I am beginning to think that these discussions of humanism and also of what it means to be human are fundamentally informed by a Cartesian notion of dualism. When Descartes said ‘I think therefore I am’ he created the potential for the human to be something more than the physical body and this same understanding seems to have permeated definitions of humanity.
It has also allowed Freud to go on to talk about mind and body in complicated ways and opened the door to Marx’s notion of the dialectic and to an expansion of ethical philosophy. But what if it is simply nonsense?
To put it bluntly, where is the evidence that mind exists apart from body? Increasingly, we understand that the brain is a lump of meat (I enjoyed that video) with some electrical charges whizzing through it and although we might imagine we feel things in our head we probably don’t. All that we have, and maybe Keats understood this, is a life of sensation.
I have argued before in this blog that Descartes could have got out of his dilemma by talking to the man in the next cubicle and agreeing to agree that they both existed in material form. They could have gone on from there to construct quite a satisfactory universe and drawn in other people to help build reality. This would have made it easy to see off any malignant Demons which appeared. Unfortunately, he didn’t and the outcome is dualism – the idea that we need two things inside ourselves to agree among themselves about what is real.
When we look at the various ways in which humanity has been defined subsequently the definitions constantly refer back to this idea of dualism. They talk about having other capacities which overcome the animal physical side of our being, thinking before we act and not being driven by base desires, understanding the psychology that drives our animal selves around and having a capacity for religious belief and the mystical which sits above our mundane everyday lives. The fact is that these are all chemical and electrical.
What provides them with some undeniable significance, either as sensations or values is the social world and the way that social beings construct reality. Dualism, undoubtedly useful in some circumstances, is simply one of these constructs but it manifestly isn’t a necessity or a prerequisite for being human. That is determined by what value we give to the sensations we experience while working collaboratively with others to share, define and normalise them. This seems a fair description of everyday life. I have a feeling that I haven’t had before so I share it with somebody else and they tell me when they felt the same and we give it a name. It it’s a good feeling, we’re probably in love and if it is a bad feeling they give us some antibiotics instead. It’s a simple process which happens throughout our lives and it starts with our mothers. It is not reliant on any notion of mind and body although most mothers will introduce one of these as a social convenience or perhaps to underline why Kyle down the road is a bit of an animal while her son is undeniably human.
That makes for a better definition of post-humanism which is the awareness that humanist approaches based on a flawed dualism are problematic although, as Derrida points out, they are also inescapable in terms of our ways of thinking. That makes post-humanism something much more positive and if we can use technology to play around with these understandings then so much the better.
Badmington, Neil (2000) Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism. Posthumanism. <http://www.palgrave.com/PDFs/0333765389.Pdf>