Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) on Sun, 5 Oct 1997 22:20:46 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> What Makes Us Human, Anyway?


Although this list hasn't yet seen the essay by Richard Moore which stands
at the top if this "thread" (Pit is in the process of reposting it, I
believe) and which is likely to take us off in other directions, there have
been enough public and private responses to my reply to Richard that it
might be useful for me to elaborate a bit to help focus the discussion I
have started.

Michael Goldhaber's comments are particularly noteworthy:

>The notion that genetic engineering might produce non-human humans ignores
>that humanness is a quality that arrives not genetically but through
>acculturation. The Taliban were not cloned; nor were the Nazis and others
>who worked in the death camps,not to mention economists who care only about
>the market . . . and numerous others in every country whose humanness is less
>>than we might hope.

Ah, there's the rub.  Does one have to be perfect to be human?  Are some of
us more human than others?  Obviously not or we are in really dangerous

On the other hand, evil exists in the world.  Now, what are we to do about
that?  Engineer it away?  Could you?  If you could, would you?  (Read
Lewis' "The Abolition of Man", please.)

What Michael is describing is not, presumably, the lack of humanness in
these people but rather their lack of sound moral judgement.  These are
humans who are, presuming that Michael views their actions as morality
wrong (otherwise why would he have composed this list?), who are acting in
morally reprehensible fashion. But, they are, precisely because we and they
can be outraged by their actions, still humans.

It is my claim (and, arguably, the claim of most "pre-positivists" who
bothered to think about the matter) that it is the capacity to make moral
judgements that uniquely sets us apart as humans -- not language,
tool-making, specialized foot-bones or whatever blather you may have heard.
I have no reason to think that any of the people Michael cites had
categorically lost this capacity to make moral judgements.  They are,
therefore, just as human as you or me (okay, except for you knowbots out
there), even though they have been described as acting in immoral ways.

In fact, as all of the research that I have seen uniformly indicates,
people behaving like those listed, generally consider themselves to be
personally moral and often have constructed elaborate rationalizations to
explain to themselves how their actions fit into some form (often bizarre,
no doubt) of a moral code.  In short, these are examples of humans acting
in immoral and often blatantly evil ways.  However, they are neither beasts
nor machines, although they may act as if they were. They are imperfect
humans, like all other humans.

The fact that humans often act in evil ways and, indeed, the fact that this
is inherent in the human condition, is the core of the position which I
have called Realist.  This notion is my position.  It is captured in the
Genesis account as the Fall of Man.  Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge
of Good and Evil is what made us human originally and, in biblical terms,
this is what got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  

Knowing the difference between good and evil is a potential in all humans
-- for both genetic and social reasons which we can get into if you'd like
-- even though figuring out which is which is clearly the most difficult
thing that any human can attempt.  What Plato called "understanding the
Good" is clearly the highest form of knowledge.  Neither Plato nor any
other representative Realist expects to perfect this knowledge, in case
anyone had any doubts in the matter, but this problem doesn't stop a
Realist from seeking to understand the Good and to act based upon that
knowledge.  That's, fundamentally, what human life is about -- for
Realists, anyway.

What I'm refering to as the Utopian position is the view that this
condition of imperfection can (and must) be undone -- i.e. that evil can be
eliminated and that at least some of us can return to the perfection of the
"Garden."  Most of us, myself included, have at one time or another held
the Utopian view and flirted with religious and political systems which
promise perfectability.  Perhaps, some of us still hold this position or,
more hopefully, are engaged in an inner dialogue about what we really do

In religious terms, the Utopian position is often, and correctly I believe,
identified as Gnostic.  This inclination to refuse to accept the
imperfection of humanity (particularly ourselves) is deeply imbedded in all
cultures and, partly because of its tendency towards esoteric (hidden,
secret) doctrines, Gnosticism frequently adopts convenient disquises in
day-to-day circumstances.  To be sure, many Utopians (Gnostics) have sworn
that they were devout Christians.  Some will also tell you they are
religious Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or scientists or, if you can imagine
it, dialectical and historical materialists.  In basic theological (or
cosmological, if you prefer) terms, this rejection of imperfection (the
Fall) is the basis of all Gnosticism, whatever camouflage it might adopt
for protective purposes.

David Noble (a fabled Marxist who many believe was denied tenure at MIT for
his views) has just written a fascinating book called "The Religion of
Technololgy: The Divinity of Man and Spirit of Invention" (Knopf, 1997)
which thematically carries a picture of Christ and the cross on the cover. 
In my conversations with David he was sensitive to my point that it can be
argued that fundamental Christian doctrine (not to be confused with
"fundametnalism") absolutely prohibits the notion that any human could be
divine or that the Fall of Man could in any way be reversed by invention or
whatever means.  From this standpoint, a Christian simply cannot be a
Utopian.  And, this is why Christianity officially tried, unsuccessfully of
course, to stomp out Gnosticism in 2nd Century Alexandria, despite what
Prof. Pagels and many others have claimed.  

As a protege of Christopher Lasch (who was apparently quite aware of these
issues), Noble concured that what he was describing is probably more
accurately thought of as Gnostic than Christian but, nonetheless, this is
*not* a point which he was interested in making in his book.  After all, if
such cyber-Utopians as George Gilder and Kevin Kelly profess to be deeply
committed Christians, who's to argue with how someone defines themselves? 
(Particularly, if, as a Marxist, you define yourself as hostile to

More penetratingly, Eric Voegelin, in his 1951 lectures published as "The
New Science of Politics" (U. Chicago, 1952), identifies the 13th Century
Joachim of Flora (or Fiore) as the first major break with the Augustinian
notion of a de-divinized "Civitas Dei" by returning to the Gnostic notion
of heaven-on-earth.  Joachim was nominally a Cisterian monk in Calabria
but, as Voegelin and I would argue, actually a Gnostic and clearly a
Utopian.  Joachim features heavily in Noble's book, as it does in most
accounts of millenarianism, but, again, without the appropriate theological
distinction being made.

