‘Persons are living beings, not programs’
Fuchs’ phenomenological theory of embodied anthropology
Thomas Fuchs is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. He chairs the research section « Phenomenological Psychopathology and Psychotherapy » at the Psychiatric University Hospital Heidelberg.
His latest book, In Defense of the Human Being, meticulously demonstrates how corporeality, vitality, and embodied freedom are intertwined and defeat any attempt to reify human beings, either through identifying them with machines or through digitalizing their existence thanks to algorithms and the digitalization of the lifeworld.
Indeed, the book argues that the standard humanistic paradigm displayed by Western societies, especially since the Renaissance, is superseded by a technological and transhumanist view that aims to develop an even more predictable and controllable version of the human being. Fuchs explains: “It is not my concern to defend humanity against an accusation but against a questioning. Because today, in question is what one could call—with unavoidable imprecision—the humanistic image of man. At the center 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.”
Challenging and questioning our image of humanity entails another questioning that targets the philosophical and anthropological validity of our moral and ethical claims (dignity, personhood, responsibility, etc.). In other words, defending humanity responds to the urgent need for grounding our anthropological image of the human being based on the findings of contemporary science. Far from debunking the humanistic paradigm, Fuchs argues that recent findings concerning embodied freedom, relationality, the plasticity of the brain, etc., prove authentic our relational and embodied experience as human beings, and defeat the mechanical view of the body as well as the chimera of artificial intelligence and other transhumanist projects. In so doing, Fuchs admirably shows that endorsing the latter will alienate rather than emancipate human beings and may lead to new psychological conditions if technology is not used appropriately. As such, Fuchs’s book deserves to be known and read as it successfully defeats the diagnosis and predictions of Yuval Noah Harari’s book: Homo Deus (2017), according to which « Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm » (Harari, 2017, p. 381; Fuchs 2021: 3). To do so, Fuchs deconstructs three assumptions that lie behind this « scientistic view of humans »: reductionist naturalism, the elimination of the living, and functionalism according to which « phenomena of consciousness are attributed to processes of neuronal information processing. « The author puts forward a philosophical anthropology that insists on “embodiment and aliveness” to characterize the person:
“No abstract inwardness, disembodied consciousness or pure spirit are the guiding ideas of a humanistic view of the person, but the person’s concrete physical existence. Only when it can be shown that the person is present in her body itself, that the person feels, perceives, expresses, and acts with her whole body, do we escape confinement in a hidden inner space of consciousness, an inaccessible citadel from which only signals penetrate to the outside world, signals which can no longer be distinguished from the those of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, only when persons have an embodied freedom, i.e., determine themselves as organisms in decisions and actions, does subjectivity become more than an epiphenomenon, i.e., really effective in the world”.
The book is divided into three parts: 1/ Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, and Virtuality; 2/Brain, Person, and Reality; 3/Psychiatry and Society. The first two parts delve into the anthropological and existential implications of the brain paradigm already explored in the Ecology of the Brain (2017) to show their impact on the way individuals relate to themselves and each other. Fuchs demonstrates the philosophical inconsistencies of the assimilation of the brain to machines and algorithms, the self-reification at stake, and its psychological consequences for the subject. Part three illustrates the necessity to provide society with an adequate anthropological foundation to address pressing issues such as aging, dementia, or psychological conditions.
The first chapter clarifies the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. Debunking the dream of replacing humans with robots thanks to algorithms, Fuchs explains the epistemological and ethical implications of dematerialization and the disincarnating process at stake. His critical analysis of « information » plays a key role as Fuchs rightly explains that “information only exists where someone understands something—that is, news as news signs as signs. Information exists only for conscious living beings or for persons. » In other words, a computer does not « understand » messages; it « computes » them. This clarification brings to light how human beings project their abilities, states of mind, and emotions into machines. In other words, we should be aware that “we are only dealing here with metaphors.” Subsequently, this chapter retraces the history of the digital revolution to underline the categorical differences between human intelligence and AI. Fuchs claims that « there can be no real intelligence without life and consciousness » and that, therefore, the idea of « artificial intelligence » or « artificial life » is self-contradictory. Opposing Harari’s claim that « organisms are algorithms, » Fuchs claims that « programs » are not persons and persons are not programs. Technological artifacts rely on simulation, yet they lack qualitative and differentiated experience. It also applies to the brain’s functioning: “The brain is not a control center, but an organ of resonance and relations (Fuchs, 2018). Only living beings are conscious, feel, sense, or think—not brains and not computers. Persons are living beings, not programs. » Consequently, this chapter appraises the challenge addressed to medicine and scientific research by artificial intelligence as it unconsciously challenges the image we have of human beings, their finitude, and their capabilities. Ultimately, artificial intelligence addresses not only epistemological and ontological questions but ethical dilemmas as it pretends to become a new compass to consider our existence against its performance.
