Humanism apparently died somewhere round the mid-nineteen sixties. Now the human is to be resurrected by technocrats and technologists—so-called “transhumanists.” This time not as flesh, as the Christian resurrected body, but through a machine that brooks no mortal coil. This machine will be the flesh of the digital believer. Through technological wizardry the “soft machine” will be extended past its biologically prescribed “natural” end. It will exist as pure mind, mere number and algorithm mediated by electric impulses in hardware. It is a materialism of electrons, a spiritualization of the periodic table of elements. Descartes’ ego in the pineal gland becomes consciousness on a circuit board.
The film Matrix carries the terrible image of the future Platonic cave. It is a potent symbol of the future that transhumanists are conscientiously building. Humanity awakens to find itself reduced to biological batteries—bare life. Why retain our composure when faced with the coming digital apocalypse? The death of human hope is giving birth to a monster, in the common parlance. The question of technology, as both Heidegger and his student Marcuse saw, is crucial to understanding this age, now dubbed the “anthropocene.”
The reified mind of late capitalism cannot under any circumstances be trusted to apply rational thought to questions of human existence. Philosophical reflection is desperately needed to remind science of the strict limits to human understanding, especially the ability to “solve problems.” The antinomies of human understanding as Kant revealed show us where human reason breaks down. They prove the benefits that accrue to human existence and human action when limits are followed. The danger is that transgressing this fortunate human margin—Augustine’s felix culpa—will lead straight to a new barbarism, not to “progress” let alone a digital utopia. Science fiction is not the place for thinking.
The field of transhumanist speculation does not qualify as a “scientific research project” but rather as naïve fantasy mongering. What good can possibly come of reducing the question of life to the most instrumental ends and relishing in figments verging on contempt in the face of actually existing society and its problems? Criticism needs to be aimed at fawning institutional support for the futile quest to transcend the human. The university is in fact the progenitor of these irresponsible musings. The merger of corporate and government economic interest in such fabulist narratives proves the cynical posturing of technocrats and elites. Worse still is the cooption of medical science in the ruse of extending human life well beyond its natural rate and state of decline or even more absurdly toward eternal life. The elixir of alchemy has been found by the soothsayers of the digital age. Despite some concern about the ethics of artificial intelligence, especially as applied to war, science glibly accepts this state of affairs with no audible philosophical opposition. Here one must unfortunately take over the theological language of morality and point out the immoral and unethical usurpation of human amelioration and the promesse de bonheur by vested technological interests, even if one must disagree with moral critique as a general basis for argument. All questions of the “interface” between technology and the human need to be put under the spotlight of critical thought.
Critical theory must again take seriously the thought of Heidegger and phenomenology as an antidote to the new scientism and the hubris of bio-genetics and technological prosthetics. Where there is hope in the new technology is precisely where critique needs to be directed in order to forestall disaster. One possible way to achieve this is to uphold an existential experience of death. Death is always my own-most death. Nevertheless it is imbued with love precisely because it affirms the mortal and transitory nature of all phenomena.
A number of twentieth century theologians sought to articulate a theology of the “person.” The framework of this “personalist” theology can be adopted as means of cross-examining the de-subjectivation promoted by various post-structuralists. Without a “concrete” notion of the person there is no feasible social intercourse or relationship to the other. The objective of structuralism was never about questioning the epistemological existence of the subject and the material envelope it inhabited, but rather of decentering political subjectivities that led to forms of historical oppression, including exploitation by the ruling class.
In Continental philosophy the phenomenological movement continued the tradition—lost due to strains of Cartesian positivism and scientism—dealing with embodied being. Heidegger brought out the deep structure of the ontological stance towards death. But Heidegger, like his teacher Husserl, abandoned the theological solutions to ontological aporia. Other twentieth century thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Martin Buber thematized love as the I-Thou relation hinging on a fundamental relationship both to the absolute other and to the human other. It is difficult to differentiate between Heidegger’s notion of “care” (sorge) and that of theological love (agape), but understanding this difference is necessary. The aversion to theological thinking persists in philosophy. It is helpful to remember that the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was always conceived as a “consuming fire,” never a Platonic essence or idea.
