[ExI] Cybernetics Is An Antihumanism: Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion Against the Human Condition :: Jean-Pierre Dupuy :: Global Spiral

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Thu Jun 12 14:01:53 UTC 2008

Here's an excellent opportunity for thoughtful, rational criticism and
comment. [5 of 6]

- Jef

Cybernetics Is An Antihumanism: Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion
Against the Human Condition :: Jean-Pierre Dupuy :: Global

Cybernetics Is An Antihumanism: Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion
Against the Human Condition
By Jean-Pierre Dupuy <http://metanexus.net/tabid/72/Default.aspx?aid=597>


I chose the topic of my contribution to our workshop after I discovered,
first with amazement, then with wonder, N. Katherine Hayles's beautiful
book, *How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature,
and Informatics*1<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn1>.
Amazement because she and I worked on the same fairly confidential corpus,
in particular the proceedings of the Macy conferences, which were the
birthplace of cybernetics and, I have claimed, of cognitive science, we
celebrate the same heroes, in particular Warren McCulloch, Heinz von
Foerster and Francisco Varela, and, in spite of these shared interests and
passions, we apparently never heard of each other. She and I live and work
worlds and languages apart. The world is still far from being a close-knit
village. Wonder at realizing how from the same corpus we could arrive at
interpretations that, although compatible or even complementary, are so
richly diverse or even divergent.

My book on the Macy conferences and the origins of cybernetics and cognitive
science, *Sur l'origine des sciences cognitives*, was first published in
French in 19852<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn2>;
a second and completely revised edition followed in
the first English-language edition, an extensively revised and amplified
version of the latter, came out in
It is with shame that I acknowledge that during all this time, I never came
across Ms. Hayles' work, published in book form in 1999. It is with great
sadness that I realize that there is no longer any way that I could ask my
two great friends, Heinz von Foerster and Francisco Varela, two men of
communication, why they never put us in touch. The Chilean neurophilosopher,
Francisco Varela, was the cofounder of the theory of autopoietic systems; he
chose to come to France and work in my research institution after he was
expelled from his country. Heinz von Foerster, a Viennese Jewish immigrant
to the United States, after serving as secretary to the Macy Conferences,
went on to found what was to be called second-order cybernetics. Francisco
and Heinz play important roles in the story that I tell in my book. The
former passed away in 2000; the latter in 2002. I miss them both terribly.

My book seeks to disabuse readers of a number of ideas that I consider
mistaken. Cybernetics calls to mind a series of familiar images that turn
out on closer inspection to be highly doubtful. As the etymology of the word
suggests, cybernetics is meant to signify control, mastery, governance—in
short, the philosophical project associated with Descartes, who assigned
mankind the mission of exercising dominion over the world, and over mankind
itself. Within the cybernetics movement, this view was championed by Norbert
Wiener—unsurprisingly, perhaps, since it was Wiener who gave it its name.
But this gives only a very partial, if not superficial idea of what
cybernetics was about, notwithstanding that even a philosopher of such
penetrating insight as Heidegger was taken in by it.
[image: bubbles]

In my work, I have relied on the notion, due to Karl Popper, of a *metaphysical
research program*, which is to say a set of presuppositions about the
structure of the world that are neither testable nor empirically
falsifiable, but without which no science would be possible. For there is no
science that does not rest on a metaphysics, though typically it remains
concealed. It is the responsibility of the philosopher to uncover this
metaphysics, and then to subject it to criticism. What I have tried to show
is that cybernetics, far from being the apotheosis of Cartesian humanism, as
Heidegger supposed, actually represented a crucial moment in its
demystification, and indeed in its deconstruction. To borrow a term that has
been applied to the structuralist movement in the human sciences,
cybernetics constituted a decisive step in the rise of *antihumanism.
for example, the way in which cybernetics conceived the relationship between
man and machine. The philosophers of consciousness were not alone in being
caught up in the trap set by a question such as "Will it be possible one day
to design a machine that thinks?" The cybernetician's answer, rather in the
spirit of Molière, was: "Madame, you pride yourself so on thinking. And yet,
you are only a machine!" The aim of cognitive science always was—and still
is today—the mechanization of the mind, not the humanization of the machine.

"Continental" political philosophy has yet to acknowledge the notion of
posthumanism. On the other hand, the notion of antihumanism has been debated
for at least four decades. My contribution will bear on the latter only. My
hope is that our workshop will enable us to explore the possible connections
between the two notions and, beyond, perhaps, bridge the gap between two
cultural worlds so far apart.

*1. Heidegger's Error*

I will start with a classic question: can the idea that we have of the human
person, which is to say of ourselves, survive the forward march of
scientific discovery? It is a commonplace that from Copernicus to molecular
biology, and from Marx to Freud along the way, we have had steadily to
abandon our proud view of ourselves as occupying a special place in the
universe, and to admit that we are at the mercy of determinisms that leave
little room for what we have been accustomed to consider our freedom and our
reason. Is not cognitive science now in the process of completing this
process of disillusionment and demystification by showing us that just where
we believe we sense the workings of a mind, there is only the firing of
neural networks, no different in principle than an ordinary electric
circuit? The task in which I have joined with many others, faced with
reductive interpretations of scientific advance of this sort, has been to
defend the values proper to the human person, or, to put it more bluntly, to
defend humanism against the excesses of science and technology.

Heidegger completely inverted this way of posing the problem. For him it was
no longer a question of defending humanism but rather of indicting it. As
for science and technology, or rather "technoscience" (an expression meant
to signify that science is subordinated to the practical ambition of
achieving mastery over the world through technology), far from threatening
human values, they are on Heidegger's view the most striking manifestation
of them. This dual reversal is so remarkable that it deserves to be
considered in some detail, even—or above all—in a reflection on the place of
cybernetics in the history of ideas, for it is precisely cybernetics that
found itself to be the principal object of Heidegger's attack.

