December 15, 2008
A tribute to François Vassart and Rudyard Kipligng
out of a few reflections on “the world’s most dangerous idea”, Transhumanism
In his 2002 book “Our Posthuman Future” and in a 2004 Foreign Policy magazine article, political economist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama designates Transhumanism the “world’s most dangerous idea” because he believes that it may undermine the egalitarian ideals of liberal democracy, through a fundamental alteration of “human nature”.
Social philosopher Jürgen Habermas makes a similar argument in his 2003 book “The Future of Human Nature”, in which he asserts that moral autonomy depends on not being subject to another’s unilaterally imposed specifications. Habermas thus suggests that the human “species ethic” would be undermined by embryo-stage genetic alteration.
Ronald Bailey, the science editor for Reason magazine and the author of “Liberation Biology: The Scientific And Moral Case For The Biotech Revolution”, counters that Transhumanism is the “movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity”.
So what is exactly Transhumanism ?
Wikipedia defines the term, often used as a synonym for “human enhancement” and Posthumanism and symbolized by H+ or h+), as “an international, intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to enhance human mental and physical aptitudes, and overcome what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death.” (for more info and definitions, see directly Wikipedia’s article).
Cover of the first issue of H+ Magazine, a web-based quarterly publication that focuses on transhumanism, covering the scientific, technological, and cultural developments that are challenging and overcoming human limitations.
Transhumanist thinkers (1) study the possibilities and consequences of developing and using human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Possible dangers, as well as benefits, of powerful new technologies that might radically change the conditions of human life are also of concern to the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism is therefore a form of transformational activism influenced by posthumanist ideals.
Criticisms of transhumanism and its proposals take two main forms:
- those objecting to the likelihood of transhumanist goals being achieved (practical criticisms) and;
- those objecting to the moral principles or world view sustaining transhumanist proposals or underlying transhumanism itself (ethical criticisms).
These two strains sometimes converge and overlap, particularly when considering the ethics of changing human biology in the face of incomplete knowledge.
Wikipedia identifies 9 controversies related to Transhumanism (for full details, see directly Wikipedia):
1. Infeasibility (Futurehype argument)
2. Hubris (Playing God argument)
3. Contempt for the flesh (Fountain of Youth argument)
4. Trivialization of human identity (Enough argument)
5. Genetic divide (Gattaca argument)
6. Threats to morality and democracy (Brave New World argument)
7. Dehumanization (Frankenstein argument)
8. Specter of coercive eugenicism (Eugenics Wars argument)
9. Existential risks (Terminator argument)
While these 9 arguments make a lot of sense and should make us extremely cautious about Transhumanism ideals, it seems to me they miss, at least partially, the essence of what it takes to “become human”. I would like therefore to propose a tenth controversy related to Transhumanism.
The 10th argument, the Interiority argument
Jean-Michel Besnier, a french philosopher and author of “La croisée des sciences: questions d’un philosophe”, whom we welcomed in October 2008 for a challenging Philosophy & Management seminar (for more info, see www.philosophie-management.com) also warned us against Transhumanism. He particularly emphasized the possible loss of interiority of people in our society. He argued that new technologies and communication media might not, paradoxically, facilitate the development, for each of us, of a strong interiority and this despite the renewed current emphasis on ethics, moral values and search for meaning. By interiority he means the capacity to reflect upon ourselves, others and the world, the whole of reality (2). Jean-Michel’s new book “Demain, les Posthumains” will be published in the coming weeks and will investigate further these ideas.
I don’t know if Besnier is right. I do however believe he touches upon something subtle and profound which I missed in Wikipedia’s article and most debates on the pros and cons of Transhumanism.
Indeed I have the impression that the current debate related to Transhumanism essentially revolves about what a human being is or what it is not. Is this really the right question? Could a better formulation of the fundamental question be: Are we born “human” or do we “become human” by developing the kind of interiority mentioned by Besnier?
At first glance, this might seem a rhetorical, futile, philosophical question: it does not help to clarify what we are when we are born or what we are when we don’t “become” human beings and who is judge to make the distinction on who has become one and who has not. I agree. I don’t have a clear answer to these questions.
Nevertheless, I think it is worth to think twice about the reformulated question: to do so might help us to relativize the potential threats of Transhumanism and new technologies and media, while recognizing they can bring fundamental changes in our society. For example, if one accepts that we “become human”, the threat of Transhumanism creating two classes of human beings (those who are “enhanced” and those who are not or less), while still worrying, suddenly appears less “novel”. Indeed, there has always been people who were more “enhanced”, at least in terms of interiority, who had accordingly “become more human” than others.
