Humans are more than their bodies

by
26 July 2019

Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft turns to Simone Weil

ALAMY

Rachael, a Nexus-7 replicant, in Blade Runner

Rachael, a Nexus-7 replicant, in Blade Runner

IN 1943, having recently arrived in England, the theorist and activist Simone Weil was approached by the Free French, in London, to offer a report on the task of organising the regeneration of France.

The resulting document became her posthumously published work The Need for Roots (in the original French, L’Enracinement), in which she made the following pronouncement: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define.

“A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

Speaking in a context of war and occupation, Weil turns, first, not to the assertive language of rights and freedoms to discuss programatically what it means to live together fruitfully as human beings, but to the involved language of duty and obligation. Paramount here in Weil’s account of the human soul’s essential needs — which include honour, order, responsibility, and, perhaps more unexpectedly, obedience and punishment — is the need to actively and naturally participate in the life of a community. Humans need to be rooted.

Weil helps us to consider why providing any sort of meaningful home for a person requires much more than the simple allocation of space and shelter. She challenges us to consider how fundamentally important it is for human well-being that people are able to cultivate bonds, shared memories, and institutions with each other over time.

The “roots” here are multiple: we are not just talking about knitting a person into a particular region, nation, or institution, or about ensuring that that person is fed, clothed, and secure in their employment. We are also talking about making a person accountable for their past, and the past of their ancestors, as well as responsible for the future of their community, too.

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IT IS utterly banal to say that human life is shaped and limited by the fact that we have bodies — that we’re made of flesh and blood and have all the accompanying biological requirements and urges.

Of course, a lot of fiction dealing with the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) asks us to imagine whether beings with non-organic bodies can really be human, too.

But, emboldened by reading Weil, I would add that humans can become very good at denying the intergenerational responsibility entailed in having a body and living in our world. As individuals, we are on earth for only a relatively short time, yet despite our precariousness and our fleetingness, we can be good at ignoring both our inheritances and our legacies. We can fail to cultivate practices of remembrance for those who have gone before, and of hope and expectation for those who will come after us.

In the face of the ecological and climate crises that we are now facing, for instance, we can ask seriously of our politicians, leaders, and of the CEOs of large corporations: “What are you actually doing to ensure that the humans of tomorrow can live safely and fruitfully on our planet?”

Weil protests that, when human souls are shorn of the perception of obligations to past, present, and future human communities, as well as from the opportunity to fulfil these obligations, they become sick and inert. They are uprooted.

Two brilliant works of fiction that wrestle with the boundary line between humanity and artificial intelligence — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — are also notably preoccupied with a version of what Weil terms “rootlessness”, as well as the limits of human empathy.

If in these imagined worlds the blurring between the non-human and the human is particularly pronounced, it is not least because, in both cases, the supposed monsters — Frankenstein’s creature, and the Nexus-6 model androids — are the ones least able to maintain bonds and put down roots. Utterly rejected and demonised by human society, these characters are given no chance to live humanely, no chance to be human.

Dr Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft is a Research Fellow in Theology at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

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