Today you can have your DNA sequenced in one day, and maybe in five years you can repair it with the so-called CRISPR/cas9 correction technologies. At the same time, the Internet short-circuits your ways of moving (with Uber and AirB&B), of checking yourself (quantified self and telemedicine) or of learning (MOOCS, Wikipedia...). Even the robots start to beat the Go champions and start to learn and evolve, ... Will we soon make love with them ? ask Laurent Alexandre and Jean-Michel Besnier in a unique and muscular dialogue (see their book Do robots make love? Transhumanism in 12 questions, published by Dunod).
The doctor and entrepreneur (founder of DNAVision) known for his technofascinated visions and his work The Death of DeathThe book, published in 2011, crosses his arguments with those of the philosopher, a specialist in new technologies. We take advantage of this publication to publish here Jean-Michel Besnier's intervention at the Festival vivant, on September 17th.
Cs life reduced to the living? Is there no longer any reason to distinguish between biological life and human life? What does it take to make a living being human?
Is artificial life to replace biological life, just as artificial intelligence is said to make biological intelligence obsolete? What would result for the self-image of human beings if their functions and behaviour were to be fully naturalized?
In the eyes of the philosopher, these questions expose to reactivate a point of view that neither synthetic biology nor NBICs would be willing to admit - that of vitalism versus mechanism, or even that of spiritualism versus materialism. Without abandoning myself to this reactivation, which would give the beautiful part to scientists, I invite you to open Ray Kurzweil's book, Humanity 2.0, Subtitled The Bible of Change(p.366), where it is announced that "by the early 2030s, there will no longer be a clear distinction between human and machine, between virtual and real reality": you have no chance of finding life defined in this Bible other than in terms of information and cybernetics. The word "life" does not even appear in the subject index. But neither is there an entry for the word "meat", which is known to be used by some transhumanists to designate the biological corporeality - the flesh, if one prefers - that one must get rid of in order to escape degradation.
Take also the 2003 report on "Technological Convergence for Improved Human Performance", otherwise known as the NBICs Report: its authors Rocco and Bainbridge prophesy in it above all the so-called integral thinking (the brain coupled with the Internet) and the transformation of humanity into a "single, distributed and interconnected brain". When biology is mentioned in the technology foresight described in this Report, it is to invoke its convergence with the nanosciences and the encouragement to carry out cellular processes of the living body on a silicon chip. Of course, one guesses that life is conceived as a phenomenon by which complex molecules assemble, draw matter and energy from their environment and reproduce themselves - according to a commonly accepted definition. It is the result of myriad chemical, physiological and cognitive processes. But approached in the terms of NBICs, it can be described above all by reference to the construction of Lego bricks intended to obtain a giant Meccano that is certainly unrelated to the description of life that a phenomenology of the flesh would offer ...
Reductionism from cybernetics
That science applied to life is missing life is not a new observation. Bergson said it in his own way: science is incapable of approaching life other than from the point of view of death, just as it is incapable of talking about time other than in terms of space. It always proceeds partes extra partes, discretizing what is continuous. It cannot therefore help us to understand life.
In La Logique du vivant, François Jacob explained well the difference between the biological dog and the familiar dog, the one that is stroked or whistled at when going for a walk: the first is an abstract creature and proceeds from a theoretical model that has to purify its object in order to explain how it works, while the second is so complex that it requires approaches other than those of science (cf. La souris, la mouche et l'homme pp.122-123): "Biology tells us that of our two dogs, the real one is the molecular dog," writes Jacob. The familiar dog is only a pale reflection of this, the aspect accessible to our senses. And he adds: "If we want to understand how the dog works, where it comes from, how to care for it when it is sick, it is the molecular dog that we must consider"... From there to confusing model and reality, and forgetting to pet the dog and take it for a walk, there is only one step, taken today by all those who no longer speak of human beings as living beings like any other, whose repair, modification, increase or immortality can be considered as the result of biotechnological strategies.
What bioscience lacks
Can a biologist feel that he is talking about the object of his discipline when he reads those death camp survivors who, like Primo Levi, Imre Kertez or Etty Hillesum, express their love of life? Distress is great, and yet, it often happens to me," he writes, "in the evening, when the day has passed and the earth has sunk behind me in the depths, that I walk softly along the barbed wire, and I always feel my heart rise - I can do nothing about it, it is like that, it comes from an elementary force - the same incantation: life is a wonderful and great thing" (Letter 46 of July 3, 1943).
