• Morten Tønnesen

Reflections from the philosopher Morten Tønnesen

The philosopher Morten Tønnesen attended the panel : "New Eden? Where is biotechnology taking us, and how can art explore this?"

The panel opened up for discussions where philosophy and ethics were drawn upon, for a deeper reflection around (bio)technological development and art.
Participators to the panel was Hanne Røland Hagland (Assoc. Prof. and leader, Centre for Organelle Research, UiS), Kristin Aaser Lunde (PhD fellow, Stavanger University Hospital), 
Morten Tønnessen (philosopher, Assoc. Prof. Department of Social Studies, UiS), in conversation with the artists Joe Davis, Jalila Essaïdi and George Gessert.

He is sharing some of the thoughts he presented in the panel with us here:

Reflections on the exhibition New Eden

The human being is a being who defines itself. But does that mean that anything is possible for us, that we can put anything into practice? Many seem to think so. That Man is a kind of boundless being, a being for whom everything is possible. But we are made of flesh and blood, and out of our vulnerable bodies there is a whiff. Deep inside our bodies trillions of bacteria are pursuing useful community work including making it possible for us to digest food. We are more-than-human, as the American phenomenologist and friend of Norway David Abram puts it.

I believe the artist George Gessert is right when he observes that there is something seriously wrong with the contemporary perspective on humanity, as it manifests itself when we are relating to nature. And we relate to nature, whether we want it or not. Humanity and perspectives on nature must be considered together, for our humanity expresses itself precisely through what we do as natural beings, in and with nature. We still act largely as if we believe we stand above or outside nature. As if nature was some kind of alien object that we could hold at arms length, and manipulate as we wish.

Modern biotechnology raises a number of ethical and other issues. Is it the case that we should do all we can do, in order to utilize the full range of opportunities we have as technically competent beings? That amounts to playing God, having nature as our playpen.
And that´s having big shoes to fill. In a world where the engineering man is deified and mankind something close to omnipotent, it is in some people's eyes blasphemic to heckle that other natural beings has an equal right to roam this place that we share on Earth. Do we really understand our own place in this context, our rightful place as humans?

Joe Davis longs to be terraforming Mars, that is, to make the planet Mars Earth-like and habitable. In my eyes, one Earth is more than enough. We must learn to be here without eroding the livelihoods of the millions of species with which we share our planet. I believe we have not yet properly settled down on Earth – Joe`s longing into space is just an expression of this fact. Now, it is of course typically human to desire to embrace everything, even the universe. I, too, would enjoy a trip to Mars, if I got the chance. But terraforming Mars, that´s a proposal I strongly denounce. We are not mature enough for that, we have not come far enough in our development as human beings to take responsibility for a new planet. First, we must learn to live on this one. If we settle beyond Earth now, history will only repeat itself over and over on ever new planets. The battle must stand here on Earth.

Jalila Essaïdi, too, has a longing. A longing towards fusion with something non-human. What more  could  we humans ever want, than to merge with nature? Modern biotechnology accommodates many such desires, exemplified by Jalila´s attempt to develop a synthesis of human skin and spider silk. But should we really try to consume anything that is fantastic in nature, and incorporate it into us? Should we not rather live as well as we can as humans, in peace and communion with all sorts of non-human life forms? I have a hunch that spider webs benefit the spider in better ways than they could ever do for us.

Yearn we do anyway. For we humans are yearning beings. What of nature's events and phenomena we should interfere in, is an ethical question, and a question of humanity as well. What we should blend with corporally, is not just a technical challenge, but once again a question of ethics and of humanity. And thus all these ethical questions boils down to the one big, essential question that numerous philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Zapffe and further back, have been asking: What does it mean to be human?

Morten Tønnessen

Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Stavanger
Holder of Ask the philosopher (www.sporfilosofen.no)