In those places where Heideggerian thought has been influential, it became
impossible to defend human values against the claims of science. This was
particularly true in France, where structuralism—and then
poststructuralism—reigned supreme over the intellectual landscape for
several decades before taking refuge in the literature departments of
American universities. Anchored in the thought of the three great Germanic
"masters of suspicion"—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—against a common
background of Heideggerianism, the human sciences *à la française* made
antihumanism their
loudly celebrating exactly what humanists dread: the death of man. This
unfortunate creature, or rather a certain image that man created of himself,
was reproached for being "metaphysical." With Heidegger, "metaphysics"
acquired a new and quite special sense, opposite to its usual meaning. For
positivists ever since Comte, the progress of science had been seen as
forcing the retreat of metaphysics; for Heidegger, by contrast,
technoscience represented the culmination of metaphysics. And the height of
metaphysics was nothing other than cybernetics.

Let us try to unravel this tangled skein. For Heidegger, metaphysics is the
search for an ultimate foundation for all reality, for a "primary being" in
relation to which all other beings find their place and purpose. Where
traditional metaphysics ("onto-theology") had placed God, modern metaphysics
substituted man. This is why modern metaphysics is fundamentally humanist,
and humanism fundamentally metaphysical. Man is a subject endowed with
consciousness and will: his features were described at the dawn of modernity
in the philosophy of Descartes and Leibniz. As a conscious being, he is
present and transparent to himself; as a willing being, he causes things to
happen as he intends. Subjectivity, both as theoretical presence to oneself
and as practical mastery over the world, occupies center stage in this
scheme—whence the Cartesian promise to make man "master and possessor of
nature." In the metaphysical conception of the world, Heidegger holds,
everything that exists is a slave to the purposes of man; everything becomes
an object of his will, fashionable as a function of his ends and desires.
The value of things depends solely on their capacity to help man realize his
essence, which is to achieve mastery over being. It thus becomes clear why
technoscience, and cybernetics in particular, may be said to represent the
completion of metaphysics. To contemplative thought—thought that poses the
question of meaning and of Being, understood as the sudden appearance of
things, which escapes all attempts at grasping it—Heidegger opposes
"calculating" thought. This latter type is characteristic of all forms of
planning that seek to attain ends by taking circumstances into account.
Technoscience, insofar as it constructs mathematical models to better
establish its mastery over the causal organization of the world, knows only
calculating thought. Cybernetics is precisely that which
calculates—computes—in order to govern, in the nautical sense (Wiener coined
the term from the Greek xvbepvntns, meaning "steersman"): it is indeed the
height of metaphysics.

Heidegger anticipated the objection that would be brought against him:
"Because we are speaking against humanism people fear a defense of the
inhuman and a glorification of barbaric brutality. For what is more *logical
* than that for somebody who negates humanism nothing remains but the
affirmation of inhumanity?"6<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn6>Heidegger
defended himself by attacking. Barbarism is not to be found where
one usually looks for it. The true barbarians are the ones who are supposed
to be humanists, who, in the name of the dignity that man accords himself,
leave behind them a world devastated by technology, a desert in which no one
can truly be said to dwell.

Let us for the sake of argument grant the justice of Heidegger's position.
At once an additional enigma presents itself. If for him cybernetics really
represented the apotheosis of metaphysical humanism, how are we to explain
the fact that the human sciences in France, whose postwar development I have
just said can be understood only against the background of Heidegger's
philosophy, availed themselves of the conceptual toolkit of cybernetics in
order to deconstruct the metaphysics of subjectivity? How is it that these
sciences, in their utter determination to put man as subject to death, each
seeking to outdo the other's radicalism, should have found in cybernetics
the weapons for their assaults?

>From the beginning of the 1950s—which is to say, from the end of the first
cybernetics—through the 1960s and 1970s, when the second cybernetics was
investigating theories of self-organization and cognitivism was on the rise,
the enterprise of mechanizing the human world underwent a parallel
development on each side of the Atlantic. This common destiny was rarely
noticed, perhaps because the thought of any similarity seemed almost absurd:
whereas cognitive science claimed to be the avant-garde of modern science,
structuralism—followed by poststructuralism—covered itself in a pretentious
and often incomprehensible philosophical jargon. What is more, it was too
tempting to accuse French deconstructionists of a fascination with
mathematical concepts and models that they hardly understood. But even if
this way of looking at the matter is not entirely unjustified, it only
scratches the surface. There were very good reasons, in fact, why the
deconstruction of metaphysical humanism found in cybernetics an ally of the
first order.

At the beginning of the 1940s, a philosopher of consciousness such as Sartre
could write: "The inhuman is merely . . . the
Structuralists hastened to adopt this definition as their own, while
reversing the value assigned to its terms. Doing Heidegger one better, they
made a great show of championing the inhuman—which is to say the
Cybernetics, as it happened, was ready to hand, having come along at just
the right moment to demystify the voluntary and conscious subject. The will?
All its manifestations could apparently be simulated, and therefore
duplicated, by a simple negative feedback mechanism. Consciousness? The
"Cybernetics Group"9<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn9>had
examined the Freudian unconscious, whose existence was defended by one
of its members, Lawrence Kubie, and found it chimerical. If Kubie often
found himself the butt of his colleagues' jokes, it was not because he was
thought to be an enemy of human dignity. It was rather because the
postulation of a hidden entity, located in the substructure of a purportedly
conscious subject, manifesting itself only through symptoms while yet being
endowed with the essential attributes of the subject (intentionality,
desires, beliefs, presence to oneself, and so on), seemed to the
cyberneticians nothing more than a poor conjuring trick aimed at keeping the
structure of subjectivity intact.

