Bionic eye, prostheses, exoskeleton – the augmented human of the 21st century fascinates and repels us at the same time. But what is an augmented human? Where should the line between repair, care and augmentation actually be drawn? Is there a threshold beyond which humans become machines? Emmanuel Brochier, Philosophy lecturer at IPC (Paris), gives us food for thought.
No offence to those who look after us and do it well, but perhaps medicine has already become transhumanist. Haven’t we at least ended up by accepting the idea of an augmented human even if we actively oppose the impact of transhumanism on civilisation? Everyone knows that it’s not enough to defend the most vulnerable, to denounce the risk of social rupture or to brandish precautionary principles to ensure that medicine is as respectful as it should be of the humanity inherent in every individual. We agree on the repair concept. But there’s no guarantee that the distinction between repair and augment is relevant. Assuming that repair is tantamount to augment, aren’t we in fact transhumanists already without realising it? First and foremost, we have to know our limitations.
Augmented or diminished body?
In 2015, Argus II, the prosthesis that allows people to see despite pigment retinitis, was implanted for the first time in Raymond Flynn. It’s called the “bionic eye”. Shortly before that, in 2013, based on the initial results of the European project, LifeHand 2, the sense of touch was restored to amputee, Dennis Aabo Sørensen. It was called the “bionic hand”. On a more radical note, a certain Neil Harbisson wasted no time in introducing himself as the first officially recognised augmented man. Consequently he was entitled to appear in his 2004 British passport with his eyeborg, a bionic system that allows him to transform colour into sounds as he has achromatopsia and only sees the world in varying shades of grey. The problem is that a prosthesis, however sophisticated it may be, does not become an organ. So why talk about “augmented man” with a bionic hand or eye? Even when a function is restored and even more so if it is only partly restored, the human body is and remains diminished. Metaphors can be misleading.
What augmentation are we talking about?
An augmented man is a quirk used to translate human enhancement in the 1990s’ genetic context. The debate then focused on the possibility of a new form of eugenics. However, since the European report, Human Enhancement (2009), the term has taken on a far wider meaning. Simone Bateman and Jean Gayon (2012) have identified three forms of augmentation/improvement: (1.) an increase in an individual’s physical or cognitive capacities, (2.) improvement of the species, (3.) improvement in personal feelings with, for instance, aesthetic surgery or psychopharmacology. Although improvement of the species can be understood as increasing the chances of survival in an uninhabitable environment without making profound changes to the body, the term “augmented human” still seems to imply a reduction of the latter to a quantity to which it is possible to add homogeneous matter as in the case of a child who grows because he/she increases in size. With regard to Sørensen, “instead of using technology, we are starting to become the technology”. So is mankind a natural artefact? Is mankind really improved if the body becomes a product of human reason as opposed to a product of nature, and perhaps a product of super artificial intelligence in the future? Behind these questions, hotly debated on the public stage, there are numerous assumptions that affect our understanding of nature. However, in our struggle to deal with issues of medical ethics, we have forgotten that these questions come under the philosophy of nature. And what if transhumanism was an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that human beings are not the measure of all things — and certainly not when it comes to our use of technology—nature is always the measure of all things but a nature that does not take anything from the modern myth in which humankind want to enshrine it, such as determinism and instinct, or totality in opposition to freedom and culture.
Is it natural to augment humans?
Taking a step back, we can see that it is good for humans to be augmented. Isn’t it obvious that no-one can survive without clothes or a home? Humans therefore need to supplement the body with things that nature doesn’t provide but which are nevertheless essential for various stages in life. We therefore refer to a house as habitation, using words whose Latin root is derived from the verb to have. In this sense, we can have without owning or own without having but we need to have in order to be and to live well as humans. In other words, it’s completely natural for humans to be augmented. But this does not necessarily mean deceiving, at least if we recognise that humans fit the order of nature in a particular way. From this perspective, a repair that restores the body to its initial state is already an augmentation. In the true sense of the word, we repair a machine or a trunk, but not a living organism. Doctors treat and nature heals. And as soon as we add things to the body that nature has not provided, the body is augmented. This is never a problem provided that we respect it, i.e. look after the humanity inherent in every individual. To do this, we have to understand that the body is not alien to humanity but, similarly, that humanity is not reduced to the body. Reference should be made here to Socrates for whom wisdom meant knowing oneself.
Being or having?
A transhumanist is the one who is deceived. He/she gets mixed up with being and having, believing that humankind is the tool or what amounts to the same thing, technology. A victim of the bewitching power of language, a transhumanist ignores the fact that having in this context is not the simple part of a whole even though a whole has parts. But, above all, transhumanism is coherent. If a human being is “the whole body and nothing else”, to coin Nietzsche’s formula, the fact of having cannot be the complement that the body needs because it is human. Conversely, if materialism is the order of the day, that means that people are human because they have two feet, the power of speech and moral principles. In this case, it is also the fact of having that makes the man, and the latter can only undergo transformations over time. Human beings would even gain from assuming responsibilities by directing their own evolution towards what seems to them to be the most desirable outcome. This perspective clearly shows that, as far as transhumanist John Harris (2007) is concerned, augmentation is a moral obligation and that medicine, regardless of the innermost beliefs of doctors, already constitutes a way of implementing this obligation.
The materialist experience
And yet, materialism is not an obligation. It cannot resist rigorous, thorough analysis, primarily in the philosophy of nature, which shows that experimental sciences do not have all the answers and overlook lessons of experience that can be learned without a measuring tool. Mankind has a universal capacity for knowledge and action that no matter can assume, not even artificial intelligence. Every human is totally naked, vulnerable and needy when he/she comes into the world because we are born into a community that is capable of collaborating freely and, above all, respectfully with nature. The nakedness of the newborn infant is only a sign of the freedom he/she is called upon to exert, and thus indicative of his/her ability to recognise or disregard the truth. From this perspective, there is no need to describe medicine that treats and repairs as transhumanist, even if it augments at the same time.
We must nevertheless remain cautious because wealth, although essential, doesn’t bring happiness. We know that it’s more important to give than to receive. The Greek philosophers taught us that. However, this is not about justice but about tempering a natural desire. What is more, courage used to be all about laying down one’s life, which might seem outrageous nowadays. The fact remains that medicine will only know its limits if it serves the natural element and focal point of every human being, not our desires which, taken collectively, will always be without measure. The augmented human must learn to live life in a detached manner, in a world of ever-increasing detachment but must not end up detached. But who will set an example? A joyful, genuine, irresistible example. Then no-one will want transhumanism any longer – I am definitely convinced of that. But am I brave enough to put this into practice myself?