Thomas Fuchs: In Defense of the Human Person

by Thomas FuchsKarl Jaspers Professor for Philosophical Foundations of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Heidelberg 

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College on the University of British Columbia campus. The entire set of posts can be found here.

“We are oppressed at being men – men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man … Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea.”

                  Fjodor Dostoyevski: “Notes from the Underground” (1864)

Between Naturalism and Culturalism

150 years after Dostoyevski’s prophetic quotation, we are situated at the threshold of a radical transformation of our hitherto customary image of the human being – a transformation which may be characterized by the following presuppositions:

  • Evolution counts as a process of progressive differentiation and optimization; however, its respective results at any time are considered contingent. We can therefore no longer claim human nature, one of its results, as a pregiven and constant basis for defining what it means to be a human being.
  • The human being is fundamentally imperfect. Its nature is not only changeable, but also in need of optimization. We should therefore take responsibility for our further biological development instead of leaving it to blind evolution and contingency.
  • Bodily existence no longer enables our enactment of life in the first place but rather restricts our individual and collective freedom. It seems increasingly unacceptable to be dependent on given bodily preconditions and autonomous processes.

What is propagated as a consequence, are possibilities of enhancing and reshaping one’s body by all kinds of pharmaceutic or technical means, culminating in the fantastic idea of detaching one’s mind from the body in the form of pure information and transferring it onto other, more durable substrates. This is the utopian idea of immortality put forward by transhumanist philosophers and AI-researchers.

These ideas are based on a concept of the body which is widespread in present life sciences as well as humanities. According to this concept, the body is a material, objectifiable vehicle or machine which is at our free disposal and open for enhancement and mani­pulation. However, this position comes in two very different variants:  

  1. The naturalistic position assumes a biological determination of the human being: genes, hormones and neurones steer the development of our personality, our moods and affects, and our social behaviour. Even moral attitudes such as altruism may be derived from evolutionary advantages for ingroup survival. Attachment, love or trust are only epiphenomena of biochemical processes and organic algorithms. The life sciences increas­ingly explain these mechanisms with the goal of taking this steering into our own hands.
  2. On the contrary, the culturalistic or voluntaristic position assumes that there is or should be no final biological determination of the individual. A pregiven nature of the body is either contested or at least regarded as an undesirable limitation of the individual’s freedom of shaping oneself at will. The consequences are far-reaching: from a denial of biologically given sex roles to the promotion of cognitive enhancement and finally to transhumanistic positions which praise overcoming our bodily nature as the completion of the emancipatory project of modernity.

Both positions, despite their difference, are based on the same fundamental dualism of mind and body. This dualism is interpreted, in the one case, as a complete determination by the body; in the other case, it is turned into a radical voluntarism of the mind over against the body. Paradoxically, this leads to similar consequences, namely to the insistence on ever more extended manipulations of one’s bodily nature.

Embodiment

However, both positions, in their dualistic one-sidedness, miss a constitutive structure of the human person, which is our embodiment. Humans are neither natural machines nor pure minds, but living beings in the first place, and that means, embodied and bodily beings. I use these terms to denote the classical dual aspectivity of the person, namely as Leib and Körper, or body-as-subject and body-as-object. Thus, the concept of embodiment implies the convergence of two complementary aspects:

  1. on the one hand, the phenomenology of the lived or subjective body as the medium of our relation to the world and to others; this aspect has been explored in particular by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty;
  2. on the other hand, the biology of the living or objective body, referring to the dynamic interaction of the moving and sensing organism with its environment. This latter aspect has been increasingly explored over the last two decades within the new paradigm of “Embodied and Enactive Cognitive Science” (cf. Varela, Thompson, Gallagher, and others). It regards consciousness and subjectivity as essentially embodied in the whole organism (not only embrained), as embedded or situated in the environment and as enacted through the ongoing sensorimotor interaction of organism and environment. Thus, the mind is not regarded as an inner model of the world produced inside the brain, but as as a particular enactment of the life of the organism as a whole.