It is remarkable that a few years later the French psychoanalyst Jacques
Lacan, along with the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Marxist
philosopher Louis Althusser (one of the founders of structuralism), should
have adopted the same critical attitude toward Freud as cybernetics. The
father of psychoanalysis had been led to postulate an improbable "death
wish"—"beyond the pleasure principle," as he put it—as if the subject
actually desired the very thing that made him suffer, by voluntarily and
repeatedly placing himself in situations from which he could only emerge
battered and hurt. This compulsion (*Zwang*) to repeat failure Freud called
*Wiederholungszwang*, an expression translated by Lacan as "automatisme de
répétition," which is to say the *automatism* of repetition. In so doing he
replaced the supposed unconscious death wish with the senseless functioning
of a machine, the unconscious henceforth being identified with a cybernetic
automaton. The alliance of psychoanalysis and cybernetics was neither
anecdotal nor fortuitous: it corresponded to a radicalization of the
critique of metaphysical humanism.

There was a deeper reason for the encounter between the French *sciences de
l'homme* and cybernetics, however. What structuralism sought to conceive—in
the anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, for example, and particularly in his study
of systems of exchange in traditional societies—was a subjectless cognition,
indeed cognition without mental content. Whence the project of making
"symbolic thought" a mechanism peculiar not to individual brains but to
"unconscious" linguistic structures that automatically operate behind the
back, as it were, of unfortunate human "subjects," who are no more than a
sort of afterthought. "It thinks" was destined to take the place once and
for all of the Cartesian cogito. Now cognition without a subject was exactly
the unlikely configuration that cybernetics seemed to have succeeded in
conceiving. Here again, the encounter between cybernetics and structuralism
was in no way accidental. It grew out of a new intellectual necessity whose
sudden emergence appears in retrospect as an exceptional moment in the
history of ideas.

*2. The Self-Mechanized Mind*

It is time to come back to our enigma, which now may be formulated as a
paradox. Was cybernetics the height of metaphysical humanism, as Heidegger
maintained, or was it the height of its deconstruction, as certain of
Heidegger's followers believe? To this question I believe it is necessary to
reply that cybernetics was both things at once, and that this is what made
it not only the root of cognitive science, which finds itself faced with the
same paradox, but also a turning point in the history of human conceptions
of humanity. The title I have given to this section—the self-mechanized
mind—appears to have the form of a self-referential statement, not unlike
those strange loops the cyberneticians were so crazy about, especially the
cyberneticians of the second phase. But this is only an appearance: the mind
that carries out the mechanization and the one that is the object of it are
two distinct (albeit closely related) entities, like the two ends of a
seesaw, the one rising ever higher in the heavens of metaphysical humanism
as the other descends further into the depths of its deconstruction. In
mechanizing the mind, in treating it as an artifact, the mind presumes to
exercise power over this artifact to a degree that no psychology claiming to
be scientific has ever dreamed of attaining. The mind can now hope not only
to manipulate this mechanized version of itself at will, but even to
reproduce and manufacture it in accordance with its own wishes and
intentions. Accordingly, the technologies of the mind, present and future,
open up a vast continent upon which man now has to impose norms if he wishes
to give them meaning and purpose. The human subject will therefore need to
have recourse to a supplementary endowment of will and conscience in order
to determine, not what he can do, but what he ought to do—or, rather, what
he ought not to do. These new technologies will require a whole ethics to be
elaborated, an ethics not less demanding than the one that is slowly being
devised today in order to control the rapid development and unforeseen
consequences of new biotechnologies. But to speak of ethics, conscience, the
will—is this not to speak of the triumph of the subject?

The connection between the mechanization of life and the mechanization of
the mind is plain. Even if the Cybernetics Group snubbed biology, to the
great displeasure of John von Neumann, it was of course a cybernetic
metaphor that enabled molecular biology to formulate its central dogma: the
genome operates like a computer program. This metaphor is surely not less
false than the analogous metaphor that structures the cognitivist paradigm.
The theory of biological self-organization, first opposed to the cybernetic
paradigm during the Macy Conferences before later being adopted by the
second cybernetics as its principal model, furnished then—and still
furnishes today—decisive arguments against the legitimacy of identifying DNA
with a "genetic program." Nonetheless—and this is the crucial point—even
though this identification is profoundly illegitimate from both a scientific
and a philosophical point of view, its technological consequences have been
considerable. Today, as a result, man may be inclined to believe that he is
the master of his own genome. Never, one is tempted to say, has he been so
near to realizing the Cartesian promise: he has become—or is close to
becoming—the master and possessor of all of nature, up to and including

Must we then salute this as yet another masterpiece of metaphysical
humanism? It seems at first altogether astonishing, though after a moment's
reflection perfectly comprehensible, that a German philosopher following in
the tradition of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Peter Sloterdijk, should have
recently come forward, determined to take issue with the liberal humanism of
his country's philosophical establishment, and boldly affirmed that the new
biotechnologies sound the death knell for the era of humanism. Unleashing a
debate the like of which is hardly imaginable in any other country, this
philosopher ventured to assert: "The domestication of man by man is the
great unimagined prospect in the face of which humanism has looked the other
way from antiquity until the present day." And to prophesy:

It suffices to clearly understand that the next long periods of history will
be periods of choice as far as the [human] species is concerned. Then it
will be seen if humanity, or at least its cultural elites, will succeed in
establishing effective procedures for self-domestication. It will be
necessary, in the future, to forthrightly address the issue and formulate a
code governing anthropological technologies. Such a code would modify, a
posteriori, the meaning of classical humanism, for it would show that *
humanitas* consists not only in the friendship of man with man, but that it
also implies . . . , in increasingly obvious ways, that man represents the
supreme power for

But why should this "superhuman" power of man over himself be seen, in
Nietzschean fashion, as representing the death of humanism rather than its
apotheosis? For man to be able, as subject, to exercise a power of this sort
over himself, it is first necessary that he be reduced to the rank of an
object, able to be reshaped to suit any purpose. No raising up can occur
without a concomitant lowering, and vice versa.

