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The Human Distinction

Transhumanism is an ambiguous line, but one we should not cross.

No one really wants to do the laundry, though some people apparently enjoy folding it. We have German inventor Jacob Christian Schäffer and various Brits to thank for initiating the road to your home washer. Before them, but long after the 18th century, as well, laundry was something you put your elbow into, with a board and bucket, and I’m sure many a washerwoman had impressive forearms. While some people knit and quilt and craft, cloth, as a rule, comes from factories now. Weavers may hand-knot rugs in boutique near-eastern workshops, but it’s far-eastern sweatshops we can thank for our cheap fashion, and even before or without offshoring, cloth comes from machine-assisted textile mills. Few now think that’s a problem, though many might regret the way the global financial system has grown. But people still largely believe technology to be a positive development, part and parcel to the relief of man’s estate, and they seek to isolate their unease about particular manifestations. 

In our future relationship with technology, however, we must make a distinction between control and judgment, between the transhuman and the humane. The techne and logos of technology suggest that there is a logic or order all its own, that technology is not only the product of knowing and doing but implies a way of being, too. Transhumanists embrace that suggestion and abandon themselves to it. Transhumanism says that carbon as flesh is weak and carbon as mechanism is strong; at its most fundamentalist it preaches an eschaton of singularity, the upload of our minds—reduced or assumed to be ones and zeros—on immortal circuitries. Where you might worry that a tradition of ethics and morals has been supplanted by techniques of organization, the transhumanist sees the shedding of old skin, or the breaking of contingent bonds. We have a tendency to use our most powerful machines, our dynamos, as a foundation for our metaphors, so that I can and should say that the transhumanist vision sees the outstripping of a human scale by the systems and structures the human race has built as a feature, not a bug. In its accelerationist school, we ourselves are wet bugs in a cosmic cybernetic program from the future; it is inevitable that all will be compiled, but we can cooperate in the present tense, anticipate and adopt the syntax of the machine, unit test ourselves and integrate more and more into the states and systems of control. 

The humanist response is an act of judgment, and begins with the simple observation that what we have made reflects us in its making. The humanist knows technology extends and amplifies human power. Thus, while we often call many of the futurists associated with transhumanist projects in the Bay Area technological optimists, they are in fact profoundly pessimistic, for instead of faith that the human person can match the power of human-made technology with the strength of humanity, they would surrender their humanity to this power and perish. It is an action of despair, a suicide, sacrifice to a god of our own devising without confidence that the ones who could fashion the god are divinities stronger than it. The humanist seeks to sit enthroned like Solomon, to judge by wisdom the ends for which nature’s energy and human power are bound, ordered, and made automatic by us, in all that we call technology. In the face of systems and machines that seem to overwhelm individuality and dissolve community, the humanist still hopes that freedom will permit humanity to take responsibility for its power. 

“Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one”—so wrote the Apostle Paul, declaring that in this knowledge the Christian had liberty to eat meat offered in pagan temples. So, too, does the human in the image of God have liberty in our use of technologies. For we know that the idol of its self-development beyond human control is also nothing in the world, and there is no responsible decision-maker but the human person. We need not be slaves to it; it is we who sin and we who by grace may do good works, may grow in virtue. However, as is illustrated at the point of despair in transhumanism, not everyone knows this with confidence; some, conscious of technology’s use by some men to master other men, still see in its development the necessity of the idol; and their conscience, being sensitive, is defiled. So let us remember that modern technology, though an expression of our human capacity for subcreation, is not what makes us fully human; for neither if we use it are we better human beings, nor if we do not use it are we the worse.

The liberty to use is also the liberty not to use, as the Luddites hoped to decide when textile mills mechanized. There was a human cost to that step towards efficiency and control, and they wanted it counted. They were trampled by that least tangible of technologies, the market. As we stumble into the future, failing to fulfill our pulp utopian dreams of flying cars, chromed convenience, and splendid towering cities gently embraced by pristine nature, perhaps it is because we have lost sight of the human distinction. The liberty to make and to use is that of power and responsibility, and we are not all of us the same in capacity—body, mind, and soul. What can be used with wisdom by one may not be good for all. And there are some technologies that must be harder to master than others, that obscure human dignity more necessarily, that more readily abandon the soul to reduce us either to disincarnate mind or mere biology. The transhumanist is overwhelmed by what is possible, is emboldened to abandon his humanity before the idol, weary of the effort to master the self and ready to submit. Therefore, if a technology makes my brother stumble, I will never again use it, lest I make my brother stumble.

about the author

Micah Meadowcroft is managing editor of The American Conservative. Before joining TAC he served as White House Liaison at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and assisted in speechwriting there. He holds an MA in social science from the University of Chicago, where he wrote on political theory. Previously, he worked as associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. This is his second stint at TAC, as not so long ago he was an editorial assistant for the magazine. His BA is in history from Hillsdale College, where he also minored in journalism. Micah hails from the Pacific Northwest, and like Odysseus hopes to return home someday after long exile in the East.

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