Paranoia of the Body: Fear of Human Enhancement, Biotech, and Posthuman Metamorphosis

The more I study the regulation of enhancement drugs that are denied to Olympic athletes the more I ask myself: Why are we doing this? I’m not speaking of the supposed moral and normative appeal to unfair advantage, etc., but rather to the paranoia and total and pervasive liberal humanist fear of human enhancement in general. Our culture has become superparanoiac about the regulation and control of physical processes and medical, scientific, and practical intervention into the bodies of the best and brightest among us for using scientific know-how for competitive advantage.

Of course when it comes to regulating Capital, or capitalism itself it’s just the opposite. The same culture that disallows the enhancement of the individual body, allows the social and political body all kinds of agonistic enhancements – the corporate body of fake persons who control the wealth and security of the planet can almost get away with anything; or, when called out pay a small fine for such infractions against the real bodies of its constituents. Here in the world of capital there seems to be the opposite effect of allowing total deregulation and merciless use of any and all known scientific know-how for advantage over both its own constituents and all external competitors in the arena of Global Finance.

But this isn’t my point, my point is that we hear all the time about the benefits of the sciences for personal health, wealth, and advantage. Of how all new neuroscientific and other grand breakthroughs are going to enhance us through biotechnology, medicine, and social graces, etc., and yet when it comes down to it those in real power behind the sciences (no, no paranoia here!) don’t really want all this to become anything more than a pipe dream at best for the vast common populace. All these advancements are meant for the elite, the wealthy and powerful rather than for the great majority of worldly denizens. So they sponsor fantasy and regulation over our bodies and promote a culture of fear against GMO’s and Human Enhancement, Posthuman AI and Robotics. And instead the future is filled with bleak landscapes of terror, climate disaster, and the totalitarian world or total regulation of every citizens under regimes of self-regulatory voluntarism.

Watching how many Olympians were sidelined through neoliberal regulation in these summer games made me realize that what we’re really doing is trying to turn the clock back, to become ultra-conservative and slow down scientific and biotechnological revolution in gene therapy, stem-cell research, medical and engineering (prosthetic) research and advances, while at the same time allowing these same substances to be used in unregulated ways by those outside the proscribed limits of the accepted system: the rich and powerful Oligarchs and their minions.

This is once again about what it mean to be human, what is normal, what is the proscribed limits of the human project and its sciences? Access to technology: for the rich or for all, have’s or have not’s?  The focus of anti-enhancement and anti-biotechnology (i.e., the use of enhancement drugs and therapies, etc.) has reached a fever pitch within the boundaries of world culture. Why? Why do we fear tinkering with the body? This speaks to other fears as well, the current promotion of fear and paranoias against the LGBTQ community seems to be a part of this same Culture of Fear that is allowing ancient atavistic forces of deep seated monotheistic and voluntarist cultures, both religious and secular who seek to command, control, and regulate every aspect of our bodies – brain and appendages – through carefully crafted rhetorical gestures of cultural paranoia, and key medical intervention and biotechnological access or denial.

What’s the agenda? This whole unprogressive system of expulsion, exclusion, exploitation, regulation, and power over our bodies is part of a wider circulation of both intrinsic and extrinsic cultural and social conservative voluntaristic thought and practices stemming from antagonistic and desperate religious perspectives based of fear that are allowing the reemergence of ancient atavisms as self-imposed normative ploys to limit this brave new world to an elite minority? We’re seeing the dismantling of the atheistic world-view in our time, the slow erosion of the last vestiges of the critical apparatus of the radical Enlightenment project, which is being hollowed out as core voluntarist and utilitarian principles  once again make a bid to establish themselves and replace all aspects of the radical critiques that gave us democracy. Now the Oligarchs and elites seek to become sole masters of the House of Global Secularism. Hiding their actual intentions and designs under the promise of an automated and fantastic future of AGI’s, Smart Cities, Transhuman perfection, etc…. while all along knowing that only a small elite will ever enter the golden portals of these hellish paradises.

