The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.V. Science and Medicine (Part I)
Subsequent to the rejection of belief in the transcendent comes the deification of the immanent. Man is naturally and inevitably inclined to believe in a highest good, in the existence of superlatives, regardless of whether or not he himself recognizes this. Even if that which he places as the most desirable thing in the world is watching television all day and eating doughnuts, he nonetheless posits in his action a highest good. Unconsciously, however, his essential being, which desires to know the Truth in its fullness, is thoroughly dissatisfied with such an endeavor, and demands the pursuit of something nobler. When he consciously denies the transcendent, however, something else, something noble, needs to take its place: and in this world, the evidently superior being, the most noble being, is man. Since self-deification is not acceptable, by the yet-undeniable fact of man’s mortality and fallibility, faith is instead placed in the progress of some loosely defined concept of mankind. This faith is inexorable from the belief that man has the its ability to achieve something better with itself than what it has achieved heretofore. Such was prevalent in the era of humanism, wherein men thought by better education and environment mankind itself could be bettered, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, thereby earning him true happiness. Contemporary adherents of the same perspective have not their predecessors belief in any sort of incorporeal goodness of mankind, and thus see it as their goal to undo man’s material susceptibility to sickness, suffering, aging, and death, and thus removing any impediment to happiness.
If a society is lacking any sort of incorporeal standard of morality, such as that which accompanies a belief in universal transcendental realities, what is or is not morally permissible shifts into the realm of general social acceptance; this is not new, but a very old and far-too-frequently recurring licentious paradigm of moral relativity. Unlike previous eras in which morality has been socialized, however, contemporary society is scientifically and technologically enabled to a degree that earlier generations with fluctuating morality possessed only in dreams. The average age at death has continually gone up over the last century; infant mortality rates have dropped to unparalleled lows. Control over the reproductive system, through chemical agents and exterior artificial interventionary measures can be almost guaranteed. The capability to genetically manipulate and augment countless variables is at the finger-tips of those who would redesign the human body, perhaps enabling man to obliterate sickness, suffering, aging, and death, and theoretically thus establish perfect happiness. The thesis of the philosophical argument which attempts validation of such scientific exploits runs thus: life is in many ways unpleasant, there is no certainty in anything beyond the tangible aspects of life and therefore meaning cannot be found outside of this life; so, since evolution has not produced a human being entirely happy either with himself or the world in which he lives, it is up to man to produce such for himself. This is the philosophy of transhumanism.1
Without becoming enmeshed in the specific points to which devoted transhumanists adhere, it should be enough to look at the word itself. Humanism, of course, was a movement that blossomed in the Renaissance and Enlightenment and fostered the idea that man is naturally good and has an almost infinite potential, for which he ought to strive. Primarily, this striving took form in self-educating and had some notion of a transcendental concept of mind. Humanism, to very briefly treat it, sought the attaining of the highest human potential.2 Combining this word with the prefix “trans” adds an entirely different and frightening element; for “trans” means “across” or “beyond.” Whereas their predecessors the humanists wanted simply to attain the highest human potential, transhumanists want, through the utilization of technological enhancements and eugenic manipulation, to extend the potential itself. Humanity is, to the transhumanist, an unfixed abstraction of matter which alters with the alteration of the material. So long as the human consciousness is preserved, even if altered, then the transhumanist sees modification to greater power—as the means to accomplishing tasks within the material world—as justifiable. In the words of the literary critic and postmodern feminist Donna Haraway, discussing the concept of the cyborg, “It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stores. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”3
To any sensible person, the ideas of transhumanism—the replacement of the organic with the artificial, the transcending of gender by alteration of human genes, the homogenous production of all children in a manufacturing plant akin to the nightmarish vision of Aldous Huxley (whose brother Julian coined the term “transhumanism”)—are absurd and would never be accepted by the majority of people, being mere science fiction. Of course, instantaneous communication across the world was also science fiction once upon a time; and more importantly, it did not take a majority of people to enact the technological marvel of the internet or the wonders of wireless technologies. Likewise was the destruction of entire cities with a single weapon, relying on the consent of only a few, a grim but merely mythical fantasy turned into a grim and terrifying reality. The fact of the matter is that transhumanist ideologies, even if not wholly and consciously approved and articulated by significant numbers of adherents, are nonetheless tacitly accepted by a decreasingly transcendently minded civilization. Secular Christianity, therapeutic deism aimed at little beyond the mollification of the spiritually perturbed but lazy, is indeed in many ways aligned in principle with transhumanist ideology, at least insofar as it aims at the reduction of suffering and discomfort; when the grounds for meaning and purpose in anything less than a eudemonistic perfection of the immanent is removed, then there is a subsequent desire to remove any which causes the slightest bit of corporeal or emotional displeasure. the actual changes most avowed transhumanists espouse are a bit far-fetched for the average individual, the philosophical idea upon which they are based is startlingly commonplace; that, of course, of existentialism, the belief that man’s essence is defined solely through his existence; that his existence and essence are fundamentally the same. The idea is riddled with problems and fails to adequately explain the human condition, but is nonetheless not without its merits and strengths. Thus, while belief in existentialism is sincerely articulated by very few individuals, large numbers of people, without ever realizing it, act as if it were their guiding principle; and though the deification of man’s scientific, technological, and medicinal capabilities could not rightly be boiled down to a single immediate cause, it is not unreasonable to say that the grounds for the possibility of all the various and widespread rejections of belief in an incorporeal transcendence in which goodness and righteousness exist, and subsequent elevation of the merely material, are the often-unrealized influences of existentialist thought.
