Conservative Humanism & the Challenge of the Post-Humanist Age ~ The Imaginative Conservative


Since humanism has been the core of the Western tradition through the centuries, the emergence of anti-humanism and post-humanism represents an inflection point of our civilizational crisis. In confronting this crisis, conservative humanism aims not to erase the positive achievements of modern humanism, but to graft them back onto their roots where they can draw vitality from life-giving tradition.

Is humanity coming to an end? Is the great drama of human history drawing to a close? One could be forgiven for thinking so. The misanthropic narratives of “post-humanism” and “trans-humanism “are very much in vogue. Yuval Noah Harari, one of the most acclaimed and popular authors of our time not least among Silicon Valley elites – writes that technology is in the process of making humans beings obsolete:

For thousands of years history was full of technological, economic, social and political upheavals. Yet one thing remained constant: humanity itself…. However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend. (Harari, Homo Deus, 46).

For misanthropes, post-humanism is something to be earnestly embraced. Anti-natalists philosophers call for the voluntary extinction of the human race as a blight upon nature and its animals. There are surely others as excited as 20th-century eugenicists about the prospect of using machines or gene-editing to take control of human evolution and produce a “higher” species of supermen. But for many, post-humanism provokes revulsion against the entire trajectory of Western modernity. In the spirit of romantic protest, the Russian right-wing anti-liberal philosopher denounces the “…properly postmodern, post-humanism, promoting cybernetics, genetic modification, cybernetics, and chimeras” (Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory, 75).

These concerns are of course not entirely new. Since the first Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the fear of machine civilization replacing human beings has been a constant source of cultural anxiety. Industrialism fueled Luddite and romantic reactions from traditionalists like John Ruskin and J.R.R Tolkien to the counterculture of the 1960s. By the twentieth century, the carnage of two world wars, the brutal scientifically augmented efficacy of modern totalitarianism, and the opening of the nuclear age cast a dark shadow over Western modernity and its dreams of progress through scientific technology. The theme of robots or computers rebelling against their position as human tools and making humans their slaves is a staple of classic science fiction popularized in film history—Fritz Lang´s Metropolis, Clark and Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or James Cameron´s The Terminator. Fears of technology and automation displacing human labor also have long been a concern of the working class since the first industrial revolution (powered by steam) and the second (powered by electricity and petroleum) began replacing many traditional forms of labor. Then in the late 20th century the digital revolution with the advent of the integrated circuitry of the microchip, the personal computer, and the Internet. We are now amid a fourth industrial revolution where AI and robotics threaten to make yet many forms of human labor obsolete. In this new automated economy, China seems to be leading the way. Together with the established processes of globalization, fourth IR automation may play a role in sparking the working-class malaise sparking populist upsurges across the West against technocratic elite governance.

Our world is, however, haunted by something far more radical. It is not merely human labor but humanity as such which is threatened with replacement. At the intersection of biotechnology/ genetic engineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics lies the prospect of technologically transforming the human organism itself. While robotics and artificial intelligence make more and more human functions obsolete, knowledge of neuroscience is increasingly manipulated for the ends of states and corporations. But beyond all this, the unlocking of the human genome opens the possibility of cloning, “editing” and ultimately re-designing the human bio-organism. Meanwhile, the distinctions between bio-genetic and machine technology may narrow with the emergence of cyborgs. The possibility of reducing man to a consciously designed product was already envisioned by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In a 1969 interview with Richard Wisser, Heidegger spoke of:

… what is today developed as biophysics: that we may soon have the possibility to create the human, that is … regarding his organic nature…to construct him just as we need him to be.

Heidegger´s main point was that technology was a force that had entirely slipped beyond human control; it was instead becoming an alien force threatening to subordinate humanity to itself:

I see in technology, namely its essence… that the human being is standing in the range of influence of a power, which challenges him, and in regard to this power he is no longer free.

This contemporary vision of man enslaved to the machine could not be further from the original humanist vision of those great pioneers of modern technological civilization some four centuries ago. Sir. Francis Bacon famously imagined that the knowledge of nature opened by inductive science would lead to “… the relief of man´s estate…” (Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, I.v.11), while Rene Descartes believed that by science “… we would render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.” (Descartes, Discourse on Method, VI). How is it that this modern project which envisioned the development of technology as a tool to establish human mastery over a domesticated nature culminated in a vision where the tool becomes the master? How in short did the project of humanism culminate in post-humanism?