Let us come back to cybernetics and, beyond that, to cognitive science. We
need to consider more closely the paradox that an enterprise that sets
itself the task of naturalizing the mind should have as its spearhead a
discipline that calls itself artificial intelligence. To be sure, the
desired naturalization proceeds via mechanization. Nothing about this is
inconsistent with a conception of the world that treats nature as an immense
computational machine. Within this world man is just another machine—no
surprise there. But in the name of what, or of whom, will man, thus
artificialized, exercise his increased power over himself? In the name of
this very blind mechanism with which he is identified? In the name of a
meaning that he claims is mere appearance or phenomenon? His will and
capacity for choice are now left dangling over the abyss. The attempt to
restore mind to the natural world that gave birth to it ends up exiling the
mind from the world and from nature. This paradox is typical of what the
French sociologist Louis Dumont, in his magisterial study of the genesis of
modern individualism, called

the model of modern artificialism in general, the systematic application of
an extrinsic, imposed value to the things of the world. Not a value drawn
from our belonging to the world, from its harmony and our harmony with it,
but a value rooted in our heterogeneity in relation to it: the
identification of our will with the will of God (Descartes: man makes
himself master and possessor of nature). The will thus applied to the world,
the end sought, the motive and the profound impulse of the will are [all]
foreign. In other words, they are extra-worldly. Extra-worldliness is now
concentrated in the individual

The paradox of the naturalization of the mind attempted by cybernetics, and
today by cognitive science, then, is that the mind has been raised up as a
demigod in relation to itself.

Many of the criticisms brought against the materialism of cognitive science
from the point of view either of a philosophy of consciousness or a defense
of humanism miss this paradox. Concentrating their (often justified) attacks
on the weaknesses and naiveté of such a mechanist materialism, they fail to
see that it invalidates itself by placing the human subject outside of the
very world to which he is said to belong. The recent interest shown by
cognitive science in what it regards as the "mystery" of consciousness seems
bound to accentuate this blindness.

*3. **The Nanotechnological Dream*

   1. I want now to broach not so much the intellectual evolution of
   cognitive science itself as its embodiment by new technologies, or, as one
   should rather say, its instantiation by ideas for new technologies. For the
   moment at least these technologies exist only as projects, indeed in some
   cases only as dreams. But no matter that many such dreams will acquire
   physical reality sooner or later, the simple fact that they already exist in
   people's minds affects how we see the world and how we see ourselves.

Since my book was first published, I have thought a great deal about the
philosophical foundations of what is called the NBIC Convergence—the
convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and
cognitive science—and about the ethical implications of this
I have found many of the same tensions, contradictions, paradoxes, and
confusions that I discerned first within cybernetics, and then within
cognitive science. But now the potential consequences are far more serious,
because we are not dealing with a theoretical matter, a certain view of the
world, but with an entire program for acting upon nature and mankind.

In searching for the underlying metaphysics of this program, I did not have
far to look. One of the first reports of the National Science Foundation
devoted to the subject, entitled "Converging Technologies for Improving
Human Performance," summarizes the credo of the movement in a sort of haiku:

If the Cognitive Scientists can think it,
The Nano people can build it,
The Bio people can implement it, and
The IT people can monitor and control

Note that cognitive science plays the leading role in this division of
labor, that of thinker—not an insignificant detail, for it shows that the
metaphysics of NBIC Convergence is embedded in the work of cognitive
scientists. It comes as no surprise, then, that the contradictions inherent
in cognitive science should be found at the heart of the metaphysics itself.

One of the main themes of my book is the confrontation between Norbert
Wiener and John von Neumann, Wiener embodying the ideas of control, mastery,
and design, von Neumann the ideas of complexity and self-organization.
Cybernetics never succeeded in resolving the tension, indeed the
contradiction, between these two perspectives; more specifically, it never
managed to give a satisfactory answer to the problems involved in realizing
its ambition of *designing* an autonomous, self-organizing machine.
Nanotechnology—whose wildest dream is to reconstruct the natural world that
has been given to us, atom by atom—is caught up in the same contradiction.

The most obvious element of the nanotechnological dream is to substitute for
what François Jacob called *bricolage,* or the tinkering of biological
evolution, a paradigm of *design*. Damien Broderick, the Australian cultural
theorist and popular science writer, barely manages to conceal his contempt
for the world that human beings have inherited when he talks about the
likelihood that "nanosystems, designed by human minds, will bypass all this
Darwinian wandering, and leap straight to *design
* One can hardly fail to note the irony that science, which in America has
had to engage in an epic struggle to root out every trace of creationism
(including its most recent avatar, "intelligent design") from public
education, should now revert to a logic of design in the form of the
nanotechnology program—the only difference being that now it is mankind that
assumes the role of the demiurge.

