Toward a Post Human Metaphysic

Peter Plagge ©

Waterbury, VT

(Revised, March 2009; original versions 2002-3.
Includes suggested copy-edits by fred abraham.)



In a provocative speech, subsequently published in the New York University Law Review, Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, Jeffrey L. Amestoy asks a question the answer to which is of great interest to the courts, but which by its nature belongs in the realm of religious discourse: in a post-human world, where the chimera (an ancient signification for a frightening, incompletely understood being, here given the modern meaning of a creature consisting of human genes and animal genes) may rise to some form of power and status, what is it that courts can point to and say, “This is essentially human; this is not” when the inevitable case comes before legal judgment.[1]


In 1999, Chief Justice Amestoy asked a similar question in his landmark decision Baker vs. State of Vermont with respect to the rights of committed homosexual couples to enjoy the legal rights and privileges of married heterosexual couples.  Amestoy writes, “The past provides many instances where the law refused to see a human being when it should have.  The future may provide instances where the law will be asked to see a human when it should not.  The challenge for future generations will be to define what is most essentially human.”[2]


In this essay, I explore this question as both an ethical and a metaphysical problem. I take Friedrich Nietzsche's central, religiously antagonistic point to be germane, that essence, or being, is an empty abstraction from life and from life's joys. Religion kills life.[3] Having inherited a metaphysic of being, we are unsure of what to do with our freedom, including the freedom to create chimeras.  Augustine, set the course: because humans are being and not becoming, freedom can only mean free to do because we will what our essence was created to be in the divine blue-print.  Freedom is reserved for God alone.  To suggest otherwise is to suggest that God lacks something, because a truly free being cannot be determined and therefore has an open and unknowable future.  A theology of essence denies human freedom; therefore, the creation of destructive technologies is only putatively born of the human mind and is, in actuality, born of God.  The problem of God in a post-human world is, once again, the problem of evil.


In this essay, I want to take seriously the implications in the Hebrew when God, said, "I am," namely, that the verb haya implies more than being, but becoming.  Here God has an aspect of surpassability or of relativity.  In the United Church of Christ, of which I am a pastor, we claim to take seriously the gospel as a call to witness by creatively transforming ourselves and our society, in partnership with God, seeking peace and justice in the world. We take this biblical injunction seriously, yet, mainly lack the metaphysic for an adequate praxis.  As a result, the large and looming questions of life remain on the cusp of our activity.  We remain literally bound to the bible because our metaphysic gives us inadequate tools with which to understand the looming new tasks of living together on this fragile planet in the 21st century.


The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, stands firmly by Augustinianism and "onto-theology."  The papal encyclical, Humani Generis, denounced the theory of evolution stating humans could not be evolved from other "pre-existing and living matter.”[4] Fifty years later, Pope John Paul II backed off from a complete denunciation of evolution, but still argued for an "ontological leap," somewhere in the process in order to "ground the dignity of the person."[5] The sort of theology I would like to do, takes seriously the linear, possibly multi-linear, thinking evolutionary theory has given us and cannot claim any post facto pure ontological distinction along the lines of Humani Generis. We are becoming and evolving.  As such we have real ethical responsibilities as we evolve intellectually and therefore technologically, which we cannot evade by simply hiding our head under the sand, presuming God will take care of it in God's infinite wisdom.  I would like to engage the ancient Christian category of participation in God in order to arrive at some suggestions that may help us live in a world where chimeras and other fantastical creatures may no longer inhabit only the realm of fantasy, but the real world.


John B. Cobb, Jr. in a little book called, The Structure of Christian Existence, proposed to explore the relationship between Christianity and other religions of the world, which exploration is typically posed diametrically as "difference and fulfillment to promise, or better to worse, or of truth to error.”[6] Cobb proposed to do away with these ultimately unhelpful categories and instead study the structures of human existence, proposing that such an approach is abstract enough to allow one to discern structures of religions which one would then be able to judge as appropriate and viable for the given human community.[7] Cobb backtracks a bit from his thesis in the introduction to the 1990 edition, and although he thinks its general approach remains sound, he is concerned that a purely unambiguous view of the history of religions overshadow a more ambiguous one in which the various stages and structures he defines may be so deeply rooted and intertwined in the consciousness and even the unconsciousness of human beings as to obviate a structural approach.[8]


