The editor of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers, recently released some bonus material under the title “Possibility or Potency?“. The materials include two stimulating interviews, the first being with Dr. Mark Shiffman, Associate Professor Humanities at Villanova University. The second interview is with Gilbert Meilaender, a senior research professor at Valparaiso University.
The unifying arc of these two interviews is the topic of transhumanism, the radical strands of which seek to technologically enhance the human person and overcome the limitations that come with having a body. These can include matters of sexual identity on the one hand, and death on the other . What was commonly observed by interviewees is that in an age of technological hyper-advancement, the body has come to act as a prosthetic to the will or a brake on the ability of the will to get what it wants. This runs up against the cultural zeitgeist that has normalised an attitude of “mind over matter”, which ends up metaphysically connecting two seemingly unconnected cultural phenomena of transgenderism on the one hand, and the transhuman attempts at immortality on the other (as an aside, it is interesting that Herve Juvin praised the capacities of transgenderism in embodying the unlimited possibilities of the will, aided by medical technology, in his The Coming of the Body).
Shiffman’s interview is particularly interesting, because it identifies the root of this transexual and transhuman assertion of the primacy of the will in a medieval theological move by Bl. Duns Scotus to preserve the omnipotence of God. This omnipotence was protected by Scotus’ claim that the structure of nature cannot be explained by anything other than the will of God. What this did, says Shiffman, is to remove the ability of the material world, including bodies in that world, to say anything meaningfully about God. This had the secondary effect of reducing God to an absolute will, and in turn reduced the conception of the human person – who is made in the image of God – to be primarily a will that just so happens to have a body, rather than the Aristotelian idea of the body being a person, with predetermined potencies set by God as a means of helping man understand heavenly realities.
When the body becomes an accidental category to what makes up a human person, it is not hard to conceive of the will, unfettered by any limit imposed on the body, to expand its capacities or self-identity that does not have any material anchor. A person is exactly the same regardless of whether he or she has a biological body, a surgically enhanced body that looks like any gender imaginable, a computer chasis or freely floating in cyberspace. All these phenomena, the two interviewees suggest, find their root in the uncoupling of embodiment with personhood, which is found not only in the most radical edges of transhumanism, but also in the minutiae of consumer culture.