Phil 102: The posthuman future

How will biomedical and other technological advances alter answers to the age-old question: What does it mean to be human?

by Chuck Luce

Is it “unnatural” to improve the human physical vessel, even as “natural” intelligence gives us the means to do so? Is immortality something to strive for, or is life without death meaningless? Should we “play God?”

As technological advances once seen only in science fiction edge little by little toward the realm of possibility, answering such moral and ethical questions becomes more than just an exercise in theoretical thinking.

And that’s what gives Phil 102 its urgency. The course considers how biomedicine and cybernetics contribute to what philosophers are calling “posthuman” or “transhuman.”

“It seems to me that the question whether and how humans should aim to enhance and perfect themselves through biotechnology is of the utmost importance and relevance for the next generations represented by our students,” says Professor of Philosophy Paul Loeb, who designed the course and is leading it for the first time this autumn. “It is called a ‘passion seminar’ because the professor teaching the course shares and explores with the students his or her current intellectual passion,” he says.

Phil 102 is one of the university’s new seminars in scholarly and creative inquiry for freshmen, created to increase students’ ability to frame and explore questions, support claims, and respond to differing opinions. Among topics they will discuss: Is there a human nature and can it be transcended? What is the self and how is it related to the body and its extensions? Is there a difference between natural and artificial intelligence? Are we free to determine our future?

The course also examines the philosophical roots of posthumanism or transhumanism in the writings of philosophers like Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Deleuze. Students also will debate the religious, ethical, and political implications of posthumanism and transhumanism. For example, are humans now usurping the role of God or nature? Should humans aim to enhance and perfect themselves? Is the goal of human enhancement compatible with egalitarianism? Are human rights applicable to the posthuman? Do humans have moral or political obligations toward future generations or toward humankind?

Loeb’s idea for the course grew out of his research and writing on 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proposed that humankind should collectively set itself the goal of a posthuman future.

“This proposal is considered the philosophical origin of the contemporary idea of the posthuman or transhuman, so it was natural for me to begin thinking about this new trend and to conceive the idea of a course built around it,” he said.

Phil 102 recommended reading

  • Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future
    James Hughes
  • Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy
    René Descartes
  • An Introduction to Political Philosophy
    Jonathan Wolff
  • Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence
    Andy Clark
  • Nomadology: The War Machine
    Gilles Deleuze
  • On Cloning
    John Harris
  • Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
    Francis Fukuyama
  • Perfect Baby: Parenthood in the New World of Cloning and Genetics
    Glenn McGee
  • Posthumanity: Thinking Philosophically about the Future
    Brian Cooney
  • Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future
    Gregory Stock
  • The Republic
    Plato
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None
    Friedrich Nietzsche