Chapter two expands on this idea by assessing the worldview and ideology developed by transhumanism. Transhumanism seems to do away with what is the most salient feature of humanity: namely, embodiment. Indeed, by considering human beings either as purely “biological machines” or “pure minds” to be programmed, transhumanism denies the very “foundation of our existence” and the irremissible power of “cultural shaping” in the way we conceive of our physical nature. In other words, instead of fully acknowledging life’s dynamism and the realization of freedom through the « embodied enactment of life, » transhumanism reveals a process of self-reification that relies on a « false concept of consciousness. » Moreover, the utopia of the « new man » liberated from finitude and mortality eradicates the very idea of freedom and accomplishment, as limitations and resistance precisely confer its value to any endeavors: “transhumanist utopias thus counteract the very efforts that have so far supported the idea of improving the human world – the efforts to achieve social, cultural, and moral progress based on individual and collective efforts, progress that cannot be achieved by technical reconstruction of the human being but only by self-education, self-development, and the common shaping of the lifeworld.” The chapter ends with a consistent criticism of neuro-reductionism and the fantasy of “mind uploading” that relies on an epistemological and philosophical fallacy. The epistemological mistake consists in identifying the brain and the person; the philosophical dead-end annihilates freedom at the very moment it seeks to expand it: indeed, contrary to what transhumanism argues, « this embodied and thus, of course, mortal individuation is the price we have to pay in order to experience the freedom and wonder of earthly existence. » Transhumanism is ultimately a form of neo-Gnosticism that carries significant ethical consequences.
Chapter three focuses on the impact of neuro-constructivist paradigms on our intersubjective relations through the example of virtuality. Does the virtual world help us develop and improve empathy, or does it compromise its flourishing? “What consequences may ensue for intersubjectivity and relationships in our society because of increasing virtualization of perception and communication? How is empathy transformed when it is increasingly directed to a virtual other?” According to Fuchs, empathy relies first and foremost on our corporeality and the embodied dynamics of inter-affectivity. Recalling Scheler’s conception of empathy, Fuchs explains that “we experience the other person primarily as a psycho-physical unity of expression.” What we generally understand as perspective-taking or imaginative transposition (putting oneself in the other’s shoes) reflected a different level of empathy that the author describes as “explicit empathy »: “it seems necessary to differentiate between a primary, implicit, or bodily empathy and an expanded, explicit, or imaginative empathy. The latter already involves an element of “as-if” and thus of virtuality.” The question thus arises whether we could disconnect primary bodily empathy and imaginative empathy, as it happens in “virtual empathy.” According to Fuchs, “the culture of growing virtuality and simulation is connected with disembodiment, a retreat from bodily and intercorporeal experience. Simultaneously, empathy tends to separate itself from these experiences and to shift into virtuality – into a space where we are confronted by hybrid forms of the other as a mixture of appearance, simulation, and illusion, and where the medium and the mediated reality intercorporeal pole toward the virtual and projective pole of the spectrum.” Consequently, the “media-based idealism” that inspires our digital age may well give us the impression that we are all easily interconnected, yet it considerably undermines the reality of the qualitative experience we undergo while facing – for real – the presence of the other. Indeed, virtual communication lacks non-verbal synaesthetic interaction. It modifies and structure our attention and often reinforces individual projections and ego-centeredness rather than achieving genuine empathy. Fuchs then concludes with an epistemological and ethical claim: « only when others become real for us in this manner can we become real for ourselves. Today, our relationships come increasingly to be mediated, even produced, by images. But no one encounters us through a smartphone. The virtual presence of the other cannot replace inter-corporeality. “
The second part of the volume provides a critique of cerebrocentrism and the way the brain paradigm shapes our conception of reality and self-identity.