The answer lies in the contradiction between modern mechanistic materialism and the pre-modern spiritual and intellectual roots of humanism from which it has become progressively unmoored. In essence, humanism evolved in a way that pulled the rug out from under itself. There is a contradiction in the effort to sustain the humanist principles of human freedom and unique dignity, with a materialistic worldview that rejects anything transcending the measurable physical world demarcated by empirical science. In place of the humanist emphasis on human freedom, post-humanism envisions humanity as a physical mechanism subject to deterministic principles of cause and effect which are readily manipulable by the data algorithms of our digital age.

A materialistic conception of the human being is in short incapable of sustaining the premises of a humanist civilization and must inevitably degrade and subordinate the human to the inhuman. To recover the sense of human dignity needed to withstand the perils of a post-humanist era, the West will need to turn back to the spiritual resources of its classical and Christian foundations. What is needed in short is conservative humanism. Conservative humanism is “humanist” because of its emphasis on dignity, freedom, and the transcendent value of the human person. It is “conservative” because it looks for guidance to the great traditions of the past. To see why this is so, we must first engage in a brief excursus on the question of humanism and its historical foundations. 

The Historical Foundations of Western Humanism

Humanism in its various historical iterations has been a central and defining ideal of Western civilization. It is also a remarkably elusive and protean concept. Many will identify humanism with the belief system that matured during the Enlightenment. In a Palladium article, Charlie Smith writes:

Humanism is an intellectual paradigm with origins in the West’s increasingly distant Christian past, that came to predominate during the Enlightenment…. Modern life in the West and exceptionally in the West was birthed out of an exhilarating conviction in the agency of man, enshrined in the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Smith is certainly correct that humanism in its peculiar modern and secular form first came of age during the Enlightenment. In a more capacious sense, however, humanism has a much older and deeper pedigree within European civilization going back to its very origins. The Greeks had understood education or culture (what they called παιδεία) as focused not on the acquisition of technical or vocational skills, but on the cultivation of human excellence in all its faculties – intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and physical. Romans like Cicero, inheriting the Greek conception spoke in his Pro Archia spoke of “all arts that pertain to humanity”[omnes artes, quae ad humanitatem pertinent], by which he meant the liberal arts with their civilizing effect on human nature through literary and philosophical cultivation. The second-century Roman author Aulus Gellius translates the Greek concept of education by the Latin term humanitas equivalent to “erudition and formation in the liberal arts”(eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artis). (Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 13-17.) This was meant principally a literary education aiming at the refinement of those intellectual, moral, and aesthetic faculties which are proper to humanity and distinguish man from the animal world. It is primarily this sense of “humanism”, which was powerfully revived during the Italian Renaissance. Renaissance humanists promoted the study of the best classical Greek and Roman authors, particularly in moral philosophy, history, rhetoric, poetry, and grammar which together comprised the studia humanitatis. A teacher or promoter of these was in turn known since the 15th century as an umanista or “humanist.” Humanism in this classical sense reflected a high confidence in the possibilities for the education and refinement of human capacities. Such a classical humanist education remained the staple of European (and later American) higher education well into the early 20th century and was for centuries a major force behind Western cultural achievements in the arts and sciences.

Western humanism received another and even more dispositive impetus from Christianity. Whereas classical humanism remained an elite phenomenon, Christianity penetrated all layers of European civilization. Christianity is strong on human exceptionalism, sharing with Judaism a Biblical conviction that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and are given dominion over the earth (Genesis I:26). As such human beings are unique among animals in their capacity not only to reason but also in their freedom and moral agency. The specifically Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, (that God became man), together with the doctrine of the Atonement makes Christianity the most anthropological of the world religions. Every human being has infinite value having been “bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:10). It is by now well established by scholars that drawing on the Biblical ideas the concept of universal human rights has its roots not in the Enlightenment but in the centuries of the Christian Middle Ages. It is true, of course, Christianity constantly reminded human beings of their sinfulness and in this sense challenged human self-esteem. But even this was a call to humanity to “Realize what you are! Remember your royal dignity!” as St. Gregory of Nyssa put it (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Song of Songs, 2). In short, both Europe´s classical Greco-Roman heritage and its Christian faith provided fertile soil for the development of Western humanism.