It is only in solidary “consciousness” and being that the true meaning of death is encountered. Death is never an isolated fact but always a communal event. According to one Buddhist sutra there are only two unassailable facts: that one is born alone and that one dies alone. In addition the Buddha’s last words where “be a lamp unto thyself.” It is clear such a solipsistic view represents the perspective of subjectivity antagonistic to the social hierarchy of the time. Yet in every “integral” society death is not a tragic fact but an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of both individual and communal existence. In individualistic societies this fact needs to be made explicit and acted on as a philosophical quest. That is the price of alienation, in Hegel’s sense, of the coming to consciousness of the spirit through freedom.
Epistemology, not metaphysics, is the core curriculum of philosophy thus conceived. Philosophy should deal with being as a category of existence, and not existence as a category of being. This distinction and formula, attributed to Sartre but denied by him as a simplification of his ideas, is nevertheless a fitting one. It foregrounds the social “person” and stands in opposition to the idealism of the “great chain of being” from Plotinus to Jacques Maritain.
The idea of the person in no way “naturalises” the subject as an essence. In fact it can easily be wedded to the theory of sociality and the critique of ideological subjection, from Marx and Antonio Gramsci to Louis Althusser and Judith Butler. The postmodern obsession with the subject and its death in order to properly situate the subject and its ever-changing guises ends up promoting the epistemological essence of capitalist exchange. The reification of the process of exchange as nature approaches the poststructuralist view of the subject in its social environment as mutable and adaptable. Adorno remarks that universal exchange and capitalist specialisation demands adopting the perspective of late capitalism in one’s style of thinking in order to create an appropriately negative and immanent critique of the false totality. Nevertheless the enemies of postmodern relativism are at least right to point out that thinking is always a thinking toward something by someone. To eradicate the speaker and the interlocutor for whom dialogue exists in the first place is to do away with the raison d’etre of thinking. The way language and discourse breaks down into a vicious hermeneutical circle prove that one cannot ever hope to eradicate the robust individual subject. The subject is the only “thing” that can think emancipation. And the crucial point is the fact that this particular “thing” is always a “person”—i.e. not liable to “objectification” however much administered society and its culture demands such objectification.
Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur are consistent in their navigation of these hermeneutical antinomies. Versed in phenomenology they never deny the facticity of subjectivity and “consciousness.” As adopted by literary criticism, and applied to texts, interpretation can nevertheless stray as far is it needs to. It is when such interpretative schemas are superimposed onto the social and translated into consistent theories of social being that philosophy gets twisted in knots, thus denying the self-reflexive truths that are its own.
The Nietzschean and existentialist trope of embracing death and accepting one’s fate—amor fati—is surely a hackneyed one in the literature. Yet it makes great sense, even from a psychological perspective, to constantly remind oneself of phenomenal contingency and not cling to the false promise of a beyond or of the eternal soul. Heidegger’s definition of the ontological predisposition of Dasein as a being toward death borrows from the ancients a healthy skepticism regarding the last things, ta eschata. The fact of extinction cannot be overcome simply by adopting a doctrine of resurrection or eternity. It is in this sense that the philosopher as skeptic embraces this world as the only ferry of meaning. She rejects as a mystification of this simple truth the doctrines and metaphysical schemas employed by ideology in every age. Religion has served not only to hide the truth of the passing away of all things, and the fabricated nature of all gods and creeds, but on the contrary has been the sole point where humans have managed to create meaning in solidarity with others equally ensnared by external conditions of servitude, penury and desperation. It is an opiate, in Marx’s formulation, that gives some relief under alienating conditions of labour and life. Hence the fact that organized religion does not in fact arise until such conditions of collective dissatisfaction have also arisen. Such consolation is not blameworthy since it displays redemptive qualities such as an implicit critique of political, social and economic oppression. By hating eternity one rejects the illusion of a life beyond the only one that one can be known with any certainty.
