Philosophers clash over the future of humanity

By Tasos Oikonomou

The impact of genetics, implants and technology on the evolution of the human race was at the forefront of discussions at the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy that took place in Athens earlier this month.

The attempt to define the limits of human intervention upon its own evolution created a rift between classical humanists and proponents of posthumanism, a newer school of philosophical thought.

The terms posthumanism and transhumanism were coined in the 1960s when Iranian professor of futurology Fereidoun M. Esfandiary wrote the book “Are You a Transhuman?” and renamed himself FM-2030 in the belief that by 2030 people would be able to live forever. He has been in cryonic suspension since 2000, when he died of pancreatic cancer.

A deeper understanding

Speaking with the president and co-founder of the Beyond Humanism Network, Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, one could almost believe that the philosophers’ debate jumped out of the pages of Dan Brown’s latest potboiler “Inferno,” where the concept of posthumanism is a central strand in the novel. “The way Brown approached this concept was very interesting,” said Sorgner, who teaches medical ethics at Nuremberg University.

“What we are proposing is a deeper understanding of reality. We are trying to go beyond Cartesian dualism that differentiates between the actions of the body and those of the mind. If we can do it, the consequences will be huge. We are exploring the relationship between man and technology and redefining ontology and anthropology. We are reviewing the differences between man and animals. Also, there are dangers with technological advances – Google has all the information about what people are doing online. We saw what happened with the [NSA’s] online surveillance. I am enthusiastic about the uses of technology but we need to look at issues that arise from them.”

Greek lecturer Panos Iliopoulos organized two of the seminars at the conference. His view is that of a classical humanist, and he says that posthumanism automatically makes the jump to artificial intelligence and brushes human characteristics aside.

“Humanism is not just one thing, and it has evolved as human civilization has evolved. We owe much to ancient Greek thought, where philosophy is human-centric, but without negativity. I could accept posthumanism as a critique of humanism’s flaws, or its lack of answers. But here we have something else: We have a philosophical trend that puts up a border – i.e. an obstacle – by using the terms 'post' or 'meta'."

So we’re not talking about a natural human being, but about an artificial one that tries to resemble its civilization, to break down its ties with nature and supercede itself. The current human evolution, through medicine and the use of artificial limbs or the idea of eugenics doesn’t make a human a posthuman. The human race should retain its naturalness, spirituality and rationality, which are the three elements that characterize it.

At the dawn of an era where the human genes may begin to resemble a computer operating system, the debate on the convergence of humanity and technology will only get hotter.