Philosophers, faced with the ambition of emerging technologies to supersede
nature and life as the engineers of evolution, the designers of biological
and natural processes, may suppose that they are dealing with an old idea:
Descartes' vision of science as the means by which man may become the master
and possessor of nature. Again, however, this is only part of a larger and
more complicated picture. As another influential visionary, the American
applied physicist Kevin Kelly, revealingly remarked, "It took us a long time
to realize that the power of a technology is proportional to its inherent *
out-of-controlness*, its inherent ability to surprise and be generative. In
fact, unless we can worry about a technology, it is not revolutionary
NanoBioConvergence, a novel conception of engineering has indeed been
introduced. The engineer, far from seeking mastery over nature, is now meant
to feel that his enterprise will be crowned by success only to the extent
that the system component he has created is capable of surprising him. For
whoever wishes ultimately to create a self-organizing system—another word
for life—is bound to attempt to reproduce its essential property, namely,
the ability to make something that is radically new.

In her masterful study of the perils facing mankind, *The Human
Condition *(1958),
of which we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary, Hannah Arendt brought
out the fundamental paradox of our age: whereas the power of mankind to
alter its environment goes on increasing under the stimulus of technological
progress, less and less do we find ourselves in a position to control the
consequences of our actions. I take the liberty of giving a long quotation
here whose pertinence to the subject at hand cannot be exaggerated—keeping
in mind, too, that these lines were written fifty years ago:

To what extent we have begun to *act into nature*, in the literal sense of
the word, is perhaps best illustrated by a recent casual remark of a
scientist [Wernher von Braun, December 1957] who quite seriously suggested
that "*basic research is when I am doing what I don't know what I am doing."

This started harmlessly enough with the experiment in which men were no
longer content to observe, to register, and contemplate whatever nature was
willing to yield in her own appearance, but began to prescribe conditions
and to provoke natural processes. What then developed into an
ever-increasing skill in *unchaining elemental processes,* which, without
the interference of men, would have lain dormant and perhaps never have come
to pass, has finally ended in a veritable art of *"making" nature,* that is,
of creating "natural" processes which without men would never exist and
which earthly nature by herself seems incapable of accomplishing....

[N]atural sciences have become exclusively sciences of process and, in their
last stage, *sciences of potentially irreversible, irremediable "processes
of no return"*....16<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn16>

The sorcerer's apprentice myth must therefore be updated: it is neither by
error nor terror that mankind will be dispossessed of its own creations, but
by *design—*which henceforth is understood to signify not mastery, but
non-mastery and out-of-controlness.

*4. The Rebellion Against the Human Condition*

Arendt began the same, decidedly prescient book with the following words:

The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere
animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and
through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some
time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making
life also "artificial," toward cutting the last tie through which even man
belongs among the children of nature....

This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more
than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by *a rebellion against human
existence as it has been given,* a free gift from nowhere (secularly
speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has
made himself.17<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn17>

The nanotechnological dream that began to take shape only a few decades
after the utterance of Arendt's prophesy amounts to exactly this revolt
against the finiteness, the mortality of the human condition. Human life has
an end, for it is promised to death. But not only do the champions of NBIC
Convergence oppose themselves to fate, by promising immortality; they
quarrel with the very fact that we are born. Their revolt against the given
is therefore something subtler and less visible, something still more
fundamental, than the revolt against human mortality, for it rejects the
notion that we should be brought into the world for no reason.

"Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made." Thus the
German philosopher Günther Anders (Arendt's first husband and himself a
student of Heidegger) characterized the essence of the revolt against the
given in his great book, published in 1956, *Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen
*--The Antiquatedness (or Obsolescence) of the Human
cannot help recalling here another philosophical emotion: the nausea
described by Jean-Paul Sartre, that sense of forlornness that takes hold of
human beings when they realize that they are not the foundation of their own
being. The human condition is ultimately one of freedom; but freedom, being
absolute, runs up against the obstacle of its own contingency, for we are
free to choose anything except the condition of being *un*free. Discovering
that we have been *thrown* into the world without any reason, we feel
abandoned. Sartre acknowledged his debt to Günther Anders in expressing this
idea by means of a phrase that was to become famous: man is "to freedom

Freedom, Sartre held, never ceases trying to "nihilate" that which resists
it. Mankind will therefore do everything it can to become its own maker; to
owe its freedom to no one but itself. But only things are what they are;
only things coincide with themselves. Freedom, on the other hand, is a mode
of being that never coincides with itself since it ceaselessly projects
itself into the future, desiring to be what it is not. Self-coincidence is
what freedom aspires to and cannot attain, just as a moth is irresistibly
attracted to the flame that will consume it. A *metaphysical self-made
man,*were such a being possible, would paradoxically have lost his
freedom, and
indeed would no longer be a man at all, since freedom necessarily entails
the impossibility of transforming itself into a thing. Thus Anders' notion
of "Promethean shame" leads inexorably to the obsolescence of man.

Had they lived to see the dawn of the twenty-first century, Sartre and
Anders would have found this argument resoundingly confirmed in the shape of
the NBIC Convergence—a Promethean project if ever there was one. For the aim
of this distinctively metaphysical program is to place mankind in the
position of being the divine maker of the world, the demiurge, while at the
same time condemning human beings to see themselves as out of date.

At the heart of the nanotechnological dream we therefore encounter a paradox
that has been with us since the cybernetic chapter in the philosophical
history of cognitive science—an extraordinary paradox arising from the
convergence of opposites, whereby the overweening ambition and pride of a
certain scientific humanism leads directly to the obsolescence of mankind.
It is in the light, or perhaps I should say the shadow, of this paradox that
all "ethical" questions touching on the engineering of mankind by mankind
must be considered.

