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Humans are the only beings who can take responsibility for the world, there are no others: Thomas Fuchs

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

Thomas Fuchs is a psychiatrist and philosopher who lives and practises in Heidelberg, Germany. He holds the prestigious Karl Jaspers Chair for philosophical foundations of psychiatry and psychotherapy at Heidelberg University, where he is a senior physician in the psychiatric unit and heads the department of Phenomenological Psychopathology. In this exclusive interview, he talks about AI, data-driven societies, and contests the transhumanist notion that human beings are fundamentally imperfect and need to be reshaped and enhanced.

  • M.D. in history of medicine, Ph.D. in philosophy, and habilitations in psychiatry and philosophy at Heidelberg University
  • Research lies at the intersection of phenomenology, psychopathology and cognitive neuroscience
  • Editor-in-Chief of the journal Psychopathology and president of the German Society for Phenomenological Research
  • Author of several books, including, Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Your book, published this month in English, is called In Defense of the Human Being. Is there a compelling need to defend the human being?

What I think needs a defence today is the humanistic image of man. At the centre of this image is the human person as a physical or embodied being, as a free, self-determining being, and ultimately as an essentially social being connected with others. The definitions that constitute a humanistic, personal image of humanity culminate in the concept of human dignity, understood as the claim to recognition that human beings raise through their bodily existence and co-existence. To what extent is this self-image of man currently under challenge?

In his book Homo Deus (2017), historian Yuval Noah Harari has sketched out a gloomy scenario for the future, according to which scientific and technological progress will gradually render the liberal and humanistic view of humanity obsolete. According to Harari, we will increasingly surrender to the algorithms, data analyses, and forecasts of artificial intelligence, as they can already provide better information about the future than our limited human intelligence: “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm,” he says.

More generally, with the progress of artificial intelligence, digitalisation of the life world, and the reduction of the mind to neuronal processes, the human being appears more and more a product of data and algorithms. Thus, we conceive ourselves “in the image of our machines,” and conversely, we elevate our machines and brains to new subjects. At the same time, demands for an enhancement of human nature culminate in transhumanist visions of taking human evolution to a new stage. Against this self-reification of the human being, my book defends a humanism of embodiment: our corporeality, aliveness, and embodied freedom are the foundations of a self-determined existence, which uses new technologies only as a means instead of submitting to them.

What about nature? Is the defence of the human being also a defence of anthropocentrism? How would you respond to eco-centric/ ecofeminist critiques of a “total” anthropocentrism?

This is not an easy question to answer. Classical humanism is undoubtedly anthropocentric to a high degree, and this can no longer be sustained today. Its lack of consideration of our embeddedness in the earthly environment is all too palpable today in the ecological crisis. The post-humanist criticism of anthropocentrism, however, overshoots the mark. To radically question or even want to overcome man because of his misconduct towards nature is absurd — humans are the only beings who can take responsibility for the world, there are no others. As I write in my introduction: Even an ecological redefinition of our relationship with the earthly environment will succeed only if our own embodiment and aliveness — as connectedness or conviviality with our natural environment — is at its centre. The “death of the subject” much invoked by postmodernism would also be the end of the collective effort to save the earth — algorithms, cyborgs, or post-human beings will not do this in our place.

What are the political and cultural ramifications of putting the world in a data-driven mode?

Apart from the many positive possibilities of digital technologies, one of their main dangers is that they provide forms of technocratic regulation and manipulation of society that push freedom further and further back. We will be increasingly willing to get rid of the burden of our own responsibility and hand it over to machines and their algorithms. In this way, international IT companies on the one hand, and authoritarian regimes and state apparatuses on the other, are increasingly taking control of our lives.

The more the idea of AI as a supposedly superior form of analysis, prediction, and evaluation becomes established, the more likely it will be forgotten that decisions, with all their imponderables, can ultimately only be made by humans. Responsibility is no technical category; it cannot be passed on to artificial systems. But if we conceive of ourselves as objects, be it as algorithms or as neuronally determined apparatuses, then we forget our fundamental capacity of freedom and responsibility, and we surrender ourselves to the rule of those who seek to manipulate such apparatuses and to control them socio-technologically.