What needs to be said in relation to the false eternity of transhumanism is that the idea of extending life beyond its biological constraints is just as false and illusory as the consolations offered to the many by religion. In fact it is more deceptive and disingenuous since it is conscious of the economic divide it promotes. The individualism and hubris it rests on is actually the expression of a certain attitude to life under late capitalism. A critical perspective shows it represents the rejection of the most rudimentary ethic of concern for the other. It sits at the antipodes to Kant’s dictum to never treat another as a means but only ever as an end.
Of course it is all too easy to equate the transhumanist movement with the machinations of H. G. Wells’ “Dr. Moreau” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Before the rise of “Promethean science,” ideas like those of transhumanism were caricatured as precisely what was be to be guarded against. Making men into gods is a blasphemy against cosmic design: people are creatures, not gods.
The so-called “singularity” is the eschatological dogma of the transhumanist movement. Its promise of digital bounties under the auspices of technical mastery is breathtaking in its sincerity and terrifying in its nonchalant rejection of the somatic integrity of human existence. Yet without a biological envelope the person has no special meaning.
The tragic dimension of the “digital” transcendence of the human—a rejection of both materialism and theology—is not only that it leaves behind all notion or feeling for the integrity of the person. Rather, it is that it believes this nothing it hopes for is meaningful, despite promoting the end of all relationship to the material “other,” the other as person. To adopt Hegel’s dialectical thinking it has no “intuition” of the recognitive dynamic that informs our sense of self and being. It is nihilistic in the way it takes individualism to the abyss of non-relational and non-material “eternity.” The only thing that matters is extending the cogito, the centre of the individual’s “positive experiences” of the world. It is foreordained that all the marvels and abilities and cures that technology can muster will be added to this “consciousness.” Individualism reaches bathetic proportions. It is the reduction ad absurdum of capital accumulation. The cogito emerges as a super-being, a petty bourgeois monad, now lord over death.
Gone is the personal extinction that once defined a human life. What no longer registers is the fact that the negation of death or the hope for extended existence is a symbolic presentiment, and that its realization is futile: it would merely reproduce the condition of every form of mania, schizophrenia and ego inflation. In other words it is pathological through and through. It is “abnormal psychology” taken as a recipe book for the workshop of the future.
Transhumanism is also aesthetically dead to the richness of human symbolic forms in which death has always been the inner sanctum of mystery religion, a truth that draws people together acting as a communal event-horizon. For transhumanism death is to be cast as a means for further fragmenting, separating and segregating society.
The invention of miracle cures, the means of extending the capacities of “thinking” and “memory,” and the prostheticization of the flesh will end up pushing capitalist exchange in new authoritarian directions. Technical advances will initially only be open to a few. The future augurs a new caste system split down the middle between the new and the old, between static and augmented being. What will become of merely human capacities can only be guessed at, although the doctrine of eugenics has taught us that the capacity for cruelty, violence and fascism also accompanies technical and scientific “progress” and development. The ubermenschen will enjoy a pathological disconnection from biological existence in keeping with their psychopathy. Anthropic principles make way for machinic ones. But how can one speak of non-human principles without becoming a metaphysician?
Philosophically things are dire. With the dominance of technological rationality the connection to biological being is sundered including the meaning-making that renders embodied existence resistant to literal nothingness. Sense perception has strict limits without which one cannot observe the heavens or contemplate and appreciate nature’s bounties. In fact, even if deep aesthetic experience of existence as a value in-itself were somehow retained in a new form the symbolic resonance of such existence with the whole history of human society would already be forgotten, except as “information.” Positivism makes way for informatics. Even the erotic intentionality that phenomenology once described as part of religious peak experiences will be explained away as a synaptic event. Eros will be made redundant through monotonous repetition, not unlike the addict tiring of everyday life.
That is where technology meets the death drive. It is not the experience of the divine that will be lost but the distance that separates the person from “religious” experience, from wonderment. Banal molehills of pleasure and the fetish of “new” experiences will replace aspiration toward the providentially unattainable mountain of ontological transcendence and self-recognition. Something of this solipsistic nausea and world-weariness already afflicts people who squander their lives living vicariously via “social media.”
This same mechanism will mar the interpretative capacity of the human mind leading to the inability to extend a helping hand when needed. The communicative competencies granted through language will be reduced to algorithmic decision-making. All experience will be reified beyond recognition, purely “virtual,” the ne plus ultra of commodification. One will purchase inner experiences via a device, perhaps grafted onto one’s body.