The Ethics of Human Enhancement

As Moseley and Juengst argue that at “first glance there does not seem to be anything philosophically problematic about human enhancement”.1 Yet, as we see around us there are a great many debates and concerns around the ethical implications of all these new biotechnologies: clinicians’ concerns about the limits of legitimate health care, parents’ worries about their reproductive and rearing obligations, and the efforts of competitive institutions like sports to combat cheating, as well as more general questions about distributive justice, science policy, and the public regulation of medical technologies. In their paper they offer three sets of philosophical considerations that are key to navigating this literature: first, conceptual concerns about the limits of legitimate health care, then moral worries about fairness, authenticity and human nature, and finally political questions about governance and policy. (ibid.)

Ultimately these debates were started many years ago, but to save time I’ll let the reader pursue the history of this issue on her own time. Instead I’m focusing on the use and practice of human enhancement: the biomedical interventions that are used to improve human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to restore or sustain health. It’s this fine line between what is legitimate and illegitimate in current social, cultural, political, legal, and ethical aspects that concerns us. As Moseley and Juengst remind us there are no “enhancement technologies” per se. Whether a given biomedical intervention counts as an enhancement depends on how it is used. (ibid.) The big issue is over the boundary zones between therapeutic and enhancement use itself, which seems to be ill-defined across the global market and legal worlds.

Ever since the first ancient Greek chipped away at a lump of stone to give it the smooth, aerodynamic properties of a discus, sportsmen and engineers have been looking at ways to enhance performance – while some of those denied medals have been crying foul. A new report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers suggests that technological innovation is now an integral part of sport at the highest level, and that Olympic competition is not just about who is fastest – but whose kit is smartest. “Technology is as much a part of an athlete’s armoury as nutrition, training and coaching,” says the report.2

As the report discovered rules to restrict technological advantage are devised only when there is an outcry: “Often, decisions on technology come down to popular or public opinion. I think if it makes a perceptible difference to what the public sees, there will be a backlash against it. But often these decisions are made not on ethical judgements but on popular judgments.”(ibid.)

Because of unfair advantage it gives wealthier countries FINA, the swimming regulatory body, banned high-tech swimsuits and other technologies from the Olympics. So much of the regulation is based on the notion of have’s and have not’s as much as it is on the fear of these technologies themselves.  But then what about surgery, or prosthetics, or a number of other engineering and biotech interventions?

It’s taken time but the use of prosthetics has slowly become accepted under certain conditions for athletes. As human prosthetics advance, it is possible they will not only help the disabled to compete, but the able-bodied to do better. Tiger Woods had eye surgery to improve his (normal) vision. One Olympian went to court in 2008 for the right to run on his prosthetic legs against able-bodied athletes. He had been banned not because he would be at a disadvantage but because it was thought biotechnology had made him faster. It was claimed that he used 25% less energy than other athletes, though that view was later officially rejected. (ibid.)

So as engineers and medical devices become more available what then? According to Moseley and Juengst electronic and robotic tools that enable us to listen, observe, help or harm at a distance, lifestyles designed to maximize particular talents, and social practices that foster new forms of human relationship all come with their own trade-offs and moral concerns. But the focus of the enhancement ethics literature is overwhelmingly on interventions that make biological changes in human bodies and brains, using pharmaceutical, surgical, or genetic techniques. (ibid.)

So it seems we are trying to hold back the advance of the sciences, to apply pressure to the overreach of both athletic competition and society itself in these posthumanist times of biotechnology. What is behind this need to enhance the human by way of these various pharmaceutical, surgical, or genetic techniques that both our sociocultural and legal systems fear? It cannot be just the difference in wealth of the various countries. That seems more of an excuse to regulate it rather than an obstacle, which could be alleviated by a large international body, too. So what’s really behind the dampening and regulation of these future technologies?

As James Huggins states it. “There are so many things out there that are being discovered, and we’re absorbing all of this new information very quickly,” says Huggins. “Bio-colonization is taking place. The big question, though, is how we will choose to use this new knowledge.” 3

Speaking of the misguided apprehension and use of stem cells alone – that are regulated and barred in many countries – Huggins tells us “Any respectable biologist will tell you that life begins at conception,” says Huggins, who believes that destroying an embryo is just the same as aborting a fetus. “We put these potential lives in suspended animation, sitting on a shelf, waiting for someone to decide whether they want another child or not. Not everyone believes that these embryos have souls, but there are definitely major metabolic processes occurring – we’ve got life there.”

