By Jurek Molnar
The introduction can be found here:
Human nature is an empty field of endless possibilities to operate on
1. What is human nature? The question is an unsolved problem of ancient times, but it presupposes that humans have a distinct nature and that this nature of humans is deterministic. The constant theme of ancient philosophy, which dominated all later accounts, was that human nature, no matter what it actually consists of, doesn’t change. Human beings are kind and cruel, greedy and altruistic, treacherous and heroic, they are lying about insignificant details or speaking great painful truths to power, responding with submission to tyranny or stubbornly resisting it, but all of these phenomena appear at all times under all possible circumstances. The constant and unchangeable character of human nature is strictly speaking that it is unreliable. It is also a feature of human nature that it can be manipulated and played against us. It always betrays the promises of humanism and gets betrayed by ethical dilemmas. It has tendencies of some sort and it reacts to incentives. The unreliable character of human nature is what Kant would call an “a priori assumption”. Despite many historical efforts, human nature resists social pressure, tyranny and other human interventions to improve it or diminish its influence on human affairs.
The concept of human nature was always accompanied by the idea that human nature cannot change in limited time scales, but it is either eternal or changes only in ways that are too far stretched out for entire civilizations even to notice. The experience of time most people had throughout history is the expectation that the current state of affairs will be the same for the next generation to come, because past and future are on the same straight line. From a grand historical point of view it seems obvious that humans before the Neolithic Revolution must have been very different to the ones that live today. But the change in history that human beings on this planet were entirely nomadic peoples, who developed the first cultural artefacts and then became agricultural settlers, who planted crops and formed the first political entities, dates back at least 15 000 years. A very interesting book by James C. Scott, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States, argues that the introduction of agriculture was a harsh change, which took the majority of humans from a simple but relatively free nomadic life into the realm of tyranny, slavery and exploitation by establishing states and political entities. Ayn Rand had similar ideas, as had anarchist and libertarian traditions. But they all agree that there is a distinct kind of human nature, which fits or fails to fit a certain paradigm of living, which has become for better or worse the dominant pattern. The supposed change in human nature necessarily results from external oppressive forces which then evolve into internalized cultural norms. But nonetheless these changes take a long time and go far beyond individual life spans. We can determine with certainty, that everybody has a theory of human nature, especially those who claim that it doesn’t exist.
The history of what people think what human nature is, goes back a long time and is visible to us in artifacts of motherhood cults that predate the first civilisations. These cults represented most probably the earliest forms of worship as a cultural technique. And all known societies, which existed in a pre-industrial space, consider human nature as a cycle of being busy born and busy dying.
But whatever the actual content of the cults may have been, the cultural memory has been preserved that motherhood is sacred and hence the female body is an object of worship. One can also say that civilisation began with the worship of motherhood. And despite the fact that the worship of the female body has produced things like the porn industry and anti-abortion activism, it also contains the inevitable binary constraint of a fundamental distinction in human nature, obviously the one between male and female. The philosophies and narratives before the 20th century didn’t consider that there were other options available, but the rise of technological paradigms challenge these assumptions on fundamental grounds. Or do they?
2. There is a very crucial difference between science and technology. Science is in its core epistemological, which means that science is based on metaphysical a priori assumptions, which are in itself unsolvable. There is no way to determine if the universe is limited or infinite. There is no way to be sure that the cosmos began with a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. It may also be just one spot in an infinite bubble of universes. It is impossible to find out when exactly life on earth began and how it started and it is also impossible to say if life on earth is an isolated and rare event in the universe, or that we are not special at all and just one instance of an uncountable number of life’s variations in the cosmos. Nevertheless all these unsolvable questions are the drivers of the most exciting scientific research and also a guarantee that science will not end with the standard model of physics. The epistemological part of science can be summarized as the requirement to answer questions about the human condition, which are not reachable by the scientific method. The Nobel laureate in physics, my fellow Austrian countryman Anton Zeilinger has talked about these matters following his award ceremony. Another one is Iain McGilchrist, whose book “The Matter with Things” makes a fascinating case in this regard.
Scientists can study individual behaviour, stochastic patterns in populations and the brain chemistry that regulates emotional states, but they cannot conclude from that information to countless civilizational expressions of certain emotions being elevated and others being side-lined that appeared in our histories. Art escapes the scientific method, as do the sources of human conflict, the downfall of civilizations and the mythologies all around them. Science is mostly aware that it cannot escape metaphysics. Science has to navigate between axioms and a priori assumptions to get to the bottom. But technology as an enterprise can ignore metaphysics.
As soon as we look at technology, the epistemological character of the enterprise goes into hiding. While the principal questions of scientific epistemology are in themselves unsolvable, the targets of technology are necessarily solvable engineering problems. And while scientific knowledge has mostly long term consequences and creeps through the ages like a snake in the grass, technological progress is disruptive, abrupt and unexpected. Technological progress appears mostly as unprecedented, and its consequences are recognizable in the short term. While science depends on modelling, testing and going through the epistemological foundations of its metaphysics, technology in the broader sense does not. When the first smartphones appeared, nobody did a ten-year trial to study the consequences of smart phone use on the human brain chemistry, before releasing it on mankind. Neither in the case of social media applications.
