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Stefan Lorenz Sorgner is a philosophy professor at John Cabot University in Rome, and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Posthuman Studies. His most recent book, On Transhumanism, was recently published by Penn State University Press. He chats about transhumanism with Roberto Manzocco.
First of all Stefan, why do they call you the ‘bad boy of philosophy’? What have you done?
In 2009 the Journal of Evolution and Technology published my article ‘Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism’. Many transhumanists, Nietzsche scholars and ethicists wrote articles in response to my claims there.
As part of the debates around gene technologies at the beginning of the millennium, in his reflections on liberal eugenics [such as genetic screening for healthy babies, Ed], the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas identified transhumanism with all-too-German Nietzschean breeding fantasies. In my article I agree that transhumanism affirms versions of liberal eugenics; but in contrast to Habermas, I regard central aspects of both transhumanism and liberal eugenics as plausible and morally justified. Educative freedom implies the parental right to genetically modify their offspring. This might make me the ‘bad boy of philosophy’ in the eyes of those who strive for universally valid judgements, as Habermas does. Yet I wish to live in a society where the greatest plurality of idiosyncratic lifestyles can be realized.
Central articles in the debate were republished in the collection Nietzsche and Transhumanism: Precursor or Enemy?, which was edited by Yunus Tuncel in 2017.
Nowadays there seems to be a lot of confusion around terms such as ‘transhuman’, ‘posthuman’, and so on. What is your take on this topic? And how do you position yourself in the debate?
There are many different meanings of the words ‘posthuman’ and ‘transhuman’ within transhumanism. One should never take a specific meaning for granted, but instead clarify what the term stands for with respect to each specific context.
The term ‘posthumanism’ was coined by Ihab Hassan in 1977. He wrote, “with regard to posthumanism itself, the most relevant aspect of the Promethean dialectic concerns Imagination and Science, Myth and Technology, Earth and Sky, two realms tending to one” (‘Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthumanist Culture?’, The Georgia Review 31 (4)). The concept of ‘transhumanism’, on the other hand, goes back to an article by Julian Huxley from 1951: “Such a broad philosophy might perhaps best be called, not Humanism, because that has certain unsatisfactorily connotations, but Transhumanism. It is the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition; it is the realization that both individual and social developments are processes of self-transformation’ (‘Knowledge, morality, and destiny’, Psychiatry, 14 (2)). I regard a ‘transhuman’ as a technologically or biologically augmented or enhanced person who still belongs to the human species, whereas a ‘posthuman’ would have to have transcended the boundaries of Homo sapiens sapiens – to have become more than human.
Six million years ago (on one current estimate), we had common ancestors with great apes; and it is less than 300,000 years ago that Homo sapiens came into existence, and only about 50,000 years ago for the naturally enhanced version, modern humanity, Homo sapiens sapiens. It would be naïve to assume that Homo sapiens sapiens will still be the most advanced form of human being living, six million years from now. In addition, it is in our interest to transcend our current state, because thereby we increase the likelihood of leading good lives. We should have the right of morphological [body form] freedom, educational freedom, and reproductive freedom for realizing this goal, so that the greatest diversity of human flourishing can be realized. Unfortunately, there are still too many people around who have not realized yet what a wonderful achievement ‘negative freedom’ – that is, the absence of constraint – is. Each one of us should have the right to live in accordance with his or her idiosyncratic understanding of a good life. Sanctions should only be considered if harm is being done to another person – and here the concept of ‘the person’ should be open to including non-human animals.
Is transhumanism seriously “the world’s most dangerous idea”?
I think only people who subscribe to a paternalistic, anthropocentric, dualistic, and essentialist understanding of the world see transhumanism as ‘the world’s most dangerous idea’. The phrase goes back to an article the neoconservative Francis Fukuyama wrote for the magazine Foreign Policy in 2004. So I used it as the subtitle of my recently released book On Transhumanism.
What do the emerging technologies of GRIN (genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology) have in store for us? Are we going to transcend humanity anytime soon?
The field of genetic engineering is particularly promising with regard to the potential for further human development. Bioprinters, Crispr/CAS9, or gene editing more generally speaking, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and 23andMe [after 23 pairs of human chromosomes] are the decisive buzzwords here. On close analysis, the genetic modification of one’s own offspring as determined by parents is analogous to parents determining their child’s education, and should therefore be evaluated analogously from a moral point of view. Moreover, the latest insights from epigenetics with regard to the study of the environmentally-caused alterations of genes underline the assessment that education has always included actual genetic modification. We are already in a position today to make genetic selections following pre-implantation diagnosis as part of artificial fertilization processes. The ethical, political, and legal frameworks are why we’re not yet doing what we’re already technically capable of doing.
