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We Have Always Been Cyborgs by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner
Natasha Beranek sees transhumanism get an upgrade.
‘Transhumanism’ is a movement which says that we should enhance humanity with technology. Specifically, it sees emerging genetic and cyborg technologies as a way to promote our collective survival and individual flourishing. In the latter context it is frequently associated with notions of human perfectibility.
As a childhood gymnast, I became well acquainted with perfection’s pursuit. The pointed toe, the straight leg, the split leap locked into a 180 degree angle – gymnastics is an extended dance in distancing oneself from the fallibility of flesh and bone.
This is not the sort of perfection that most gymnasts are pursuing, though. At least, not really. It is in fact an intensely psychological endeavor. To be a gymnast is to be engaged in an ongoing mastery of one’s hopes and fears, one’s impulses and drives, all while repeatedly being yanked back down into a gritty sensorium of ripped blisters and chalk dust. Gymnasts track their progress: the acquisition of each new skill and the triumph over every nagging fear is a sort of ‘upgrade’ in their development. Pushing ever further against the laws of physics, gymnasts say yes, again and again, to the pain of everyday practice. Amor fati – love of one’s fate – is the mantra these athletes murmur as they chase fleeting moments of aerial freedom and corporeal power.
A gymnastics routine is ostensibly based upon an established dynamic between an athlete, a piece of equipment, and gravity, with the vault (or balance beam, or uneven bars) serving simply as a piece of technology over which the gymnast temporarily exerts control. Yet an apparatus is much more than a means to a landing. When the 2020 Olympic gold medal gymnast Nina Derwael explains that “the bars speak to me, and in return I listen” (International Gymnast Online, 10 March 2021), she’s describing a relation in flux, ceaselessly becoming new in the time and space between bars.
Gymnasts in flight crack open and make visible our human-defined order of things. The post-disciplinary anthropologist Tobias Rees is also speaking to such moments of possibility when he defines poetry as something that attempts to “capture that which cannot be captured” (After Ethnos, 2018, p.26). Forthcoming innovations in AI, biology, and cyborgization are similarly unfolding outside our taken-for-granted understandings of humanity, nature, and technology. Microbiome research throws into question where microorganisms end and the individual person begins. Like a case of the ‘twisties’ – a condition that renders a gymnast completely disoriented in the air – the philosophical vertigo our inventions and scientific discoveries induce can be debilitating, leaving us feeling rudderless, unsure of our identity and our relation to the world around us. They also bring to the fore pragmatic challenges for how we may most authentically and empathetically live amid these breakthroughs. For example, as gene technologies continue to expand, what limits, if any, should be placed upon parents who wish to ‘enhance’ their children’s intelligence or athletic aptitude through genetic splicing?
Sorgner Steps Up
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, a German philosopher based at John Cabot University in Rome, has been engaged with these questions for the past decade, and We Have Always Been Cyborgs: Digital Data, Gene Technologies, and an Ethics of Transhumanism (2021) tackles their intricacies head on.
Cyborg Woman Rhetos 2023 Public Domain
The title encapsulates Sorgner’s fundamental appeal to his readers. In order to most smoothly navigate and benefit from the next act of the Digital Age, when these technologies will begin to enter the human body, we must realize that since the dawn of Homo sapiens we have been ‘steered organisms’ (a literal translation of ‘cyborgs’) – that is, steering ourselves through a series of ‘upgrades’, including language acquisition, education, and vaccination. Brain-computer interfaces like Elon Musk’s Neuralink will simply be the next step in this long history of cyborgization – albeit one, Sorgner says, in which our capacity to guide our own evolution has gone exponential. But given the long history of human modification by humans, and the benefit this has yielded us, modes of thinking that cast nature as ‘pure’ and ‘good’ while dismissing technology as ‘artificial’ and ‘bad’ are not only flawed, they unnecessarily hamper our potential to thrive.
A self-identified transhumanist, Sorgner’s vision is significantly influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche – a factor, he admits, that makes his trek through this philosophical minefield even more volatile, given Nietzsche’s misappropriation by the Third Reich and other eugenicists. As it stands, transhumanists already tend to receive one-sided portrayals in the media, being cast, Sorgner says, as “cold-hearted, blood-sucking, Silicon Valley billionaires.”
