Transhumanism: the temptation to forget what it means to be alive


Transhumanism, popularized by the American engineer and futurologist Ray Kurzweil with his University of the Singularity, and by the British cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, presents itself as a movement of ideas advocating the transformation, improvement or increase of the human being through technology. It postulates that the hybridization of human and technology, of the living with the non-living, of the natural with the artificial, is not only desirable but also in the order of evolution: in other words, irreversible and, so to speak, fatal.

CSome philosophers, such as Jean-Michel Besnier, have immediately denounced in this statement a form of "animist regression" and the renunciation of the power of reason, that is, the ability of human beings to decide collectively and freely on their destiny. It is difficult not to glimpse, in fact, behind the claim of the transhumanist movements, the spectre of a confusion that could lead to the worst abuses, such as that of assimilating the living to one thing or one commodity among others.

However, can it be considered as "animism", generically defined as a way of considering that all the entities populating the world have a soul, or are, in the language of the philosophical tradition, "animists"? individual subjects ?

It depends on how you define it. Our hypothesis is that it is, on the contrary, a "rationalist regression" in every way opposite to the thinking of the animist world.

TED lecture by Ray Kurzweil. (YouTube, 2014).

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Blurred borders between living and non-living people

For a certain number of people, machines have today, thanks to the progress of artificial intelligence (AI), reached such a level of autonomy and initiative that they can be considered by humans as equal partners, including at the relational and emotional level. The media regularly and not without a certain amount of delight relay testimonials that attest to this growing confusion between machine and human, which can go as far as empathy. But in what way do these facts attest to a return of animism?

The American psychologist Sherry TurkleFor decades now, the Institute has been analyzing our relationship to computer machines and other artificial intelligence. In particular, it has shown that our "attachment" (including affective attachment) to them results less from a confusion or a re-established connection between living and non-living people than from a progressive oblivion of what "living being" may mean in practice.

Most of the time, this attachment is a prerequisite for the degradation of relations between living beings, their impoverishment in context, or even their rarefaction. It is because American teenagers followed by Sherry Turkle, for example, have less and less opportunity to confront the otherness of animals in a hyper-urbanized and artificialized environment, that the animal simulations provided by AI seem truer to them than "nature".

The ultimate stage of humanism

This inversion of the reference frame responds to conditions of adaptation to an environment dominated by the technical organization of space and time. There is no animism here, but a bringing of behaviour into conformity with what tends to become the single norm, that of technical rationality.

This attitude is therefore more akin to technological determinism, which stems from the acquired habit of explaining everything on a technical and utilitarian basis, of conceiving as "real" only what can be manufactured, of confusing things that happen by themselves (nature or the environment, for example) with what is "real". phusis within the meaning of the first definition) with those manufactured or "...lend themselves to mathematics.".

Thus the theory of the transhuman, far from bringing us back to archaic forms of thought, is on the contrary the culmination of the humanist project in all its splendour, that of a human being who is the measure of all things, overhanging the world as if on a pedestal. This is the position of philosophers, as different, moreover, as Dominique Lestel or Olivier Rey. For Dominica Lestel...for example:

"Post-humanism is also this humanist belief, too humanist, that a human being devoid of any attachment to animality is still human: an obviously suicidal belief. »

Disoriented by the magic of digital

But considering, as the philosopher and sociologist... Lucien Lévy-Bruhl in 1949, that animism basically refers to a "state of human mentality in general", and not to a "primitive" stage of humanity, the world experiences that certain phenomena associated with digital environments are indeed strikingly similar.

"We modern people - wrote the anthropologist... Ernesto de Martino - we usually start from the assumption that in magic, as in our civilization, there is a given world to which a certain being is guaranteed: therefore, magic appears to us as a false science, or as an abortive technique. In reality, the problem with magic is not to know the world or to change it, but rather to guarantee the world to which a being makes himself present. In magic, the world is not yet decided, and the presence is still engaged in this work of deciding one's self and the world. »

Isn't it to this same uncertainty that the indeterminacy of what we refer to, for want of a better term, as "digital transformation" brings us back? The blurring of boundaries of all kinds to which this transformation gives rise shakes up the kind of objectivity and solidity to which we were accustomed in the modern world. This is accompanied by a state of disorientation that leaves the field open for attitudes that we thought were over. But calling these attitudes obscurantist does nothing but stigmatize them, which in turn leads to identity-based reactions of rejection and exclusion. The animist analogy still proves useful for thinking differently and giving a different meaning to these reactions.

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Reinventing ways of being in the world

As Dominique Lestel reaffirms:

"What is at stake is not to return to animism as the "New Age" thurifers are trying to do, but to reinvent what forms of animism can be for an era like ours. ...] In the end, the new animism quickly challenges modernist prejudices and calls for a broadening of relational commitments. »

In the animist experience of the world, it is indeed the experience of incompletion (of oneself and of other beings), as a condition of openness to the world, that confers the "animist" experience of the world.assurance of existence. What is decisive is the richness of relationships, their multiplicity.

Faced with a future that is promised to chaos and catastrophes, are there not forms of re-insurance here that are worth thinking about? It is one thing to be disoriented and worried about this, but in the face of the increasingly credible hypothesis of "a world without man", we are led to reflect on other ways of being in the world or of relating to it. This leads to other experiences of the world, other states of consciousness that the animist attitude can help us to decipher.

Gérard Dubey...sociologist, Institut Mines-Télécom Business School

This article is republished from The ConversationUP' Magazine's editorial partner. Read theoriginal paper.

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