Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Must We Put the Self on the Shelf?

My friend and fellow progressive technology advocate, the socialist-feminist bioethicist James Hughes wrote an interesting column in BetterHumans a while back, expressing his skepticism about much of the rhetoric of “extreme life extension.” I re-read the article, entitled “The Illusiveness of Immortality,” just this morning and it still has me thinking.

Hughes’s skepticism emerges from a somewhat unexpected direction. Like me, he has little doubt at all that medical knowledge and pharmacological, genetic, and prosthetic techniques may well soon overcome many of the diseases and conditions that afflict human organisms, especially the diseases of aging that afflict our normatively “later” stages of life, as well as ameliorating or intervening altogether in the more fundamental biological processes that constitute what we somewhat superstitiously call “aging” in the first place.

“No,” he writes “my problem with immortality is simply that I don't exist." He continues on: "You don't either. Our so-called personalities are just roiling masses of evolving impulses, memories, thoughts and sensations. There is no central chip, no core thought, no essential memory, that makes you you.”

Too often the rhetoric of "life-extension" seems to imply an hysterical dedication to a monolithic or stable personal selfhood, but one that is simply indefinitely extended or rendered in its supposed invulnerability to the infirmities of decline somehow a more perfectly self-sufficient self. William Burroughs savages this sensibility in his hilarious incandescent rant-poem “Immortality,” when he writes: “The tiresome concept of personal immortality is predicated on the illusion of some unchangeable precious essence: greedy old MEEEEEEEE forever. But as the Buddhists say, there is no MEEEEEEEE, no unchanging ego.”

Of course, it is hard to imagine how selves so construed could survive indefinite extension “intact” any more than they could the more brutal truncation of mortality they currently face. And as Hughes goes on to suggest, the same medicine that will preserve and enhance the healthy lifespan and so would inspire such fancies of stable prolongation will likely provide opportunities for radical modifications and augmentations of human organisms in the service of their unimaginably proliferating projects of personal perfection, any number of which would scramble beyond recognition the current narrative organization we denote as the “self.”

What worries me is that we can recognize a radical dynamism of the self, we can recognize the naivete that would affirm the “self” as some kind of unchanging substance – and yet still recognize the viability of “selfhood” as a way of organizing personal experience and intentions.

Hughes proposes a future with “more life, less selfishness” and I applaud the sentiment wholeheartedly. But we should take care to remember that neither is “life” an abstract substance that deserves to be produced and augmented monomaniacally as an end in itself, in the way of an impersonal utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number,” as Hughes puts it later in his article. The life that interests me is still lived in lives, and lives are lived in the real but insubstantial selves that incarnate them.

When I propose that selves are real but insubstantial, I do not mean to imply that selves inhere in spirits or souls, but in stories. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has said of the self that it is a “center of narrative gravity.” He proposes the intriguing hypothesis that the Platonic dialogue of the “I and the me” that constitutes the uniquely human way of having selves, arose from a habit of subvocalizing -- in the interests of strategically useful secrecy -- the human organism's linguistic exploration of her ongoing options. Whatever one wants to make of that, what remains for me is the compelling figure of the self as a kind of narrative organization of experience, memory, and desire. Such a self may be, as Richard Rorty would insist, absolutely contingent, but nonetheless profoundly worthy of respect, and indeed still the source of the very notion of respect.

Life, it seems to me, is no more to be respected in the abstract than any other process. It is when we find in life our likeness that we find it respectable. Selves are the flavors that “life” takes on, and we affirm them in their kinship and yet their unrepeatability, their irreplaceability, and in the incomparable riches and lessons they hold for us. Hughes writes that "[a]t best, we need to pretend there is a continuous discrete self so that we can have an orderly society and an orderly life.” He is right that there is much that is damaging and pathological in the insistence on perfect continuity, independence, and self-evidence in the ideology of selfhood, but I think he is wrong to consequently dismiss the self as a “pretense.”

However long our lives, however enriched our capacities, we will most of us still need selves and all of us an abiding respect for them, although likely much more capacious ones, to make sense of the proliferating and diverging demands of beings who are transformed by technology and yet share a world as peers. However transformed by technological development, a culture of rights must long remain a culture of selves. Perhaps what Hughes highlights in his provocative article is less that the self is an illusion, so much as that the self largely amounts in the end to a public goods problem.

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