What is Posthumanism?


What is Posthumanism and why is it an idea worth thinking about?

Posthumanism is a term which was made popular by the writer Katherine Hayles, you can find her book here. She characterised Posthumanism as these four things:

  1. Human beings having bodies is an accident of history and is not essential to life.
  2. Human beings having consciousness is an evolutionary secondary effect and not of primary importance.
  3. The human body is the original prosthesis and can be replaced and upgraded when the technology becomes available.
  4. There are no essential differences between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.”

All of this can be summarised by the word that Mark Poster coined “humachine” which he defines as “an intimate mixing of human and machine that constitutes an interface outside of the subject/object binary.” (I got that quote here)

These ideas may seem abstract, and you may think it is completely impossible for anything like this happening until way off in the remote future. However, I think it is important for everyone, especially Christians, to think about this.

Primarily, Posthumanism is trying to separate out different bits of what we would normally call “human”. Divide things which until recently have been so closely knit together and intertwined that most people won’t have even considered that they could be separated. What would a human being be without a body?

Why would posthumanism want to make this distinction? It seems slightly peculiar and first- particularly as it is completely impossible. The reason for wanting to make the distinction becomes clear in the 3rd and 4th characteristics of Posthumanism.

Hayles and others are looking forward to a world when computer technology has got so good that we can use that technology to change, manipulate and enhance our human bodies. Enter a world which currently feels like complete sci-fi fantasy:

  • Computer technology in your brain which makes googling something as quick as remembering it, and maybe impossible for the users to tell the difference.
  • The capacity to download someone cognitive function before they die so that even after their physical body has stopped working, their mind, will and emotions could continue to interact with the world.

Ray Kurzweil, makes predictions along these lines in the following video.

Of course, all these scenarios feel extraordinary and far fetched. But the academics who are suggesting that they will be genuinely achievable argue that the smart phone was only imaginable on Star Trek 30 years ago as well. However, as this BBC article demonstrates, the future may not be as far away as we might think:

What Katherine Hayles (and other philosophers like her) are trying to argue for is an understanding of ‘human’ which allows for these technological supplements and enhancements. That is why the 3rd and 4th characteristics of Posthumanism are so important- and explain characteristics 1 and 2. They build on one another to create a new vision of humanity.

So why do all people, and especially Christians, need to think about this?

I’ll tackle that question in the next blog…