The other two decisive technical possibilities supporting transhumanism’s human-self-overcoming process are the development of human-machine interfaces, and artificial intelligence. Human-machine interfaces in particular are of central importance, because smart cities need upgraded people. If all our gadgets are equipped with a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, then we humans must also be chipped to guarantee efficient interaction. Computers are getting smaller in rapid steps. Twenty-five years ago we had PCs. These are increasingly being replaced by the smartphone. The next step – towards which companies are working already – is to integrate the computer into people. For instance, a monitor could be substituted by optic nerve impulses, or text input could take place directly through thinking. The future of writing is thinking! The internet of things is thus supplemented by the internet of bodily things – a network of interacting chips embedded in the human body. Computer sensors will be located in different parts of our bodies in order to monitor our bodily states. Researchers at Tufts University have already developed a sensor that can be built into a tooth to monitor our food intake. Using these sensors for the permanent monitoring of our bodies, we can detect diseases not only when they’re far advanced but possibly before they’ve even begun to develop. ‘Predictive maintenance’ is the name given to this process in machines. Predictive maintenance will also be possible in humans with the evolution of the internet of bodily things. This in turn will radically increase the human health-span – the span of a healthy human life. Expanding the health-span is a central goal of most transhumanists. I consider these visions of genetic development and of the upgraded human being to be both probable and promising.
In the public perception, transhumanism is often associated with another technique actively represented in the media by Elon Musk and friends – mind uploading. This is a highly implausible idea, as we have no sound reason for claiming that life, and, in particular, consciousness, can exist in a silicon-based artificial entity. But unfortunately, the thought that’s primarily identified with transhumanism for the public is exactly that transhumanists want to become immortal by means of mind uploading. Yet we cannot even conceptualize immortality in a meaningful manner. For instance, the stars may all burn out eventually, and the universe enter a Heat Death. Alternatively, the expansion of the universe could turn into a contraction, ending in a Big Crunch and a new cosmological singularity. How could human beings survive either process? Yet, this is what would need to be possible for genuine immortality to be an option! Using technologies in order to promote our health-span as well as to realize the great diversity of human desires, wishes, and fantasies, is what we should focus on. But this is what we have always been doing.
It is also important to the assessment of these new technologies to realise that we have always been cyborgs. The word ‘cyborg’ is short for ‘cybernetic organism’, and ‘cybernetic’ comes from the ancient Greek ‘ kybernetaes’, meaning ‘helmsman’ (pilot). Cyborgs are therefore ‘controlled organisms’. But control already happens as we become human. Learning language is our first upgrade, which our parents provide us with – and in philosophy human beings have usually been defined in terms of their ability to speak. Our traditional cyborgization continues with the acquisition of other new skills, such as learning mathematics, history, etc. However, a new dynamic is currently emerging. Control is being exponentially enlarged, for example through genome editing – gene modification – and brain-computer interfaces.
Can you tell us something about metahumanism and its relationship to transhumanism, post-humanism, and plain and simple humanism?
The concept of ‘metahumanism’ was developed by Jaime del Val and me in 2011. As we wrote, “Metahumanism is a critique of some of humanism’s foundational premises such as the free will, autonomy and superiority of anthropoi [humans] due to their rationality. It deepens the view of the body as field of relational forces in motion and of reality as immanent embodied process of becoming which does not necessarily end up in defined forms or identities, but may unfold into endless amorphogenesis. Monsters are promising strategies for performing this development away from humanism” (‘A Metahumanist Manifesto’, The Agonist 4 (2)).
What unites all these different groups and different strands of thought?
The cultural backgrounds and ways of thinking of posthumanists and transhumanists are significantly different. However, all of us share certain characteristics. Firstly, all of these approaches employ the word ‘posthuman’. However, a great diversity of different meanings are associated with the term. Again, one must always clarify what specific meaning is being used. To deal with the various aspects of ‘the posthuman’ is the concern of The Journal of Posthuman Studies, which I founded in cooperation with James Hughes and Sangkyu Shin in 2017.