A universal answer to Chief Justice Amestoy's question, "our common humanity looks like this . . .," is certainly beyond my intent.  However, I propose to look, from the above outlined perspective, toward a comprehensive understanding.  This goal, based on my understanding of the difference between an idea and an actuality, should be possible in the abstract, or logically comprehensive sense. Further work would require an examination of the question from within different structures of human existence.  Clearly a Buddhist answer will be different from a Christian answer because the question goes to the heart of the question of existence, which all religions purport to answer but which answer can only be understood inasmuch as one is a practitioner of that particular religion.[9] Clearly the history of Christianity is not a straight march of progress from the less complete to the more complete, from the simple to the complex.  But just as surely, Christian theology must attempt to judge between the truth and appropriateness of its various claims in such as manner as to advance the project of "faith seeking understanding. (fides quaerens intellectum).”[10]


Given the evidence for a post-human future,[11] it is imperative for practitioners of the world religions to make attempts to advance their understanding of this basic question from within the structure of their existence.  Just as the question of abortion (also about our common humanity) is still contentious, so too will an answer to this question relative to our post-human companions be contentious.  From a practical, pastoral perspective, and thus a very local perspective, it is important that an initial foray into a potential question be well formulated and the answer be well reasoned and properly abstract.  The existential angst it induces, as is evident by Chief Justice Amestoy's speech,[12] I think, is deeper and possibly more destructive than the angst over Roe v. Wade.  If Leon Kass is correct that "human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration,”[13] then recovery room will surely be our churches, synagogues and mosques.


Because we judge a religion partly by its ability to deal practicably with the questions of or time, and if the post-humanist thinkers are correct, then Christianity cannot be supposed adequate unless it offer constructive, ethical guidelines for the use and integration of chimeras into our society.  At the outset, I take religion to mean something similar to the definition given by Clifford Geertz: "Never merely metaphysics, religion is never merely ethics either.  The source of its moral vitality is conceived to lie in the fidelity with which it expresses the fundamental nature of realilty.  The powerfully coercive 'ought' is felt to grow out of a comprehensive factual 'is' and in such a way religion grounds the most specific requirements of human action in the most general contexts of human existence."[14] Geertz's definition of religion gives full respect to the task of the pastor, who, thinking as a theologian about the "most general contexts" most be grounded in the "specific requirements of life" in a community. I propose that we must do similar work with respect to the question of biotechnology and its prospect of bringing into our midst, chimeras.


For the fully modern woman or man, God, as described by the Christian Church in the tradition of Augustine, remains a problem.  The concepts of omnipotence, infinite being, etc., soon confront the secular Christian, as deeply problematic.  Formulated as a question of God's purpose in a world of tragedy and evil, in a world where we seem to be mere "whiffs of insignificance," the problem of God in modern thought will only find answers inasmuch as these questions can be sensibly asked and answered.  Amestoy's question might be similarly formulated:  given the human intellect and curiosity, which seems to be a God given gift, why do we create implements of destruction?  Or, more pointedly, in what way do we judge the product of this human drive for exploration and creation as good, bad or indifferent? I argue that an adequate answer to the question raised by Amestoy, what does it mean to be human, given other human-like beings in our midst, is really the problem of God in a post-human world, which traditionally hinged upon a rusty metaphysic unable to distinguish properly God and world, will remain unsatisfactory and angst producing.[15]


Rudolf Butlmann, because he is convinced that the nature of religion lies also in the direction Geertz points, interprets Paul's letters to the early Christians of the Gentile world, not as a speculative system, but as one who is “dealing with God  . . . as [God] is significant for [human] responsibility and [human] salvation."  Finally unable himself to break out of the Augustinian metaphysic, and yet dissatisfied with it, Bultmann offers that Paul does not do metaphysics in this sense of trying to determine who God is in himself, but does theology through anthropology.  Paul's anthropology is, nonetheless, "qualified by the divine deed and demand and by [our] attitude toward them."[16]  Inasmuch as we fail in formulating a credible (non-contradictory, comprehensive) metaphysic we fail, in the end to understand the human, not simply as one force in the universe indistinguishable from other forms of power, but as children, supported and encouraged and received by their parent's loving care.  The source of moral vitality lies in the fidelity of human thought to the fundamental nature of reality.