In the life sciences, the confusion between the biological and the human, the reduction of the latter to the former, has undoubtedly been amplified by the explanatory power of information theory. Schrödinger and Wiener obviously had something to do with this: the former's definition of life as neglectropy triggered a physicalist reductionism that could no longer allow us to talk about life in the manner of humanist philosophers: what exactly does it mean that life feeds on negative entropy? Answer: that it avoids its rapid decomposition into an inert state of equilibrium. How does it do this? Answer: by eating, drinking, breathing... By exchanging with its environment, by behaving like a metabolism capable of getting rid of all the entropy it cannot help producing (Cf. What is life? p.172). This characterization is conducive to dismissing any translation in terms of spirituality, to confine oneself only to the elementary of the living.
Because it was of vitalist inspiration, Bichat's definition of life as "all the forces that resist death" could still be "recovered" by a philosopher like Schopenhauer and argue the thesis of the universal will to live, but Schrödinger's definition, derived from physics, seems less likely to fuel a conception of consciousness in which the human being would be recognized in the living. It is not by chance that Schrödinger allows himself only a bridge with Hinduism to give meaning to his physicalist conception of life: indeed, the Upanishads unreservedly confuse consciousness and the body.
Can we do otherwise than expect a biological theory to also suggest something about the way we feel about life? After all, the idealizations of Galilean or Newtonian physics are willingly confronted, by physicists themselves, with our concrete experience of space and time. When it comes to life, it is difficult to completely separate the theory of existential experience. It is not out of place for Nietzsche to draw from Darwin or Spencer reasons to justify his conception of life as a will to power: "What is life? - To live... is to constantly reject out of oneself that which wants to die. To live... is to be cruel, it is to be ruthless for all that grows old and weakens in us, and even elsewhere...". (Le Gai Savoir § 26).
Life is beyond the code
With information theory as an explanatory matrix in the life sciences, the challenge of relating to phenomenological life is formidable. Hence, no doubt, a resignation to abstraction and the resulting illusions such as, for example, that immortality would be possible through virtualization and digital technologies.
Let me make it clear that I do not blame biology for merely proposing a conception of life that has little to do with what ordinary people experience. I consider things here from the position of transhumanists who extrapolate scientific advances and claim to put them at the service of the aspirations of our species. I am well aware that these transhumanists will not be convinced of the need to take into account the irreducible nature of the human being in relation to the naturalization or virtualization program carried by the technosciences.
Why? Simply because they have the ambition to end the human himself. Those who have yet to be convinced are often victims of a kind of intimidation peculiar to the contemporary techno-scientific milieu, which wants to impose a scientism that is decomplexed with respect to philosophy and even the human sciences. The situation of biology and medicine is not easy in this context. They seem to me to be taken hostage and led to compromise with those who take the side of evacuating the existential dimension of the concept of life in order to preserve only its biological consistency.
If biology and medicine could effectively stand out from the discourse of technoprophets, it would not be claimed that NBICs will soon rid us of limitations specific to humans, but only that the body mechanics will be better and better repaired, to the point that our metabolisms will be able to function endlessly. We would refuse to associate transhumanist prophecies with an axiology that is supposed to give meaning to our existence. Thus, one would admit that the announcement of immortality concerns nothing human, but at most the prospect that the animal in us is part of a cyclicity without end.
So let my argument be understood: by forcing us to remember that biological life does not exhaust human life, that the biologist is simply doing his job as a researcher without normative pretensions when he explains living things as an information system, I challenge transhumanists to convince us that they hold out the hope that human expectations will be fulfilled or, more simply put, that they are opening the way for posthumanism.
No life without otherness
I would like to provide a demonstration, at first sight abstract, of this refutation of the pretensions of transhumanism, by making the hypothesis that we cannot speak of life without summoning the resistance of an otherness, however we may understand it - a resistance that disappears when science is laplacian and claims to eliminate chance in order to impose determinism. One of the reasons that seems to lead transhumanism to make a hyperbolic or even absurd statement about immortality (we are going to remove the biological limits imposed on life and thus realize the nightmare of a life without end) is precisely its metaphysical ambition to put an end to all otherness. This ambition is formulated as such, being sometimes referred to Gnosis, that heresy of the first hours of the Christian era whose explicit project is to make science triumph, which will eliminate Evil and all the limitations that have affected humans since Creation. Science is the condition for man's re-alliance with the cosmos and the completion of God's work. Now, the whole Hellenic or Judeo-Christian tradition is based on a conception of life which presupposes an otherness obliging it to organize itself and to grow. Turning its back on this tradition, transhumanism seems to assume that it is an ideological attempt to revive the myth of a new man, rid of the forms of otherness which had been translated into terms of original fault or sin.
