November 4, 1995. Avenue Niel, Paris. The broken body of an old man lies crumpled on the footpath. It is that of Gilles Deleuze, the philosopher. His apartment room window, three stories above, stands open. There is no suicide note, yet it is clear enough what has happened. After twenty-five years of increasing physical infirmity, the struggle to live had become too much for Deleuze and he took his life.
Why begin with such a macabre tale? Perhaps it is because Michel Foucault once said that “one day maybe our century will be Deleuzean.” Deleuze has been championed as a kind of philosopher of the body, a philosopher even of the visceral, a thinker who, like others long before him, viewed the universe of existence as an unstable, ever-flowing zone of bodily relations. The word flesh featured heavily in Deleuze’s vocabulary. In his own mind he was a “constructivist,” believing that meaning is to be found only in self-creation—in the production, not the reception, of ideas. Vigorously denying the existence of transcendent reality, he set out to abolish all dualisms and to install politics in place of being, ethics in place of ontology.
It should not strike us as odd that Deleuze could not live with his body for the full term of his natural life. Indeed, by taking his life, he was asserting something fundamental about his philosophy of the body. If death is “an empty shape freed from any matter,” then self-destruction can arguably be understood as a repudiation of matter, a repudiation of shape, form, and organic limits in the name of self-creation. If this rejection of the contingent givenness of our enfleshed existence, under the appearance of its embrace, is characteristic of what it means to be Deleuzean, then it may well have already become the mark of our era.
Deleuze—this “most philosophical of the philosophers,” as Foucault styled him—had more than once reflected on the meaning of suicide. He thought of it as a positive act of assertion, a kind of ultimate philosophical gesture, a willed entry into incorporeality, with death being the point at which the individual “rejoins the empty shape of time.” We can only speculate whether Deleuze was conscious of committing himself into the hands of the great “outside,” that non-place or intentionally chaotic void that he invoked as the source of the forces that undermine any notion of the stable or real. Using terms characteristic of his own idiosyncratic philosophy, we would not be unjustified in interpreting his suicide as his final attempt at destratification and deterritorialization; his final attempt to destabilize himself utterly as an embodied, articulable text or social subject; his final urge to become, at last, imperceptible.
I have trouble making sense of this. Perhaps it was never written to make sense. But suicide is a language I can understand. Was this final, pitiful event in Deleuze’s life his answer to “the fundamental question of philosophy”: the judgment “whether life is or is not worth living” (Camus)? Was it an act of assertion or despair? Was this unknown factor for which Deleuze died also something for which he lived?
According to quite a different sort of twentieth-century French thinker, the political philosopher Chantal Delsol, for life to have meaning it must establish a connection with something other, something beyond itself, with “exterior referents that go beyond it and outlive it.” And indeed most people, even without consciously being aware of it, live their lives this way, under what Eric Voegelin called “the assumption of immortality.” People unconsciously carry on their daily activities as though they were going to live forever. Such a life, since it always signifies something else, paradoxically appears in this world as self-denial rather than as self-assertion. It “compares itself to something greater, wanting to be the expression of what goes beyond it,” Delsol wrote. “It is a sign or a witness: It alone does not say everything, but rather grows by saying what it is not.”
The “outside” for Deleuze seemed to have little in common with this kind of higher, exterior referent. He despised as a nihilistic fiction the doctrine that something beyond life is to be valued more than life itself. The task of the thinking philosopher is to relieve life of the weight of higher values. For Deleuze the “outside” was more nothing than it was something—which made his self-murder either the final ideal or the final irony. It was either an escape from the shades of existence into the real world of its ultimate references, or it was the reduction of existence and its transcendental references to the same thing, which for Deleuze was nothing. Whatever the “outside” stood for as an external reference point, in suicide Deleuze asserted not its difference but its identity with finite existence.
In 1969, at the height of Deleuze’s professional career, Robert L. Sinsheimer, then a molecular biologist at the California Institute of Technology, predicted a time when the limitations of bodily human existence would be overcome by advances in tissue technology and genetic engineering. “For the first time in all time a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future.” Sinsheimer confessed to feeling “strangely akin” to the physicists of the 1930s who were beginning to unlock the power of atomic energy. With the capacity of eugenics to manipulate major components in our biological and social makeup, Sinsheimer looked forward to a time when genetic scientists would become “the agent of transition to a whole new pitch of evolution.” Instead of “culling the unfit” as the old eugenics proposed, the new eugenics allows for “the conversion of all the unfit to the highest genetic level.”