The contemporary zeitgeist, which finds its usual channel of manifestation in entertainment media, subtly promotes the thinking that every man is capable of determining himself, if not completely, in ever broadening strokes. In the sphere of public entertainment it is regularly shown that not only does man create for himself his paradigms of moral, psychological, and spiritual truth, but even the limitations of his body are being overcome. Yet there is a necessity, a constant impetus, which says not only that this is so, but that it must be accelerated: man is considered superior to all other animals on this earth; but what if he is not superior enough? He certainly is not above death, or illness, or a significant number of threats to his comfort and happiness; thus, the crux of his existence being found in this world, not only is he capable of self-determinacy, but he must be, in order to survive, in order to preserve, elongate, and eventually immortalize his earthly existence. Certainly this set of ideas exists in no actualized manner other than the ideas of science fiction, which is why it is so popular. What has traditionally been striking about science fiction is the setting of a story of realistic action and character within unrealistic technological or biological contexts. What happens when the science is no longer fictional?4 Will man truly be happy when every enjoyment can be made permanent, when the material condition of a thing can be fixed as sempiternal? Anyone who has become disillusioned with any exploit or object can and ought to know, if he has taken the time to examine his disillusionment, that the principle of disillusion resides in no material aspect of the object, pursuit, or even himself. Man’s enjoyment, his pleasure, his happiness, although the stimulation received by the brain may be physically explicable, the transition from such feelings of happiness being caused by certain objects or exploits to not being caused is not physically explicable. The fiction of the technocrat is not the science he promotes, but the happiness he guarantees.
While it might seem sufficient to deal merely with the actual transhumanist goals and actions themselves, it is of great importance that the questions of existence and essence also be answered. The threats that could be faced tomorrow are bled from the same contemporary vein of erroneous thinking that places man’s good, if not entirely, at least principally in his bodily satisfaction, which is based on the theory that man’s essence, that which makes him precisely what he is, is defined and subject to re-definition through existence on earth. Would there be any pretense to support abortion in the case that it were recognized that man’s essence is truly spiritual, and that the manner of functioning of the body is secondary? Would euthanasia, voluntary or involuntary, be espoused by anyone who believes that a person’s ultimate good is determined not by how they make an end in this world, but by how they live here for the sake of the next? The proposed healthcare bill of 2009, though it may have some noble intentions on the parts of some of those who are promoting it, is nonetheless fundamentally flawed in that it lacks clarity as regards not only the common good, but even the good of the individual.
The philosophical motivations of the transhumanists and those who unwittingly follow their agendas are successors, and no less kings, of the Cult of Progress which has persisted for the century and a half. Aggrandized by a thin veil of rhetoric about the protection of the unfortunate and the elevation of the common man, the reduction of human suffering and subjugation, what happened with the promoters of progress in the 19th and early 20th centuries will inevitably happen to those who promote it in the 21st; in the words of the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, “…in the course of time [the creed of progress] was cheapened and vulgarized into a practical apology for the late nineteenth century industrial civilization—a world that was growing larger and louder and richer and more self confident, but which was at the same time decreasing in vitality and losing its hold on its true cultural traditions.”5 The nightmares of science fiction will become a waking reality if a fight is not made for the truth of the transcendent and if existence is not shown to exist solely within the boundaries of an essence which cannot be transformed, if the vitality of man is not rediscovered to exist outside of the vitality of his body
1 The ideas of transhumanists are insignificantly varied, for they are fundamentally flawed. For various examples of what transhumanists actually say, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Accelerating Future blog, Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto, and of course, a moderated stepping stone, Compassion & Choices (Planned Parenthood also qualifies as a stepping stone, of course).
2 This is a highly summarized history of a complicated movement which has taken many forms over the centuries, and should be read as such.
3 Haraway, Donna, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” The Critical Tradition. Ed. Richter, David H. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007) 1967 [Heteroglossia is a term coined by the Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin to describe, simply put, the presence of distinct modes of discourse within a single text; for a fuller explanation, see Bakhtin’s Discourse in the Novel].
4 Walter Kovacs pointed out in an article, which can be found here, that many of the movies which contain principles of science fiction portray the dominance of technology and science in a fearful light; but indeed, it seems all too sadly true that this has not induced people to reject certain technological enhancements, but insist only on having safeguards for the inevitable increased sophistication of machines.
5 Dawson, Christopher, “Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization,” Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007) 59