Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Humanism Without Humans

Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each. - Rabbi Simcha Bunim

According to humanism, human lives are immensely valuable. Humans are special entities with agency and freedom in the world. Secular humanists affirm the existential problem of humans, that we must create and pursue meaning in our lives independent of a supernatural god. This places an emphasis on the works of man, rather than the grace of god (the classic problem of salvation through works or grace). The special, often ineffable, status of humans is confirmed and accentuated within humanism.

There currently exists many prefixes for humanism (Francesca Ferrando lists seven types of these humanisms here). The difference between two of these -humanisms is particularly interesting:

Transhumanism holds that technology will drastically change the definition of what is human.

Posthumanism is a movement within (literary) critical theory. It redefines “the human”, and critiques definitions which negate the world (especially the world of plants, animals, and objects). It is somewhat related to OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology).

Both of these movements radically reconfigure humanism. Their is a shift away from the parochial idea of the human and towards a more inclusive definition.

Transhumanism is a more scientifically oriented discipline, involving the transformation/augmentation of humans (such as androids, sense extension, nootropics, etc.) and the birth of new forms of sentience (AI, androids, etc.). The essence of “the human” has been blown to bits; the human is no longer found in the visions of transhumanists. A human is a nebulous concept that is forever transforming (like the Ship of Theseus).

Posthumanism is a reevaluation of our relationship to other beings. Continental theorists are brought to bear on how we create artificial barriers and separations between ourselves and the world. According to posthumanism, we do not occupy a special place, we are not special, we exist in a constant dialogue with the rest of the world.

I think that both forms of humanism are circling similar ideas by different means.

I am reminded of the question “What if the biggest test of compassion lies not in how we relate to the weakest, but to the worst?”.

Posthumanism says that despite humanity’s immense capability for violence, we should remember that animals have a right to exist just as much as we do. For posthumanists, the most important thing about animals is not their intelligence (or lack-therof) but their diminished capacity for large-scale violence. Posthumans are concerned with how we relate to the weakest forms of sentience.

There is an idea within transhumanism, the model of “the human as machine”. This is a potent idea, removing the uniquely human from humanism. I think it has important ramifications. If we are simply automatons, then no one is responsible for themselves. You do not choose your nature or nurture – you do not choose your genetics, you do not choose your parents. This means that our circle of compassion should extend to those who are most evil. Of course, there are other ways of achieving such an expansion of the moral circle – but removing the human is an interesting method. If someone commits a horrific crime, they are not to blame, and therefore they are not to be punished. The correct response would be to rehabilitate, and if that is not possible, then to contain them. If a truly remorseless psychopath (a broken robot) is not capable of being repaired, than the broken robot must be contained so as not to do harm to other robots. This would still discourage other robots from committing crimes, but it would result in a more humane and ethical approach to justice. This is a compassionate framework that extends beyond the weak to encompass “the worst”.

Of course, our subjective phenomenal lives are still real and important. But it is easy to forget that this special, counter-intuitive, and somewhat ineffable experience appears to be grounded in a network of material objects (the brain). And manipulating the material basis changes experience. The tools of subjectivity are immensely important, that’s why meditation and Buddhist practices should be more widely taught. Investigating our experience allows the deepening of insight and the creation of wisdom. That is important and seems to be fairly unique to humans.

But perhaps it’s also useful to remember that we are machines. And in some sense, nothing will ever be more than a machine. And that truth is amazing, and allows our compassion to suffuse the varieties of existence. Both sides of the coin are important.