The Enlightenment and the Tensions of Modern Humanism

In general terms, all that we identify with “modernity”—belief in historical progress, secularization, an emphasis on individual liberty and democratic equality, the free market system, and the veneration of science and technology, is intricately linked to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Like other great movements of intellectual history, the Enlightenment is filled with complexity. Charlie Rich correctly identifies the peculiarly modern form of humanism with the Enlightenment and ably summarizes its fundamental dispositions:

Modern life in the West and exceptionally in the West was birthed out of an exhilarating conviction in the agency of man, enshrined in the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Throw off the shackles of tradition, history, and old economic systems, and man will take charge of his own destiny. This is the fundamental meta creed that informs modern Western political movements from the French Revolution and American liberalism, to radical iterations like Communism. Humanism is the belief that the birth of modernity was the start of human conquest of the earth that set us in charge of history.

The Enlightenment was deeply informed by the philosophical and scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries associated with Bacon, Descartes, and Newton which combined confidence in human reason with a mechanistic view of nature as a closed, deterministic system of physical causes. By the 18th century, the Enlightenment (here we mean most of all the French Enlightenment) sought to extend the revolution to the social and political realms with an avowedly secular doctrine that placed man and human reason, liberty, and progress at the center of concern (anthropocentrism). The Enlightenment rested on a capacious faith in the power of autonomous human reason to seek and judge the truth, without reliance on tradition and religious authority. Hence, the 18th-century philosophes at their most radical established a kind of humanist faith that would be a rival and replacement of Christianity – in short, it sought to replace faith in God with faith in man. It is true for most of the best-known figures of the French Enlightenment -Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu—were not outright atheists, though some went far in the direction of mechanistic materialism. But the era did see the first significant emergence of what Cardinal de Lubac would call “atheistic humanism”—the belief that God and religion were forces that held back progress and only the emancipation from religion would liberate the full possibilities of free human development. As Baron de Holbach put it,

The human mind, confused by theological opinions, ceased to know its own powers, mistrusted experience, feared truth and disdained reason, in order to follow authority. Man has been a mere machine in the hands of tyrants and priests.

In the 19th century, atheistic humanism had its most formidable intellectual proponents in Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud whose ideas decisively shaped our contemporary world. Meanwhile, with the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of Western economies, the practical materialism of the modern West came into full view as economics and technology became the primary concerns supplanting the spiritual foci which have been the characteristic of not only the medieval West but of all traditional civilizations.

There was however an inherent contradiction between humanism and physicalism whose impacts were not immediately felt. The modern humanist creed rests on beliefs such as human dignity and freedom and universal human rights, which cannot be defended based on such thorough philosophical materialism. Humanity is then nothing beyond a fortuitous coincidence of blind natural forces, near a star that is one of some 250 billion stars, in a galaxy that is one of two trillion galaxies. Little wonder that reckoning the human being in purely physicalistic terms, Harari calls the human species “an animal of no consequence.” As a purely naturalistic animal, mankind counts for little in the cosmos. Christianity turns out to be “more humanist than the humanists” for it sees beyond man´s physical insignificance, a transcendent spiritual dimension that confers upon every human being an infinite dignity and worth. As Nicholas Berdyaev put it:

Humanism, as its name implies, denotes the elevation and setting up of man in the centre of the universe. It signifies his rebellion, affirmation and discovery. This is one of its aspects…. But humanism also contained a diametrically opposed principle, that of man’s abasement, of the exhaustion of his creative powers and of his general enfeeblement…. It affirmed that man was a natural being, the child of the world and of nature, created by natural necessity, the flesh and blood of the natural world; and that he therefore shared all its limitations, diseases and defects. Thus, humanism not only affirmed man’s self-confidence and exalted him, but it also debased him by ceasing to regard him as a being of a higher and divine origin…. Humanism dethroned the Christian spiritual principle, which had considered man in the image and likeness of God, (Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, 140-141).

The Post-Humanist Age Arrives: Harari and Conservative Humanism

If the Enlightenment is the paradigm of “modernity,” our contemporary age is often called post-modern insofar as it challenges the assumptions and values of the Enlightenment (not least its humanism). At the same time, it is sometimes called hypermodern as far as our age radicalizes and brings to the fore the implicit aspects of the modern worldview. These aspects are seen clearly in Harari´s post-humanist vision.

We can in a certain way call Harari to the stand as a “hostile witness” to vindicate Berdyaev´s contention that humanism has tended to undermine itself by treating humanity in an exclusively naturalistic manner. Liberal humanism Harari argues rests implicitly on ideas that are the direct inheritance of Christianity. The liberal belief in the special worth and dignity of the individual for Harari is an inheritance of the Christian belief in the sacred worth of the human soul:

The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls. Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens (Harari, Sapiens).