You argue that terms like ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘smartphone’ are misnomers. Could you elaborate?

The term intelligence is derived from the Latin intelligere — ‘to see, understand, comprehend’. It, therefore, presupposes subjectivity, namely someone who sees or understands something; above all, someone able to see himself and his situation from a higher perspective, so that he can find creative solutions to problems based on an overview. For example, he who leaves signs on his way through a forest to find his way back later, acts intelligently.

So, if we use the term “intelligence” to describe the ability to grasp oneself or a situation from a superordinate perspective in order to solve problems, then we certainly cannot attribute such abilities to any apparatus that lacks consciousness. The term “intelligent” is used here only improperly, just as one does not assume that a “smartphone” is really “smart” — it only blindly executes programs that can be described as “cleverly developed”. The supposed intelligence of AI is, therefore, only borrowed: each of these programs is only as “smart” or sophisticated as the programmer who designed it.

Humans are the only beings who can take responsibility for the world, there are no others: Thomas Fuchs

How critical is ‘presence’ or embodiment to education? What is gained or lost when the “classroom” moves online?

The transformation of our social interactions into a semi-virtual screen experience is a mass experiment and we do not yet know how it will affect our psyche and social life; nor do we know what the consequences of social isolation and gradual de-realisation will be. In any case, being bodily together in a real space is still the most effective form of presence. And touch and resistance are the primary test of reality. The increasing transformation of our relations with the world into images and virtual spaces is already undermining our shared reality. Research has shown that conspiracy theories (e.g. Trump’s “stolen election” or COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs) are mostly spread among people with reduced or missing social contacts, who compensate their loneliness by means of Internet echo chambers. We should keep this in mind when singing the praises of digitalisation. Humans are social beings in need of bodily resonance and contact; they need the physical presence of other people, otherwise they will dry out like plants in the sand.

Race, gender, caste are forms of discrimination based on “embodied” attributes. Will they vanish with the “disembodiment” of human consciousness? Will a digitised world bring about more equal, just and open societies?

It is true that increasing digitisation is resulting in a “disembodiment” of social relationships, which is making some of the differences tied to the body, its appearance, its gender, etc. less meaningful or even eliminating them. Whether this will contribute to higher justice and equality of individuals, however, can be doubted. Because the lived body is ultimately also our principium individuationis — if it is replaced by a digital pattern or cluster of information received through social media, we will be formally “more equal,” but at the cost of losing our bodily presence, our appearance, our charisma. That seems like a bad deal to me.

In your lectures you talk about ‘con-spatiality’ and ‘con-temporality’. Could you elaborate?

I think that it is only through intersubjectivity that we attain reality in a genuine sense: the experience of that which exists independently of our subjective, momentary perception. This experience requires transcending our subjective, egocentric relationship to the environment, which only becomes possible through the experience of an alien subjectivity. Only the other, and especially his gaze, breaks through my subjective horizon and forms a reality beyond my own. This also fundamentally changes space — it is no longer just surrounding space or environment, but an intersubjective space.

As I like to say: Even Robinson Crusoe saw his island for 10 years through the eyes of others — it belonged to a common world, although nobody else saw it. Only in dreams do we dive into a purely egocentric world, where everything refers only to ourselves.

Giorgio Agamben criticised the state of exception induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you view it, particularly since it impinges directly upon corporeality?

I don’t know Agamben’s critique in detail. I have only read that he doubted at the beginning whether the pandemic was not just an invention, which was, of course, nonsense. That the state of emergency must always remain a temporary state in need of clear justification is, however, essential for a democracy — on this, we probably agree.

Seralathan teaches German at Goethe Institut Chennai and Milind teaches German language and literature at IIT-Madras.

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