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Posts Tagged ‘human nature’

I stole the title of my previous post from Fergus Kerr’s book Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity. It’s a collection of essays about twentieth-century philosophers whose thought, often indirectly, has touched on the human encounter with the transcendent. Kerr is interested in what lies at the very edge of human experience, in those ill-defined questions about origins and meaning and ends that don’t always get asked. It’s the border between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith.

Kerr was a great help to me when I was trying to find a title for my PhD dissertation eleven years ago. I knew I wanted to study in the general area of ‘philosophical anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person. I had some initial ideas about focussing on the notion of the self and second nature in contemporary philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. But more and more I was drawn to the subject of human freedom, not as a particular capacity or skill, but as a reflection of the extraordinary fact that human nature is open-ended and only incompletely defined; and that some of the defining is – strangely – up to us. We are, to some extent at least, self-creating creatures. The rest, in turns of my academic journey, is history. Or more simply, the rest is Aquinas and Sartre

Here is the publisher’s blurb about Kerr’s book.

Daringly extending the agenda of what is usually considered as ‘philosophy of religion,’ Fergus Kerr argues that more religion exists in modern secular philosophy than many philosophers admit.

Examining much-discussed contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch, Luce Irigaray, Stanley Cavell, and Charles Taylor, Kerr reads their respective stories in the light of Karl Barth’s notion that “transcending our humanity only makes us more human than ever.”

In Kerr’s view, transcendence-the “immortal longings” of his title-plays a central role in many of these philosophers’ systems of beliefs.

Kerr’s brilliant and long-awaited study shows that the theological content of modern philosophy deserves much more attention than it has received in the past.

And here are some comments from the review in the International Philosophical Quarterly.

What does one carry away from this learned and engaging book? Many specifics: insights, aperçus, and good readings of Nussbaum, Barth, and the rest. This alone would justify a close reading by anyone interested in philosophy of religion or in the religious elements in philosophy.

But there is more. One of the delights of this book is Kerr’s humane presence in the text. Through the text shines a person in a certain attunement toward these issues: an attunement which we can admire and learn from.

But finally Kerr does more than catalog a set of concerns and exemplify an orientation toward them. He has named, and lifted up for our attention, the philosophical career of the central theme of religion: what lies beyond us humans, and how do we stand with regard to it? The two conflicting intuitions-that we are at once somehow intrinsically tied to it and yet alienated from it, that we know it and yet do not-seem perennially present in human self-understanding.

To Kerr we owe thanks not only for showing us some fascinating patterns of commonality in surprising places but also for disclosing the problematic unity underlying those patterns.

It’s well worth a read.

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Is medicine only about healing and restoration? Or is it also about restructuring human nature so that it is capable of doing far more than it could left to itself?

This debate about the relationship between therapy and enhancement is going to become more and more important. “Transhumanism” is the label given to the work of clinicians and bioethicists who believe that science should be used to transform the human condition and not just to heal it. Remember Lee Majors and the Six Million Dollar Man?

The 2002 version of the Transhumanist Declaration states:

Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.

This is from an article by E. Christian Brugger:

Transhumanism is really a set of ideas that has developed in response to the rapid advance of biotechnology in the past 20 years (that is, technology capable of and aimed at manipulating the physical, mental and emotional condition of human beings). Conventional medicine has traditionally aimed at overcoming disorders that afflict the human condition; it has prescribed leeching, cauterizing, amputating, medicating, operating and relocating to dryer climates, all in order to facilitate health and militate against disease and degeneration; in other words, the purpose has been to heal (i.e., has been broadly therapeutic).

Technology is now making possible interventions that in addition to a therapeutic aim are intended to augment healthy human capacities. There is a gradual but steady enlargement taking place in medical ideals from simply healing to healing and enhancement. We are all too familiar with “performance enhancing drugs” in professional sports. But biotechnology promises to make possible forms of enhancement that go far beyond muscle augmentation.

Germ-line gene therapy, for example, still in its infancy, aims to genetically modify human “germ cells” (i.e., sperm and eggs) in order to introduce desirable intellectual, physical and emotional characteristics and exclude undesirable ones. Since the modifications are made to cells in the “germ line,” the traits would be heritable and passed on to subsequent generations. Drugs to improve mental function such as Ritalin and Adderall are increasingly being used by the healthy in order to enhance cognitive abilities. One study has shown that close to 7% of students at U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants for enhancement purposes. That number appears only to be increasing.

Research is rapidly progressing on advanced technologies such as direct brain-computer interfacing (BCI), micromechanical implants, nanotechnologies, retinal, neuromuscular and cortical prostheses, and so-called “telepathy chips.” While it is true that each of these technologies may play a role in transforming the lives of disabled patients to enable them better to communicate, manipulate computers, see, walk, move their limbs and recover from degenerative diseases; transhumanism sees them as potential instruments for transforming human nature.

Their most radical proposal is to overcome death. Although the aim sounds fanciful, there are influential scientists and philosophers committed to it. The prominent transhumanist scientist and inventor, Dr. Ray Kurzweil, argues that for most of human history death was tolerated because there was nothing we could do about it. But a time is rapidly approaching where we will be able to isolate the genes and proteins that cause our cells to degenerate and reprogram them. The assumption of death’s inevitability is no longer credible and ought to be retired.

Brugger is uneasy about these developments:

I fear that the only thing presently preventing wide-scale affirmation of the transhumanist imperative is an emotional “yuck” factor, which we can be sure will gradually subside under the gentle and inexorable prodding of secular opinion. When it does, our rationality insulated by this extreme notion of autonomy will find itself helpless against the technological imperative which says: if we can design our perfect child, if we can be smarter, stronger, and more beautiful, if we can extend human life indefinitely, then we should do it. If embryos are sacrificed through the experimental process required to perfect this technology, or if inequalities are introduced to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others; these are the costs of progress!

I’m certainly against the exploitation of human embryos in any form, and the creation of designed children. But I’m not convinced that you can argue against transhumanism by referring to the inequalities it will create, as these already arise through ordinary medicine. Is it wrong to improve the physical and mental functioning of someone who already exists through medical interventions? In itself, I don’t think so. But there are deeper issues floating around, and I don’t think I’ve puzzled out what they are yet.

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