Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bradey J. Thames on Virtuous Authenticity: I Just Want to be Bad

The first talk I’m covering for the ISME conference is by Bradley J. Thames, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, on “Virtuous Authenticity.”

Thames is seeking to address an area I’ve always found to be a huge gap in MacIntyre’s work: the question of what role the individual plays in living virtuously. There are many aspects to this, but the one Thames specifically seeks to address is: even if we can come to some sort of agreement on what are the good virtues, then where do individuals fit in in following those? Isn’t the virtuous individual reduced to being a product of his society’s dominant modes and norms, however good? (Though Thames does not quite say it, the other option here seems to be choosing to live badly.)

This is where Thames finds value in the work of Charles Taylor, who, like MacIntyre, describes the fractured state of modern philosophy and moral discourse, but unlike MacIntyre finds much in Enlightenment philosophy worth defending and preserving. (Taylor has done this work most notably in his books Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity, both of which I highly recommend; the former I’ve used before here to point out some severe myopia on the part of James Hughes about the history of the Enlightenment.)


For Taylor, authenticity is a modern ideal that has to do with being true to oneself. It is a dedication to recognizing and uncovering one’s potential for originality. The identity of the authentic person must be in some ways self-generated, in contrast to an identity that is determined solely by society or by natural functions.

There are some tensions with this notion of authenticity: for one, it is already a standard that is not the individual’s own. Moreover, whatever our identity is, if we are to be intelligible to others, what must be drawn from the social and natural world from which we are given. Fundamentally, we are so drawn: we are inevitably finite in belonging to, and arising from, a particular social and historical context. So we can in part reject what we are given, but we can’t simply create ourselves out of nothing.

When we speak of “authenticity,” Thames says, we can also mean something that is not a fake or simulacrum. Consider the usage of the word in talking about works of art, or in security verification. It means that something is the thing it purports to be. To be an authentic human, we can then say, is to fulfill the conditions of what it means to be human. This does not mean that if you are inauthentic you are not a human; rather, authenticity is the fulfillment of the potential inherent in an individual as already a certain kind of being. If you fail to be authentic, it means you fail to live up to the potential of what it means to be you.

Thames’s solution to how we should regard authenticity draws on the work of Heidegger, who gives an account of human agency that denies the dichotomies of subject-object. He argues instead that our embodied nature situates us as already a part of our world, prior to any reflection on it. This is the account of the structural features of human life that is required for individuals to be intelligible, either to themselves or to others. It is thus that I cannot consider the significance of my life without understanding how I am constituted out of what I am given: my social context, and my natural being.

Understanding this relationship between an individual and a social context leads naturally to an articulation of individual authenticity within the MacIntyrean picture of the progress of societies and traditions. On MacIntyre’s account, individuals must hold together inherited horizons of intelligibility, with the need to continually challenge and reconceive them, working out their problems and maintaining their ability to answer the questions of how we should live.

Although I’m not entirely clear on the last step in Thames’s argument, he seems to be saying that the virtues are (among other things) what allow the individual to participate in the flourishing of the society of which he is a part. Authenticity is what allows the individual to find his own unique ability to contribute to his society’s flourishing. The potential originality of the individual can become the source of innovation and renewal that every society needs to flourish.


There is quite a lot going on in this talk, but Thames’s work seems to me a crucial step towards reconciling the rather unitary nature of human goods that is MacIntyre’s concern* with the fantastic strangeness and variation of the individual that motivates much of Enlightenment philosophy. How can we give a consistent account of the notion of the human good or goods while recognizing that each individual will necessarily have goods and ends that are uniquely his or hers?

*I’m simplifying MacIntyre’s position here almost to the point of misrepresenting it. He actually holds that the nature of moral decision-making is that of the tragic dilemma, as in ancient Greek drama: a recognition of multiple goods — not necessarily rival, but conflicting in that each makes a claim upon us, but the finite nature of life and of choice means we cannot attain them all. (See After Virtue, 2nd ed., p. 224.)

It was of course not addressed in Thames’s talk, and didn’t need to be, but I wonder what satisfactory understanding of authenticity, and of the life well lived, can be had when both the naturally and socially given are wholly rejected. Doesn’t self-realization imply realization of something already given? The alternative seems to be the will to power, in which the choices of the self are unlimited, but also wholly arbitrary — lacking any end, and so any meaning.

(By the way, Thames’s account of authenticity is strikingly similar to the brilliant naturalistic account of free will given by Raymond Tallis in the New Atlantis essay “How Can I Possibly Be Free?” He argues that free will progressively emerges and secures more of itself, both for the individual and society, especially through the progress of technology.)

