JCU Hosts International Symposium on Professor Sorgner’s Latest Book

On March 31, JCU’s Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted an international symposium on Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner’s new book We Have Always Been Cyborgs (Bristol University Press, 2022). Academics, thinkers, and intellectuals from Europe and North America participated in the symposium to analyze and reflect upon the ideas and values presented in Professor Sorgner’s latest monograph. The symposium began with an introduction by JCU President Franco Pavoncello, followed by seven speakers who got the chance to then discuss their views with Professor Sorgner.

Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

The first speaker was Jennifer Merchant, a professor at Paris-Pantheon-Assas University who researches, among other things, the intersection between political science, gender studies, and bioethics. Her presentation focused on the politics of human reproduction, specifically in relation to race and sexual orientation. She reviewed a book by Chris Hables Gray entitled Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age (Routledge, 2001). The book transforms the American Bill of Rights into a Cyborg Bill of Rights which Merchant analyzes and juxtaposes with Sorgner’s own work. As the presentation morphed into a discussion of data privacy, Professor Sorgner responded by listing the different data management systems of China, the United States, and Europe. Describing data as “the new oil,” Sorgner is worried that Europe’s data privacy laws are too strict and will disadvantage the continent in comparison to the United States and China, a sentiment he reiterated throughout the symposium.

The next speaker was Rebecca Bamford, a senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and Nietzsche scholar. Her presentation focused on using her expertise on Nietzsche to critique and revise Professor Sorgner’s work. Although she applauded Sorgner for bridging the gap between the history of philosophy and contemporary thought, she believes he mistakenly separated the politics of Nietzsche from the ethics: because these concepts are so intertwined, Bamford believes that it’s not possible to analyze one without the other.

After, Fr. Phillip Larrey, a Catholic priest and academic who is the Chair of Logic and Epistemology and Dean of Philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University in the Vatican, discussed Sorgner’s book and compared it to contemporary transhumanist endeavors. Like Bamford, Fr. Larrey complimented how Professor Sorgner connected old ways of thinking with new ones but disagreed with the claim that transhumanists must be atheist, naturalists, and liberals (although Sorgner rejected this claim during the discussion). Fr. Larrey went on to raise concerns over innovations made by visionaries such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Although he recognized their brilliance, he pointed out that the drive to cure aging will not necessarily lead to a happier life.

The next speaker was Dr. Stephen Umbrello, managing director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and postdoctoral research Fellow at Delft University of Technology. Dr. Umbrello investigated how Professor Sorgner’s arguments could be compared to the American model of data ownership: how the United States could maintain technological superiority over China in matters of AI and machine learning for the purposes of national security. Dr. Umbrello questioned how the American system relied upon so-called “good-faith actors” and compared that with the Chinese model for data management. Professor Sorgner responded by discussing the ethics of using AI in warfare. He again questioned the data privacy laws in Europe and concluded that algorithms are the only plausible entity that should control data.

Next came a presentation by Maurizio Balistreri, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Turin, whose research focuses on bioethics, AI, and roboethics. Balistreri’s presentation focused on the moral arguments surrounding genetic enhancement. Specifically, he investigated the ethics of gene editing on children, saying “the very reasons that justify obligation for education can also justify obligation for genetic modification interventions designed to improve personal abilities and disposition.” Professor Sorgner discussed his views by asking where responsibility lies, with the government or the individual? Further, he asked how far a technology must progress before it can be widely adopted. He brought up the example of how the automated elevator system became so safe and secure that human operators were no longer required. He posited that autonomous vehicles may soon reach this threshold.

The next speaker was Dr. Piergiorgio Donatelli, professor of philosophy at La Sapienza University of Rome, where he’s written on the history of ethics, bioethics, and issues related to human life. Dr. Donatelli had both points of agreement and dispute with Professor Sorgner’s work. He agreed with the good spirit in which Professor Sorgner discussed Western ideals but disagreed with the argument surrounding the co-existence of objectivity and impermanence. From this, he went on to challenge Sorgner’s contemporary notion of the good, since one cannot apply fixed ideals because they are open to experimentation as new generations of thinkers develop new views. To Sorgner’s points regarding negative freedom, Dr. Donatelli argued one cannot separate negative freedom from the overall shape of society. To conclude, the two thinkers agreed on the importance of the advancement of negative freedom in the Western world.

The seventh and last speaker, Dr. Sarah Chan, is a Fellow and Reader in bioethics at the Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the ethics of new biomedical technologies, reproductive medicine, and human and animal enhancement. She began by defining transhumanism as the process by which humans overcome their own limitations. However, she questioned how transhumanism would affect diversity and authenticity, and who determines the idea of the good life. How and for whom is progression defined? She went on to divide political technologies that regulate the social human as distinct from biotechnologies that regulate the physical human. She concluded by stressing the importance of liberal democracies to uphold free thought and use their resources and voices for positive change.

The symposium offered viewers a scholarly and detailed analysis of Professor Sorgner’s monograph. From an international comparison of data privacy laws to philosophical discussions on freedom, the symposium was a valuable opportunity for students and faculty interested in transhumanism and humanity’s relationship with technology to engage with the field’s leading thinkers. Although at times the speakers both agreed and disagreed with Sorgner’s claims, all agreed that the book sparked a comprehensive and valuable conversation on human advancement.