Chapter four analyzes the abusive identification between person and brain and the way such an approach to personal identity lays further the ground for a simplistic approach of reality and subjectivity: “for neurobiology, the brain becomes the new subject, the thinker of our thoughts and doer of our actions; subjectivity itself is only a useful illusion.” This neurobiological conception disqualifies our ordinary conception of freedom and decision-making. It entails a deterministic conception of the human world as if thoughts and actions were governed by predictable movements and neuronal connections. According to this worldview: “persons are cerebral subjects, and images of the brain are the modern icons of the person.” On the contrary, Fuchs aims to show that “the brain is only an organ of the person, not the seat of the person. In other words: personhood means embodied subjectivity.” This chapter thus reinvests the previous critique of neuro-constructivism to show that the latter reinforces the Cartesian paradigm of exteriority that does not match the reality of our embodied interactions with ourselves and the world. Drawing on the analysis developed in The Ecology of the Brain, Fuchs shows that the person is not reducible to her brain, even if this organ – as a mediating organ – is key to her understanding of the world. Persons are “embodied subjects” and “living beings.” Neurosciences are thus wrong to undermine the role played by the body – as a lived body – in our understanding of the world as the brain cannot be dissociated from the living organism it draws upon: “this ‘cerebrocentrism’ neglects the interrelationships and circuits in which the brain is situated – as if one were to examine the heart without the circulation or examine the lungs without the respiratory cycle. The reason for this is that the neurosciences have no concept of a living organism. They are still trapped in the computer metaphor of the mind.” To Fuchs instead: “Conscious experience therefore only arises in the overarching system of organism and environment, through the interplay of many components to which the brain and the entire body with its organs, senses, and limbs belong, just as much as the appropriate objects of the environment. The brain is the organ that mediates these interactions; in short: an organ of mediation and relation. But, in the brain itself there is no experiencing, no consciousness, no thoughts. (…) the brain is therefore a crucial condition of the possibility of personal existence in the world. However, the person is not a part of the body, but the body-mind unity, the living human being. Persons have brains, they are not their brains.”
Chapter 5 concludes this critique of cerebrocentrism and argues for a libertarian conception of embodied freedom. Even if freedom may be philosophically challenged by determinism, we all have decisions to make in the experience of our day-to-day lives. Thus, our lived experience of freedom is irreducible and must be accounted for. Consequently, Fuchs develops a concept of embodied freedom that reflects the person’s life and does not limit its course to unfolding brain activities or the weight of individual determinations and constraints. According to the author: “If one wants to find the cause of a person’s actions, one must not look for them in an « I » or in the brain but only in the person with all their mental and physical states, or in other words, in the person as an embodied subjectivity.” The person as an embodied subjectivity is thus the source of all decisions. This conception defeats linear causality and psycho-physical determinism to claim back our human sense of responsibility and freedom. To Fuchs, the critical element lies in the person’s self-relation. Drawing on the notion of « circular causality » analyzed in depth in his previous book, The Ecology of the Brain, the author does not oppose the mind and the organism but instead merges the two poles into an « overarching structure » that interrelates the level of life and the level of existence. This view is not only philosophical. Fuchs demonstrates that it corresponds to a true scientific conception of the human being as a person that is more realistic than the scientist accounts based on cerebrocentrism. He further argues that “we do not find any empirical findings in the scientific world that are insurmountably opposed to our experience of freedom of choice” and that it is the human being’s responsibility not to get trapped in a worldview that might lock herself « in the cage of determinism. »
Chapter 6 questions the worldview elaborated by neuro-constructivism and how it has disrupted our sense of the lifeworld to replace it with the « brain world. » According to this worldview, reality is a construction and simulation of the brain, and our world of senses is “a world of illusion.” Fuchs shows that such a conception is not new and relies on a hidden Cartesian dualism that divides the world into artificial “inner” and “outer” dimensions. « Representationalism » objectifies human reality and amounts to a process of « de-anthropomorphizing » that divests the human being from its same characteristics as an embodied living being. Contrary to this perspective, Fuchs recalls his account of perception based on sensorimotor interaction. According to the enactive conception, « embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other. » Mutual perception and recognition frame our perception of reality and prevent us from reducing our first-personal lived experience to brain mechanisms.
Chapter 7, titled “Perception and Reality: Sketch of an interactive realism,” goes a step further by elaborating on the enactive approach to perception and embodiment to promote a « lifeworld realism. » It argues that “the fundamental reality is not the world of measurable quantities and particles abstracted by the special sciences, in particular physics, but the common reality of the lifeworld constituted by implicit intersubjectivity. » In other words, the brain should be conceived as a « mediating or relational organ, not as an internal producer of perception. » Neuroconstructivist approaches seem to reproduce the type of disconnected sense of reality one founds in schizophrenia. According to Fuchs, “The “ego tunnel” in which one lives according to the neuroconstructivist conception, the movie-in-the-head that is supposedly presented to us by our brain, is only a pathological state that patients experience in psychosis (Fuchs, 2020). In everyday experience, on the other hand, we find ourselves in the shared world, constituted by the implicit intersubjectivity of perception ».
