Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Covering the conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry

I’ve been attending two conferences this week. First was the Tarrytown Meeting, organized by the Center for Genetics and Society and held in Tarrytown, NY. For the next few days, I’ll be at the conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry (ISME), held at Providence College in Providence, RI.

My original aim was to have my coverage of these conferences balance each other out: the Tarrytown Meeting was a conference of progressive bioethicists, while the ISME conference is heavily traditionalist — though an odd confluence or split between Marxists, Catholics, pro-lifers, feminists, and a variety of other groups (often all of them coinciding in the same individuals). It turned out that the Tarrytown Meeting was closed, so I did not live-blog it, but I may have some posts about it, and post my own talk from it, in a few days. But I’ll be blogging the ISME conference for the next few days.

This will be something of a departure from my previous conference coverage. For one, this is primarily an academic rather than a popular conference, and is not particularly aimed at being easily comprehensible by people outside the field. More importantly, of course, this conference is not about transhumanism or even specifically bioethics, and the connection between the topics I’ll be covering at this conference and the subject of this blog may at times seem tenuous (though Ill aim to focus on the talks that are most relevant). So this coverage will also be something of an experiment.

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The main reason we have for writing about transhumanism is not so much the movement itself (because probably most of what it prophesies will never come to pass) as what it represents — the set of attitudes, ideas, and aspirations that are already present in our society, that in transhumanism we see boiled away from all moderation and taken to their logical ends. And what we find at those ends is (among other things) the profound incoherence of the transhumanist movement, its thousand conflicted, ultimately irreconcilable aims.

It is because transhumanism is just a continuation of aspirations already present in our society that the fragmentary nature of the one points to the fragmentary nature of the other. Among the things that looking at transhumanism makes plain is the total lack in our Enlightenment tradition of a coherent conception of human good (much less a conception of the good that is actually good for humans).

There is no philosopher who has better articulated that conceptual incoherence, and its sources, than Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work is the subject of this conference. His seminal work is After Virtue (1981), of which Wikipedia has a decent summary. That book is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the philosophical underpinnings of modernity.

MacIntyrean theory, which is bound up with the movements known as neo-Aristotelianism and virtue ethics, offers a powerful means of coming back from the corrosions in our self-understanding that have led us to such a point that transhumanism does seem the logical next step. My hope is that covering this conference will offer at least a glimpse into why that is so. Stay tuned to find out whether I, and the minions of Prof. MacIntyre, can deliver.

(Also, as a procedural caveat to any conference attendees, please note proper coverage of the subject matter here will require some special work, so there may be a delay of a day or two between presentations and posts on them. Update: Ive changed the title of this post to reflect that this will not quite be live-blogging.)

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