How did they do so? Just by taking “better care of their interiority (3) ”. The point is that no amount of technology, of technological enhancement of our body or brain, will ever change that. To “become human” is both extremely difficult and the “cheapest” thing on earth. It does not require new technologies, new media,… It only requires us to live, even if the most sordid conditions, and to think, to reflect upon it and to converse (not necessarily “face to face”) with others about it. Technological progress changes many things but it does not change that (4).
Don’t get me wrong:
- Don’t interpret what I just wrote as an elitist sermon. I don’t attempt to claim that those who “become human” are superior to others, that they have more rigths. I surely don’t advocate a new version of the Platonian state where philosophers would be king or of a Nietzschean world where the “Übermensch” would rule. De jure, we are all equal and have the same rights. De facto, we are unequal, in physical and intellectual capacities as our capacity to develop our interiority. As Miguel Mesquita da Cunha rightly remarked, a better distinction than the de jure/de facto one is to distinguish our humanity by nature or by essence.
- I also don’t claim it is as easy to “become human” when you don’t have shelter, clothes or enough food so that you are obsessed to find some in order to survive. I just think that, fundamentally, it is equally easy or difficult to “become human” today as it was a few thousands years ago.
So, what do I mean with “becoming human”? What do I mean with the “development of our interiority”? Again, I have no full answer to this question. I have just the start of one. It is contained in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If…
The Vassart – Kipling argument, my personal version of the Interiority argument
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Rudyard Kipling (1895)
Si tu peux supporter de voir détruire l’ouvrage de ta vie
Et sans dire un seul mot te mettre à rebâtir
Ou perdre en un seul coup le gain de cents parties
Sans un geste et sans un soupir
Si tu peux être amant
Sans être fou d’amour
Si tu peux être fort
Sans cesser d’être tendre
Et te sentant haï
Sans haïr à ton tour
Pourtant lutter et te défendre
Si tu peux supporter d’entendre tes paroles
Travesties par des gueux
Pour exiter des sots
Et d’entendre mentir sur toi leurs bouches folles
Sans jamais mentir toi-même d’un mot
Si tu peux rester digne en étant populaire
Si tu peux rester peuple
En conseillant les rois
Si tu peux aimer touts tes amis en frêre
Sans qu’aucun d’eux soit tout pour toi
Si tu sais observer, méditer et connaître
Sans jamais devenir sceptique ou destructeur
Rêver mais sans laisser ton rêve être ton maître
Penser sans n’être qu’un penseur
Si tu peux être dur
Sans jamais être en rage
Si tu peux être brave et jamais imprudent
Si tu peux être bon
Si tu peux être sage
Sans être moral ni pédant
Si tu peux rencontrer triomphe après défaite
Et recevoir ces deux menteurs d’un même front
Si tu peux conserver ton courage et ta tête
Quand tous les autres les perdront
Alors les rois, les dieux, la chance et la victoire
Seront à tout jamais tes esclaves soumis
Et ce qui vaut bien mieux que les rois et la gloire
Tu seras un homme mon fils
Traduit par André Maurois (1918)
For years, in my teens, my Judo & Tennis professor, the late François Vassart, made me copy over and over again this poem, parts of it or entirely according to the circumstances (a victory, a defeat, a rage,…). I have copied it hundreds of times. And I’m still grateful to him for that despite some of its flaws.
Indeed, it is not the most beautiful poem in the English language – far from it.
Indeed, it might be platitudinous in places and be too popular (in 1995 it was voted Britain’s favorite poem in a BBC poll). Georges Orwell, who was not a Kipling fan, said it was popular with Colonel Blimps – reactionary, militaristic types – who were so surprised to find a poet on their side that they elevated his words to biblical status. He further wrote that Kipling “dealt largely in platitudes, and, since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks”.
Despite what Orwell wrote, I don’t succeed in seeing anything wrong in the values promoted by this poem. I can’t judge the quality of the English version as a poem but the French one is beautiful: André Maurois, member of the French Academy, knew a thing or two about writing. So, by all means, I firmly believe that, despite its flaws, this poem is always worth another look.
Along the same lines, the columnist Stefan Stern published a few months ago in the Financial Times (April 29th 2008) some reflections on Kipling’s poem, arguing that it has a message for today’s corporate leaders. Quite so. It seems to me that this short poem tells more about “true” leadership in a few verses than so many volumes by management gurus on this hot topic. Recently, amid the turmoil of the financial sector affecting us in particular, I sent it to my staff with the hope that the wise verses would comfort them and stimulate us all to ask ourselves the question Socrates raised more than 2,000 years ago, a question we probably should have asked ourselves more often for the last years: “Are we mastering our mastery?”