Yet, scientists backed by religious or conservative values like C. Ben Mitchell, a member of the bioethics and contemporary culture faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Trinity International University state attack such use: “I disagree with the notion that since these frozen embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, they should be handed over to scientists for their experiments. That’s like saying that prisoners on death row are going to die anyway, so let’s go ahead and kill them right now, so we can save more lives as a result. There is no biological difference with the embryo in cold storage and the embryo in the womb.” (ibid.)

So again it goes back to this debate of secular vs. religious sociocultural forces that seem to be in a deadlock with the atavistic paranoia of the ultra-conservative agendas winning out against any progressive agenda in technology.  We’re living in a moment when the whole progressive history of Enlightenment values is being eroded to the point of idiocy. In the last century the erosion of substantive thought concerning matter, the physicalist view or reductionist sciences were supposedly the first to go with the advent of modern Quantum mechanics and theory that showed at the sub-atomic level a world not of substance but of forces and powers that operated at an almost immaterial level of Being, etc.

Yet, at the other end of the spectrum one has seen the opposite effect in the study of the Self and Brain, with the emergence of a view that the Self is an illusion and the Brain itself produces this illusory thing we term the Self or Consciousness. Yet, there is still the Hard problem of consciousness as to where the brain ends and the self begins, the old chicken or the egg routine. Some say this cannot be solved because the very organ that would solve it doesn’t have direct access to its own processes. Yet, with the advent of imaging technologies we now have third person or external access to the brain’s processes so that some scientists and engineers think we are on the verge of explaining these processes.

A lot of debate surrounding the notion of Free Will centers on this very issue. As an article on a popular site (Slate)4 argues it has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells that fire as a direct result of chemical and electrical events, with no room for free will. Others note that people are unaware of some causes of their behavior, such as unconscious cues or genetic predispositions, and extrapolate to suggest that all behavior may be caused that way, so that conscious choosing is an illusion.

Scientists take delight in (and advance their careers by) claiming to have disproved conventional wisdom, and so bashing free will is appealing. But their statements against free will can be misleading and are sometimes downright mistaken, as several thoughtful critics have pointed out.  As Baumeister reports arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions. So why all the fuss over semantic definitions? Well it goes to the heart of the human itself: What does it mean to be human? Of course the whole nihilist tradition will tell you there is no “meaning” involved, no value, no human condition; that this is part of a long and erroneous tradition of liberal humanism that has controlled both philosophy, the sciences, and every aspect of our sociocultural and political landscape for far too long. That it’s finally time to give up the ghost, let the dead world of metaphysics die a natural death. It served it purpose, but now its just in the way of …? Of what? Progress? Science? Human enhancement? Perfection…? Self-Control? Ah… there’s the nub: are we in control or are we just puppets on the string of physical neural processes that we’re both blind too and that are completely indifferent to our emotional or spiritual concerns; processes that are impersonal and based on eons of Darwinian evolution that has nothing to do with what we think or feel, and more to do with sex and survival. Does it really come down to something so simple?

In a nutshell, is it the inner deciding process that humans have evolved that is the reality behind the idea of free will: these processes of rational choice and self-control which imperceptibly think us and through us, deciding before we even know it, not realizing until after the fact that consciousness – who assumes itself master in its own house is a mere pawn in the long treadmill of natural machinic existence? It’s this or nothing. If you accept free will, this is what it is. If you insist on disbelieving in free will, these are the processes that are commonly taken for it. But either way, there is a real phenomenon here. And to understand human life, it is vital to understand how this phenomenon works.

Are we mere puppets dancing on the strings of our genes as Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins would suggests: “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.”.5  Yet, others such as Denis Noble argue that the selfish gene idea is not useful in the physiological  sciences, since selfishness cannot be defined as an intrinsic property  of nucleotide sequences independently of gene frequency, i.e. the  ‘success’ in the gene pool that is supposed to be attributable to the  ‘selfish’ property. It is not a physiologically testable hypothesis.6

Kant and the Dilemma of Voluntarism

Some say all this goes back to Kant as one of the culprits who spawned the continuation of debates over free-will and determinism; or, mind-body dualism and its religious roots in Christian revelation, etc. That not only did Kant’s critique of pure theoretical reason protect the idea of a noumenal free will from the problems of determinism, it helped
save religion from the criticisms of a modern scientific view of the world. Empirical science could only tell us about “appearances” and not “things in themselves”. The critique of pure theoretical reason undermined the traditional metaphysical proofs for the existence of God, but at the same time protected the existence of God from the ravages of scientific criticism. It made the world of pious believers, like Kant’s servant Lampe, safe from the type of Enlightenment critique of religion that had grown throughout the second half of the eighteenth century.7

