Essay: Lua

Kian L Lua

STS/Philosophy 5305 Final Essay (Fall 2016)

Anthropocentrism in Science and Technology and Its Dilemmas

In this essay, I attempt to explore the relationship between anthropocentrism in the philosophy of science and technology, and issues that arise from human tendency to dominate non-human species and nature. Anthropocentrism is the view that regards humans or human activities as the central and most important element in existence. It regards non-human entities as having only instrumental value to satisfy human needs. Discussion will be based mainly on readings in the different themes in the philosophy of science and technology – such as scientific realism and anti-realism, post- and trans-humanism, ethics and environmental justice – by different authors, each containing notions of anthropocentrism or anti-anthropocentrism in some form. The main readings that will be included in this discussion are: Laudan’s "A Confutation of Convergent Realism", Bostrom’s "The Transhumanism FAQ", Katz’s "The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature", and Jonas’ "Technology and Responsibility". In the following parts of the essay, the relevant concepts and arguments raised by the authors in their writings and how they relate to anthropocentrism or anti-anthropocentrism will be examined. Then, issues concerning anthropocentrism in science and technology will be discussed.

In "A Confutation of Convergent Realism", Laudan (Curd & Cover, 2013) critiques the type of reasoning used by realists in support of scientific realism by pointing out the fallacies in logical and historical evidence realists present. The point that is to be made here is not to agree or disagree with what Laudan (Curd & Cover, 2013) argues, or to argue for or against scientific realism. Laudan (Curd & Cover, 2013) did not explicitly state his position regarding scientific realism; his writing can only be seen as a call for more tenable reasoning by scientific realists to support their position. He does mention however, about how anti-realists would refute realists’ arguments about epistemic realism in science, and it is the anti realists’ views that will be used as a launching point in the discussion about anthropocentrism. According to Okasha (2002), anti-realists “hold that the aim of science is to provide a true description of only the ‘observable’ part of the world.” They reject scientific explanations about ‘unobservable’ region of reality, or theories that are “beyond the reach of the observational powers of humans”. This anti-realist view is also known is instrumentalism, which is the view that these ‘unobservable’ theories are meaningless, and these theories are merely ‘instruments’ for “helping us predict observable phenomena” (Okasha, 2002).

The question of what phenomena should be counted as observable and unobservable is irrelevant to this discussion, for the focus is on the anti-realists’ mode of thinking. Clearly, scientific anti-realism is anthropocentric in nature. Anti-realists see reality as human dependant, or that human conception of reality depends solely on human sensory perceptions. In contrast, scientific realism asserts that the existence of objects do not depend on humans or human conception.

Concepts of anthropocentrism also exist in discussions about post-humanism and trans-humanism. Post-humanism is a condition in which “human and intelligent technology are becoming increasing intertwined” (LaGrandeur, 2004). Post-humanism focuses on function rather than form, which means ‘humanness’ is not defined by how a species look; instead it will be defined by how the species processes information, whether it is sentient, emphatic, intelligent and so on. Hence in post-humanist world, it is believed that human brains and bodies will undergo technological modifications. According to Bostrom (Kaplan, 2009), humans could be merged with machines or be “completely synthetic artificial intelligences”. Humans could even “jettison their bodies and live as information patters” or enhanced uploads “on vast super-fast computer networks.” Trans-humanism, Bostrom (Kaplan, 2009) says, focuses on modifying the human organism through any kind of emerging science. Trans-humanists think that people’s lives, and the ways they relate to others, should be shaped in accordance with their own deepest values, aspirations and ideals, and the kind of experiences they wish to lead. Trans-humanists yearn to achieve augmented capacities such as super intelligence, be resistant to disease and impervious to aging, to have unlimited youth and vigour, et cetera.

From the explanations given above, it is clear that post-humanism involves the ‘decentralization’ of Homo sapiens, and requires an anti- or a non-anthropocentric perspective. The idea goes beyond the human and non-human dualism, and does not see humans as unique or superior to non-humans. Instead it finds the interconnection between human and non-human. In other words, post-humanism forces humans to change their understanding about identity and dominant ideas of reality, as it emphasizes a change in human understanding of the ‘self’ and how it relates to the natural world, society and machines or technologies. Trans-humanism, in contrast, advocates no so much on how humans think of the ‘self’ and relate to the world around them, but rather provides a vision on how humans could use science and technology to ‘enhance’ their lives and to become something more than humans currently are. Some trans-humanists believe that humans should do whatever is possible to achieve augmented capabilities, even if it entails harming non-human entities and nature. Because of its sole focus is on human wants and aspirations, I argue that trans-humanism, unlike post-humanism, contains elements of anthropocentrism.

Eric Katz (Kaplan, 2009), in "The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature", critiques the view that a damaged nature can and should be fixed or restored by humans. The belief that human science and technology will fix, repair and improve the nature is essentially “an expression of an anthropocentric worldview.” Katz (Kaplan, 2009) states that a “restored” nature is merely an artefact “created to meet human satisfactions and interests” and the act of “restoring” and repairing the degraded ecosystem and nature is merely an “unrecognized manifestation of the insidious dream of the human domination of nature.” That is to say, the re-created natural environment that is the end product of a restoration project can never be a natural object, and “is nothing more than an artefact created for human use.” This is because, according to Katz (Kaplan, 2009), when humans redesign and reconstruct natural objects, humans impose their anthropocentric purposes on “areas that exist outside human society” and construct these objects “on the model of human desires, interests, and satisfaction.” Natural objects, in contrast, lack intrinsic functions and were not ‘designed’ to meet a human purpose.