Secondly, all share the goal of transcending, or even better, twisting, humanism in one way or another (and here, ‘humanism’ has to be identified with the affirmation of ontological dualities, such as ‘material body and immaterial mind’). However, some scholars regard the claim of transcending humanism as wrong, or in need of further qualifications. For example, many critical posthumanists claim that transhumanism is merely an amplified version of humanism – a ‘hyper-humanism’, or ‘humanism on steroids’. This judgement is based upon a simple-minded understanding of what transhumanism stands for, and the great variety of different transhumanist approaches.
Finally, all of these approaches seriously consider the impact of emerging technologies. Having said that, some critical posthumanists stress that engaging with non-duality is more important than an engagement with the impact of technologies. On the other hand, if you take non-duality seriously, that clearly has immediate implications for the human-technology relationship.
So where do these approaches differ from one another?
Well in a nutshell, critical posthumanism is about thinking and acting in a non-dualistic, non-essentialist, non-anthropocentric and non-hierarchical manner. Transhumanism affirms the use of technologies for transcending our current boundaries, since this goes along with an increased likelihood of people living good lives. Silicon-based transhumanism aims for the coming about of a posthuman uploaded mind. Carbon-based transhumanism regards it as more plausible that the posthuman will be a member of a new organic species, or still belong to the human species, but with at least one trait which significantly goes beyond the traits currently living humans possess. The most promising technologies for realizing these goals are gene technologies and upgrading persons by means of chips in our bodies. Metahumanism represents an alternative approach. It lies beyond humanism, but in-between trans- and critical posthumanism. The ancient Greek ‘meta’ means both ‘beyond’ as well as ‘in-between’. Metahumanism has some guiding points, but can go along with a great variety of philosophical stances. The metahumanistic nodal points are plurality, perspectivism, relationality, and a non-dualistic ontology of permanent becoming in all respects. There are many different versions of metahumanism. My own version can also be characterized as a Nietzschean transhumanism.
Thinking of the intellectual starting points of the different approaches, critical posthumanism is a development of postmodern philosophies, in particular the postmodern approaches of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Transhumanism is rooted in the Anglo-American evolutionary tradition. Metahumanism, in turn, is strongly connected to Heraclitus and Nietzsche, and has traces of relationships to the other beyond-humanism movements. So perhaps what truly marks the differences is their cultural pedigree. And pedigree is a good word here because all beyond-humanism movements stress a close relationship between humans and non-human animals!
What else is your book concerned with?
I also present the core of a philosophy of posthuman art, which is a fascinating topic. I don’t only mean excellent series like Black Mirror, but also bioart works by Eduardo Kac; compositions by Sven Helbig; metaformances by Jaime del Val; or performances by Stelarc. Many of these represent a paradigm shift in the history of art which can be compared to ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp or ‘Brillo Box’ by Andy Warhol!
At the end of the book I also deal with the most important challenge we need to confront when it comes to digitalization – the internet and the challenges related to total surveillance. As a consequence of the coronavirus crisis, the speed of implementation of digitalization has increased significantly. Yuval Noah Harari has stressed that there does not have to be a conflict between health and privacy. He is wrong. To effectively promote health, big data is needed; and the more data we get, the more reliable our correlations are, and the more informed our decisions can be. Data are also needed for innovations, scientific research, and policy-making. Therefore we need to realize a democratic usage of our data. This has not been achieved so far. In China, the data are collected by the government on the justification of values which cannot be reconciled with European ones. In the U.S., the data are collected by big companies, which turns them into quasi-political players. This has the potential to undermine the foundations of liberal democratic society. In Europe, data protection has been a central goal, yet thereby we undermine some of our strongest interests, including promoting health. Hence, proper democratic data use still needs to be realized. I think it can be done if a government collects the digital data and takes various ideas into consideration. For instance, the data must be used to promote human interests. This can be done if universal health insurance can at least partially be paid for by the data. The data also needs to be stored safely, and access should primarily be granted to algorithms. Humans should only have access to them when necessary, since the risk of abuse is enormous. Moreover, the legal, institutional and moral concepts of ‘the good’ also need to be pluralized further, so that we do not have to fear inappropriate sanctions. Sanctions should be considered only when direct harm is being done to another person. If these suggestions are considered seriously, we could have a proper democratic use of our data.
• Roberto Manzocco is an Italian author, journalist, and historian of science who specializes in the history and philosophy of biology, technological innovation, and technological forecasting.