This dual aspectivity of the living being  means that there is a correspondence between the phenomenology of our bodily being in the world and the ecology of the living organism in its environment – in other words, between the lived body and the physical body, or between Leib and Körper. The fundamental unity which underlies both aspects is nothing else but the process of life itself. In other words, life cannot be divided into a mere carrier body and a pure mind, as transhumanism assumes.

Mind-Transfer and Mind-Upload

What does this mean for the central transhumanist idea, namely “mind-transfer” or “mind-upload”?

First, this idea is based on an untenable functionalism. It regards mind and consciousness as the sum of digital information processing within a complex system like the brain – in other words, as a software which may run on all kinds of hardware, regardless whether this consists of silicon, carbon, chips, polymers, relays and motors, legos, or tinkertoys. We are to assume that the mind is based merely on the functional relations between physical elements and not in any way on our physis, i.e. on the biology of organic life. This amounts to a concept of “information idealism” (Hauskeller 2012): Our mind is free to move from our body to another and still remain identical because it is a substrate-independent, formal structure—in other words: pure form without matter.

But no formal algorithms and information sequences, whereever in the world they might be stored, mean anything at all without a subject. Hence, there is no “pure information” neither in a computer, nor in a brain. Being a subject, however, means being aware of the world and of oneself, and this awareness is not itself information; it is subjective experience, not an algorithm of digital sequences. My mind may be “informed” it may even be capable of all forms as Aristotles’ nous poieticos, but since it is my mind, it means self-awareness. The only thing that can be copied and transferred is information, and now matter how much information may be drawn from the brain – the self or the subject, qua subject, is not such information. Thus, the idea of mind-upload is based on a wrong concept of the mind as disembodied, pure form.

Second, the idea of mind-upload is based on an untenable neuroreductionism. It assumes the brain to be the only substrate of the mind – like the fictitious “brain in a vat” which produces consciousness even when separated from the body and stimulated by a suitable computer program. The paradigm of embodied cog­nition is opposed to such a brain centrism. Consciousness is indeed the result of a continuous interaction, first between the brain and the whole organism: these circular and vital regulatory processes form the basis of the constant background feeling of the body, or the feeling of being alive. Moreover, conscious experience depends on the circular sensorimotor interaction of brain, body, and environment which cannot be simulated by a computer algorithm however sophisticated it may be.   

Hence, mind and self are not produced by the brain, as is commonly assumed. Of course, brain functions are a necessary condition of mental life, and lesions of the brain will impair or inhibit mental functions. But this does not prove the brain to be the locus of the mind. It should rather be regarded as a mediating organ, or a facilitator (Fuchs 2018): it mediates the circular interactions of organism and environment which form the basis of conscious life. The locus of consciousness, if we want to speak of it at all, is ultimately nothing else but the dynamic life of the whole, environmentally embedded animal or person.

To conclude: the realization of a mind-upload is impossible in principle, not only because of a lack of suitable technology. For the essence of the mind depends not on pure form extricable from the brain but on the concrete modes of its individuated existence, and this existence is grounded in the living body as a whole.

The transhumanist view is based on a new gnosticism: minds need to be “liber­ated” from their bodies, it is argued, because humans, as pure form, are only accidentally trapped in mortal vessels. In contrast, the concept of embodiment claims that bodies are not cages and minds are not angels because both are inherently entangled with one another as two aspects of the process of life. Hence, minds could never migrate from their living, organic bodies to computers. As human persons, our individual personal identity depends on the embodied living being that we are. This embodied and mortal individuation is the price to pay in order to experience both the constraints and the freedom of real existence.

References:

Fuchs, T. (2018) Ecology of the brain. The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hauskeller, M. (2012) My brain, my mind, and I: Some philosophical assumptions of mind-uploading. International Journal of Machine Consciousness 4: 187-200.