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APA Member Interview: Susan Levin

Susan B. Levin is Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith College. Her current scholarship focuses on the debate over human enhancement, addressing, in particular, advocacy of “radical” enhancement (aka transhumanism). In this work, she regularly draws on her scholarly foundation in Greek philosophy as reflected in many articles and two books, including Plato’s Rivalry with Medicine: A Struggle and Its Dissolution (Oxford University Press, 2014).

What are you working on right now?

In recent articles and essays, I critique transhumanists’ handling of topics such as cognitive bioenhancement and procreative decision-making. Right now, I am writing a book in which I challenge transhumanism as such.

Transhumanists urge and even morally require us to pursue the technological elevation of select capacities, above all, cognitive ability, so far beyond any human ceiling that the term we used for beings who possessed those abilities, whether “posthuman,” “divine,” or “godlike,” would have to reflect their higher ontological status. In my view, transhumanists’ notion of living well—which makes it available, if at all, only to posthumans—is, as it were, a highly combustible mix of flaws and fantasy. I concur with “bioconservative” critics of transhumanism in wholly rejecting it, but believe that fundamentally opposing it requires illuminating core commitments and implications of advocates’ accounts involving the mind, ethics, the political realm, epistemology, and ontology in a more thoroughgoing way than has occurred thus far. My multipronged philosophical argument, which meshes, where relevant, with salient findings in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, will strengthen the case for our needing to reject transhumanism. Having engaged substantially with Plato and Aristotle, along with medieval, Enlightenment, and Continental figures, toward that end, I will propose a fresh, encompassing lens on the subject matter of ethics that is rooted in Greek philosophy.

Contrary to what one might think, transhumanists themselves don’t wholly ignore the history of philosophy, as they sometimes link their ideas to key figures in the Western tradition, including Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, asserting continuity and even inspiration. Sadly, they show little genuine interest in or familiarity with such figures, as mentions of them are typically decontextualized and self-serving.

Given my own scholarly background and affinity for the Greek-philosophical notion that “doing philosophy” and “conducting a virtuous existence” are ways of signaling the same endeavor, misuses of ancient philosophers, in particular, pain me. As I put it in a recent article, when transhumanists reference Greek thought to

increase the desirability and plausibility of their own accounts by giving them august pedigrees…they [deform ancient ideas] in service of their claim that antiquity manifests the same fundamental aspiration or provides antecedents of [their] views, the specter of whose realization transhumanist theorizing, with current and foreseeable technologies, finally puts on offer.

In all cases, that to which we give top priority testifies to the stand that we have taken on, yet always within, the epistemological and experiential parameters of human existence. From that vantage point alone can we set ambitious, regulative ideals in which human flourishing—the only sort we are poised to consider—consists. Greek philosophers are in their element precisely when navigating this terrain. Because the debate over radical enhancement centrally involves headway in genetics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence that transhumanists assure us will occur, the idea that the Greeks, who could not have tackled these very topics, have something to offer in their own right looks to be a nonstarter. It turns out, however, that engaging ancient approaches to metalevel queries and ideas about human flourishing stands to be particularly availing as we confront unbridled encomia of posthumanity.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?

The book I’m writing now: though I have always cared deeply about my research projects, I have never been so passionate about anything I’ve worked on as I am about it. 

What are you most proud of in your professional life?

My self-education in a wholly new area of research, namely, bioethics, particularly the topic of human enhancement. When teaching Plato’s Republic, I always mention his comment in Book VII (540a) that philosophers’ education should last until age 50, which standardly elicits an understandable reaction from students in which chuckle and grimace are interwoven. I, however, feel that at age 50-plus, many threads that I’ve separately pursued across several decades are coming together in ways that it would have been wonderfully impossible for me to predict even five years ago.

What would your childhood self say if someone told you that you would grow up to be a philosopher?

My childhood self would be very surprised, as my pre-college passion was classical music. I played the clarinet, becoming serious about it as early as sixth grade. I spent my final two years prior to college at a fine-arts academy. During the second of those years, I had to decide whether to pursue a career in music, which would have necessitated that my next stop be a conservatory rather than, say, a liberal arts college. By this time, due in part to the spurring of my intellectual curiosity by an inspiring teacher of English literature, I was ready to discover what else might be out there that could fully capture my attention. I pursued this adventure at Pomona College, purposefully taking courses in a range of disciplines my first year. One of those was Ancient Philosophy. By the end of the term, I was captivated by philosophy and the Greeks in particular.

What time of day are you most productive and creative?

I particularly love working in the morning, when it seems that anything is possible.

Find out more about Susan here!

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This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

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