But who is qualified to make this judgment of unfit? Who draws the scales in determining what makes for high or low genetic proficiency? Sinsheimer was not blind to the ethical problems raised by the new technological potential. He anticipated resistance from those who might, in the face of such undeniable power over bodily nature, fear for the well-being of the human spirit. But such folk, quipped Sinsheimer, “do not see our present situation whole. They are not among the losers in that chromosomal lottery that so firmly channels our human destinies.” Taking the principle of equal opportunity to its logical conclusion, Sinsheimer claimed justification for the final elimination of all losers through the final elimination of all genetic diversity: “As we enlarge man’s freedom, we diminish his constraints and that which he must accept as given.” One can almost see the gleam in Sinsheimer’s eyes when he concluded, “This is a cosmic event.”
With these words, whose scarcely veiled narcissism would have given even Deleuze pause, we are not far from the unrestrained scientistic madness portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ underrated but strangely prophetic science-fiction fantasy novel That Hideous Strength. This madness, says Lewis, is nothing but “the old dream of Man as God”: “What should they find incredible, since they believed no longer in a rational universe? What should they regard as too obscene, since they held that all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of men? From the point of view which is accepted in hell, the whole history of our Earth had led up to this moment. There was now at last a real chance for fallen Man to shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy had imposed upon him as a protection from the full results of his fall. If this succeeded, hell would be at last incarnate.”
Both Sinsheimer and Lewis were anticipating the future. What for one was a future dream, and for the other a frightful nightmare, has now become incarnate reality. Transhumanism is the name given to this new mode of engineering, since its aim is to propel homo sapiens toward the posthuman era demanded by evolutionary necessity. The movement enjoys widespread support from both the academy and the over-endowed middle-class populace. With it one may associate such names as Harvard’s Joseph Fletcher, Princeton’s Peter Singer, and Oxford’s Nick Bostrom, all of whom have indoctrinated entire generations with their new morality.
The World Transhumanist Association (WTA), for whom Bostrom acts as a chief philosophical adviser, eschews all forms of “technophobia,” declaring its goal to be the technological expansion of humanity beyond current biological limitations. As a summary of its global mission, the WTA website quotes none other than the famed twentieth-century moralist Bill Clinton: “I want unlimited scientific discovery and I want unlimited applications . . . . We want to live forever, and we’re getting there.’”
If the human subject is, in Deleuze’s words, a “body without organs,” that is, an organized system of production composed of multiple machines; if, as the science-priests of the new eugenics would have it, flesh is mere meat, or bodily tissue a personal possession for which individuals (of consenting age) carry rights of disposal; if the human being really is just a mass of cells driven by chemical circuitry, then why object to attempts to improve the stakes in the chromosomal lottery, to maximize choice? Why shrink from Sinsheimer’s vision of a eugenically streamlined society? Why not affirm Deleuze’s suicide as a meaningful way to consummate a philosophical career?
They are simply two dimensions of the old gnostic struggle to break free from the natural givens of animal, fleshly existence. If the constitutively bio-organic dimension of human nature can be minimized or annexed, then there will be little reason for the collective conscience to suffer any angst over any impending program of state-mandated, mass-scale eugenic “pharming.” Not that human beings are mere animals. In the words of Aristotle, “man, when perfected, is the best of animals.” Or, as G.K. Chesterton once put it, just as we can “accept man as a fact, if we are content with an unexplained fact,” so we can “accept him as an animal, if we can live with a fabulous animal.” Nonetheless, he is an animal. “As one dies,” Ecclesiastes reminds us, “so dies the other. All have the same breath, all come from the dust, and to dust all return.”
It is at least by and large agreed on by ancients and moderns alike that human existence is somehow organically bound up with body and flesh. The twentieth century witnessed in philosophy what has been called “the corporeal turn” in the form of phenomenology. Phenomenology reinstituted sensual subjectivity as the fundamental presupposition of all conceptual activity, implying that all concepts are metaphorically determined by spatial categories and physical experience.
In theology, too, we have seen an increasing interest in “the theology of the body,” most significantly engaged in the phenomenological and personalist theology of Pope John Paul II. And, in science, advances in cognitive and neurophysiological research seem increasingly to reveal that the processes of human thought are a complex knot in which neural, sensual, and cultural processes intersect.
