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A Philosophy of Humanity Lost

Published onMar 15, 2023
A Philosophy of Humanity Lost

During the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, in the fall of 2016, I saw a film by the Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter.1 The film, entitled Homo Sapiens, lasted for one-and-a-half hour, and during its first thirty minutes I hadn’t a clue about what I was watching: A pigeon flew through an empty church; The sea ebbed and flowed and ebbed again on a deserted beach where a rusting roller coaster stood in the water; A worn and crooked door in an old theater squeaked as it swung in the draft; The wind lifted a plastic bag in an old operating room in a hospital, flung it back to the ground and lifted it up again.

Frankly, I was bored, and wondered where this was going. My first intuition was to think of the movie as tedious, as apparently, nothing was happening. Then the penny dropped, and I realized I was watching a brilliant documentary displaying the earth after humanity will, by its own doing, have vanished from it. Not just the absence of humans was striking, but the insight that together with humanity, time and purposefulness will also disappear. Nothing will happen and at the same time everything will be repeated endlessly. Perhaps one day a dove will fly through an empty church, a paper bag will blow through an abandoned building, and it will ebb and flow and ebb again on the beaches. That’s about it.

We are currently dealing not only with familiar crises like wars, refugees, poverty, and hunger, but also with a new crisis, which gives us a brand-new sense of unease: the climate crisis. Of course, we have long known the environment is threatened and we are aware that we need to be economical with energy. New is the fact that environmental pollution has led to a global crisis, which not only threatens nature but also the continued existence of the human race. This unique prospect, in human history and the history of Earth, catapults us back to key philosophical questions, such as ‘what is a human being?’ and ‘what does it mean to be human?’. There are, in fact, three developments that make it necessary to revisit these questions. 

Robotization – Especially the latest development, in which attempts are underway to make robots as human-like as possible by endowing them with emotions as well as with intelligence. This once again confronts us with the question what makes human beings ‘human’. Can robots ever become ‘human’?

Transhumanism – This movement advocates ‘human enhancement’ by way of technological interventions, such as ‘design babies’, or pimping not only one’s appearance (who doesn’t want to look like Tom Cruise or Scarlett Johansson?), but also one’s IQ and talents through the use of genetic engineering.2 Again the question is, is the resulting ‘perfect human’ still a human being? Or are they ‘super-human’, and are human beings indeed nothing but a bridge between animal and the Uebermensch, as described by Friedrich Nietzsche in his poetic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra?3 In that book, Nietzsche incidentally jotted down that the Uebermensch would laugh as hard at human beings as human beings now laugh about the behavior of monkeys.

The Anthropocene – Humanity has become the main geological force and has exerted its hubris, not only with regard to God, as Nietzsche proclaimed in the famous ‘Death of God’ parable in The Gay Science, but also to the Earth and itself.4 Indeed, humankind is in danger of being erased from the face of the earth like ‘a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea’, as Michel Foucault wrote in the conclusion to his impenetrable masterpiece The Order of Things.5

 It reminds us of the familiar riddle with which the Sphinx of Thebes challenged Oedipus: ‘what walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening?’ Oedipus’s answer, defeating the Sphinx and winning the right to marry the queen of Thebes Iokaste, who was also secretly his mother, sounded: the human being. If we are not careful there will soon be a long, silent, dark night, in which there will be no more walking on the earth at all, at least not by humans.

This is an unprecedented situation. For centuries, Western and Eastern philosophies have focused on accepting mortality as one of the most important tasks of human life. But this was an individual task, an ethic that revolved around acceptance and modesty, as expressed by the inscription on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, or ‘know thyself’. This utterance was no modern, neoliberal self-centered saying, rather it meant: know your place, you small, powerless and ignorant human being, know that you aren’t divine; you are only mortal, only human. It warned against the hubris of the ego and its narcissistic tendency to try and inflate itself to divine proportions.

