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In Favor of Echoing

Looking Up: Capstone Reflections

September 19, 2017 • By William Schweiker Looking Up: Capstone Reflections

For over a year, a striking image graced Chicago’s lakefront. “Looking Up” by Tom Friedman astonished, delighted, and perplexed the peoples of Chicago from September 2016 through September 2017—the last year, as it happened, of The Enhancing Life Project. The work, an imposing human figure of glittering tin or aluminum, stares into the heavens—awestruck by them, yet also seemingly defiant of them. A fitting image, we thought, to publicize the final Capstone Conference of the Project.

For three days in August 2017, over 200 people gathered at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center on the downtown Chicago riverfront to engage the meaning of “enhancing life.” The 35 Enhancing Life Scholars desired not only to share the fruits of their work over the three years of the Project—but also to include audience members from all walks of life in the exciting and demanding creation of knowledge about this basic aspiration of human beings. 

So—How? How, over the course of just one weekend, did they showcase the innovative structure of the Project, with its summer seminars, public interlocutors, films, blogs, lectures, books, conferences, symposia, etc.? How, indeed!

Like The Enhancing Life Project as a whole, the design of the Capstone was multi-dimensional. The central idea is that knowledge is created at the intersection of different scholarly perspectives and disciplines, and, importantly, that no one discipline or approach has it all; none on its own is the sole gateway to truth. With that notion in mind, the Conference included two keynote lectures by the Co-Leaders (William Schweiker and Guenter Thomas), a series of Research Presentations that clustered scholars’ work within some general rubric, Research Laboratories that enabled scholars and conference participants to engage in a shared topic of inquiry and to thereby join in the work of knowledge creation, talks by advanced graduate students from various institutions worldwide on their work and the theme of enhancing life, and even two films dealing with topics of enhancing life. 

This design was meant both to represent and to create knowledge about enhancing life, as well as to open new lines of inquiry. As one participant noted, “The conference was a symphony of important insights. I did not come away with a sense that any one question or insight was most important; instead, I was fascinated by the application of Enhancing Life ethical perspectives to so many distinct areas of social, civic, economic, ecological, religious and scientific life.”  

Of course, one seeming downside of this structure is that there are no “silver bullets”: that is, no single comprehensive answer to the meaning and measurement of enhancing life. The creation of knowledge is simultaneously the dawning awareness of our ignorance. We look up into the unknown with awe at the findable, but also in defiance of our ignorance. 

“Most people,” a participant noted, “are too caught up in the tediousness of life, as well as disempowered. Without conscious effort, enhancement will come about haphazardly and very, very slowly. Scholars are the best people to generalize ideas and provide paradigms for action— there just needs to be more of both.” More of both are needed indeed—both ideas and paradigms of action.  Scholarly labor, theoretical and practical, continues—and necessarily so. Yet a Capstone Conference is meant to deliver some results, to offer some more-or-less definitive conclusions. What about The Enhancing Life Project?  

On a conceptual level (that is, on the level of those ideas that we used to define and understand “enhancing life”), the Project isolated, and various scholars explored, a set of surprisingly interrelated concepts: among them vulnerability, resilience, time scopes, sustainability, betterment and enrichment, extension, intensification, and the increase of power. To put it simply: the enhancement of life is a topic that spans a host of ideas and fields of study. It’s a topic that creates a network of ideas that we must consider if we are to discern viable paradigms of action surrounding, for example, the foster care of children, aid to the dying, prenatal genetic testing, and environmental policy—all of which were explored by scholars in this Project.  

If the public role of scholarship is to articulate, address, and assess widespread human problems and to propose viable answers to them, then there is (despite the bias of some) hard conceptual and theoretic work that must be done in the service of the increase of life, human and non-human. The Enhancing Life Project (to the gratitude of many in the audience), undertook that kind of intellectual labor, even as many of the scholars’ projects bore more immediate public and policy import. 

Beyond the conceptual and practical results of the project was a more elusive, and yet extremely important, outcome. For too long, universities (and the general public) have lived with a destructive division between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities—each of these realms claiming sacred rights over its own domain, and often displaying scorn or condemnation toward the others. This division has led to a widespread intellectual incoherence that has eroded confidence in facts and the quest for truth and meaning. In this respect, the division within the university fuels the turmoil, skepticism, and partisanship in public debates about the most pressing issues facing humanity. The crucial result of The Enhancing Life Project was to create a community of scholars where these differences among disciplines are rendered productive of knowledge. 

As one scholar noted, “We’re in this together, and while we can’t control everything, there is much we can do to help others while also enjoying being together and even gaining a sense of Inter-being. I feel now that I’m part of a unique virtual community that I will draw on in many ways – indirectly and directly –for a long, long time.” In its own small way, the Project succeeded in reconfiguring the “university” in the service of the enhancement of life.

A stark, lone human figure gazing into the heavens day and night in awe, wonder, defiance, perplexity, and—maybe even hope and expectation—is an apt image for The Enhancing Life Project. It is an image that came alive in the presentations, lectures, and conversations of the Capstone Conference. We thank all who attended, and each of the scholars.  What follows now, we hope, will be the ongoing work of Enhancing Life Studies.