Yet in an era in which the fact of human embodiment has been recovered as an integral component of philosophical, theological, and scientific discourse, never in the history of humanity has the rift between body and soul, science and faith, individual and communal, been so keenly felt. The British philosopher Mary Midgley refers to the long-term dream entertained by the architects of the artificial intelligence movement: the evolution “away from flesh and blood” to the inorganic “cold emptiness of space.” Technology has turned into a new magic promising liberation from the constraints of physical existence. The virtual world of cyberspace, the self-constructed home of the new techno-gnostic culture, stands as the counterpart of what Internet junkies call “meatspace,” that is to say, the real world. It is true, as one theologian has quipped, that “the body is fashionable.” Our question is whether this fact is subversive or symptomatic of a world in which suicide and bioengineering are each given to play an equitable role.
Human beings are complex and ambiguous creatures. As soon as we try to know ourselves, our selves elude us. But to some extent the various proposals of modern philosophy and science have exacerbated this incertitude. That our being-in-the-world radically influences our perception of our-self-in-the-world, that we have no access to the world “as it is” apart from our embodied pre-conceptual existence within it, as part of it, is not only a philosophical claim. Discoveries in neuroscience are resulting in increasingly bold claims to the effect that mental processes are entirely conditioned by the electrochemical activity of the brain.
So we find Francis Crick asserting that “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Or, taking an example proposed by Galileo, Newton, and Locke, and widely accepted by many scientists today, something as basic as our experience of color seems to hinge as much on subjective neurophysical processes as it does on any actual quality inhering within objects themselves. Any objective conclusions that predicate color of a certain object, such as “the sky is blue,” are, strictly speaking, true only when we accept that such a fact presupposes a certain kind of perceptual apparatus and an engagement with the object in a manner peculiar to the human species.
Or consider yet another example from the field of nuclear physics. The ancient Greek atomists surmised that individual things are made up of much smaller particles or atoms. With particle physics we have learned that these individual atoms are themselves made up of even smaller subatomic particles that, when subjected to scientific scrutiny, fail to exhibit any determinate, measurable qualities. In other words, subatomic particles appear to be almost completely devoid of the properties of color and mass, predictability and determination, characteristic of the objects they constitute.
To what extent is the content of our thoughts and beliefs, our intuitions and feelings simply the electrochemical product of what transhumanist Nick Bostrom calls “the three-pound, cheese-like thinking machine that we lug around in our skulls”?
It must first be said that, while the data we perceive through the senses is at least partly conditioned by aspects peculiar to the operation of those senses, it does not follow that the mind is a mere epiphenomenon of the physical activity of the brain. Even a reductive physicalism must first acknowledge that neuroscience itself presupposes the reliability of sensual perception for knowing external realities. Science presupposes the existence of a certain kind of world, a world that is (in principle) intelligible.
But it is one thing to assert that the brain is a necessary condition for mental activity; it is another to assert that the brain is the sufficient condition for mental activity. Mental activity is not limited to perception, imagination, or memory, whose objects are strictly particular and physical. Thomas Aquinas recognized centuries ago that by conceptual thought the human mind is capable of apprehending not merely individual objects but also universal objects (such as wisdom, justice, beauty, and other general classes and relations). Moreover, unlike the perceptual faculties, whose operations are governed by neurophysical processes inaccessible to one’s immediate introspection, the conceptual faculty—whether we call it intellect, mind, or soul—is capable of a certain reflexivity: It knows that it knows. Such powers depend on the neurophysical system to some degree, but clearly their operations extend beyond the identifiable limits of neuroscientific classification.
These problems relate closely to the perennial question as to the precise nature and meaning of human embodiment. It is commonplace to ascribe the dualistic split of the human being into mind and body, two distinct substances with no essential relation, to either Plato or René Descartes. Unlike Plato, Descartes swept aside all that he had imbibed in his years of schooling to embark on a quest for an irrefutable, systematic account of existence. He started by turning inward, by going into himself, there to discover that, at the very least, he could affirm that he was a thinking thing: I think, therefore I, a thinking thing, must exist.
Yet Descartes was not the first to propose thought as the condition of being. Augustine of Hippo, some 1,200 years earlier, had struggled against the forces of epistemological doubt. Faced with uncertainty about whether he could know anything, Augustine was forced back on the indisputable fact that the very act of thinking at all, however uncertainly, was a sure sign that he at least existed. Maybe we don’t know much about the world, but we at least know that we can think, and therefore we know that we are. Here it seems is the ideal, self-evident first principle of knowledge and being. Thinking presupposes a thinker. Doubt about this fact furnishes the very proof of its facticity, since, for there to be doubt, there must be a doubter.