Sorgner distances his vision of transhumanism from these more specious portrayals. He also takes pains to differentiate his ‘weak’ transhumanist approach from those of other notable transhumanists, such as Oxford’s Nick Bostrom, who upholds a Renaissance ideal of perfection that Sorgner finds implausible, as well putting forward as a ‘simulation’ argument [the idea that we are probably living inside an alien computer simulation, Ed] which Sorgner regards as largely irrelevant. Rather than focusing on more fantastical forms of ‘silicon-based’ humanity, such as mind uploading, Sorgner’s concept of the good life is one that stresses a ‘carbon-based’ practical relevance and fosters a greater plurality of avenues towards human flourishing. Yet even as a ‘positive pessimist’, Sorgner aligns himself with most transhumanists’ optimism about technological innovation. Yes, our lives are full of struggle, with moments of pleasure – espressos, sexual euphoria, meeting work deadlines – that are too brief, and few and far between. Considering how much vaccination, antibiotics, and anaesthetics – all recent developments in the grand scheme of things – have improved our lives, however, we should be hopeful that newly emerging technologies will continue to alleviate our suffering.
Technology versus Freedom
How receptive one is to such proposals from Sorgner or other transhumanists’ proposals is likely to be a reflection of how well one perceives liberalism to be currently working as a political model.
This cannot be overstated. In We Have Always Been Cyborgs, underlying each of Sorgner’s proposals about the enhancement of parenting, education, sexuality, or morphological modification and reproductive technologies, is his allegiance to negative freedom, that is, to freedom from control or coercion. For Sorgner this is a core Enlightenment value, which aims to safeguard personal freedom from outside interference. So Sorgner’s ‘ethical nihilism’ would not condemn a (grown-up) brother and sister who mutually consent to sexual relations. But it would strongly reject the actions of a pedophile, who in pursuing his or her idiosyncratic drives is harming others. Certainly this is a stark example. Anthropologists have long observed incest, of varying degrees of closeness, to be a universal cultural taboo. Yet Sorgner’s view of negative freedom would override this as an absolute taboo, rendering it paternalistic and violent.
Serengeti Cyborg Man by Fanuel Leul 2020 Creative Commons 2
With all of this freedom talk in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if readers who are new to Sorgner spontaneously spit out their morning cortados when they arrive at Cyborgs’ section on digital privacy. I can already hear readers asking, “How is it not an utter contradiction for Sorgner to cherish a radically pluralistic concept of the good on the one hand, while on the other concluding that we must inevitably accept total surveillance via RFID chipping? How could we ever truly safeguard our freedom if there’s no longer any privacy – if our biometric data is constantly being entered into an ‘Internet of Bodily Things’ database, for example?”
Key to understanding Sorgner’s consent to the internet panopticon is his perspective that it isn’t freedom and privacy that are synonymous, but freedom and health. Most human beings identify an increase of our healthy years with living a better life. Aging, Sorgner writes, “is the worst mass murderer in the world.” So aging should be approached as a disease rather than as an undoable process. And in order to prolong our ‘healthspan’ – the number of vital (not total) years we enjoy on this planet – we must take full advantage of the scientific knowledge and medical innovations that will come from the mass collection of a wide range of personal data. The maintenance of our health will inevitably be improved the more data is collected and analysed concerning correlations between aging, genes, and lifestyle choices. So unlike many speculative Silicon Valley transhumanists, who strive for ‘immortality’ via cryonics or mind-uploading, Sorgner’s pragmatism leads him to conclude that embracing Big Data offers our most realistic chance to promote the flourishing of all individuals.
On a geopolitical scale too, in order to keep pace technologically with (say) China, it will be necessary for us to develop a democratic method for collecting and using this data. Not only does the Chinese government already collect data in massive quantities, but its citizens are more amenable to it, given their relatively collectivist orientation towards subsuming the individual to the common good.
The need to collect personal data en masse is a reluctant conclusion on Sorgner’s part: “I wish to stress very much that my analysis is not one about which I am happy, as I am aware that the risks and dangers for a liberal system are enormous.” Yet we’re only two clicks away from an abundance of social media evidence which indicates that we don’t cherish our privacy as much as we like to think we do. So to me, Sorgner is fairly convincing in his conclusion that what we actually fear about total surveillance is not a loss of privacy per se, but that we might be unfairly sanctioned for our genetics, disease states, personal preferences, or behaviors. All the more reason, he argues, that the norm of negative freedom against control or coercion must be culturally promoted and legally protected. However, “Norms and values are just as much fictions as money,” writes Sorgner – so it is left up to us to continue to strongly believe in the value of radical plurality, even as our digital privacy fades.
Nietzsche versus Tradition
If the most promising means for promoting human flourishing are to be found within the carbon-based realm, how can we most responsibly engage with them?
