Posthumanism is an ethically ambiguous concept that refers to social movements and ideas about transcending the concept of what it means to be human by technological manipulation or augmentation. While skeptics fear new forms of oppression, enthusiasts not only promote the possibilities, but also claim that with a pending environmental collapse, transforming ourselves beyond humanity may be the only option of securing our species' survival.
Keywords Biopower; Cyborg; Gestaltpsychologie & Völkerpsychologie; Governmentality; Human Genome Project (HGP); Nanotechnology; Transhumanism; Übermensch (Super-human, Overman); Uploading
Explicit caution is needed to speak scientifically about a concept such as posthumanism. The concept immediately calls up in one's mind images from the science fiction movies and novels that have pervaded modern culture. While sometimes these images have offered apt warnings of dangers that scientific progress can entail, more often than not they are fictionally projected dangers or innovative myths and legends rather than true to actual scientific or social fact. This warning must precede any scientific contribution on the matter, for it is also a fact that very often academic authors, specifically sociologists and philosophers, have made either over-cautious or overzealous arguments on the subject that are based on very little actual understanding of the scientific facts.
The term posthumanism refers to conceptions of what it means to be human that transcend traditional concepts of the human or come close to abolishing them. As is the case with most laden concepts that have such theoretical magnitude, posthumanism comprises several complementary aspects.
Conceptions of posthumanism entail social aspects that can be traced back to Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Immanuel Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), which both lead to the often misunderstood philosophical idea of Nietzsche's Übermensch, or Overman. Newer versions of this concept discuss the need for technological augmentation of the human body, resulting in the idea of a man-machine organism known as the cyborg. In other versions, the debate circumscribes the question of the intervention into the biological processes through the manipulation of the brain or the body with hormones and drugs, or even meddling with the genetic makeup. All these different areas can be viewed as deeply intertwined as well as discretely isolated, and they are in any event the subject of both grave fear and skepticism on the one hand and great optimism and hope on the other. Transhumanists like Nick Bostrom tend to hail the possibilities, while skeptics like Jürgen Habermas warn against the manipulation of "prepersonal life" on instrumentalist intentions.
The idea of improving ourselves as a species, of improving our bodies and mental capabilities, is certainly not in itself a new concept. The quest for immortality is the stuff of legend and is found in ancient sacred and fictional texts, such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Western world, the alchemists of the Middle Ages sought potions and elixirs that could extend life or improve the human organism beyond its natural capabilities. Francis Bacon, in his Novum Organon (1620), instituted the scientific method as the way to gain control over all the things of nature in order to improve human livelihoods. The subject was given a new turn when, in 1923, the biochemist Haldane published an essay that projected that in the future science would not only take control of nature as the environment for humans, but also that it would make human nature itself an object of manipulation through genetics. He predicted that humans would grow in artificial wombs, where they would be manipulated to be stronger and healthier.
About ten years later, such fantasies were reined in by novelists like Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World depicted the future of such manipulation as leading to a less desirable form of society. The combination of emerging biotechnological capabilities on the one hand and, on the other, the hygiene movement — which sought to counter the much feared concept of degeneration that the Vitalist movement had set up as a counterforce in light of conservation of life-energy — led to the eugenics programs and finally to the purification scheme of the Third Reich that is known today as the Holocaust.
After the end of World War II, the discovery of DNA and its subsequent applications to the Human Genome Project, prenatal diagnosis, reproductive medicine, cybernetics, and the new research methods in neurology have renewed questions that the eugenics movement raised and that are now "coming through the back door." But this development is in itself not necessarily bad or good, for, as Nikolas Rose has argued, it harbors just as many pitfalls and dangers as it does possibilities for freeing individuals to make better life choices (2007).
In his seminal The Order of Things, Michel Foucault gave an account of how and when the sciences began to problematize what it means to be human and what it means to be a subject (1966). His study showed that all human eras contained certain conditions that regulated what was understood to be the truth. These implicit regimes of truth conditions were called epistémes by Foucault. Accordingly, what we have come to know as scientific discourse is in itself only a specific kind of regime of truth production. It is this discourse, however, that had made explicit the question of "what it means to be human": in closing the book, Foucault hints at the possibility that this way of thinking about ourselves as human subjects may "be erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea."
Foucault can be read here as making a prophetic statement about an upcoming age of posthumanism, an age in which the category of the human subject is no longer the primary category of social or scientific action. Whether the human category will indeed completely dissolve is a question about which Foucault's later works have been a little less clear. Yet today we live in the face of the possibilities of manipulating our genetic makeup before birth or changing memories with drugs, as has been done to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PSD) in soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile it has been debated whether such drugs should be made available to victims of rape, molestation, or horrible accidents (Glannon, 2006). These treatments could be called dramatic interventions into identity and personality. It may indeed be argued that with our subjective identity being rendered fluid and plastic in such a way, the concept of identity itself — which can be considered a prerequisite of the concept of the human subject — is dissolved. Nick Bostrom has introduced similar conjectures that look beyond technological developments to draw on both works of fiction and speculative science (2005).
Discussing the Prospects of Nanotechnology
Nanotech is already being applied to small-scale products, such as new fabrics and certain computer components, but we are still far away from realizing the possibilities of nanobots performing delicate brain surgery, or of directly rewiring the mind. Even greater complexity lies in the question of uploading. Since the "mind" is often conceived to be constituted by neural activity, which is largely a form of electricity, some bold scientists have postulated that the mind can be uploaded into a computer, if only that computer holds a large enough storage space and offers enough processing capacity. Transhumanist philosophers like Bostrom have engaged in discussions over whether or not such a "virtual copy" of the mind would, on the one hand, be conscious and, on the other, if that conscious mind would have a personality identical to...
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