The third and last part of the book focuses more directly on the role and status of psychiatry in contemporary society and the scientific landscape.
Chapter 8, « Psychiatry: between psyche and the brain, » investigates psychiatry’s relation to the spirit and analyzes its various discourses’ epistemological and historical roots. Fuchs recalls the specific status of psychiatry and its historical relation to natural and human sciences. Contemporary reductionism makes psychiatry contingent upon a kind of neurobiological monism: « Mental disorders are brain disorders » is the guiding principle of biological psychiatry today,” Fuchs explains. Following his previous critique of neuro-constructivism, the author offers an alternative account of psychiatry as “a comprehensive relational medicine” – a practice that reconnects with the interpersonal aspect of reality’s experience. According to this view, the impact of environmental and social factors on the individual is as much significant as the genetic and biological factors involved in mental illnesses. Following the tradition of phenomenological psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus), Fuchs defends a global approach of the person in this chapter. Indeed, psychiatry’s « primary object is not the brain, but the person living in relationships. »
Chapter 9 explores the relationship between embodiment and personal identity and how it may be disrupted in dementia. Personal identity is a « basal self-experience » coextensive to embodied experience. It refers to a non-predicative sense of self that yet unifies our stream of consciousness. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s description in The Phenomenology of Perception, this phenomenological account of personal identity does not require narrative skills or reflective processes to characterize one’s sense of self. Instead, it argues that the ecological and enactive approach of the subject includes the constitution of personal history at the level of the habitual body.
From this perspective, Fuchs analyzes contemporary approaches to dementia, primarily based on externalist or discursive accounts that miss the crucial role of embodiment in preserving the subject’s first-person perspective. According to Fuchs: “the concept of embodied personhood and history is able to change our image of dementia. In place of a brain and cognition-centered perspective, we may adopt the view of the patients in their own individual embodiment, which, for its part, is embedded in social and environmental contexts. (…) A concept of person grounded solely in rationality and reflection inevitably stigmatizes people with severe cognitive deficits. By contrast, bringing in a concept of person orientated towards embodiment and inter-corporeality, the response and relational capabilities of patients become a significant foundation of their personhood—such as the ability to give expression to joy, gratefulness, sorrow, or fear that is still preserved”.
Finally, the last chapter – chapter 10 – compares and contrasts the cyclical time of the body with the linear time of modernity. Expanding on the concept of physical memory, Fuchs analyzes the alterations of the experience of time in various mental illnesses and how they conflict with the demands of modernity. Modernity and, in particular, Western economies rely on a linear time that is always prone to be accelerated. The cyclical time of the organic body also matches the cyclical time of the unconscious brought to light by Freud in « repetition compulsion » – a sense of time that is also profoundly disrupted in other mental illnesses. Fuchs gives the example of the manic patient and the one suffering from depression. Both conditions reveal a specific way to relate to the modern lifeworld or to be cut off from it. As the author explains: « precisely as a fundamental disorder of temporality, depression, like no other mental illness, reflects the conflict between the primary, cyclical structure of life processes and the rule of linear time, which has been established in Western culture since modern times. Desynchronization, falling out of linear world time, becomes a latent threat in our competitive and accelerated society, which has to be fought against continuously. In depression, these efforts fail, the individual lags hopelessly behind, and decoupling from the common time becomes a reality. » Implementing back a rhythmization of one’s life, based on the cyclical time of the body, could help restore a connection to oneself and others.
In line with his previous book (The Ecology of the Brain), Thomas Fuchs continues his critical, epistemological and phenomenological work by offering us a book resolutely turned towards pressing contemporary issues: the virtual world, aging, the status of care for the most vulnerable in our Western societies. Far from the gnostic fantasies of transhumanism, Fuchs offers us a phenomenology of the life of the mind that is both resolutely human and existentially fruitful.
The legacy of Jaspers and existential psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus, Minkowski) is evident here. Any scientific project is the consequence of a specific anthropological vision of the human being. What we could call the de-anthropologization of the world in favor of a technocentric approach must also be considered a contemporary worldview. We are then facing the following alternative as a limit situation: either the headlong rush into the ideological consolidation of this worldview and the deadly reification of the human and the living as a whole or an existential leap that allows us to reconcile a scientific approach to the world and a critical phenomenology of our relationship to it. By offering us a salutary deconstruction of contemporary scientism, which claims to master and go beyond the limits of the body and consciousness through technology, Fuchs offers an approach as accurate as adjusted to science, denouncing the myths of its metaphors (information, dematerialization, etc.). The author admirably demonstrates that this worldview is based on a normative conception of normality and dictated by a representation of the human being designed to match our contemporary pleonexia.
