Updated: Sep 2, 2022
An Interview by Nicole Ilieva with World Leading Metahumanist Philosopher
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner
Nicole Ilieva - Have you always had a personal philosophy compatible with the transhumanist world views? If not what opened your mind to the idea that through the use of innovation we can transcend the boundaries of our current existence?
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner - I was brought up as a Catholic, and I have intensely been engaged with the great variety of Catholic approaches. My philosophical curiosity was triggered by the realization of my own mortality. This was the issue which has occupied me since my earliest teenage years. You and all people who are near and dear to you will die. This insight has always made me shudder. It has caused me to being engaged with scientific, theological as well as philosophical issues. The more I reflected upon the issues and experienced different aspects of the world, the more plausible I found an ontology of permanent becoming, which goes along with a loss of all stability, certainty, and knowledge. There is not even an “I” left which guarantees my identity over any period of time. It is this insight which made me reflect upon various philosophies.
There were hardly any philosophers whose reflection resonated with my being in the world. Selected thoughts by Heraclitus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, and Nietzsche represent a few exceptions. When I became familiar with transhumanist approaches which took place more than 20 years ago. It occurred as a consequence of my intellectual engagement with the Sloterdijk-Habermas-debate which circled around Sloterdijk’s reflections on “Rules for the Human Zoo”. Then, I immediately realized strong connections between my most cherished intuitions and transhumanism.
After having read the writings by many transhumanists, my original insight was confirmed. However, at the same time, I realized that a complex comprehensive philosophical transhumanism is still missing. It is this gap which I have been trying to fill with my monograph “We Have Always Been Cyborgs”.
NI - Katherine Hayles refers to your new book as one that “tackles some of the most challenging ethical issues currently discussed, including gene editing, digital data collection, and life extension, with uncommon good sense and incisive conclusions." She also adds that "This study is one of the most detailed and comprehensive analyses available today.” How did you go about when deciding what ideas to include seeing as the discussion in the realm of transhumanism is so expansive?
SLS - I have reflected on transhumanist as well as posthumanist issues for such a long time. Since 2009, I organized an annual conference series on transhumanism, critical posthumanism, and metahumanism. Since 2017, I have been the Founding Editor as well as Editor in Chief of the first academic journal explicitly dedicated to the posthuman, the “Journal of Posthuman Studies.” Since 2019, I have been the Editor in Chief of the book series “Posthuman Studies” which is being hosted by the world’s oldest publishing house. As a consequence of my intellectual engagement with the great variety of reflections on beyond humanism issues, the technological options which have the greatest relevance for shaping our future have become clear. In my 2018 monograph “Brave New Human'' (published in German), I already distinguished between the “Genetic New Human”, the “Implanted New Human”, the “Digital New Human” and the “Conceptual New Human”. Therein, I presented a brief summary of my most relevant philosophical insights concerning the most promising possibilities of human futures. In my monograph “We Have Always Been Cyborgs,” I explain these insights in a complex philosophical manner.
NI - Julian Savulescu from the University of Oxford outlines that your book “avoids both the utopian trap and the bogeyman spectre” how would you say you were able to balance that?
SLS - There has been a widely shared tendency among critics of transhumanism as well as among representations of transhumanism in popular media to focus on the writing by a few transhumanists, which have presented some of the most outrageous ideas associated with transhumanism, i.e. chances are high that we already living in a computer simulation, in a few decades, we will be able to realize mind uploading, human immortality by means of digitalization is near, or strong AI will either wipe out humanity or put us into a zoo. Critical posthumanists have picked up these ideas in order to make fun of transhumanists. Journalists have used these insights for some spectacular headlines. Film makers have developed these insights further to present some highly entertaining series.
None of the insights mentioned can be upheld after a complex philosophical engagement with the correlated premises. This does not mean that transhumanist reflections do not have ground-breaking implications. However, the ones which have been highlighted so far do not deserve as much public attention as they have received so far. By engaging with philosophical reflections of some critical posthumanists as well as a solid grounding in the history of philosophy, I focussed on the most challenging philosophical issues related to transhumanism, which lead me to develop a liberal ethics of fictive autonomy. Thereby, a philosophically challenging version of transhumanism has been presented which has received immense praise from the critical posthumanist Katherine Hayles as well as from the libertarian utilitarian Julian Savulescu.
NI - Is there a field or topic in the realm of transhumanism that deserves more research, focus, and consideration? If so, which one and why?
SLS - One chapter of the book “We have always been cyborgs'' is dedicated to silicon-based transhumanism, which stands for the great variety of approaches which focus on digitalization. Herein, I stress that Musk and his friends, who highlight that chances are high that we are already living in a computer simulation, are responsible for distracting the educated-public from focussing on pressing issues when it comes to digitalization, i.e. privacy, the global war for digital data, and the relevance of total surveillance for increasing the quality of life.
It might be fun to reflect upon mind-uploading and its related ethical challenges. It might be interesting to watch movies and series which play around implications of our personalities turning into digital ones. It might be intellectually challenging to think through the various implications of whole-brain emulation. However, this will not happen within the next decades. It is unclear whether it will be possible at all. The pressing issues, however, are different ones.
The debates on artificial consciousness, whole-brain emulation, and mind uploading are comparable to the medieval discussion on the size of angels, and how many of them fit onto the tip of a needle’s pin.