Indeed, this poem contains, in my eyes, a lot (far from all, of course) of what a young boy, a young girl, should know to grow up in a full-fledged human being, to develop “an examined life” as Robert Nozick put it, “une vie intérieure”, “una vita interiore” (5) .
I therefore take the opportunity to give here a tribute to François Vassart who, despite his own flaws, taught me so much. I have been lucky to have early on such a “spiritual master”, guiding my first preparatory steps towards adult life. I hope my sons will have a similar luck. I will of course try to teach them what I have learned myself. But one never listens the same way to his father as to a kind stranger.
François Vassart has given me discipline and taste for efforts through sports. For hours, days, I repeated the same movement, either in Tennis or Judo (on the picture left at the Dojo, I sit in the middle of the front row – a moustachoied François Vassart stands in the last row). This might seem such a waste of time. And still, the will and determination I acquired through these exercise, have proved to become some of my biggest assets in life, professional as well as private. The endless repetition of tennis or martial movements has also given a taste for crafting beautiful “movements”, a taste for the intense satisfaction one can find in something made well, as perfect as possible, for its own sake : it does not necessarily needs to be a physical movements. It can be anything we do or produce. One of my favorite thinkers, Richard Sennett, has written beautifully about the important role of craftsmanship even in the new culture of capitalism. Another author I’m currently reading with interest, Howard Gardner, also writes on the importance of the “disciplined” mind that a youngster may develop by practicing intensely an art, a sport or any intellectual discipline. I wish and will do all in my powers to convey to my children this sense of discipline and craftsmanship, an important part of our interiority.
François Vassart also made me aware of my duties towards my fellow men: as well educated person I had certain responsibilities towards society. Together with my parents, he instilled probably my desire early on to play a role in politics and my everlasting intellectual interest in the design, crafting of public policies. The numerous poems and sentences he made me write opened my mind to spirituality, to the infinite which I would later explore much further with another of my favorite thinkers, Marcel Conche.
One of the sentences François made me often write and which I vividly remember is “To return to the origins is not a regression but a fantastic extension”.
Perhaps this is exactly what I do now by writing this article. In any case, amid the thousands of pages and even books I have red, the few lines of Kipling’s poem transmitted through François Vassart’s voice, have probably helped me more than any other to “become a little bit more human”.
To conclude, let me summarize the Vassart – Kipling argument as follows: to me, the risk of Transhumanism is not so much that technological enhancement could denature our “humanity”. In my eyes, our “humanity” is not a given, something immutable. We rather develop our humanity through our interior life. Therefore the real risk associated with Transhumanism is that we forget or fail to take care of and to develop our interior life while pursuing frantically our physical and intellectual enhancement.
To sum it up, by trying to become “H+”, aren’t we running the risk of loosing our “H”.
What do you think? What does it mean to be or become human for you? Are there moments where you feel “more” human than others? I realize my ideas about “humanity” might be very primitive and not well informed about the latest theories on the subject, but I’m convinced that to ask such questions is more important than to provide a definitive answer (one could argue that too much blood has been spilled across the centuries and all over the world, precisely because some people thought they had a definitive answer about these questions and succeeded in convincing others of the validity of their answers). If you have thoughts, or even just feelings about this, please do share them with us.
For more translations of Kipling’s poem “If”, please click here. For the languages you understand, it is in itself interesting to read the different versions and appreciate how the different translators have sometimes changed the meaning of some sentences: the philosophy of the poem remains the same but has a slightly different “taste”, possibly reflecting our cultural differences.
1. One of the most prominent transhumanist thinker is Lee Silver, professor at Princeton University in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and author of the controversial book “Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family”.
2. Note that it is perfectly possible that this tenth argument is already covered by one of the previous nine ones – they indeed probably overlap to some extent. My point therefore will be to make this “tenth” argument more explicit.
3. Interiority could be replaced by “soul” but we avoid it on purpose as it is too heavily charged and associated with particular religions.
4. In another, upcoming, article about Marcel Conche we will see similarly that science, despite its recent extraordinary progress, does not help us to “think” better about Nature, the whole of reality. Conche writes: “Nature is like a living body covered with a coat. The scientific logos might one day catch each the coat’s fibre that form a beautiful and harmonious whole, each fibre interwoven with all the others. But the coat is not the body of the person. Nature offers herself to us in the flesh, under the form of the sensitive world, of its diversity and depth.”
5. I read Nozick’s eponymous and beautiful book in Italian while studying in Bologna already 20 years ago.