In his monumental history of moral philosophy Jerome B. Schneewind (The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy) (1998: 512) describes Kant’s moral philosophy as combining aspects of voluntarist and anti-voluntarist traditions, equating the good with what is “willed by a will governed by the moral law”, a clearly voluntarist inheritance. “In his early attempts at theodicy Kant worked with the voluntarist idea that to be good is simply to be what God wills. He gave up on the thought that God creates all possibilities; but he never abandoned the account of goodness inchoately expressed in the early fragments. In the mature theory this point emerges in Kant’s identification of practical reason with a free will governed by the moral law.”8

The great forerunner to late medieval voluntarism is found in the conception of God in St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (CE 354–430), who, while greatly influenced by the pagan Neoplatonists, had rejected the characteristic Greek optimism in the powers of human reason. In Janet Coleman’s words, such a conception of human rational powers was regarded “as part of a perverse human fantasy of self-perfection, self-sufficient omnipotence and self dependent autonomy. (Redding, p. 14)

It was this critical attitude to the limits of human reason that was to emerge once again in the thirteenth century, as manifested in the Condemnation of 1277, in which Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, condemned the entertaining of a variety of philosophical ideas that had been reintroduced from pagan sources into contemporary theology. Included in the condemnation was Thomas Aquinas, who had died just three years earlier. The beneficiaries of the voluntaristic condemnation of Aquinas’ Aristotelianism were nominalists such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and the consequences for the development of Western culture have been the focus of considerable attention. (Redding, p. 15)

So most of our Western philosophies and sciences have inherited this whole utilitarian voluntarist tradition of the Will of God, etc. of which Kant’s notion of finitude and the limits of Reason hide this whole tradition of voluntarism. Think of the notion of the “invisible hand of the Market” – a veritable voluntarist notion in disguise, with the Market taking the unfathomable place of an inscrutable Will of God voluntarism…

So at the heart of the liberal humanist secular traditions we’ve inherited an amalgam of romanticized religious notions as the core principles guiding both our supposed atheistic sciences and our cultural mores in which religion and its rejection of the more radical elements of the Enlightenment project have been carefully manipulated and bound to the post-Kantian world view within which we all live.

It’s this subtle inheritance of voluntarism, utilitarianism, and the religious normative vision at the heart of the post-Kantian secular project itself that has brought about the problems we are facing in this current debate between human enhancement, transhumanism, posthumanism, gender, race, and so many other issues in our Western culture and civilization. Ultimately it will come down to a philosophical, scientific, social, cultural, and political debate over this inheritance of voluntarism and utilitarianism, the religious core of that post-Kantian world that has grafted itself subtly onto every aspect of our global culture and civilization. Ultimately the dragon that must be slayed forever is the metaphysical world-view of voluntarism and utilitarianism that stems from both Plato and the Christian/Jewish/Islamic monotheistic religious perspectives on ethics and value, and their monocular command and control of the Secular Age with its investment in finitude and the limits of Reason. Can we even term ours a Secular Age when in fact religion and its utilitarian and voluntarist value systems have been at the core of our sociocultural and political lives ever since Kant?

  1. Juengst, Eric and Moseley, Daniel, “Human Enhancement“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Boseley, Sarah. London 2012 Olympics: How athletes use technology to win medals. (The Guardian, July 2012)
  3. Huggins, James. The Good, The Bad, & What We Should Fear Most. (see: here)
  4. Roy F. Baumeister. Do you have Free Will? (Slate, Sept, 2013)
  5. Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary edition (Oxford Landmark Science). OUP Oxford; 4 edition (June 2, 2016)
  6. Noble, Denis. Neo-Darwinism, the modern synthesis and selfish genes: are they of use in physiology? (March, 2011) Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PT, UK.
  7. Redding, Paul. Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche. Routledge; 1 edition (May 7, 2009)
  8. Schneewind, Jerome B.. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge University Press (December 13, 1997)

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