Many have argued that cloning humans is "playing God," and yet we "play God" in this fashion every time we have an ultrasound to determine the viability, health needs or risks of carrying a fetus to term.  What makes a cloned human qualitatively different from an identical twin?  The early 20th century, Scottish, pastor-theologian, John Oman wrote decisively that, regarding the highest environment to which we must appeal in asking questions of highest importance, as these surely must be, "we develop from one feeling and case into an other . . . but, in the end, if there is one higher environment, there can only be one right relation to it."[17] What that right relation entails, can be determined at least in the context of the general principles in dialogue with particular context so as to move, progressively towards some answer which is both existentially honest and fitting, that is, into right relation with the comprehensive good.  To argue in a Luddite-like way about playing God is to beg the question that must really be asked: which highly evolved, highly complex activities develop the human project toward the good in the sense implied by Kant's (justifiably) famous assertion, that the only truly good thing is a good will.[18]


If there is a modern problem of God, it is because we live with several gods. On the one hand, we claim a "numinous might, before which the creature has no claims and no rights," and on the other hand, we claim "a moral order which speaks to us as children," seeking encouragement and guidance.  Oman suggests that there is one right relation to the realm of the absolute, within which Geertz's "powerfully coercive ought" is felt. "Ought we never to have the perfect love which casts out all fear? If not, how are we to condemn the terrorized piety, which cut itself with knives in delirium of surrender, and sacrificed fruit of its body for the sin of its soul? Is it not the placid mirror of holy calm, clearer perhaps after the storm, which, reflecting the heaves above, shows all the height and depth of what is greatest? This is not schematization added to the holy, but the sense of the holy itself, directed to its real values and its true environment."[19] The trick is to understand that "unless God himself embody all we value as sacred, [God] is a metaphysical hypothesis. Only when the valuation as sacred accompanies the sense of awe and reverence have we the religious holy; and only a reality having this absolute value is [God]."[20] In the matter of chimeras, it cannot be their biology (or lack thereof), which causes us to "shudder" but the possibility that these semiotic machines will feel awe.[21] Certainly a horse can feel awe.  It is doubtful that an amoeba can.  There are gradations of awe, just as their are gradations of complexity.


Is the shudder of the human before a semiotic machine who can reason and calculate the religious awe?  And correspondingly, is the awe of a chimera accompanied by the judgment of the sacred? 


      Charles Sanders Peirce, despite defending an understanding of humanity as "mere machines' had a more nuanced sense of life.  He wrote in a telling sentence in the middle of an essay on Descartes, "Let us not disbelieve in our philosophy that which we believe in our hearts."[22]  When a chimera can understand this statement, we will have reached a point in our post-human world where we have partners in our search for peace and justice.   Until then, we have computers, which may have an essence, in the sense that they exert some mental will power, but certainly no existence in the sense that they contribute to the common good.


My proposal, in brief, is that we understand semiotic machines (whether human or not) as contributing toward what God values as sacred on a continuum from zero to the greatest possible for a contingent being.  The optimization of aesthetic experience should be the aim of any life or life-form if that life-form would be of highest significance with God.  What may be judged in the end is not the empty abstractness of essence or being, but the concrete actuality, new in every instance and made continuous not by any memory bank or hard-drive, but by its contribution to God's enjoyment. Any good deed, writes Charles Hartshorne, ultimately "contributes to harmony and intensity of experience both in agent and in spectators,"[23] because moral ought arises from the reality of God, which, I propose to show, must necessarily delight in beautiful and pale at the ugly.


Theologian Phillip Clayton, suggests that most theologians perceive the question of the existence of God as the metaphysical problem in modern thought, when in fact, the real metaphysical problem, is "How is one to specify the world's difference from God?"[24]  Clayton poses this question, after considerable analysis of a perfection-based metaphysic.  Starting with Descartes, Clayton moves to show that the usual critique against Descartes' ontological argument, (who more famously, than Anselm, advanced a version of Anselm's 'proof') by Gassendi, Kant, et al., misses Descartes' fundamental concern, which is not to posit existence as a predicate of the human cogito, but to grapple with the structure of the human where a thinking being has a higher purpose. Clayton argues that Descartes' ontological arguments, which receive all of the attention, are on par with Anselm's proofs:  the philosophical musings of a deeply religious person already convinced that God exists.