[UPDATE: See the comment section for Thames’s clarifying comments on my account of his talk.]


  1. "Thames’s solution to how we should regard authenticity draws on the work of Heidegger, who gives an account of human agency that denies the dichotomies of subject-object. He argues instead that our embodied nature situates us as already a part of our world, prior to any reflection on it. This is the account of the structural features of human life that is required for individuals to be intelligible, either to themselves or to others. It is thus that I cannot consider the significance of my life without understanding how I am constituted out of what I am given: my social context, and my natural being."

    Correct me if I'm misrepresenting somebody's argument, but isn't this precisely the nature of the AI research that fuels much of the transhumanist project? To express the self in terms of its mathematical and biological structure, such that our embodiment is reflected in our own knowledge?

    This seems like an important caveat to the potential trans-human diaspora offered by that technology, at least to the extent that it must derive its capabilities from a useful and true understanding of its subject. If true authenticity is contextual, then a deeper understanding of that context represents extraordinary authenticity. Thus, the unitive/MacIntyrean horizon of intelligibility expands. We increase the number of virtuous answers to the question, "How then shall we live?"

  2. Jonathan: I think it’s pretty accurate to characterize the aim of AI research as “express[ing] the self in terms of its mathematical and biological structure.” But the idea of “our embodiment [being] reflected in our own knowledge” would then be a precondition, not a consequence, of achieving strong AI. And as many (including Futurisms blogger Adam Keiper) have argued, AI researchers’ profound misunderstanding of human embodiment is probably one of the main reasons they aren’t remotely close to achieving strong AI.

    More specifically, all AI research on perception that I am aware of has the subject-object distinction as its central principle. Typically, a robot has a camera for “eyes,” which sends an array of information from photo-receptors through a separate stage in which the software attempts to discern shapes and patterns from it. In other words, following a popular modern theory of perception, it treats “vision” as coming in the separate stages of sense-data followed by interpretation of sense-data. These two stages are meant to be separate in time, so that vision comes to us first in a “raw,” uninterpreted state.

    By contrast, Heidegger (and MacIntyre) argue that our embodiment is such that we are already situated in the world, prior to any reflection on it. In other words, it is impossible to perceive raw sensory data; when you see something, it always presents to you in a way that you already “know” what it is (even if you do not have to think about what it is, and even if your interpretation is wrong). Likewise, we present as agents already part of the scenes we see. And cognitive science is beginning to adopt this model.

    Put shortly, AI research seems to be premised on precisely the opposite understandings of embodied perception and situated agency that are advocated by MacIntyre and Heidegger (not to mention cognitive scientists).

    I’m afraid I don’t entirely follow the last part of your argument, but you seem to be saying that AI research, taking humans as its subject, will broaden our understanding of human nature, and so of virtue. I wish I could believe that, but the history of AI seems to show something of the opposite. It is hard to find a group who is less interested in truly understanding the human condition, and more interested in imposing its own views upon it, than AI researchers and their transhumanist spawn. Show me an AI research project led by Shakespeare scholars, and I might consider getting on board.

  3. I would anticipate a great deal of human knowledge as a precondition of strong AI. Inductive leaps can be messy, of course. But the meat of my argument is that strong AI is at least coincident with deep human knowledge- assuming, of course, that humanity is an example of 'strong intelligence'. Even if you avoided actual study of human subjects in favor of increasingly refined mathematics and code, and even if there were somehow no 'human contamination' despite a fully human development team, the final product would still describe a set in which humans exist.

    I'm a bit hung up on one phrase in particular, "it is impossible to perceive raw sensory data". It seems to me that this is self-evidently true to the point of being tautological. Perceived sensory data is by definition not raw, and raw sensory data is by definition unperceived. Is it your contention that AI researchers would disagree?

    Imagine a scenario in which the entire Earth and all its inhabitants vanished. There is only a single trace remaining- one vinyl record with music recorded on it, floating through space. This is 'data' without an interpreter. Humans no longer exist to think 'music', but it can hardly be argued that the object doesn't exist at all!

    Why should this be any less true for the electrical impulses caused by a camera or by the nerve endings of a biological organism? Unless I'm grossly misinterpreting Heidegger (which is entirely possible!), the argument must be that interpretation and perception are the same thing. This doesn't imply anything about the nature of sense-data itself. All we have said is that the photoreceptor does not 'perceive' because it does not interpret. There's no implicit conflict between that idea and the construction of an intelligent mind as it is envisioned by transhumanists.

