The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 2011)
Humanism Amidst Our Machines
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 13.2 (Summer 2011). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
At the close of the twentieth century, the entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted in The Age of Spiritual Machines that “the primary political and philosophical issue of the next century will be the definition of who we are.” He was by no means alone in recognizing that the meaning and future of our humanity could not be taken for granted and that the foremost challenge was coming from our growing technical and technological powers. Like never before these powers confront us with a juggernaut-like force and raise big questions about what constitutes our human being and our distinctiveness, and about how our techniques and technologies can serve rather than subvert human purposes and flourishing.
Asking these questions presupposes both an important measure of human agency in these matters and a view of the future as relatively open and undetermined. Not all will accept those premises. Further, answering these questions requires a richer anthropology than is possible with the abstract, instrumental, and materialist languages in which our tools and procedures are so often imagined and evaluated. We must return anew to the human subject and human things. Important sources are available. A genuinely humanistic education (Wolin) and “living values” in the humanistic tradition (Sennett) can contribute to a richer picture of the human person and the ends of social life. They can help resist fatalism and fragmentation and, in Wolin's phrase, nurture the “virtues of human intentionality,” critical thinking, and democratic deliberation. Tragically, the technological and technocratic dynamics that cry out for our appraisal work against these humanistic sources, and not only in the university. Science is increasingly proposed as a source of ethics, for example, while some of our leading technologists, such as Kurzweil, dream of wholeness through technology itself, hoping for a world of superior beings that leave humans and humanism behind (Zimmerman). Such scientism and science fiction are further symptoms of the problem. They make the search for our humanity more challenging and even more urgent.