The book is vibrant, and we would like to highlight three aspects of it: 1/ the phenomenological deconstruction of contemporary psychiatry and the highlighting of an expanded concept of consciousness that reintegrates its ethical dimension and its embodied anchorage; 2/ the defense of a humanism that is less the classical humanism of the spirit than a humanism of the living, embodied spirit. In other words, the philosophical critique of Cartesian ontology calls for its overcoming in a renewed humanism anchored in phenomenological realism. 3/ The crucial role of the concept of the lifeworld and the relational and interpersonal dimension of any properly human existence.
Fuchs would undoubtedly acknowledge the words of Erwin Straus, who already stated in his writings that: « The object of psychiatric action is not primarily the brain, the body, or the organism; it should be the integral man in the uniqueness of his individual existence as this discloses itself – independently of the distinction between healthy and sick – in existential communication » (Philosophy and Psychiatry); or the words of Binswanger for whom psychiatry is a « science of man, of human existence. » It is not a question of denying some illnesses’ biological and organic dimensions. Instead, it is necessary to articulate this level of analysis and understanding with the existential and relational possibilities that give it meaning and inscribe the latter in the biography of a person. The richness of Fuchs’ analysis shows that this is not a theoretical bias. Recent scientific findings make the phenomenology of embodied cognition and enaction more credible and inescapable. In other words, contrary to the contemporary ideology developed by novelists like Harari, freedom is not the founding myth of our humanity but its real and embodied fulfillment. Fuchs insists on this crucial point: « Humanism in the ethical sense, therefore, means resistance to the rule and constraints of technocratic systems as well as to the self-reification and mechanization of humans » « The defense of man is, in this respect, not only a theoretical task but also an ethical duty. » (Fuchs).
The high prevalence of mental illnesses in our contemporary times is explicitly correlated with a weakening of the social bond and atomization of the existence of individuals that can only increase in the schizoid world of the “technological mind.” Conversely, the examples of care, and in particular the care of older people with dementia, show the importance of interpersonal relationships and real socialization to guarantee the well-being and dignity, and self-esteem of one’s person. The ecology of the embodied self, therefore, requires us to question our modern systems based on the performance of individuals and self-sufficiency in order to consider the resources of our vulnerability and finitude, especially at the ethical and relational levels: » As the other becomes real for us in his body, we also become real for ourselves, as bodily beings appearing in their bodies. Embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other” (Fuchs, 155). Isolating someone is undoubtedly the best attempt to destroy her humanity. The valorization of the disembodied spirit in our contemporary societies through digitalization – an ideological perversion of Cartesian ontology – alienates us at the very moment it thinks it can liberate us.
Fuchs’ phenomenological realism insists on embodied cognition and its constitution in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt). It is constitutive of our free relationship with others and the world in that our choices and environments determine each other. Interactive realism goes beyond materialist monism and Cartesian dualism in favor of a relational ontology whose primary constituent is interdependency: « Because perception, according to my first thesis, is neither an activity of the brain nor a process in an inner mental world, but rather an active engagement of living beings with their environment, or in short: perception means sensorimotor interaction. (Fuchs, 158).
The aesthesiological and cosmological dimension of perception promoted by interactive realism allows us to overcome the explanatory gap. Indeed, « only humans can grasp objects and situations as such, i.e., independently of a purely subjective perspective » (Ibid.) From this perception arises a form of responsibility towards other human and non-human forms of life. In other words, any epistemological perspective on the human being also implies an ethical perspective on freedom, truth, and reality. Such a perspective opens new philosophical ways to existential psychiatry, in the tradition of Straus, as we have said, but also of Minkowski.
We can only rejoice at this demonstration which brilliantly defeats the worldview of neuro-constructivism and the fallacy of the technological mind who pretends “to encounter us through a smartphone.” Fuchs’ book keeps all its promises and offers an essential analysis that holds the human being and the world together. This phenomenological approach departs us from the paradigm of power and mastery that foments some posthuman conceptions in favor of a paradigm that resynchronizes life and embodiment to make us responsible for our ways of being and living together within the common world, here and now. As such, by defending the human being, Fuchs defends all forms of life against the reductionisms or relativisms alienating them.