Joachim's greatest contribution to the history of millenarianism was
perhaps his notion that history should be divided into three periods which
corresponded to the three persons of the Trinity.  Joachim professed that
the Second Age of the Son was coming to a close and the glorious Third Age
of the Spirit was about to dawn.  As Voegelin points out, many later
Utopian movements have adopted this same formulaic attempt to divide
history into three sweeping periods.  Ivan IV forced Constantinople to
recognize Moscow as the Third Rome in 1589.  We are all familiar with eidos
associated with the aptly termed Third Reich and, perhaps, some of us are
even familiar with the deeply Gnostic religious views of many Nazi leaders.
 And, as Voegelin couldn't have known in 1951 (but should get credit for
nonetheless), Alvin Toffler was right on track when he declared the dawning
of the "Third Wave" (otherwise known as the "Information Age" or "The Age
of Aquarius" or the "New Dark Age" depending who you take tea with) in the
title of his 1980 bestseller.

Most of us have, just as Michael Goldhaber notes, grown up in a climate
where the Utopian position of shaping humanity has focussed on what he
politely calls "acculturation."  Sometimes called "conditioning",
"brainwashing" or, even, "advertising", the dominance of the psychological
side of the Utopian social-engineering agenda has captured many of our
imaginations.  That is not to say that the psychological dimension is not
also highly technological.  LSD was apparently invented by Gnostics (as
revealed on this list) -- and certainly widely dispensed by open Gnostics
-- to achieve clearly Utopian goals (besides having great sex, of course). 
My guess is that more than a few of us are familiar with the process.

When Stewart Brand (Whole Earth, GBN, Grateful Dead) was first shown the
mouse/windows technology which he later demo'ed for the world, he is
reported to have said "Wow, this is going to be a lot more effective than
Mescaline."  David Bennahum's presentation at nettime's Ljubljana confab
documented how virtually all of the earliest efforts at computer networking
were consciously Utopian in intent.  Closer examination would likely also
demonstrate a lively Gnostic flavor to this history.  

Virtual Reality is, as far as I can tell from my personal knowledge of many
of its originators, particularly attractive to the Gnostic mind.  Not
surprisingly, Urantians, Crowleyite Sex Magicians, Rastafarians and
Learyite cranial re-programmers liberally populate the VR pantheon.  The
inventors of VRML are openly OTO adepts and one of them writes Internet
screads about the Noosphere.  But then, as non-Realists, what else would
you expect a "virtualist" to believe in?

We would be mistaken if we stopped at the merely psychological techniques
for producing the "post-human", however.  From the earliest days of
marrying Mendel to Darwin in the hands of William Bateson, through eugenics
to today's socio-biology and evolutionary genetics, genetic manipulation
has always been a neccessarily significant part of the mix.  Take me for
example.  My undergraduate and graduate work was in two subjects --
genetics and theology.  Clearly (to me at least), both psychological and
genetic means would be needed to pursue the Utopian final solution to man's
temporary imperfection.  

We live in unigue times.  The combination of psychological and genetic
techniques to design "replicants" is now (or shortly) to be within our
grasp -- or more accurately, within certain individual's grasp.  That is
why I'm engaging in this discussion.  Take notice.  This -- and this alone
-- is what is absolutely and fundamentally unique about our own lifetimes. 

The Left and Right doing battle and people arguing about morals (and doing
both moral and immoral things) stretches back to our human origins.  But,
nothing like *this* has never happened before.  We could actually "evolve"
into something which is no longer capable of moral judgement -- by our own
hands. "Evolution of consciousness" is what it is often called. 

And, the computer is, as Norbert Wiener understood, absolutely the key
ingredient.  Without the computer, no modern Utopian could imagine that
they would succeed -- Joachim, Ivan, Hegel, Marx and Hitler, not
withstanding. From gene-sequencing to electronic narcotics, the computer is
understood by modern Utopian/Gnostics to be a crucial and indispensible

My original point was Lewis' and Wiener's point.  Unless we deliberately
emphasise what makes us human -- the capacity for moral judgements (which
we will all too often fail to achieve as shown by Michael's examples) --
then we will in all likelyhood literally cease to be human through our
deliberate engineering efforts to "perfect" humanity.  

We would lose the capacity to be moral and become "post-biological" -- a
condition which quite a few posts to this list (along with all the others)
seem be anticipating (whether out of dread or glee, I often can't tell). 
When people post conference schedules about becoming "Cyborgs" or
"Post-humans", I often wonder if these people have any idea what they are
up to.  Probably not.  And, unless they come in contact with someone who
has wrestled with the larger context, which appears to be rare in today's
academic circles, they may never figure it out.

As to whether what Michael calls this "colloquy on the Internet" can help
us at all to survive this challenge intact remains to be seen.  Clearly,
most conversations on the Net are *not* helpful and many are quite
destructive. But, then most conversations are deeply confused about the
basic issues.  Perhaps, if we can become clearer about what is at stake and
how our ideas imply consequences, we will have a better chance.  I'm
hopeful that the Internet can, at least in some cases, help to provide some
aspects of that clarity. 

In case anyone was wondering, I'm rather certain that nothing is going to
drop out of the sky to "save" us.  "Species suicide", as Wiener once termed
it, it definitely a live option.  Anyone ready to defend what's left of the
human race from blowing its own brains out?  Respectfully, let me suggest
that we need to deal with this matter first and then we can solve the
problems of "late-stage" capitalism which remain when we are finished a
little later.

Mark Stahlman
New Media Associates
New York City

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