1. Societal facts and definitions
Society is changing. It is not a time of change, these are actually changing times.
Techno-sciences are pervading all fields, including medicine, and are particularly affecting three main medical approaches: chemical and digital interventions on brain functions, genome modifications, as well as the use of robots.
If techno-scientific progress is to be encouraged, domination must be regulated. It in fact induces the transhumanist ideology whose challenging character lies in the anthropological rupture that it entails.
But what is this ‘transhumanism’?
It is both a rationalist philosophical movement and a cultural movement, of international reach, which affirms that it is possible and desirable, through science and technology, to increase, expand, and transcend the current human capacities: physical, intellectual: cognitive and emotional, as well as psychological, considered as a transitional and rudimentary stage in an evolutionary process.
“To become amortal, that is to say to extend life indefinitely, without eliminating the end, and to create a new transhumanist species,” that’s their slogan, their prophecy!
The transhumanist utopia tries to convince us of the abnormality of our present condition; in short, it consists in our ideological conversion.
At the heart of the transhumanist fantasy lies the rejection of any notion of transcendence.
The vast majority of transhumanists present themselves as agnostics or atheists, laymen and freethinkers.
Defenders of transhumanism put their hopes in scientific research programmes
in these fields, carried out by universities in Europe; or in the USA by NASA – space research – or by DARPA – military research; and funded with billions of dollars by GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple – with an obvious economic return through consumption.
Transhumanism and posthumanism: is it the same ideology? NO.
But they coexist.
Techno-scientific posthumanism prophesies the advent of artificial, superhuman, NON-human entities, likely to succeed the ‘homo’ species and continue their own evolution autonomously.
The use of the term ‘posthuman’ as almost synonymous with that of ‘transhuman’ accentuates the eventuality that the continuous improvement of man ends up transforming him, to such a point that he would no longer be identifiable as ‘human’ at all.
2. Limits of what is techno-scientifically possible in relation to man’s harmonious complexity
Let us briefly mention a few points illustrating the limits of what is techno-scientifically possible, in relation to the harmonious complexity of man.
2.1. Artificial intelligence versus human intelligence
Even if the effects of chemical, pharmacological, stereotaxic interventions on the functions of the brain are well known to us through our day-to-day practice, artificial intelligence makes us delusional.
Can the human creative mind be surpassed by a thinking, self-learning, and possibly soon-to-be-conscious machine?
I do not think so.
On one hand, the transistors in our machines have real technical limits, which actually incites researchers to work on other means of transfer, connection, and information processing, such as graphene chips, quantum computers and nanotechnologies, to create a ‘thought’ (?), from external stimuli, capable of resulting in a ‘conscious’ action.
On the other hand, our brain is not a computer with only logical capabilities, in the sense of calculation.
Neurons, representing only a tiny part of what constitutes our brain, do not resemble the integrated circuits of transistors, printed on silicon chips, all identical.
A real bioenergetic plant, a neuron is constantly changing, sheltering the three billion nitrogenous bases of everyone’s genome, continuously strafed by waves and radiation that combine them again, ceaselessly.
Each neuron transmits information going back hundreds of millions of years of evolution, agitated by innumerable accumulated experiences.
As for a metal chip, it is but a measly binary switch between numbers 0 or 1; ‘bits’ that flood the computer world with their functioning in an all-or-nothing mode, yes or no, unnuanced.
Neurons, on the other hand, modulate the information they receive by varying their intensity for returning it, transformed, to other, sometimes very distant neurons.
Electrochemical flows, transporting information between neurons via their extensions – the afferent dendrites and the efferent axons – are able to calibrate the response to an excitation very precisely.
As for digital flows, on the other hand, they have only the possibility to calculate, without a doubt very quickly, but without the fulgurance of creativity based on an intuition resulting from the unpredictable connections of the human nervous system.
In addition, it should be emphasized that the cerebral cortex, peripheral zone of grey matter, consists of only 20% neurons. The rest of the hemispheres, called white matter, is composed of an extraordinarily dense network of dendrites, axons, and glial cells, mainly astrocytes providing neurons with metabolic support, an especially compact network in the prefrontal area, which, as a result of Stanislas Dehaene, is currently called ‘the global neuronal workspace’.
A computer can never imitate our brain when it comes to its capabilities of moral conscience, like Antigone before Creon, or its dazzling creative brilliance.
Even if a computer can accomplish so-called ‘intellectual’, procedural, and routine activities quickly and well, or very quickly and very well, it will never be able to produce the full fulgurance of creativity.
But what exactly is this fulgurance of creativity? It is the power to create, to invent, to do something new, to produce something that is totally outside of a moment’s knowledge or conscience.
There is, in fact, no law of creation, just as there is no law of history, or no law predicting what will be a certain discipline’s future discovery.
Logical capacities with regard to calculation, which are characteristic of the computer, represent only a tiny part of what makes us living beings.
When I think, I apply myself to a subject that raises questions.
However, I am not thinking logically, but my brain is working in a sea of ideas without obvious links between them, when, suddenly and without effort, while I am not even trying to arrange them, one of them emerges, obvious, luminous, not based on any reasonable structure, and of which I cannot explain the why and the how.
I know that I am right without necessarily being able to explain the intellectual process that brought me to this result.
My brain worked for me, leading me to think that the dazzling creative brilliance is not the result of a reasoned system, but stems from a subtle combination of neural flows, of an incalculable number, between different parts of the brain, especially in the global neuronal space.
Worse, if I do not immediately notice this fulgurance, I can lose it as fast as it emerged, totally forget it, and at best retain a simple trace of it that can no longer be put into words, a source of profound frustration and eternal remorse.
2.2. Genetic manipulation versus genetic – epigenetic
Every single one of us has a unique genome.
This includes a large number of variants in the form of point mutations, deletions of chromosome fragments or nucleotide sequence amplifications.
This genetic polymorphism makes everyone unique.
Epigenetics refers to the set of molecular mechanisms that affect gene expression.
The expression of a gene, i.e. all the complex operations leading from the gene to the functional protein of the cell, depends on the environment of the genome and not just the sequences of the nucleic acids that constitute it.
By gene ‘environment’, we mean the part of the genome that does not code directly for proteins (70% of the DNA molecule), the function of which is still largely unknown, enzymatic reactions such as DNA methylation or deacetylation of histones which can ‘silence’ genes, for instance, by preventing their expression, but the ‘environment’ also gradually designates the cell, the organ, the tissue, and up to the living environment of the concrete subject.
Epigenetics also introduces an original concept of ‘personality’, the meaning of which is established on the basis of an uninterrupted continuity, which goes from the genome and its immediate molecular environment, up to the set of conditions of existence of a socially and historically situated individual.
2.3. Robots and medicine
Let us now briefly touch on the use of robots in medicine.
4 main categories:
1. Robot-assisted diagnosis: Hippocrates, for example, the robot that produces ultrasound images for 3D artery reconstruction, as well as for atheromatous plaque modelling!
2. Robot-assisted medical treatment: designed for preventive purposes, nanolaboratories allow for a very targeted analysis of cell behaviour, directly in the human body, as well as biosensors to detect the outbreak of various pathologies!
Biological nanodevices designed for curative purposes, artificially reprogrammed bacteria to locate and destroy cancer cells!
3. Robot-assisted surgery: including both the many implants by robot such as cochlear implants, and surgical robots such as ROBODOC and Acrobot for orthopaedic surgery; the SurgiScope, or the Da Vinci and ZEUS systems for thoracic and abdominal surgery!
4. Robot-assisted functional and social rehabilitation:
The former help correct the impediment, when the disease or accidents have altered the body’s abilities, through physical training, replacing the physiotherapist or by filling in the organic gaps with an exoskeleton, in case of amputated arms or tetraplegia, such as the HAL robot.
The latter help with social rehabilitation, are useful for providing psychosocial support to people with disabilities or elderly people as well as for assisting children with autism with social interaction.
Questions can arise in our society.
Does the robot always respect the unity of the body of the patient, its limits?
Does it respect the human relationships and cultural sensitivities?
Does the physician delegate too much power to robots, owing to technological fascination?
Do robotics in medicine fit into a project that respects social justice?
Does it not accentuate social divisions?
Is the robot really always at the service of the patient?
3. To be human and to live as a human being in a time of techno-sciences, what does that mean?
New ideologies whose chosen field is medicine deny the human dimension.
They glorify the autonomy of the person and denounce human speciesism.
– If the right to govern oneself by one’s own laws – autonomy – is at the heart of these ideologies, the future ‘transhuman’ thinks he will transcend the ‘human’ through a ‘technical augmentation’.
However, he can achieve this transcending only because he has this natural, human ability, which is his dazzling creative brilliance, supported by the intellectual capacities of his brain, which we have mentioned.
A crucial and urgent question immediately arises here:
Are we ready to continue and to learn to think, while it is becoming easier for us to let other mechanisms do it for us?
– An essential characteristic, proper to human beings, lies in the fact that they assume responsibility for their acts. It is important to acknowledge that.
If, due to intellectual, chemical, genetic, robotic or computerized ‘augmentations’, human beings are stripped of their abilities to decide for themselves and are to assume this responsibility as such, they have become IN-human.
Are we therefore ready to actually be positive about:
- these artificial technological products;
- this accelerated time of numerical calculations which does not agree with the slowness of human thought;
- this reality geared towards production that shapes our bodies to the model of the efficient machine, hyperefficient even;
- this flood of ‘Big Data’ in which we are drowning?
Will we remain oblivious to everything that man represents with his humanity?
Yes, for a human being of the future to remain human, he must remain an actual responsible person, an individual being considered the vehicle of his actions and influence, able to be responsible for his actions.
If, on the contrary, this responsibility is no longer alive in him, a self-forgetfulness – rooted in a lack of self-esteem – of one’s own body – considered too deficient – would be established, which would tend to become more and more of a burden, which he – tired – would like to get rid of.
– A human being is also a body that allows him to establish a relationship with his environment and Others.
Its brutal transformation could induce the disappearance of biological, physiological, and morphological conditions from the relationship, especially in the expression of the face.
The human body is certainly a quantity of determined matter, organized in a specific, living way, in which a sort of intrinsic, immaterial finality organizes and maintains this matter according to a project that transcends it.
Man does not have a body. He is his body. It is through this body that he communicates with Alterity and that he is a relational being.
– It must be noted that at the heart of the system of technological dominance, absorbed in ‘Big Data’, lost in the flow of sounds, information, images, and lights that allow digital technologies to wash over them, individuals are being deprived of their time-to-be, i.e. the time of questioning, the very same that should allow the Being to exist.
Very soon, the desire to forget through a ‘virtual’, ‘augmented’ reality appears, far from ‘oneself’ and all Others, far from our human future which inevitably involves the relationship to the Other, to the Wholly Other.
– To live as a human being is also to ambition transcendence.
A human being is by nature a reality that transcends itself.
Man can only be a man by going beyond himself.
However, the ‘going beyond oneself’ is not only to be conceived as an ‘augmentation’, but also as a ‘letting go’.
Transcending is also, and perhaps most importantly, diminished in the human experience, as well as in the attitude towards this diminishment.
This is the reality of finitude.
Accepting one’s status of being limited, incomplete, and imperfect requires the presence of the other to emerge.
To evolve in the process of the self-transcendence of man, finite, fragile beings are key.
The identification of the plasticity of the living as an essential characteristic, objectified by many works including ‘Comment les pattes viennent au serpent’ (How snakes come to have legs) by Dominique Lambert, leads to highlighting the VULNERABILITY of the living in the sense of their capacity to be transformed by environmental effects, in a dynamic balance with their robustness.
Thus, respecting the living will mainly amount to taking care of this vulnerability.
This notion can serve as a basis for an ethical reflection concerning the use of techno-sciences on human beings.
It is certainly not a matter of praising fragility, precariousness, but of recognizing that it is often a great source of truth and of discovery of good and beauty, when we return to a person’s inner self.
Truth, Good, and Beauty form the whole realm of the human Spirit and constitute the fundamentals of Being.
Our world is dominated by the logic of the limitless man, the man-God.
This logic speaks so much to the narcissism of people and crowds and is so well orchestrated by media-political lobbies that it is unthinkable that it would stop tomorrow.
However, with Bertrand Vergely, we can say that this logic has something so catastrophic, crazy, suicidal that it will be necessary to leave it.
For that to happen, it will take an internal revolution: from man-God to God-made man, humble and fragile.