The discourse on anthropocentrism inevitably leads to questions regarding ethics and human responsibility. Hans Jonas (Kaplan, 2009), in "Technology and Ethics", stresses that modern technology necessitates the reconsideration of ethics. Human action under modern technology has become different from what it has traditionally been, or what it was traditionally assumed to be. According to Jonas (Kaplan, 2009), traditional ethics presume four characteristics of human action. Firstly, that human action on non-human things bears no ethical significance; secondly, ethics is anthropocentric and matters only to the dealing of “man with man”; thirdly, the nature and essence of “man” is unchanged by techne; and lastly, ethics or proper conduct is concerned only with immediate consequences and is confined to a limited time span and horizon of space. With modern technology, Jonas (Kaplan, 2009) argues that the nature of human action has changed, hence a new conception of ethics needs to exist. Modern technology has given rise to the need to expand the scope of traditional ethics to accommodate new kinds of human action, as well as the expanded temporal and spatial horizon of human action. In short, traditional ethics is anthropocentric. Humans need to break free from this type of ethics in face of the new challenges brought forth by modern technology.

Jonas (Kaplan, 2009) suggests that, because modern technology has given humans “power” over nature and would result in human actions that have wide and far-ranging consequences, human responsibility and ethics should now be based on anti-anthropocentric values. When considering a new paradigm in ethics, humans now need to take into consideration their ethical responsibilities towards nature as well as their survival in the “far-of future”, as both the ecology and human survival are interconnected. In particular, technologies that would confer “quasi-utopian” powers – such a technologies sought by trans-humanists that could enhance, augment or modify human capabilities – must be accompanied with relevant ethics that questions the consequences of these powers to the individual, the ecology and to humanity in the long-term. Non-human animals and the ecology will need to be accounted for when thinking about future of human survival. Thus, an ethics based on anti-anthropocentric values will be able to query and take into account both the ecological factors as well as the conditions for an indefinite continuation of humanity on Earth in a more comprehensive and objective manner.

As mentioned, anthropocentrism and anthropocentric thoughts in science and technology call for deep and through ethical considerations. What are the consequences of anthropocentrism in science and technology to the long-term survival and well-being of humans as well as non-human animals and nature? The fundamental issue in anthropocentrism that needs to be first highlighted here, as Katz (Kaplan, 2009) mentions, is domination and the denial of freedom and autonomy. The domination of humans over the natural world and non-human animals is the result of anthropocentrism, because anthropocentrism or human centric thoughts and self-concern naturally lead to the subordination of non-human species and nature, and their relegation as instruments to serve and ‘benefit’ humans in reaching their goals. To restate this claim in Katz’s (Kaplan, 2009) own words “from within the perspective of anthropocentrism, humanity believes it is justified in dominating and moulding the non-human world to its own human purposes.”

Some proponents of anthropocentrism in science and technology, in particular trans-humanists, believe that humans should do anything and everything possible to augment their abilities and enhance their lives, regardless of the damage done to the non-human realm and the ecology. Ecological damage and domination is seen as acceptable and unavoidable for humans to achieve something ‘better’. Such strong anthropocentric view and desire to use science and technology to dominate nature is hubristic and haphazard, as it could potentially subvert both human existence and nature. Arguments involving morality and non-human animals as sentient and conscious beings aside, the ecological structure and symbiotic relationships between humans and nature are complex, intricate and still not fully understood by scientists. Hence there is no certainty that the humans could continue surviving in the far future amidst a heavily degraded nature, even if their technological aspirations are fulfilled. There is always the possibility that the destruction of nature and non-human species for the sake of Homo sapiens could lead to the eventual demise of the species.

Furthermore, another point of concern is with regard to the paradox of anti-realists’ view of science and the biological classification of Homo sapiens. According to biologists, research into DNA has confirmed that Homo sapiens are one of more than 200 species belonging to the order of Primates. The problem is, DNA and genes cannot be observed through human senses and can only be ‘detected’ through a sophisticated apparatus. It can thus be implied that, to anti-realists, DNA and genes must be unobservable and meaningless, and theories about the origins and evolution of the Genus Homo untenable. Since so much of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and biological classifications are supported by DNA proofs, this would mean the classifications and Theory are also untenable. Ipso facto, current biological classification of the human species, and evolution-based accounts of how humans are superior to the non-humans are ‘wrong’, and humans would have no solid reasoning to justify their anthropocentric worldview other than hubris and gluttony.

In conclusion, anti-realism, trans-humanism, traditional ethics, the re-creation or restoration of the natural environment, all stem from an anthropocentric worldview – the belief that only humans-centric views and activities matter. In my view, it is crucial for the ethics of science and technology to account for both the justice and concern for the non-human realm and the subjective needs of humans. Philosophers, ethicists, as well as scientists need to come together and deliberate on whether the practice of science and technology should be based on anthropocentric or anti-anthropocentric values, or an entirely new paradigm.

(2002 Words)


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Jonas, H. (1974). Technology and responsibility. In Kaplan, D. Editor (Ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology (pp. 173 – 184). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc..

Katz, E. (1992). The big lie: human restoration of nature. In Kaplan, D. Editor (Ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology (pp. 443 – 451). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc..

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