Hegel's infinite negativity
Situating life at the heart of the philosophy of nature, which will be overtaken by the philosophy of the spirit, Hegel defines the living organism as a negative integrative unit, that is to say, a whole achieving the synthesis of components, which owes its cohesion to what it opposes to what is not itself. From this point of view, life is said to be "for itself"; it is "its immediacy"; it is "singularity as infinite negativity" (cf. Encyclopedia, Abstract § 216). The technicality of philosophical expression should not be abused: it simply means that every unity is experienced against the background of the forces it resists and sustains. To imagine that this unity is diluted in a superior unity (God, the Great Whole, cyberspace or whatever) is to allow a deadly entropy to take hold. By confusing life and the living, by applying to it the concept of information - and, with it, the ambition to "remove the uncertainty" of its components - by ousting the human and its constituent hazards in favour of biological mechanics alone, by envisaging an artificial life built like a Lego, based on cloning and duplication, transhumanism eliminates the negation characteristic of vital activity. In other words, it cuts short the randomness and growth without which there is no life. For transhumanism, negation is the enemy, the sign of incompleteness, of incompleteness, which challenges the demiurgy that NBICs must make themselves capable of. By imagining itself promoting the new Renaissance that the NBICs report announces, it takes the responsibility of altering the representation that humanity had of itself, when it displayed its vocation to build a common history, on the basis of an asymptotic overcoming of finitude, which nevertheless remains its metaphysical lot.
Take the map for the territory
We cannot reproach the use of metaphors or analogies to explain that we are living beings, speaking beings and that we have built a history rich in institutions, works and symbols. It is the very sign of spiritual activity that expresses our specificity. But, as always, the risk is to take the map for the territory. When the model of explanation of what makes us living ends up obscuring everything on which the specifically human has been built, there is danger in the dwelling.
The concept of feedback, combined with that of message, enabled Wiener to unify natural systems and artificial devices. It was not long before the idea of making an artificial organism became established and the idea of free will, the spirit and the inner life that was thought to be inherent in humans was forgotten. The analogy caused a reduction, if not an ontological regression, and the contemporary success of cybernetics will make evident what was still resisting twenty years ago, namely the thesis that it is the case of the living and the human as well as the self-organized machine, and the scientist's conclusion that we must give up to literature the privilege of commemorating a representation of man that the economic and social context makes more and more superfluous every day.
Biologists, new masters of thought, occasionally add to the subject of cybernetics, perhaps too convinced that they owe the scientificity of their discipline to models derived from physics. See François Jacob himself: "We no longer question life today in laboratories... It is the algorithms of the living world that biology is interested in today" (La Logique du vivant p.321).
The organized being is not a machine but contains machines...
I would like to briefly mention a philosophical position expressed in the middle of the twentieth century, which believed that it was possible to escape from spiritualism while facing cybernetic reductionism. Raymond Ruyer's efforts to challenge this propensity to reductionism and contemporary mythification by science and technology will seem to some to be outdated: they intend to argue that feedback does not explain all living things because it is itself like a vital invention, - an invention that must be explained without invoking the structures and functions of the organism that it cannot assume because it precedes them.
The organism certainly has a set of organic machines, simulated by artifacts, but there is something in it that has made this set of organic machines. There are machines in the organism - which does not mean that the organized being is a machine. There is in the organism an "unobservable x" (the first human cell) capable of building, without a machine, organic machines that are themselves capable of building non-organic automatic machines that are themselves capable of controlling non-automatic machines... All this critical load, directed against the illusions of cybernetics, leads us to forbid forgetting the dimension of consciousness - that ability to "self-subjectively fly over" the mechanical functions of which humans are capable and which cybernetics eliminates too quickly, reducing it to a simple reflexive heuristic or a mysterious selective advantage that the evolution of the human species no longer needs in the technologized environment that has imposed itself on it. Life is nothing other than consciousness, which is not the observable brain apparatus, as the transhumanists who are adept at mind-uploading believe. Consciousness is certainly coextensive with the brain (which is for it a necessary but not sufficient condition, Bergson showed), as much as it is with the embryo, whose equipotentiality it explains: in embryogenesis and in cerebral functioning, the differentiations that are established seem to indicate that the organs or cortical areas "know" what they must do, as if they were permitted thanks to this general "overview" of the organism, which can well be called "vital consciousness". Both the brain and the embryo possess, according to Ruyer, this primary consciousness which cannot be explained in terms of structure without falling into regression to infinity (what primary structure would explain the appearance of structures?). The organism's equipotentiality (permanently present in the brain) testifies to this organic consciousness that can be identified with life.