    The second paragraph of my argument wasn't that understanding of human nature is itself a broadening of virtue. In the original post, you described deliberate authenticity as flowing from our understanding of 'social context' and 'natural being'. It's my contention that AI research examines exactly the question of natural being, and therefore broadens the scope of authenticity. Transhumanism- the broadening of our experiences and our society to exceed the human- is a result in harmony with contextual self-understanding as a unitive social good.

  4. Ari -
    Thanks for this post! You captured most of what I was trying to say quite well, and I'm grateful for your interest and feedback.
    One thing that I tried to say that may not have been as clear, since it doesn't really come out in this post, was the structural parallel between the notions of authenticity and eudaimonia. While I'm still not sure exactly what I would want to say about their relation per se (are they identical? are they each various ways of referring to some common thing?), one thing that would follow is that authenticity is not so much a virtue as the telos of the virtuous life, or in other words, a source of intelligibility for our understanding of the virtues, in the same way eudaimonia functions in the classical Aristotelians account. This is a point on which I have been at times hammered by Heideggerians, but so far it seems to me the most reasonable way to understand authenticity (incidentally, Dahlstrom spoke of authenticity as a virtue, though I never had the chance to ask/challenge him about that).
    As to the last part of my paper, what you suggest is a bit more vague than what I was trying to get across, but as a matter of fact the rest of your post, in which you suggest some ways in which my acct improves upon MacIntyre's in certain ways, is exactly what I was trying to do there. I.e., I had spent the bulk of my paper trying to paint a picture of authenticity that avoids some of the likely problems from a perspective like MacIntyre's and tries to connect them, and the last part of the paper was essentially trying to address the question of what exactly this approach would contribute to the other - why someone like Mac should care. And you've actually contributed to an attempt to answer that question by pointing to the way in which authenticity brings out the significance of the individual in ways that you think are neglected in Mac's work. I was focusing rather on, first, the fact that an account of the good life or anything cognate has to in important ways make contact with one's actual social milieu, in which, in our case, authenticity is a preeminent ideal. Second, and more importantly, authenticity emphasizes the dimensions of responsibility for self, bringing to bear on your life your own best judgment of how one ought to live, etc. - values that are present, but often underemphasized, unexplored or undefended, in a lot of virtue ethics literature. But again, I think your comments actually add something, and I'm grateful for that.
    Re: Jonathan Sneed: I think Ari had a nice response, as far as I can judge. I don't know much at all about the transhumanist project (though I've heard a lot about it and intend to learn more), and only a bit about AI in general, but several Heideggerian philosophers have addressed these issues in detail - Hubert Dreyfus and John Haugeland are among the most prominent - and anything I would have to say about that would be said much more convincingly by them.

  5. @Brad: Thanks very much for the clarifying comments.

    @Jonathan: I guess you and I just perceive things differently (yuk yuk).

  6. As someone who's often criticized for being insufficiently critical of MacIntyre, I think Brad has it exactly right in saying that authenticity is one of the "values that are present, but often underemphasized" in his work. This becomes especially clear when you recall that he's not at all intending to create The Complete Ethical Theory de novo, but for the past few decades has been working not just in but on behalf of the Thomistic Aristotelian vision within Roman Catholicism.

    Caricatures of religious traditions generally and Catholicism in particular tend to suggest that the believer gets absorbed by and lost in the faith, a drop of water slipping into the sea. This is exactly the opposite of what's supposed to happen, though.

    In regards to Ari's question "Isn’t the virtuous individual reduced to being a product of his society’s dominant modes and norms, however good?", CS Lewis has the answer in _Mere Christianity_:

    "How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints."

    The greatest figures in the history of the world's traditions, from the Buddha to Socrates to Jesus, are all inconceivable except as the 'product' of the traditions they came from -- and yet their greatness lay precisely in taking the resources they had and laying the foundation for something dramatically new, to the point where radical innovation within a tradition led to a new founding altogether.

    A person is a character abstracted from a history, and a self-actualized ('authentic' if you insist) person is a character who responds to the demands of the roles thrust upon him with grace, courage, and also the wisdom to discern which roles are truly integral and which incidental. This is why moral exemplars are so important: fluency in the tradition allows one to discern when one is at a Francis-moment (turning aside from his father's expectations of becoming a merchant) and when one more like John of the Cross (humbly submitting to an unjust authority).


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