Here the Nietzschean flavor of Sorgner’s transhumanism fully emerges. Nietzsche, like Darwin, saw humans as being different from non-human animals only in degree rather than in kind. Despite this, a metaphysical understanding of persons as part material body and part immaterial mind or soul, has persisted in our social and legal systems, perhaps because they were heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian ethics. In Sorgner’s view, this is an immoral state of affairs, because it impinges on the degree to which we can make autonomous choices about our use of biotechnologies.
Nietzsche coloured by Cassowary Colorizations 2018 Creative Commons 2
He directs his discussion towards the decision-making of parents or parents-to-be. For example, moral decision about the use of pre-implantation testing (PGD) and in-vitro fertilisation, should be left to the potential parents, not the state. Where there is disagreement on reproductive technologies, Sorgner writes, “The opinion ought to be legalized in favor of more freedom.”
Bioethical debates about personhood and what counts as ‘harm’ remain strongly enmeshed in Judeo-Christian metaphysics and Kantian ethics, adding kindling to what many are likely to view as Sorgner’s inflammatory conclusion that the ‘person-object dichotomy’ simply cannot be upheld. Unlike Jürgen Habermas – one of the most prominent German philosophers of the late twentieth century – Sorgner does not regard parents who would genetically enhance their children as threatening their children’s autonomy or using them as mere means to the parents’ end, in Kantian terms. As in many other places throughout Cyborgs, Sorgner supports his perspective by drawing an analogy between child-rearing and genetic enhancement. “In both cases,” he writes, “decisions are being made by parents concerning the development of their child, at a stage where the child cannot yet decide… Parents usually love their children and want them to have the best possible starting points in life. Of course, parental decisions do not always produce good results. But, as a rule of thumb, parental influence most often leads to better outcomes than those from chance or without any guidance.” Sorgner further counters Habermas’s other concerns about genetic modification, foremost among them, its seeming irreversibility – by referring to cutting-edge research in the fields of epigenetics, siRNA therapy, and gene silencing.
In the wrap-up to Cyborgs, Sorgner attempts to resolve any lingering doubts that readers may have about the details of his transhumanist alignment with Nietzsche. There are certain aspects of Nietzsche’s thinking that Sorgner regards as immoral, such as his vision of a two-class ‘master and slave’ society. Such a hierarchical structure is deeply illiberal, and Sorgner cherishes liberalism above all else. Yet Sorgner finds Nietzsche’s basic impulses of self-discovery, truthfulness, and the will-to-power indispensable to a radically pluralistic understanding of perfection: “Someone lives a good life by following their very own idiosyncratic psychophysiological demands, their very own desires, passions and fantasies… [but] to become aware of one’s very own drive is much more difficult than is often believed.” Sorgner also offers Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence as providing a possible framework for life’s meaning, he says it is the avenue by which we can experience “that special moment, which is worth all the suffering [we] have to endure, as [we] know that this one special moment will recur again and again.” This is meaning founded on the Nietzschean idea that your life has moments worth repeating forever which make all of the suffering surrounding them worthwhile.
Transhumanism is not a religion, despite the focus that many of its retinue place on ethereal aims like immortality, disembodied consciousness, and perfection. Nor can transhumanism be accurately glossed as an ‘ideology’, given its diversity of opinions on possible outcomes. We Have Always Been Cyborgs by contrast renders transhumanism much more ‘terrestrial’, demonstrating that it is better understood as a philosophically-informed positive attitude towards the use of technologies. It is interested in providing innovative options for our existence rather than introducing dystopian constraints on our individuality. The book encourages us to realize that before we can avail ourselves of emerging technologies, we need to do the work of questioning the boundaries between humanity, nature, and technology. If done well, this will inevitably lead to even more provocative questions: What do these categories even mean? How and why did we come to take them for granted? And what makes us feel that we need to cling to them so tightly?
All around us possibilities are opening up for brand new ways of thinking and radically different options for living and being in the world. The sudden realisation of these possibilities can create the poetry of unanticipated liberation, like gymnasts in flight. And that, too, is perfection.
© Dr Natasha Beranek 2023
Natasha Beranek is an anthropologist. She is a graduate of the Transformations of the Human school in Berkeley, California and now edits the ‘Anthropology and Transhumanism’ book series at Trivent Publishing.
A version of this review has been published in The Annals of the University of Bucharest, Philosophy Series.
• We Have Always Been Cyborgs by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, Bristol University Press, 2021, £37 pb, 240 pages. ISBN: 1529219205