Of course, I am not unaware of the criticisms addressed to Ruyer, especially this one: primary or organic consciousness, identified with life, does not explain second consciousness, the one associated with intentionality and existential experience. Renaud Barbaras puts it in one sentence: "The determination of consciousness from life has as its counterpart the restriction of consciousness to the field of vital consciousness (primary consciousness) and, therefore, the inability to go back to an authentic consciousness: grasped from the point of view of life, that is to say, as a domain of overview, the secondary consciousness in its intentional dimension becomes incomprehensible and unmanageable" (cf. "Life and Exteriority. Le problème de la perception chez Ruyer" in Les études philosophiques, 2007/1, n°80, p.34). One of the solutions suggested by this critique: to conceive that primary consciousness, which is turned towards the organism, can find itself confronted with an external world that it does not have the means to know as organic; to come to understand how consciousness becomes "consciousness of something", as phenomenologists want it to be, and thus discover the elementary form of the constitutive otherness of the lived experience.
The war against otherness
The life identified with consciousness according to Ruyer, constitutes not only an objection to the simplism of the transhumanists who stick to informational explanation, but also the argument to support the intuitive conception that one makes of it, when one is aware of its power to resist automatisms. Common sense knows that we live only because we do not allow ourselves to be imposed the automatisms that machine or animate. Neurobiologists inspired by Libet's experiments point this out: consciousness constitutes a veto over the brain's decisions; it limits the instinctive reactions that brain imaging brings to light and, in this respect, it justifies the maintenance of free will as experienced by the conscious human being.
Transhumanism is a war machine against otherness. This is why it pathetically refuses death or why it prefers cloning that reproduces the same, at random from natural hybridizations. The question of free will is not one for him and he adheres to the idea that the future of the human being is subordinated to his ability to produce ever more automatisms and reactivity. What Ruyer can still suggest, against the reductionism stemming from cybernetics and information theory, is the part of the human that is repressed by the transhumanists. Human life reduced to the functioning of the living, it is indeed the repression of the symbolic dimension of human existence. And it is the oblivion of this dimension that makes poverty from the so-called technoprogressive point of view in human affairs flagrant. For my part, I see in this the root of the inclination to allow the self-image of the human being to deteriorate and the slippery slope that leads him to demand from techniques a treatment that is increasingly indifferent to humanist values (dignity, a sense of challenge, the audacity to assert and venture...). The human being deprived of his vocation to the symbols that link and elevate, is a being who only wants one thing: above all not to die...
Humanity is born with the lie
Let us examine this axiom inspired by the humanism of old: The human being is specifically defined by the power to say "No". This is a thesis that the Hellenic and Latin traditions have illustrated in different ways, but which the Freudian theses have made evident to educators. We grow up only because we oppose, because we refuse. I often quote George Steiner demonstrating, in After Babel, that humanity was born with lies, that is, with the power to use language to say the opposite of reality.
This power to say "No" obviously presupposes that one has a consciousness to be able to resist the automatisms of instinct. What we call "symbolism" describes precisely what transhumanism crushes in its representation of the human and, more seriously, what we seem ready to eliminate from ourselves when we give credit to the immortalist theses defended by the technoprophets.
Three features are often highlighted to describe the symbolism at the origin of human culture: 1) the power to designate something in absentia, the faculty of the inactual: this is the virtue of language, which transhumanists misunderstand by focusing only on signal systems; 2) the interruption of immediate communication: this is the faculty of resisting automatisms that technologists are not afraid to multiply; 3) the "psychic distance" that qualifies the disinterestedness of which humans are capable, e.g., the "in absentia", which is the virtue of language, which transhumanists are unaware of by focusing only on signal systems; 4) the interruption of immediate communication: this is the faculty of resisting automatisms that technologists are not afraid to multiply; 5) the "psychic distance" that qualifies the disinterestedness of which humans are capable, e.g., the "in absentia", which qualifies the disinterestedness of which they are capable. (I borrow this characterization from Fabrice Colonna, who is rightly inspired by Cassirer).
None of these traits is any more safe in the society and the prospective favoured by transhumanists. I have favoured here an argument that concerned the reduction of life to the living exempt from symbols. I could have focused on the contemporary deployment of the obsession with transparency (as opposed to privacy and lies), on the jubilant flattening of the world by ICTs, on the ideology of globalization and on the fantasies of a collective intelligence. I would have found each time this repulsion for negation, which is the mark of the dehumanization assumed by the transhumanists.
Jean-Michel BesnierProfessor Emeritus at the University of Paris-Sorbonne