Questions about the human condition are not part of technology and its methods. Technology is the task to solve complicated engineering problems. Such problems tend to be limited in their scale, and solvable due to their mere focus on function. When a smartphone, a dishwasher or a car engine does what it promises to do, questions about the human condition and human nature are irrelevant. Or they appear only later, when an epistemological scientific investigation asks these questions. The focus has irreversibly shifted from a question of what it is, to a question of how can I use it? Meaning disappears, when reliable and repetitive functional applications dictate the perception of the mind. In other words: technology is mostly occupied with the idea that any abstraction has to be an isolated function, which can be somehow described mathematically and algorithmically. The dominant mode of technology is to create an endless repetition of isolated functions, which work inside a framework of (mostly) isolated functions. Technology works by design. The emphasis on function, which solves a particular problem, has an impact on our understanding of and trust in what is actually possible to achieve. A function is an abstraction, which suspends epistemological questions. There are tools, there is a task and there is hopefully an accurate solution to the problem. While science has a complicated relationship to ethics, technology only rarely makes contact. Inside the technological paradigm this also leads to the conclusion that all problems are at the end of the day engineering problems. Science will ask what stable features of human nature are, but technology will answer that human nature can be manipulated. The self-confidence of the technological paradigm is in terms of Nietzsche the “will to power”. Very adverse figures, like Adorno and Heidegger, both warned in the middle of the 20th century of the consequences that technological progress bears in its expansion. Adorno identified technological progress as the main instrument of totalitarian statecraft, while Heidegger said that the use of technology eradicates the meaning of human being (“Sein”) on a fundamental level. Technology does not reflect itself. The instrumental nature of technology makes it immune to deeper questions about the human condition. Its main objective is to change it. Technology is last not least social engineering. Human beings adapt to it, not the other way round.
3.When we think about the connection between “wokeness” and the technological paradigm, then it becomes very clear that the “belief in progress” has nowadays become the dominant ideological imperative. The perspective is specifically frozen towards the future. The past and the present alike are already outdated and the past itself is a laughable matter and the abyss of abhorrent abuse. The past cannot inform us, because they hadn’t smartphones back then. So what do they know? Bob Dylan would have answered: “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now!”
The effect of this is simply a shift in perception or more precisely a shift into ignorance. The belief in progress is paradoxically one that has no complex metaphysical abstractions. Hence, the technological approach to human nature is necessarily instrumental. But this of course has always been the case and most prominently it has been in the case of medicine. There is no exaggeration to say that medicine is the most successful scientific enterprise of the last century. Medicine is a purposeful intervention in order to manipulate the human body, physically and spiritually. But medicine as an institution is bound to the Hippocratic Oath, another useful metaphysical a priori assumption, which highlights the epistemological nature of science. The goal of medicine is to heal disease, sickness and pain and doing so by honouring the integrity of the human body. It is a metaphysical a priori assumption that it has to follow this ethical guideline. There have been plenty of examples in history, where medicine has not followed this principle, but this only affirms the metaphysical and spiritual character of the Hippocratic Oath. A priori assumptions have no determinable cause. But in regard to technology there is no Technocratical Oath. Technology does not refer to epistemological constraints, when it looks at the human body. It only sees opportunities, challenges and a greedy lust for experiments.
The best way to understand this is to extract what the term “transhumanism” can offer. While recently becoming more and more a proper internet villain, I knew about transhumanism as a philosophical branch for more than 20 years. Back in the day, the craziest transhumanists were known as “Extropians”. Extropians rejected entropy and wished to live forever. They promoted the “Proactionary Principle”, which states that ethical considerations must not play any role in the development and progress of technology. Their best idea to achieve eternal life was uploading one’s consciousness on a virtual layer and cruising through the enhanced virtual spaces as a bodiless spiritual entity, which lives as long as the server it runs on. The idea hasn’t aged very well.
“Transhumanism” today is a wide range of ideas and future visions, which look at human beings exclusively from the viewpoint of technological progress. Transhumanism is about the enhancement of an imperfect human body and spirit. Yuval Harari, in my opinion one of the greatest living minds, has predicted a Cyborg future, in which humans as we know them today will be turned into something completely different in the next 500 to 1000 years. Harari himself, who has been vilified in some circles, never says that this is good or bad, he just thinks it is the inevitable outcome of present and past trends. We can disagree with that prediction, while appreciating Harari’s wide spectrum of interesting observations and historical details.