This liberal faith is a problem for Harari because this belief does not cohere with the materialism of Harari´s worldview. This is however in his cursory scientistic argument against the soul´s existence:

Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there (Harari, Sapiens).

Note that this is a premise disguised as a conclusion. Virtually all philosophers and theologians throughout history have defended belief in the soul as an immaterial reality. It is not especially logical to conclude that a non-physical soul does not exist because the methods of physical sciences do not detect it. Nonetheless, the human soul which Socrates declared worthy of the highest care, and Christianity declared of more worth than all the world, is for Harari a “fiction.” Likewise, all the sophisticated metaphysical arguments for the soul in Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Leibnitz, and Husserl can all for Harari be bracketed once we assert as our implicit first principle that there is nothing that transcends the physical world. So, Harari begins with the rejection of all metaphysics—the presumption that the only things which are objectively real are those which are physical realities measurable by the methodology of empirical science. Everything else for him is a “fiction.”

The premise is valuable for understanding Harari because his other contentions follow inexorably from this premise. Liberalism´s other major beliefs such as in universal rights and human equality are equally “fictions” since none of them are physical realities amenable to verification by the scientific method. He grants however that these products of the human imagination have an important pragmatic value:

Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order.’ We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society (Harari, Sapiens).

Perhaps the most central belief of liberalism is—as the name implies—liberty. As Harari puts it:

Unlike rats and monkeys, human beings are supposed to have “free will.” This is what makes human feelings and human choices the ultimate moral and political authority in the world. Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best that the customer is always right….

But liberalism´s very belief in liberty makes no sense within the context of materialism—or at least the mechanistic materialism according to which matter is under deterministic laws of cause and effect. Hence Harari will assert that freedom is one more superannuated Christian “fiction” that modern liberalism inherited:

… “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them?”

It is this materialistic anthropology that sees human beings as in essence biological machines operating under deterministic programming that opens to floodgates of post-humanism. It generates the possibility that the “software” of the human brain and neural networks may be manipulated and the whole range of human actions controlled by the cresting power of technology:

If governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will. In order to successfully hack humans, you need two things: a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power.

Harari despite affirming liberalism´s basis in fiction, nonetheless, seems to sympathize personally with liberal humanist values. As Roger Scruton (who we can describe as a conservative humanist) noted in his review, Harari´s idea of “fiction” is not necessarily pejorative. Fiction for him is rather necessary for any cohesive culture. But if Harari is correct, all that transcends the physical world, not only God and the soul, but morality, human rights, meaning, freedom, and justice have no objective reality. This is, however, no solution to the human problem. It is simply quixotic to imagine that humans will indefinitely and forcefully defend moral beliefs and values they regard as fictional products of the human imagination. There is no path forward for humanism on the trajectory of Harari´s premise that all reality is reducible to physical matter measurable by the methods of empirical science.

Conservative humanism of course does not need that premise. Conservative humanists affirm that man for all his physical insignificance and moral defects is also a spiritual being endowed with freedom and rationality and possessing a transcendent moral value. Once the dogma of materialism is rejected, we can be open to the reality of all that gives meaning to human life but cannot be circumscribed within the quantified realm of scientific empiricism–things such as faith, beauty, moral truth, and freedom. In asserting these claims, it can draw upon the ample philosophical and religious resources of the Western tradition. Modern humanism, as far as it has tried to cut off itself from these roots, doomed itself to wither away into the post-humanism we see today. Since humanism has been the core of the Western tradition through the centuries, the emergence of anti-humanism and post-humanism represents an inflection point of our civilizational crisis. In confronting this crisis, conservative humanism aims not to erase the positive achievements of modern humanism, but to graft them back onto their roots where they can draw vitality from life-giving tradition.

The future will vindicate one vision for humanity or another. If Harari and the post-humanists are correct, then humans are nothing beyond biological machines in the final analysis. And if we reduce the human being to a physical-biological mechanism, Harari´s claim that man is ultimate as he puts it “an animal of no consequence” bereft of freedom, rights, or intrinsic dignity is fully justified. In that case, perhaps resistance to the looming end of humanity is futile, and the end of humanity is an inexorable destiny. But if the classical and Christian traditions of the West are correct then man is a free and rational being with a unique spiritual dignity. In that case, other historical possibilities are open. By returning to the venerable spiritual and intellectual resources of our civilization, we may yet have a chance to bring our technology under moral discipline, and so to forge for our species a more human future.

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The featured image is “Sylvester karpfen in Berlin” (1884) by Wilhelm Geissler, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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