*5. "Playing God" versus the Blurring of Fundamental Distinctions*

In 1964, Norbert Wiener published an odd book with the curious title *God
and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on
Religion.* In it one finds this:

God is supposed to have made man in His own image, and the propagation of
the race may also be interpreted as a function in which one living being
makes another in its own image. In our desire to glorify God with respect to
man and Man with respect to matter, it is thus natural to assume that
machines cannot make other machines in their own image; that this is
something associated with a sharp dichotomy of systems into living and
non-living; and that it is moreover associated with the other dichotomy
between creator and creature. Is this, however,

The rest of the book is devoted to mobilizing the resources of cybernetics
to show that these are false dichotomies and that, in truth, "machines are
very well able to make other machines in their own

In recent years, the enterprise of "making life from scratch" has been
organized as a formal scientific discipline under the seemingly innocuous
name of synthetic biology. In June 2007, the occasion of the first Kavli
Futures Symposium at the University of Greenland in Ilulissat, leading
researchers from around the world gathered to announce the convergence of
work in synthetic biology and nanotechnology and to take stock of the most
recent advances in the manufacture of artificial cells. Their call for a
global effort to promote "the construction or redesign of biological systems
components that do not naturally exist" evoked memories of the statement
that was issued in Asilomar, California more than thirty years earlier, in
1975, by the pioneers of biotechnology. Like their predecessors, the
founders of synthetic biology insisted not only on the splendid things they
were poised to achieve, but also on the dangers that might flow from them.
Accordingly, they invited society to prepare itself for the consequences,
while laying down rules of ethical conduct for
know what became of the charter drawn up at Asilomar. A few years
this attempt by scientists to regulate their own research had fallen to
pieces. The dynamics of technological advance and the greed of the
marketplace refused to suffer any limitation.

Only a week before the symposium in Ilulissat, a spokesman for the ETC
Group, an environmental lobby based in Ottawa that has expanded its campaign
against genetically modified foods to include emerging nanotechnologies,
greeted the announcement of a feat of genetic engineering by the J. Craig
Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland with the memorable words, "For the
first time, God has competition." In the event, ETC had misinterpreted the
nature of the achievement.23<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn23>But
if the Ilulissat Statement is to be believed, the actual synthesis of
organism equipped with an artificial genome ("a free-living organism that
can grow and replicate") will become a reality in the next few years.
Whatever the actual timetable may turn out to be, the process of fabricating
DNA is now better understood with every passing day, and the moment when it
will be possible to create an artificial cell using artificial DNA is surely
not far off.

The question arises, however, whether such an achievement will really amount
to *creating life.* In order to assert this much, one must suppose that
between life and non-life there is an absolute distinction, a critical
threshold, so that whoever crosses it will have shattered a taboo, like the
prophet Jeremiah and like Rabbi Löw of Prague in the Jewish tradition, who
dared to create an artificial man, a *golem.* In the view of its promoters
and some of its admirers, notably the English physicist and science writer
Philip Ball24<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn24>,
synthetic biology has succeeded in demonstrating that no threshold of this
type exists: between the dust of the earth and the creature that God formed
from it, there is no break in continuity that permits us to say (quoting *
Genesis* 2:7) that He breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life. And
even in the event that synthetic biology should turn out to be incapable of
fabricating an artificial cell, these researchers contend, it would still
have had the virtue of depriving the prescientific notion of life of all

It is here, in the very particular logic that is characteristic of dreams,
that nanotechnology plays an important symbolic role. It is typically
defined by the scale of the phenomena over which it promises to exert
control—a scale that is described in very vague terms, since it extends from
a tenth of a nanometer25<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn25>to
a tenth of a micron. Nevertheless, over this entire gamut, the
distinction between life and non-life loses all meaning. It is meaningless
to say, for example, that a DNA molecule is a living thing. At the symbolic
level, a lack of precision in defining nanotechnology does not matter; what
matters is the deliberate and surreptitious attempt to blur a fundamental
distinction that until now has enabled human beings to steer a course
through the world that was given to them. In the darkness of dreams, there
is no difference between a living cat and a dead cat.

Once again, we find that science oscillates between two opposed attitudes:
on the one hand, vainglory, an excessive and often indecent pride; and on
the other, when it becomes necessary to silence critics, a false humility
that consists in denying that one has done anything out of the ordinary,
anything that departs from the usual business of normal science. As a
philosopher, I am more troubled by the false humility, for in truth it is
this, and not the vainglory, that constitutes the height of pride. I am less
disturbed by a science that claims to be the equal of God than by a science
that drains one of the most essential distinctions known to humanity since
the moment it first came into existence of all meaning: the distinction
between that which lives and that which does not; or, to speak more bluntly,
between life and death.

Let me propose an analogy that is more profound, I believe, than one may at
first be inclined to suspect. With the rise of terrorism in recent years,
specifically in the form of suicide attacks, violence on a global scale has
taken a radically new turn. The first edition of this book belongs to a
bygone era, which ended on 11 September 2001. In that world, even the most
brutal persecutor expressed his attachment to life, because he killed in
order to affirm and assert the primacy of his own way of living. But when
the persecutor assumes the role of victim, killing himself in order to
maximize the number of people killed around him, all distinctions are
blurred, all possibility of reasoned dissuasion is lost, all control of
violence is doomed to impotence. If science is allowed, in its turn, to
continue along this same path in denying the crucial difference that life
introduces in the world, it will, I predict, prove itself to be capable of a
violence that is no less horrifying.

