Questioning our technological aspirations

‘In Defense of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology’ (Oxford University Press) by Thomas Fuchs; reviewed by Paul Moloney.

Every age yearns for its own kind of spiritual uplift. The early 21st century version is technological. The advance of Artificial Intelligence, the digitalization of our world, the reduction of feeling and thought to brain circuits: increasingly, we set ourselves in the image of our machines, just as we search for sparks of awareness and volition inside of the devices themselves. 

Thomas Fuchs, philosopher and psychiatrist, argues that such aspirations are both illusory and damaging. In our eagerness, we are ceding control of our lives to the requirements of computer systems and to the governments and mega-corporations who own them. More insidiously, and perhaps even more dangerously, we are cutting ourselves off from one another and from the organic world that sustains us.  

In an act of resistance, the author offers a phenomenological humanism. In contrast to the Cartesian version that has held sway in Western thought for the last three hundred years, the former – as developed by thinkers as diverse as Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau Ponty – regards self, body and world as indissoluble unity. It attributes human agency neither to the top-down workings of an immaterial consciousness, nor to the nervous system in itself – but to the whole living person and their cultural and material context. In chapters on perception, neuro-reductionism, the nature of ‘artificial intelligence’, the limits of human perfectibility, and threats to wellbeing posed by our ‘24hour information society’, Fuchs questions the conceptual and ethical basis of some of the most widely accepted paradigms and theories within Anglo-American psychology. At root, Fuchs is questioning the scientistic outlook which casts the self as software.  

Take for example, constructivism – the leading doctrine within cognitive psychology and the basis of the most widely practiced talking therapies in the UK. Constructivism holds that we never encounter the world directly. Rather, our senses furnish a shaky and flawed virtual model of ourselves and of our environment, beheld somewhere ‘in the mind’s eye’. Highlighting recent research in enactive and embedded cognition, critically reinterpreting some of the most celebrated investigations of sensory deception – including ‘the rubber hand illusion’ – Fuchs argues that constructivism is incoherent, and that it ends up undermining our trust in a shared world. 

Biomedical psychiatry, by contrast, has gone in the opposite direction – searching for the meaning in the matter – and then purporting to find it, in wayward biochemistry. For current pharmaceutically driven psychiatry the suffering individual, their troubled affiliations and their enervating circumstances have all but disappeared. Fuchs suggests that psychiatry must rediscover an ecological and embodied understanding of the troubled patient, and become a slow and compassionate form of relational treatment. A subsequent chapter on the theme of personhood in dementia shows, convincingly, how the phenomenological framework might help carers to find ways to rehumanise someone who, because of their illness, might seem lost to view. 

For all of its freshness and intellectual provocation, Fuchs’ text is not without weaknesses. He does not engage with those clinical and service user critiques of psychiatric diagnosis that his radical humanism would seem to imply. Whilst the author’s analysis of the mentally toxic effects of the speed of life in our online culture is illuminating, it omits the many other pervasive causes of woe, revealed starkly in these post-pandemic times: poverty, loneliness, poor housing and financial precarity, to name but a few. The neoliberal politics that have inscribed distress into the minds and bodies of so many are simply not mentioned. In the end, our capacity for free choice, as celebrated by Fuchs, may depend far more upon the workings of social and material power than even he is willing to concede. 

Nevertheless, this provocative book is to be welcomed for the lucidity, breadth and intelligence of its arguments. It will be a valuable resource for students, academics and therapists, and for anyone who has ever suspected that mainstream psychology in this country is in danger of congealing into dogma.  

- Reviewed by Paul Moloney, Counselling Psychologist, Shropshire and Telford Adult Learning Disabilities Team.
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