December 4, 2010

Dennis Weiss: "Transforming the Symbolic Animal" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Dennis Weiss reading from his paper, "Transforming the Symbolic Animal."

Modern man has become a problem to himself. What is the meaning of human existence? A growing suspicion that over the past few centuries man has misjudged his own nature and purpose.

The debate about transforming humanity is nothing new, but has been ramped up in the past twenty years. Central concepts in this debate: technology and human nature.

Addressing the issue of whether transforming humanity suggests a fantasy, dream, or nightmare presupposes a clear philosophical grasp of two terms central to the debate: human nature and technology. And yet this is lacking in the debate over the posthuman. Transhumanists and bioconservatives lack a sufficiently thick and rich framework in which to address these issues. This essay seeks to address this lack, suggesting that Ernst Cassirer's account of the human being as a symbolic animal provides a philosophy of culture, philosophical anthropology, and philosophy of technology that might serve as the building blocks of such a framework.

Key elements of Cassirer's philosophical anthropology and philosophy of technology

(1) Cassirer very explicitly situates the human being and culture in the organic realm.
(2) The distinguishing feature of the human being is not some new feature or property, not some metaphysical essence. The human being's distinctiveness is his work.
(3) Cassirer insists on the diversity of the symbolic forms.
(4) This multiplicity of forms does not denote discord or disharmony and it is precisely the task of philosophy to understand the sytem of culture as an organic whole
(5) Cassirer situates his analysis of technology in the context of his philosophy of symbolic forms and in such a way that it would be inappropriate to conclude that technology represents the alienation of either culture or our nature as symbolic animals
(6) Cassirer was concerned with developments in modern technology that he found antithetical to his analysis of symbolic forms (a) Cassirer worries about the power of technology to usurp other symbolic forms, (b) Cassirer worries about the emergence in the 20th century of new technique of rationalized myth

Cassirer, the symbolic animal and transforming humanity

In turning to Cassirer we gain an understanding of the broader historical framework of the debate over transforming humanity.

The lack of historical awareness in debates over transforming humanity results in completely inadequate accounts of human nature presupposed by bioconservatives and transhumanists alike

In both the bioconservative and transhumanist frameworks the characteristics of human nature are completely unmoored from any other discussion of human capacities or characteristics, any structure of needs and wants

In treating technology as a symbolic form, Cassirer implicitly rejects instrumental and substantive view of technology and points the way toward a critical theory of technology more nuanced than the views often presupposed in transhumanist and bioconservative frameworks.

Cassirer recognizes that the human being is a tool using animal but he doesn't privilege technology nor would he accept a culture that took as its dominant symbolic form technology.

Cassirer's framework provides a perspective from which to understand more precisely the dangers of a culture predicated on the dominance of technosciences such as genetics, cybernetics, and biotechnology; the danger of rationalized myth.

Cassirer's framework helps us to understand and appreciate the complex relationship between human nature, our ethical task, and the normative questions surrounding transforming humanity.

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