But why, then, it must be asked, did this principle held in common by Augustine and Descartes lead to different conclusions about the human soul? For a start, it may be that, for the ancient mind, thinking does not logically presuppose a subject but an object: “I think, therefore there must first be things that I think of.” Being precedes knowledge. Thinking is more a process of receptivity than it is activity. Human knowledge results from receiving reality. Only God’s knowledge creates reality. As Augustine writes near the end of his Confessions: “We see things which you have made, because they exist. But they only exist because you see them.” Moreover, while traditional Christian philosophy had certainly always distinguished soul from body, it never separated them. Soul, in the definition of Thomas Aquinas, is the form-giving principle of the body. There is no such thing as a free-floating, self-subsisting human soul. The terms animate body and sensible soul designate the same integrated human reality, so much so that, in Thomas’ words, “the soul united with the body is more in the image of God than when separate; for [in this union] it realizes its own essence more perfectly.”
The spiritual theologian Maximus the Confessor (580-662), writing long before the introduction of Aristotle to the medieval West, likewise insisted that soul and body together constitute the human being. Taking as his basis the Incarnation of the divine Logos, he argued that the genesis of soul and body is strictly simultaneous. “The soul arises at conception simultaneously with the body to form one complete human being . . . . There is no temporal hiatus (diastema) of any kind within the nature itself or among the reciprocal parts of which it is constituted.” This, by the way, is why it may be said that the Annunciation, not Christmas, is the chief feast of the Incarnation. If the individual human being is an integrated, composite whole, then this is how he must be from the very moment of his existence. In this conviction Maximus was more certain than the Scholastic philosophers, who held the view that an embryo becomes human only after it has attained “a sufficiently advanced state of bodily development.”
For Thomas, any purely philosophical judgment on whether the soul is created at the moment of conception had to conform to what could be ascertained by empirical means. Given the limits of medieval physiology, Thomas was constrained to accept the Aristotelian theory of the soul’s progressive generation and avoid any absolute, categorical affirmation that the soul is created at precisely the same moment as physical conception. Such reluctance was entirely in keeping with his theory concerning the limits of rationally attainable knowledge. Of course, he knew that there exists a higher form of knowledge, namely, divine revelation, by which one can affirm, specifically on the basis of the miraculous conception of the incarnate Word, that at least Christ’s body and soul coexisted from the moment of their coming into being.
Even so, medieval philosophy left it to Maximus to draw far-reaching conclusions about the nature of every single human being on the basis of Christ’s human constitution. But it would be wrong to conclude that his thoughts on the matter were derived exclusively from religious belief. For he asserts that even at death, when the soul and body are temporarily separated, the fundamental principle of generation (logos geneseos), by which from their inception soul and body are simultaneously constituted as parts of a whole in a permanent and natural relation (pros ti), remains intact. Here Maximus is clearly drawing on philosophical categories derived from Aristotle, most likely via the sixth century Neoplatonic commentators. On this basis, when speaking of a person’s body or soul in the separated state after death, he argues that neither may be referred to simply as soul or body but always as the soul or the body of this or that person: someone’s body, someone’s soul, each an essential part of an irreducible, personal whole. In sum, “the relation between them is immutable.”
Not long before his death, the noted brain scientist Donald M. Mackay concluded that “nothing could be more fraudulent than the pretence that science requires or justifies a materialist ontology in which ultimate reality goes to what can be weighed and measured, and human consciousness is reduced to a mere epiphenomenon.” By this account, both Cartesian mentalism and Marxist materialism are unjustifiable. Reality as we know it simply does not leave either one of these two avenues open.
A properly theological approach to the body involves asking what the body and the flesh mean, not first in their relation to mind or soul but above all in their most fundamental relationwhich is to God. It is the conviction of the Christian tradition that the meaning of corporeality is an integral aspect of the meaning of the human person, a creature that bears in itself an inherent, irreducible relation to its creator.
Moreover, while the Christian tradition shares with a number of other religious perspectives a belief in the goodness and unity of the created, physical universe, it distinguishes itself by confessing that the God of the universe has actually become a real flesh-and-blood human being. Indeed, as James F. Keenan has written, for the Christian “a turn to human flesh is always an encounter with the Incarnation.” The Christian God is a God for whom immaterial or artificial representation will not do. Not that there is any necessary, genetic affinity between God and human flesh. Yet it is the narrative story of Christianity that God has become a living human being in such a way that it is true not only to say with Michel Henry that “the negation of God is identically the negation of man” but also that the negation of man cannot but lead to the negation of God.
To know God, we cannot, with Spinoza, start from God; rather we must start from man or, best of all, with God-made-man. It is surely then incumbent on anyone who wants to know the truth of the human vocation to listen to what theology says about this flesh and, in particular, about the flesh of this God.
Adam G. Cooper is a pastor in the Lutheran Church of Australia and the author of The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor: Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified.