Redefining human nature

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed. I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

I would like to pick up here where I left off at the end of sub-section There, I pointed out the following: if one takes Žižek’s example of a real philosophical question about biogenetics – “is there something in the results of biogenetics that would force us to redefine what we understand by human nature, by the human way of being?” – and applies it to the broad issue of the ecological crisis, the question becomes this: is there something in the results of the ecological crisis that would force us to redefine what we understand by human nature, by the human way of being?[1] I would like briefly to pursue this line of inquiry in this sub-section.

First, I need to make a disclaimer – Žižek never does answer his version of the ‘real philosophical question’ he identifies as relevant to biogenetics in general. Based on my reading of Philosophy in the Present, it is not the role of philosophy to answer the questions that the philosopher asks. Rather, the role of philosophy is to ask the ‘real’ philosophical questions, and ask them in a manner that achieves all the ‘philosophical criteria’ as enumerated by Badiou and Žižek, e.g. leaving room for the elucidation of choice, creating distance between power and truths, identifying incommensurability, and so on.

Second, I must draw attention to what Žižek saw as false questions to emerge in consideration of biogenetics: “how far are we allowed to go into biogenetics? Does biogenetics threaten our freedom and autonomy?” These questions can be changed so that they have a focus relevant to this study: how far are we allowed to deforest, pollute, consume, lose topsoil, grow the population, etc.? Does the ecological crisis threaten our freedom and autonomy? It is interesting that under the reign of ACID, ‘resource management’ departments[2] in business/industry and government have asked such questions for decades, without managing to avert the ecological crisis (and contrarily exacerbating it), giving further credence to the notion that the listed questions are false questions, at least in the realm of philosophy.

Third, it is worth refocusing on Žižek’s criticism of Habermas’s general approach to biogenetics. As already explored in sub-section, Žižek says of Habermas that his “whole intervention betrays the fear that something could fundamentally change, that a new dimension of the ‘human’ could emerge and the old idea of human dignity and autonomy would not be safely conserved”. This is entirely appropriate in light of the dominant Promethean worldview – i.e. the fear that ‘the human’ could change – because it is partly defined by its own growth and expansion. While Žižek’s remark about fear underpinning Habermas’s approach to biogenetics must be seen, first of all, as a way of contrasting this approach with a truly philosophical one, Habermas’s comments/concerns are directly transferable and relevant to the potential changes that the ecological crisis implies for humanity: the Promethean worldview has, at different times since the reign of Christianity, and through the times of the development of Science, Technology and Capitalism, enforced a (dominant) view of humankind as a species that inherently has dominion over nature, a species that can forcibly extract the ‘secrets of nature’ without negative consequences[3], a species that can use its Technology to process nature for whatever reasons the members of humankind deem fit, a species that can endlessly profit from the exploits of nature. The ecological crisis is showing humankind that such Promethean views about ‘the human’ are downright wrong, and moreover, that the time has perhaps come to question the ‘old idea’ of supposed ‘ human dignity and autonomy’. After all, what does the cynical despoliation of nature and her creatures by humankind say about its ‘dignity and autonomy’? Does our species still deserve such an elevated status, or has it been irredeemably sullied by humankind’s demonstrable abuse of its ‘high’ moral station?

Take the Capitalist assumption that endless growth is possible (and even desirable) as an example of a view impacting on what it means to be human – the idea being that part of what it means to be human is to engage in the endless expansion of the human population while ploughing through increasing quantities of natural resources. The ecological crisis is a sober reminder that such an assumption is simply wrong, because the ‘endless-growth’ assumption has been instrumental in a Promethean process destabilising the conditions necessary for sustaining the myriad forms of life on Earth. Furthermore, again referring to what Žižek says about Habermas – that he fears the loss of the old idea of human dignity and autonomy – it is clear that human beings are simply not autonomous at a fundamental level: the impact of unrestrained economic growth on the ecology of the planet shows that human beings must respect their dependence on nature, and accordingly adjust and limit their actions lest they undermine the conditions for any kind of human action, never mind autonomy – thus ‘human nature’ shifts from its Promethean sense (of having dominion over everything) to its Orphic sense (of embracing its interdependence with all that constitutes an ecology, of which humans are merely one part). In philosophical terms, human ‘autonomy’ is limited by its ecological ‘heteronomy’.

All the areas of focus in Chapter 5, where the focus is on Orphic attitudes, contribute to a redefinition of human nature in that they offer instances of human actions, ideas, ingenuity, and ‘alternatives’ where the view of human nature associated with ACID – which is to say the historically dominant view of human nature – is challenged, and alternative human actions, ideas, ‘alternatives’ are proposed and/or explored.

[1] [This is where ‘extinction studies’, such as Claire Colebrook’s work and that of others, are important. Her books on extinction are free for download – she articulates the philosophical implications of the ecological crisis for our conception of humanity quite starkly. However, see the next paragraph of this sub-section, where I point out that it is not the role of philosophy to answer the questions that the philosopher asks.

[2]An appellation [so] explicitly reminiscent of Heidegger’s observations about the technological view of nature as a standing reserve of resources – see Chapter 3. Another comment here – in business/industry and government, human beings are turned into resources, as indicated by the term ‘Human Resources’, which for my purposes falls under the umbrella term ‘Resource Management’.

[3] This view is rendered immediately naïve if one considers the devastating consequences of the extraction of nature’s atomic ‘secrets’ that partly resulted in the invention and use of the atomic bomb – as already seen, in this chapter, the role of the philosopher is to shed light on the distance between such power and truths.