Clayton opens a new metaphysical door because instead of going where western theology did after Kant's putatively devastating critique of Cartesianism, he analyzes the structure of the God presupposed by Descartes in order to provide a meditation himself "from within the infinite on the being 'in whom we live and move and have our being.' a sort of fides quaerens intellectum, rather than an onto-theology that successfully consummates the inference to God from independent human experience."[25] The perfect, therefore, as enlightened by Descartes' concept of the infinite, not as the predicate of existence in a contingent sense, but as the basis of any thinking about how humans can be and be as a children to a loving parent.  To qualify perfection in the manner Clayton thinks Descartes intends with his non-negative idea of infinity, is to imply "a scale of good . . . That goes far beyond what the [mere] predicate infinite accomplishes."[26]


The two pitfalls of theism and pantheism are avoided, and with them the major meddlesome problems of God for the modern mind.  On the one hand, we avoid the idea of God as complete independence from all and therefore lacking the capability to gather like a hen her chicks under the wing (Luke 13:34), while on the other hand, we avoid the idea of creation as indissolubly dependent on God with no real distinction possible between creator and creature.  Clayton arrives then at the third possibility—panentheism.  Panentheism describes the turn where God is “in some real aspect distinguishable from and independent of any and all relative items, and yet, taken as an actual whole, includes all relative items.”[27]


What is valuable therefore, in the sense of providing the appropriate means for the optimization of aesthetic experience, has to be related to relativity of God vis-à-vis the whole's items.  In what sense do the relative items make then for the greatest possible experience for God? The answer must be that contingent items in the world make for the greatest possible experience for God, when out of our concrete (and therefore necessarily fragmented) existence we come closest to those ideals we judge to be sacred.  "The singular connexion between sacredness and life, so that to be above life in value is the measure of sacredness, while at the same time life itself becomes sacred, is only a material form of the singular relation to our own souls which goes with every valuation as sacred."[28]  If the sum total, to speak crudely, of those elements of feeling in a sparrow which we judge to be of the highest order, do not approach that total in a sentient being, we can make the same distinction Jesus did, "If God loves these sparrows, how much more will he love you?" (Matthew 6:26). Inter alia, chimeras and humans.


As Clayton observes, the relation between the perfect being and the less perfect only characterizes perfect-being theology—else we end up in the muddle of monism.  To suggest otherwise, no matter what the post-human world looks like, is to retreat from enjoyment into something like competition and fear.  Many philosophers, find Peirce's notion of  "mere machines" frightening, and they should when his comments are taken out of the context of his panpsychicalism.  But they should also serve to encourage us in this task of adding to the enjoyment of God and each other.  As one philosopher of biotechnology put is, we can advance by either treating people like "mere machines" or "we can look forward to one day treating conscious computers like people."[29]  As I have tried to point out, mere consciousness is not enough.  If Deacon had argued, that one day we must treat conscientious computers like people, I would have to agree, inasmuch as conscientiousness is the practicing of the vary demands a truly adequate metaphysic implies.


[1] Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Uncommon Humanity: Reflections on Judging in a Post-Human Era. New York University Law Review, Vol 78(5), 1581-1595.

[2] Baker, 744, A.2d at 889.

[3] Cf., The Birth of Tragedy at the end of sectin III where Nietzsche has laid out his intention for the essay. He has connected, in his scheme, Christian ethics with absolute ethics (morality).  He concludes, “As for morality . . . could it be anything but a will to deny life, a secret instinct of destruction, a principle of calumny, a reductive agent – the beginning of the end?” Nietzsche, F. (1956). The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. F. Golffing, p. 11.  New York: Doubleday. [N.B., section numbers vary in other translations.]

[4] Pope Pius XII, (1950, August 12). Encyclical Humani Generis, Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundation of Catholic Doctrine ¶ 35. Vatican City.

[5] Pope John Paul II, (1996, October 22). Truth Cannot Contradict Truth. Address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.  “Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person. With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. (¶ 5.)

“With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say.” (¶ 6.)

[6] Cobb, J.B.., Jr., (1990). The Structures of Christian Existence, p. 13. Lanham: University Press of America (Rowman & Littlefield). The original edition was published in 1967 by Westminster Press.

[7] Ibid, p. 19.

[8] Ibid., pp. 4-5.

[9] Cf., Ogden, S.M. (1992). Is There Only One True Religion, Or Are There Many? Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press. From a Christian perspective, Ogden proposes that the typical answers to this question are three: exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist.  The exclusivist position, argues simply that there is no salvation outside the church.  Inclusivists, like Karl Rahner, for example, pose that all other religions are included in the category of something like Rahners' anonymous Christian.  Pluralists argue that we are all just climbing the same mountain, but using different paths. Ogden offers that the nature of commitment to God, proscribes the possibility of the claims of the other three options.

