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Humanity: An Endangered Idea?

Main Conference Participants:

  • Jon Bialecki (Edinburgh)
  • Daniel Chernillo (Universidad Diego Portales)
  • Ronald Cole-Turner (Pittsburgh)
  • Dirk Evers (Halle-Wittenberg)
  • Joseph Prabhu (Cal State LA)
  • Adriano Fabris (Pisa)
  • Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (Fuller)
  • Anselm Min (Claremont)
  • Walter Schweidler (Eichstätt)
  • Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Arizona)

Topic Description:

Questions about the facts of human life (what is true of humans?) and about the values, goals, and ends that humans should actualize in living their lives (how ought we to live as humans?) have always been controversial. Differences emerge not only about the is of humankind and what humans are and do in fact, but also about the ought of a humane humanity and how one should live as a human being.

Answers to the questions about our humanity and humanitas (Cicero) have been sought along five routes: by contrasting the human with the non-human (other animals), the more than human (the divine), the inhuman (negative human behaviors), the superhuman (what humans will become), or the transhuman (thinking machines). In each case the question at stake and the point of comparison is a different one: a relative difference within a shared animality, an absolute difference from the divine, a practical difference with respect to the ideal of a good human life, an evolutionary differ­ence between the present and future states of humankind, and a difference in kind between human bio­logical evolution and technological enhancement. In all those respects the idea of humanity has been defined differently. What makes humans human? What does it mean for humans to live a human life? What is the humanitas for which we ought to strive?

We convene the 40th Annual Claremont Philosophy of Religion Conference on “Humanity: An Endangered Idea” to discuss these questions in the light of a fourfold challenge:

(1)  The first is the biological challenge to human distinctiveness. Biological and neurophysiological re­search increasingly level out and dissolve clear-cut distinctions between humans and other ani­mals and living species: reason, rationality, deliberation, decision-making, free choice, and inten­tional action all come by degrees and can be found in one way or another in other animals as well. Humans are part of nature and must be understood as embedded in complex ecosyst­ems. Therefore, the view that humans are special and stand out from the animal world in a significant way is challenged, and human speciesism is banned.

(2)  The second is the technological challenge that seeks to overcome the limitations of our biological nature by technical means. The truth about us is to be sought not in our evolutionary past but in our technological future. The romanticism of ecological bioconservatives is countered with the techno­logical optimism of a progressive perfectionism, transhumanism, extropianism or post­genderism. Compared to smart machines, it is not our intellect but our biology that makes us special. However, if research into biological computing and nanotechnology keeps progressing at the present rate, then the difference between humans and machines will soon be negligible and there will be no space to define humanity. The challenge to the idea of humanity from this side is that humanity as we know it will disappear when superintelligent thinking machines will have superseded humans and human intellect.

(3)  The third challenge is the anthropological challenge. If we try to delineate what is human about humans not by comparing humans to other animals but to other humans, then it is striking to see that regularities of a common biology and evolutionary past are by far outdone by the cul­tural differences and plurality in which humans adapt to different situations and circum­stances. Human life knows choice between options and the freedom to choose, not only the causality of nature and the convent­ional necessities of culture. The anthropological challenge to the idea of humanity is that humanity is a normative project, not merely a biological fact, and that there is an endemic normative conflict about how this project has been or should be worked out in human culture and history.

(4)  The fourth challenge is the theological challenge of arriving at a view of human nature by com­paring humans to the divine. This challenge is underestimated if one conceives the divine merely as a cultural construction and not as a self-disclosing reality. The point of this challenge, at least in the monotheistic traditions, is to outline a vision of a good human life that has its center in safeguarding the distinction between creature and creator. It is a normative idea of humanity that envisages human life at its best to be a life in harmony with the gifts of the creator (the gift of life and the gift of love) and open to the needs of God’s neighbors (as expressed in the double commandment of love) and of all other creatures who are the addressees and recipients of God’s gifts.

These are the challenges that a contemporary understanding of the idea of humanity must ad­dress. To do so is the objective of the 40th Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference at Claremont, California, on February 21-23, 2019.