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MACROSCOPE

Science and the Theft of Humanity

In science's renewed interest in the human condition, a humanist sees the promise of a dialogue and a new golden age

Geoffrey Harpham

Through Open Doors, Discourse

Autonomy, singularity, creativity—each of these terms names both a long-standing concern of the humanities and a set of contemporary projects being undertaken in the sciences.

Many such projects—from the relatively familiar such as stem-cell research and the Human Genome Project to the more exotic, such as attempts to upload the component parts of consciousness into a computer, bioinformatics, and advanced nanotechnology—appear to have serious implications for our basic understanding of human being. These projects may well force us to modify our understanding of traditional moral and philosophical questions, including the definition of and value attached to such presumptively nonhuman concepts as "the animal" and "the machine."

Humanists, who have been only partially aware of the work being done by scientists and other nonhumanists on their own most fundamental concepts, must try to overcome their disciplinary and temperamental resistances and welcome these developments as offering a new grounding for their own work. They must commit themselves to be not just spectators marveling at new miracles, but coinvestigators of these miracles, synthesizing, weighing, judging and translating into the vernacular so that new ideas can enter public discourse.

They—we—must understand that while scientists are indeed poaching our concepts, poaching in general is one of the ways in which disciplines are reinvigorated, and this particular act of thievery is nothing less than the primary driver of the transformation of knowledge today. For their part, those investigating the human condition from a nonhumanistic perspective must accept the contributions of humanists, who have a deep and abiding stake in all knowledge related to the question of the human.

We stand today at a critical juncture not just in the history of disciplines but of human self-understanding, one that presents remarkable and unprecedented opportunities for thinkers of all descriptions. A rich, deep and extended conversation between humanists and scientists on the question of the human could have implications well beyond the academy. It could result in the rejuvenation of many disciplines, and even in a reconfiguration of disciplines themselves—in short, a new golden age.





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