Among the most extreme promises of nanotechnology, as we have seen, is
immortality (or "indefinite life extension," as it is called). But if there
is thought to be no essential difference between the living and the
non-living, then there is nothing at all extraordinary about this promise.
Yet again, Hannah Arendt very profoundly intuited what such a pact with the
devil would involve:

The greatest and most appalling danger for human thought is that what we
once believed could be wiped out by the discovery of some fact that had
hitherto remained unknown; for example, it could be that one day we succeed
in making men immortal, and everything we had ever thought concerning death
and its profundity would then become simply laughable. Some may think that
this is too high a price to pay for the suppression of

The ETC Group's premonitory observation—"For the first time, God has
competition"—can only strengthen the advocates of the NBIC Convergence in
their belief that those who criticize them do so for religious reasons. The
same phrases are always used to sum up what is imagined to be the heart of
this objection: human beings do not have the right to usurp powers reserved
to God alone; *playing God* is forbidden. Often it is added that this taboo
is specifically "Judeo-Christian."

Let us put to one side the fact that this allegation wholly misconstrues the
teaching of the Talmud as well as that of Christian theology. In conflating
them with the ancient Greek conception of the sacred—the gods, jealous of
men who have committed the sin of pride, *hubris,* send after them the
goddess of vengeance, Nemesis—it forgets that the Bible depicts man as
co-creator of the world with God. As the French biophysicist and Talmudic
scholar Henri Atlan notes with regard to the literature about the Golem:

One does not find [in it], at least to begin with, the kind of negative
judgment one finds in the Faust legend concerning the knowledge and creative
activity of men "in God's image." Quite to the contrary, it is in creative
activity that man attains his full humanity, in a perspective of *imitatio
Dei* that allows him to be associated with God, in a process of ongoing and
perfectible creation.27<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10544&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container#_edn27>

Within the Christian tradition, authors such as G. K. Chesterton, René
Girard, and Ivan Illich see Christianity as the womb of Western modernity,
while arguing that modernity has betrayed and corrupted its message. This
analysis links up with the idea, due to Max Weber, of the desacralization of
the world—its famous "disenchantment"—in regarding Christianity, or at least
what modernity made of it, as the main factor in the progressive elimination
of all taboos, sacred prohibitions, and other forms of religious limitation.

It fell to science itself to extend and deepen this desacralization,
inaugurated by the religions of the Bible, by stripping nature of any
prescriptive or normative value. It is utterly futile, then, to accuse
science of being at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition on this point.
Kantianism, for its part, conferred philosophical legitimacy on the
devaluation of nature by regarding it as devoid of intentions and reasons,
inhabited only by causes, and by severing the world of nature from the world
of freedom, where the reasons for human action fall under the jurisdiction
of moral law.

Where, then, is the ethical problem located, if in fact there is one here?
It clearly does not lie in the transgression of this or that taboo
sanctioned by nature or the sacred, since the joint evolution of religion
and science has done away with any such foundation for the very concept of a
moral limitation, and hence of a transgression. But that is precisely the
problem. For there is no free and autonomous human society that does not
rest on some principle of self-limitation. We will not find the limits we
desperately need in the religions of the Book, as though such limits are
imposed on us by some transcendental authority, for these religions do
nothing more than confront us with our own freedom and responsibility.

The ethical problem weighs more heavily than any specific question dealing,
for instance, with the enhancement of a particular cognitive ability by one
or another novel technology. But what makes it all the more intractable is
that, whereas our capacity to act into the world is increasing without
limit, with the consequence that we now find ouselves faced with new and
unprecedented responsibilities, the ethical resources at our disposal are
diminishing at the same pace. Why should this be? Because the same
technological ambition that gives mankind such power to act upon the world
also reduces mankind to the status of an object that can be fashioned and
shaped at will; the conception of the mind as a machine—the very conception
that allows us to imagine the possibility of (re)fabricating
ourselves—prevents us from fulfilling these new responsibilities. Hence my
profound pessimism.

*6. Alcmena's Paradox*

To pay Heinz von Foerster a final homage, I would like to conclude by
recounting a very lovely and moving story he told me, one that has a direct
bearing on the arguments developed here.

The story takes place in Vienna toward the end of 1945, and it concerns
another Viennese Jew, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, whose celebrated book
*Man's Search for Meaning* was to be published the following year*.* Frankl
had just returned to Vienna, having miraculously survived the
Auschwitz-Birkenau camp; in the meantime he had learned that his wife, his
parents, his brother, and other members of his family had all been
exterminated. He decided to resume his practice. Here, then, is the story as
my friend Heinz told it:

Concentration camps were the setting for many horrific stories. Imagine then
the incredulous delight of a couple who returned to Vienna from two
different camps to find each other alive. They were together for about six
months, and then the wife died of an illness she had contracted in the camp.
At this her husband lost heart completely, and fell into the deepest
despair, from which none of his friends could rouse him, not even with the
appeal "Imagine if she had died earlier and you had not been reunited!"
Finally he was convinced to seek the help of Viktor Frankl, known for his
ability to help the victims of the catastrophe.

They met several times, conversed for many hours, and eventually one day
Frankl said: "Let us assume God granted me the power to create a woman just
like your wife: she would remember all your conversations, she would
remember the jokes, she would remember every detail: you could not
distinguish this woman from the wife you lost. Would you like me to do it?"
The man kept silent for a while, then stood up and said, "No thank you,
doctor!" They shook hands; the man left and started a new life.

When I asked him about this astonishing and simple change, Frankl explained,
"You see, Heinz, we see ourselves through the eyes of the other. When she
died, he became blind. But when he *saw* that he was blind, he could

This, at least, is the lesson that von Foerster drew from this story—in
typical cybernetic fashion. But I think that another lesson can be drawn
from it, one that extends the first. What was it that this man suddenly saw,
which he did not see before? The thought experiment that Frankl invited his
patient to perform echoes one of the most famous Greek myths, that of
Amphitryon. In order to seduce Amphitryon's wife, Alcmena, and to pass a
night of love with her, Zeus assumes the form of Amphytryon.