Still more depressing is the vision of absolute virtuality in which the biological disappears and consciousness persists as a mere will-o’-the-wisp within the coding of a machine. The gates of hell of transhumanist dreaming hypostatizes schizophrenia as the apotheosis of human history. It is the final act and victory of an unbridled and consistent nihilism of consumer society and the law of accumulation.
Is one to believe that such digital nightmares will compensate for the loss of human interaction between biological organisms, that any sane and rational person desires such a meeting of disembodied minds in fields of electrons and positrons? Heaven was always the promise of love and relation to the other. Unfortunately the termination of late capitalist epistemology and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall via technological competition fares worse than any former vision of a decent into barbarism. It is the complete destruction of all possibility for civilisation let alone socialism.
The bleak view that transhumanism offers hides behind an inflated rhetoric of fulfilling the ultimate dreams of humanity. The truth is it augurs the disappearance of “being in the world” in preference for machine “consciousness” with no living connection to history. This vision of eternity in the world is pure negation of any substantial notion of personal fulfillment, of amelioration and utopia. Such technological hubris is a dangerous manifestation of social control and domination.
The idea that a machine can replicate consciousness, the goal of all endeavors within the field of artificial intelligence, should now be recognized for the absurdity it is. Any phenomenon that claims to ape human intelligence will in essence always be ersatz consciousness, a degraded form of rationality. One can infer this conclusion by the very fact that any possible intelligent machine will lack not only tradition and history but also the means for interpersonal communication and relationship. Emotional, existential and other affective depths are uniquely human, and even separate humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. What is unassailable is the unique human capacity for speech and communication, and the will to plan for a future. It is this simple existential deficit in its projections that makes the theory of artificial intelligence so weak. There is no strong machine intelligence, only dumb machine rationality.
The phenomenological method quickly reveals how intimately connected consciousness is to interpersonal relationship and how the apprehension of phenomena cannot be reduced to perception but must take stock of what is called “intentionality,” of an object appearing for me. Phenomena are never merely registered but “experienced,” as the theory of “embodiment” proves. Philosophical hermeneutics in addition stipulates that being is only possible through interpretation in a world—an always-already interpreted world. History and tradition are therefore humanizing, are what make us human, as opposed to mere automata.
The whole idea that artificial intelligence will serve humans in the future begs the question why such “intelligence” would ever factor in decisions that can only be made by citizens with interests in their own sovereignty. Citizenship is coterminous with agency and initiative. Autonomy is threatened by the presence of true machine “intelligence.” Machines are tools, not agents. One should reject the functionalist and systems view of organisation in which social questions are reduced those of form, opening the road to algorithmic manipulation. Every social problem is also the expression of a political will whether of a group or an individual. There is no denying some solutions emerge by keeping a distance from interest and concern. But it is different if one is talking about authority resting in artificial intelligence. All authority resides in human community, the power of constituting by contractual or other collective consent. Human community is also grounded in rights and upholds doctrines of equality and universal franchise. The injection of machine intelligence equal to the human dissolves this political contract. It necessitates a new contract with lifeless matter, a being without any possible political presence. As I alluded to before, the collusion with non-biological life is dehumanizing in the most nihilistic possible sense since it posits an outside to the historical community. Without a horizon of interpretation and armed only with binary codes and electrons, politics becomes a phantom concept. And one has not even begun to speak about love, the love found through personal, family relationship or civic-mindedness. Machine intelligence does not have the capacity for understanding or participating in community and forming appropriate judgments. Quality gives way to the reign of quantity. More experience, more data, more information, without knowledge of limits, of the fortunate limits that make existence what it is. The bounds and margins of biological life constitute the promise of goodness and beauty. The human margin makes even intense pain meaningful. Next to the promised digital paradise the exploitation of the recent phase of industrial capitalism will be pined for as a lost utopia. The schizophrenia and schizo-ontology of the digital age and anthropocene has nothing standing in its way except reason. Every technical advance leads to the loss of both non-human species and human species-being …