In the middle-ages, Christianity was the dominant cultural paradigm. Then, people believed in angels. Hence, scholarly discussion on the size of angels were meaningful. Today, widely shared worldviews need to take scientific insights and emerging technologies into consideration. Hence, the possibility of us living in a computer simulation is not only a fascinating thought example but it might, in principle, even be a realistic option. This explains why scholars, filmmakers, and an educated public gets fascinated by this topic. However, given further philosophical reflections, it ought to become clear that its practical relevance can be compared to the medieval discussion on the size of angels.
The pressing contemporary issues concerning digitalization have to do with privacy, the global war for digital data, and the relevance of total surveillance for increasing the quality of life.
This is what I show in the chapter on silicon-based transhumanism. Yet, it needs to be noted that the realm of digitalization and AI is changing fast. Hence, a lot more philosophical reflections need to be undertaken on these issues. Currently, the topics of the metaverse, cryptoart, and blockchain-technologies seem particularly fascinating ones.
NI - In your book “We Have Always Been Cyborgs” you thoroughly discuss gene editing, what fascinates you the most about this topic?
SLS - Gene editing and digitalization represent the two most promising technologies for influencing who we are. In particular, the interaction of these two technologies seems to me to have the greatest impact concerning increasing the quality of lives.
It comes down to the issue of how we use our personalized digital data. The more strongly RFID chips wander into our body, the more personalized digital data we are producing, which reveal important information concerning the correlation between our lifestyles and well-being, our genes, and our capacities, as well as between what we do, and what makes us age fast.
These issues are so important as an increased healthspan seems to be one of the few qualities which most people identify with an increased quality of life. Otherwise, our drives and longings are extremely diverse. However, promoting an increased healthspan is what most people either intrinsically or instrumentally identify with a better quality of life. Hence, undoing aging seems to be one of the most promising ways of increasing the likelihood of personal happiness. This is also the reason why this issue ought to be taken more seriously on a political level.
NI - Would you want to live for 500 years?
SLS - I think it is important to note that what people identify with a better quality of life is not just an increased lifespan, but an increased healthspan. If you are constrained to be in bed, and if you suffer enormously, then being in such a state for 450 years might not necessarily be in your best interest. However, it is not up to me to judge what is in other people’s interest. This has to be a personal judgment.
Do I want to live for 500 years? If I am healthy, then I would cherish any additional day of being alive, of course. There are so many new pleasures to experience, places to discover, and cultural creations to realize. I have always been intrigued about putting together, realizing, and bringing about cultural imprints, and leaving a special trace. And the longer your healthspan, the more possibilities for letting this attitude unfold.
A Question for IM Readers:
How Long Would You Want To Live If You Could Maintain Your Health?
Share your thoughts below!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner is Chair of the Department of History and Humanities and a philosophy professor at John Cabot University in Rome, Director and Co-Founder of the Beyond Humanism Network, Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), Research Fellow at the Ewha Institute for the Humanities at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and Visiting Fellow at the Ethics Centre of the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena. He is editor of more than 10 essay collections, and author of the following monographs: Metaphysics without Truth (Marquette University Press 2007), Menschenwürde nach Nietzsche (WBG 2010), Transhumanismus (Herder 2016), Schöner neuer Mensch (Nicolai, 2018), Übermensch (Schwabe 2019), On Transhumanism (Penn State University Press 2020), We have always been cyborgs (Bristol University Press, 2022), Philosophy of Posthuman Art (Schwabe, 2022). In addition, he is Editor-in-Chief and Founding Editor of the “Journal of Posthuman Studies” (a double-blind peer review journal, published by Penn State University Press since 2017). Furthermore, he is in great demand as a speaker in all parts of the world (World Humanities Forum, Global Solutions Taipei Workshop, Biennale Arte Venezia, TEDx) and a regular contact person of national and international journalists and media representatives (Die Zeit, Cicero, Der Standard; Die Presse am Sonntag, Philosophy Now, Il Sole 24 Ore). www.sorgner.de & www.mousike.de
Stefan’s monograph, “On Transhumanism”, which has been translated into English by Penn State University Press, can be found here.
Here, you find information on his monograph “We Have Always Been Cyborgs: Digital Data, Gene Technologies, and an Ethics of Transhumanism”.
Here, you find the announcement of his next monograph “Philosophy of Posthuman Art”.
About “We Have Always Been Cyborgs":
"With an encyclopaedic knowledge of transhumanism and a deep philosophical grounding, especially in Nietzschean thought, Stefan Sorgner tackles some of the most challenging ethical issues currently discussed, including gene editing, digital data collection, and life extension, with uncommon good sense and incisive conclusions. This study is one of the most detailed and comprehensive analyses available today. Highly recommended for anyone interested in transhumanist/posthumanist ideas and in these issues generally." — N. Katherine Hayles, University of California, Los Angeles
“An eye-opening, wide-ranging and all-inclusive study of transhumanism. Sorgner’s account avoids both the utopian trap and the bogeyman spectre. He makes a compelling case for placing ourselves on the transhuman spectrum. How we continue to use technologies is in our hands. Sorgner’s book is both a comprehensive introduction to transhumanist thought and a clear-sighted vision for its future realisation.” — Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford
Nicole Ilieva: Upon obtaining her International Baccalaureate degree in her home country of Bulgaria, Nicole Ilieva continued her studies in Communications and Philosophy at John Cabot University in Rome. Nicole is fascinated by the Posthuman studies field and the ethics of emerging technologies in regards to challenging the traditional dualist and essentialist understanding of the world.
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