All through the night, Alcmena loves a man whose qualities are in every
particular identical to those of her husband. The self-same description
would apply equally to both. All the reasons that Alcmena has for loving
Amphitryon are equally reasons for loving Zeus, who has the appearance of
Amphitryon, for Zeus and Amphitryon can only be distinguished numerically:
they are two rather than one. Yet it is Amphitryon whom Alcmena loves and
not the god who has taken on his form. If one wishes to account for the
emotion of love by appeal to arguments meant to justify it or to the
qualities that lovers attribute to the objects of their love, what rational
explanation can be given for that "something" which Amphitryon possesses,
but that Zeus does not, and which explains why Alcmena loves only
Amphitryon, and not

When we love somebody, we do not love a list of characteristics, even one
that is sufficiently exhaustive to distinguish the person in question from
anyone else. The most perfect *simulation* still fails to capture something,
and it is this something that is the essence of love—this poor word that
says everything and explains nothing. I very much fear that the spontaneous
ontology of those who wish to set themselves up as the makers or re-creators
of the world know nothing of the beings who inhabit it, only lists of
characteristics. If the nanobiotechnological dream were ever to come true,
what still today we call love would become incomprehensible.


Katherine Hayles,
*How we became posthuman. Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and
Informatics*, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1999.

*L'essor de la première cybernétique (1943-1953*), Paris, Ecole
Polytechnique, Cahiers du CREA*,* 7, 1985.

*Aux origines des sciences cognitives*, Paris, La Découverte, 1994.

*The Mechanization of the Mind*, Princeton, Princeton University Press,
2000. A revised paperback edition is about to be published by the MIT Press
under the title *On the Origins of Cognitive Science. The Mechanization of
the Mind* (2008).

point is clearly established by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut,
*French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism*, trans. Mary H.
S. Cattani, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism" in
*Basic Writings*, ed. David Farrell Krell, New York, Harper and Row, 1977,
p. 225.

phrase is found in the review Sartre wrote in 1943 of Albert Camus's
*The Stranger*, "Explications de *l'Etranger*", reprinted in Critiques
littéraires (*Situations I*), Paris, Gallimard, 1947; available in English
in *Literary and Philosophical Essays*, trans. Annette Michelson, New York,
Criterion Books, 1955.

render philosophy inhuman" – thus the task Jean-François Lyotard set
himself in 1984.

expression is borrowed from Steve Heims's indispensable book,
*The Cybernetics Group*, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991.

Sloterdijk, "On the Rules of the Human Fleet", a paper delivered at a
conference on Heidegger at Elmau Castle, Upper Bavaria, on July 17, 1999,
and presented as a reply to Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism."

*Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective*,
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, "Some Pitfalls in the Philosophical Foundations of
Nanoethics," *Journal of Medicine and Philosophy* 32, no. 3 (2007): 237-261;
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, "Complexity and Uncertainty: A Prudential Approach to
Nanotechnology," in John Weckert et al., eds., *Nanoethics: Examining the
Social Impact of Nanotechnology *(Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2007),
119-131; Jean-Pierre Dupuy, "The double language of science, and why it is
so difficult to have a proper public debate about the nanotechnology
program," Foreword to Fritz Allhoff and Patrick Lin, eds., *Nanoethics:
Emerging Debates* (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008); and Jean-Pierre Dupuy and
Alexei Grinbaum, "Living with Uncertainty: Toward a Normative Assessment of
Nanotechnology," *Techné* (joint issue with *Hyle)* 8, no. 2 (2004): 4-25.

C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge,
*Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology,
Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science* (Washington,
D.C.: National Science Foundation, 2002), 13.

*The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed by Rapidly Advancing
Technologies* (New York: Forge, 2001), 118.

Kevin Kelly, "Will Spiritual Robots Replace Humanity by 2100?", in
*The Technium,* a work in progress,

*The Human Condition* (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 231.


*Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen: über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten
industriellen Revolution*, vol. 1 (Munich: Beck, 1980), 21-97.

*L'Existentialisme est un humanisme*, Paris, Nagel, 1946.

*God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges
on Religion* (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1964), 12.


Ilulissat Statement, Kavli Futures Symposium, "The merging of bio and
nano: towards cyborg cells," 11-15 June 2007, Ilulissat, Greenland.

Lartigue's JCVI team had succeeded in "simply" transferring the
genome of one bacterium, *Mycoplasma mycoides,* to another, *Mycoplasma
capricolum,* and showing that the cells of the recipient organism could
function with the new genome. In effect, one species had been converted into

Philip Ball, "Meanings of 'life'," Editorial,
*Nature* 447 (28 June 2007): 1031-1032. The sub-title is "Synthetic biology
provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism."

nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

*Journal de pensée (1950-1973), *2 vols., translated by Sylvie
Courtine-Denamy (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 1.

*Les étincelles du hasard,* vol. 1: *Connaissance spermatique* (Paris:
Seuil, 1999), 45.

from the German ("Wir sehen uns mit den Augen des anderen.... Als
er aber erkannte, daß er blind war, da konnte er sehen!"). See Heinz von
Foerster, "Mit den Augen des anderen", in *Wissen und Gewissen. Versuch
einer Brücke*, S. J. Schmidt, ed., Frankfurt, 1993; 350-363.

Canto-Sperber, "Amour," in Monique Canto-Sperber, ed.,
*Dictionnaire d'éthique et de philosophie morale,* 4th edition (Paris:
Presses Universitaires de France, 2004), 41.

**[image: Separater]*
*A paper prepared for the "Transhumanism and the Meanings of Progress"
workshop, ASU, Tempe, AZ, April 24-25, 2008.**

Published   2008.06.05 * *Comments:* Share your thoughts on this article:
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