistic point of view? Eccentric positionality is as a transcendental human characteristic projected outside the human being (behind/above him). The consequence is that it may be considered as a third-person perspective on the inner world, the outer world and the shared world. It is the outside-located shared world that is the basis for human existence and determines his actions. In other words: A human being is always located outside of itself in a shared world in which its thinking takes place, a situation that also influences its way of thinking. The human is, as it were, immersed in its shared world, its social environment that has a thoroughly technological character. Human thinking is not ‘extended’ by technology; human thinking is always influenced by the mediating characteristic of technology that is part of the shared world.

In the third part of the chapter I carry on explaining that the social community (Mitwelt) is a prerequisite for the development of technology. I further develop this idea with a short discussion of the work of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who introduced the term ecotechnie, signifying the human technological condition. I explain this idea in relation to health on the basis of his essay The Intruder that he wrote after undergoing heart transplantation. From a phenomenological perspective he implicitly describes what it means for a person to be conscious of having a physical body (Körper), to undergo a medical intervention, and what the consequences are for the lived body (Leib). He concludes that a human can only yield to that what he has set to work. It appears that Plessner as well as Nancy experience the physical body as strange and that the consequence may be that it is considered as an object that can surrender itself to the developments taking place in the social environment and particularly through technological developments. Nancy indicates that the body is ex-posed, in its strangeness handed-over, to the technological environment (ecotechnie).

Chapter 7 brings the analysis and expansion of Plesnner’s work in relation to the discussion on human enhancement. I explain Plessner’s analysis of the so-called Doppelaspekt (dual aspect) of Körper and Leib. From the perspective of eccentric positionality, a person is conscious of having a physical body (Körper) and being a lived body (Leib) and is at the same time being a member of the Mitwelt, the shared world or social community. The consciousness of the person of having a lived body makes it possible for her to live with her physical body as a mediating instrument in relation to the world. I show that the physical body is in fact a function of the lived body and that both have a functional relationship with the shared world. This means that changes in the one may have consequences for the other. Moreover, the lived body, as it is founded in the physical body, is the manifestation of the person that is conscious of her surrounding and is able to have a relationship with other persons in the shared world. This means that a functional relationship can be thought between the physical body, the lived body and the shared world. When also the physical body is involved in the philosophical discussion on human enhancement, a more nuanced picture is obtained as to the bodily limitations that should also be respected opposed to those that are often set for embodied (leibliche) functions. I thus open the way to consider the physical body as a thing that can be manipulated and investigate what the practical and ethical consequences of this conception are.

This triadic functional relationship gives a perspective to better understand the concepts of the human nature and the human condition, that are often used in the human enhancement debate. I show how the concepts of the human nature and the human condition can be explained, taking the intertwining of the physical and the lived body into account. These concepts cannot be considered as essentials but are interdependent and contribute in tandem to being human. I emphasise that their characteristics are not fixed. Human nature is not only biologically determined but also under continuous influence of the changing environment in a broad sense. The total of the influences ultimately determines what the position of the human is and how it is living its life at a given moment. The human nature and the human condition continuously change over time, and eccentric positionality is the condition of possibility for this. I will show that the concept of the human nature that is often used in critical discussions on the application of biomedical technologies is not always adequate.

Bioconservative thinkers as Fukuyama, Sandel and Habermas develop arguments to reject human enhancement because essential human characteristics would be lost, like human nature or human dignity and morality. I show that their criticism is based on wrong assumptions and explain that changing lived body aspects (leibliche) may also lead to a changed physical body. Their criticism is not nuanced enough as they have no thorough understanding of factors that may have influence on human existence.

In the last paragraph I address the body-thing character (Körperding) of the human body based on Plessner’s idea that the physical body is in fact a ‘thing among things’. I make a distinction between the physical body as a ‘technical object’ and as an ‘epistemic object’. For technical objects, the characteristics are established and well known, while for epistemic objects the reactions on manipulation are not always known and must be awaited. By using this distinction, it becomes clear that problems may arise when manipulating the physical body as an object. I elaborate the idea that this epistemic object that has developed in an evolutionary way, has characteristics and qualities that should be respected, as manipulation may lead to severe damage if it is not tailored to or compatible with it. In manipulating the human body or extending it by whatever means, the physical body should basically be considered as an epistemic object. The possibilities and limitations of it should always be the centre around which plans are developed. The physical body is, in this respect, the measure of things but at the same time the conjoint lived body of which the person is both aware. This calls for a way of thinking that matches with the old Hippocratic principle: in the first place do not harm (primum non nocere).

In chapter 8 I answer the question whether the human, if transformed into the posthuman, has been changed in such a way that it is a fundamentally different being than it was before. On basis of that which has come forward out of this study, my conclusion is that it in fact belongs to the human being to change himself continuously. After all, it is an essential human characteristic to pursue the new in order to satisfy desires and needs. Plessner states that physical characteristics don’t constitute being human per se, but only its type of positionality. That, however cannot be changed with any kind of technology. Also as posthuman, he will still be human.