Patricia J. Williams, University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, Northeastern University

ASU event to address human dignity and technoscience

Intersecting crises — the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice and environmental catastrophes — have destabilized daily life and public institutions, rendering perennial questions about progress increasingly urgent. And yet, rethinking progress is not simply a question of what should be done through scientific or technological know-how; it is also a question of what it means to be human.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict will host a free public event that will examine how ideas of progress and the accelerating applications of science and technology to ever more spheres of life are giving shape to — and working to reshape — what it means to be human. The event, “Remaking the Human: Technoscience, Dignity and the Meaning of Progress,” will be held online at 3 p.m. MST Oct. 27. The event will be livestreamed via ASU LiveYouTube Live and Zoom webinar.

The panel features leading scholars from the fields of law, neuroscience and anthropology, including: 

  • Patricia Williams, University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities and director of law, technology and ethics initiatives at Northeastern University, interrogates notions of the human underlying the concept of precedence in contract law and prediction in algorithms.
  • Anya Bernstein, professor of anthropology at Harvard University and award-winning documentarian, investigates technoscientific efforts seeking to achieve human immortality as well as human-nature and human-animal efforts driving transnational initiatives to resurrect extinct ecosystems. 
  • Antonio Damasio, University Professor, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, professor of psychology, professor of philosophy and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, examines the making of the mind and the self through anatomical studies of neural systems that underlie memory, language and consciousness. 

The event is organized by the project “Beyond Secularization: A New Approach to Religion, Science and Technology in Public Life,” a multi-year, transdisciplinary initiative that is part of the center's Collaboratory on Religion, Science and Technology. Craig Calhoun, University Professor of Social Sciences and member of the collaboratory, will moderate the event.

The panel will discuss how ideas of the human are conceptualized, produced and governed across various technoscientific efforts, addressing an important quandary in contemporary efforts toward improving human futures.

“Many in the modern world have taken for granted that if you want human progress, you need only look to science and technology,” said Gaymon Bennett, one of the lead investigators for the Beyond Secularization project. “But we’ve also experienced a double bind: We are both dependent on technological innovation and suspicious of where science and technology are taking us.”

These suspicions point to a number of important questions.

“As scientists, ethicists and members of the public seek to make sense of the significance of advancing technologies, questions of human identity, integrity and dignity need to become central,” said Ben Hurlbut, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and also one of the project’s lead investigators. “Sites of scientific and technological innovation reveal themselves to also be sites of moral and spiritual inquiry.”

Regents Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson put this in historical context:

“The Enlightenment conceptualized the human as a universal, rational entity that transcends, time, place and culture. The Enlightenment concept of the human generated many legal, economic and political developments that characterize modernity, but by the end of the 20th century, it became clear that the modern human is also the agent of massive ecological crisis and irreversible geological change.

“The technoscientific advancements of the past decades compel us to rethink the relationship between humanity and nature, since the human itself is now subject to technoscientific transformation — through the emerging powers of biotechnology, digital technology and artificial intelligence.”

As the Beyond Secularization team has shown, traces of older notions of universal humanity — of human reason, purpose, flourishing and progress — persist in present visions of technological progress, even as those visions reconceive humanity as a malleable object of transformation and improvement. The project takes these double binds in our vexed relationship with scientific and technological innovation and in our understandings of being human as sites of social inquiry. 

Further, the project interrogates widely held cultural beliefs about progress at the heart of these double binds: that science and technology drive progress; that science and technology are independent of morality, religion and spirituality; and that progress somehow makes people more secular and moves people further away from religion.

As Bennett explained, “From the unsettled politics of genome editing and genetic engineering, through the emerging and merging spirituality and wellness industries, to religiously infused environmental activism and vaccine protests, the relations among science, religion and technology in public life today are as fluid as their content is contested and their boundaries are being redrawn.”

For more information or to register for this this event, visit ASU Events.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is an interdisciplinary research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs. The Beyond Secularization project is funded by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. 

Story by Jennifer Clifton.