Our disagreement will be the simple statement that human nature cannot be not changed deliberately by sophisticated manipulation, let alone technological efforts. The trust and self-confidence of contemporary techno savants is not justified. The idea that the technological improvement of human bodies will not be met with enormous resistance, is certainly not justified. The amount of force that would be necessary to transform human societies into Cyborgs, not to mention the high consumption of energy, is most of all dystopian and exceeds all possibilities even totalitarian states have to their disposal inside human lifespans. Human nature is built by evolution (another great metaphysical concept). Evolution as a systemic idea is directly opposed to a teleological goal in time. Evolution is a set of chaotic processes, which are not governed by designer intelligence. All living creatures, including human beings, need time to adapt and human beings need even more time to adapt spiritually. The rapid change that is predicted by transhumanist philosophy will not enhance humans, but turn societies into chaos. The speed that is generated by technological progress is killing the glue that holds human societies together and this will turn out catastrophically. Technological progress was never uncontested in history. And it is by no means unthinkable that people of future generations will decide that certain roads shall not be taken.
In this picture of a statue, which was built for the “Gender Museum” (formerly known as “Women’s Museum”) in Aarhus, Denmark, a lot of the themes I have mentioned before, come into a nice fusion. The image shows the sculpture of a larger-than-life naked man, built like an ancient Greek hero, very visible male genitals, bearded and hair-styled like a modern hipster, who also happens to have female breasts and is chest-feeding a toddler.
The first thing that came to my mind was the old saying of Jacques Lacan:”La femme n’existe pas!”, “Woman does not exist”, which exactly translates to “The concept of woman in the symbolic order does not exist.” I would like to spare you the details, but Lacan was basically saying that inside the system of symbolic representations societies produce, the female principle is absent. We don’t have to dive very deeply into this in order to understand that this thesis has some meaning for this picture. I mentioned before the earliest cults of motherhood, which have survived in ancient works of art. We can conclude with great certainty that every matriarchal culture with some pride and dignity would have immediately killed off this abomination. The image is revolting on many levels of psychological maintenance. The symbolic weight of a man with breasts, chestfeeding a toddler he may also have been pregnant with, was completely underestimated by the people who commissioned the statue. Obviously making a point about transgender policies, in which men can get pregnant or at least chestfeed their children, the statue completes the long march of postmodernism through the institutions. What once was the liberation of women is now the disposal of the female principle. The erasure of the concept of the female in the symbolic order the gender ideology movement has in mind is obviously disturbing. La femme n’existe pas! Works of art are complicated and their symbolic weight has much more power than some power driven pronoun fetishists think they have. There is clearly a lack of sensibility in place, which is unable to detect what pictures do and what representation actually represents. Or maybe it is more like what the Dude, heavily drunk in “The Big Lebowski” says about the Adult Entertainment tycoon Jackie Treehorn: “Mr Trehorn treats objects like women, man.”
The second point that stuck me, was the form itself. The man looks concentrated and confident, healthy and shaped. His facial features are carved out very well. He does chestfeeding straight up, not sitting or lying on the ground. He is not obese. He has seemingly no physical complications or mental issues related to hormones that are required to run a milk factory in one’s chest. All he does is to add another function onto his body. It is unclear if these breasts are permanent or shrink after chestfeeding is no longer necessary. But they serve a function, which is isolated and could be the result of some genetic intervention or breeding programme. The imagination that this statue enforces is the expression of a purely technical world view. The body is not sacred or bound to an ethical code any more, but something that has to be enhanced, manipulated and created artificially. The ambition of the transhumanist belief in progress is to create humans according to some designer intelligence. Nature or evolution have no say in this. In this line of argument, human bodies or the bodies of living creatures in general are just interfaces that implement functions. These functions are isolated in their impact and they ideally solve a single problem and provide a single service. Functions are repeatable and hence adaptable. They do not require more thought regarding their implications than any plug-in device does. Technology on the most basic level guarantees control over otherwise impenetrable circumstances. What it also does is to increase control and power over human bodies and human minds. Technology does not liberate an individual, it creates strong inevitable dependencies. The spice must flow, as they say in “Dune”.
My third thought, which will bring this piece to an end is this: Human nature throughout history resisted consistently all attempts to force it into obedience. Elites were never able to rule without compromising their original agenda. We have to take the totalitarian impulse of technological progress seriously, but we do not have to fear its complete victory. What we should fear instead is the chaotic decision making of disruptive technocratic institutions and the collapse of societies, which have lost their inner cohesion and are defenceless against tyrannical interventions. This future will not look like the world of Aaron Bastani, but will be much closer to the ones Phillip K. Dick had in mind. The technological approach is by far the closest one to have a strong impact on the fabric of human nature, but human nature itself is not an isolated function, that can be manipulated purely by mathematics, computers or neuro-linguistic programming. Human nature is unreliable and does not follow short-term interventions. The naked chestfeeder is the artistic expression of a revolting fantasy, but it will remain a fantasy as long as human beings still have a mouth to say “No!”. This will not be our future. Whatever it looks like, this particular vision will not come into existence.