[10] Anselm .  (1077-78). The phrase was his original title to his second version of the ontological argument, now called, Proslogium or Discourse on the Existence of God. This argument has been roundly criticised, but widely misunderstood, to the extent that the criticisms have not take seriously Anselm's starting point.  In some sense, then, the argument could never prove decisive for an atheist, on the look out for self-fulfilling premises.  Anselm, as is clear from the old title, never intended to depart from any point other than faith.

[11] My purpose in this brief essay is not to provide that evidence or to examine the science, or sociological outcomes of our technical and scientific advances.  Refer to Fukuyama, F. (2002). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution,. New York: Picador Gregory Stock, G. (2002). Our Inevitable Genetic Future. New York: Houghton Mifflin

[12] In attempting to frame the post-human case, Amestoy offers some interesting examples of legal conundrums.  After describing one particular lawsuit in which a the plaintiff sued for damages when a technician accidently flushed his eyeball down the drain during surgery, Amestoy notes, "it is unlikely the plaintiff's reaction was, 'Hey, watch it, that eyeball was worth $400.' The claim was for mental anguish, because human beings have not lost their capacity to shudder. Yet." Ibid,  p. 1591.

[13] Kass, L.R., (2002). Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. San Francisco: Encounter. As quoted in Amestoy, ibid, p. 1585.

[14] Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 12. New York: Basic Books.

[15] Amestoy writes, "I do not intend to suggest that a state appellate court confronted with a case implicating post-human issues should use an opinion for a metaphysical discourse on personhood.  Speaking for myself, my response to the writing of, say Kant, is captured in Huck Finn's reaction to Pilgrim's Progress: 'The statements was interesting, but tough,'."  Ibid, pp. 1590-1.

[16] Butlmann, R. (1951). Theology and the New Testament, K. Grobel (trans.) (pp. 190f). New York: Scribner’s Sons.

[17] Oman, J. (1931). The Natural and The Supernatural (p. 64). New York: MacMillan.

[18] Kant, I. (1981). The Metaphysic of Morals (p. 7). Indianapolis: Hackett. (Original, 1797).

[19] Oman, J., loc. cit.

[20] Oman, J., ibid, p. 69.

[21] Charles Sanders Peirce outlined the idea of logical machines in the early 19th century before the advent of computers.  Peirce, in his own philosophy, did not succumb to the materialistic or atomistic view of the world prevalent in philosophies to this day, but devised his own panpsychicalist perspective which had much in common with Whitehead's philosophy. Regarding the relationship of humans to logical machines he wrote,  "All that I insist upon is, that, in like manner, a man may be regarded as a machine which turns out, let us say, a written sentence expressing a conclusion, the man-machine having been fed with a written statement of fact, as premise. Since this performance is no more than a machine might go through, it has no essential relation to the circumstance that the machine happens to work by geared wheels, while a man happens to work by an ill-understood arrangement of brain-cells.” (CP 2.59) Peirce, is not here advocating that the possession logic is the extent of person hood. In fact, quite the contrary, as machines qualify, but to suggest that there are more profound relations between "the colloid and the crystal" than Joseph Wood Krutch allows. CP: Peirce, C.S.(1931-35, 1958). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 1-6, C. Hartshorne & P. Weiss (eds.); 7-8, A.W. Burks (ed.). Cambridge: Harvard. ‘Panpsychism’, term meaning soul is in everything, introduced by Hartshorne, C. (1934). The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation (p. 442). Chicago: Chicago.

[22] Peirce, C.S. (1868). Some Consquences of Four Incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2, 140-157. Reprinted in P.P. Wiener (ed.), Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings (p. 40). New York: Dover.

[23] Hartshorne, C. (1997).  The Zero Fallacy (p. 199). LaSalle: Open Court.

[24] Clayton, P. (2000). The Problem of God in Modern Thought. Grand Rapids: Eardmans publishing.

[25] Ibid, p. 114.

[26] Ibid, p. 160.

[27] Hartshorne, C. (1948). The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God, (p. 89). New Haven:Yale.

[28] Oman, J., ibid, p. 68.

[29] Deacon, T.W. (1998). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (p. 464). New York: Norton. “Our cherished belief in the specialness of human consciousness has not prevented us from thoughtlessly treating people as throw-away tools. On the other hand, how much less thought will we give to the mistreatment of conscious devices, mass produced in factories? The question before us is whether we will begin to treat people like unconscious computers, or some to treat conscious computers like people.”