While the warning ‘know thyself’ may have worked in Ancient Greece, the modern Enlightened person is no longer deterred by such ancient wisdom. Over the period of about two hundred years, humankind has, with unprecedented vigor, not only expanded to more than eight billion earthlings, it has also depleted the globe to the point where its own survival as a species and that of the planet itself are at stake. Philosophically, this confronts us with a new and fundamental task. As it no longer suffices to reflect on our own individual mortality, we must now learn to cope with the idea of the disappearance of humanity as a species.

To help avoid this extinction, we need to rethink the relationship between earth, nature and humankind, starting from the question ‘what do we leave behind?’. One way to approach this is to return to the holistic views of Alexander von Humboldt. On his travels to South America, this Romantic philosopher, natural scientist and explorer, the younger brother of Bildung-philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, developed ideas quite opposed to Enlightenment philosophers who placed humanity above nature and encouraged human beings to exploit and suppress nature through knowledge, science and technology. Instead he developed an ecology in which humans are an integral part of nature.

My theory of lost humanity combines Humboldt’s holistic way of thinking with input from three other sources: Western existentialist philosophy and Eastern Buddhist philosophy, which give primacy to ‘being’ over ‘having’; then also Rosi Braidotti’s critical post-humanism, which advocates egalitarianism and the interconnectedness of all life;6 and third, I refer to Judith Butler’s phenomenological ethics, which revolves around the ideas of ‘precarious’ and ‘grievable’ life.7 What life do we consider worth preserving? Together, this leads to what can tentatively be called an ‘ethics of nurturing’.

 Using these sources, my proposal is to develop an ‘anthropology of lost humanity’, an anthropology that asks the double question: what are humans without the earth? And what meaning will the earth still have if it continues without our presence? What will we leave behind when we have actually disappeared? For well over two hundred years, humankind’s relationship with the earth as its habitat has been an abusive one. This relationship requires a profound transformation, based on the concepts of connectedness, i.e., the understanding that everything is connected to everything else through relationships of mutual influence and ripple effects. It requires an attitude of nurturing, from the understanding that all that lives are equal and vulnerable.

 I just mentioned Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science, whose title seems rather paradoxical. After all, philosophy and science often do not have a cheerful message – of course exceptions occur, like the recent and unexpected discovery of a Roman temple city near Zevenaar. As philosophy and science focus on mapping the boundaries of human knowledge and action, they must thus name impossibilities as well as possibilities. Moreover, while they apply a discourse of truth and meaning, scientists also are aware of the importance of probability and interpretation. ‘The truth’ as such is not very fixed, so we should be careful with big statements. The crises of post-truth and the Anthropocene show how important it is for the university to continue to stand up for science based on truth, soundness, and nuance. It stings our professional honor that in this post-truth era, part of the general public is abusing this caution to cast doubt on the climate crisis.

Critical analysis and interpretation are the primordial tasks of philosophers. But philosophy goes further. It also proposes solutions, as I have tried to demonstrate with my ethics of nurturing as a solution to the anthropology of lost humanity. The development of sensible policies is, after all, based on knowledge, insight, values, and beliefs. We need the law to protect us from ourselves. And we need philosophy, history, and cultural studies to develop alternative concepts, theories, ideas, visions, attitudes, and values to better understand our world and to formulate principles for good policy in politics and law.

In 2019, a few years after Homo Sapiens, Geyrhalter made another film, called Earth. I would like to conclude my contribution with the short trailer of this film.8 This film is not void of human presence, instead it shows how we, human beings, desecrate, excavate, deplete, and bend the earth to our will. The men who perform this work of, literally, ‘moving mountains’ are aware of the greatness of their work. One workman praises the ‘virginity’ of the mountain, as it has never before been touched by a human being (which touches upon another urgent problem, the fact that men are once again increasingly appropriating the right to act as judge and owner of the female body). Another workman, by contrast, acknowledges that this work creates an ecological disaster, when he laments that ‘humankind learns nothing from its history or from anything else’.

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