Co-Immunism In The Age Of Pandemics And Climate Change

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk speaks with Noema’s editor-in-chief, Nathan Gardels.

Thomas Pullin for Noema Magazine

Gardels: The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously remarked back in the 1960s that the advent of cybernetics meant the end of Western metaphysics. What do you think he meant by this comment? And to what extent do you agree?

Sloterdijk: It wasn’t only reading Norbert Wiener, the American philosopher and mathematician known as the father of cybernetics, that brought Heidegger to this assumption. He was familiar with all the debates among theologians and engineers going back to the 17th century about the erosion of the divide between God-given nature and man-made tools and inventions. They understood that once patterns of repetition were discovered in nature, they could be systematically replicated by machines designed to fulfill a particular purpose through instrumental reason. When the first automats came into being, they stimulated countless fantasies about artificial humans.

Cybernetics, in Heidegger’s time, was only the latest development of this evolution of spirit being put into matter and transforming it. The classical differentiation of soul and thing, spirit and matter, subject and object, freedom and technique, cannot cope with entities that are by their very constitution hybrids with both a spiritual and a material component. Cybernetics, as the theory and practice of intelligent machines and modern biology, as the study of system-environment units, has forced the questions of the old metaphysical divisions to be posed anew.

Here, [the German philosopher Georg W.F.] Hegel’s concept of objective spirit turns into the principle of information. Information enters between thoughts and things as a third value, between the pole of reflection and the pole of the thing, between spirit and matter. Intelligent machines — like all artifices that are culturally created — eventually also compel the recognition of spirit. Reflection or thought is infused into matter and remains there ready to be re-found and further cultivated. Machines and artifices are thus memories or reflections turned objective.

Gardels: In a famous interview with the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” in 1966, where he was asked about this end of metaphysics, Heidegger said “only a god can save us.” What did this mean?

Sloterdijk: Heidegger believed that modern technology uprooted and dislodged man from his time and place and thus his spiritual grounding. When he said “only a god can save us,” he feared that something the pre-Socratic Greeks grasped was being lost or forgotten through the general triumph of technology. He called this “Seinsvergessenheit,” or the obliviousness of being.

It is not easy to tell what he meant by “Sein.” Maybe it should hint at the idea that there is grace in the universe, the gift of spontaneous truth quality or inner light, sparked by the unexpected experience of a given event. In their programmed purpose, machines could neither produce nor capture something original, not rooted in either time or place and emerging outside any systemized pattern. The reason why only a god can save us is to be found in our obsession with power, with control over nature, with a reification of everything by which all of nature becomes just raw material. Only a god could bring relief from this ontological cannibalism.

Gardels: Yuval Noah Harari, the author of “Homo Deus,” has suggested that a new god has arrived: data. The idea is organisms as algorithms, which has given birth to AI and synthetic biology. As Harari said to me in an interview: Human history “will end when men become gods” through these creations.

Has the technological advance that abolished Western metaphysics produced its own god?

Sloterdijk: Despite the godlike omniscience suggested by Harari, I wouldn’t call data the new god but the basis of a new philosophical outlook beyond the old explanations of metaphysics. It means man has domesticated himself as well as nature through his tools and thus become a co-creator of being, even his own being.

“Climate change and the imperative of immunizing all civilizations from its effects will likely be the impetus for the coming axial breakthrough.”

Gardels: The Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui, author of “The Question Concerning Technology in China,” argues that AI and synthetic biology — which erase the metaphysical divide between objective and subjective and between culture and nature — only lead back to Eastern philosophy, which never embraced the metaphysical divide the West did. Daoism has always seen the inseparable unity of “dao” and “qi,” the spiritual and material, the cosmos and Earthly existence.

Does West meet East when cybernetics, AI and genomics end metaphysics? Though Heidegger believed the answer must lie in the roots of the culture from which the question arose, isn’t this Daoist perspective essentially the new philosophy Heidegger was looking for?

Sloterdijk: In the abstract, yes, we can say that the spirit of Daoism approximates this new consciousness. But in reality, the Eastern mind has been colonized by the instrumental reason of Western Enlightenment, which became globally dominant in recent centuries. Paradoxically, at the very moment the truth of the old Asian worldview shows its plausibility anew, it has been lost where it originated.

Gardels: The German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote about the Axial Age, when all the main religions and ethical systems — Confucianism in China, the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, the early Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, Zoroastrianism in Persia — emerged simultaneously in a pre-synchronized world in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.

Thinking in 1949 mostly of nuclear weapons, he had a premonition that advances on the frontiers of science and technology were laying the ground for a new Axial Age that would give birth to entirely new systems of belief and codes of behavior. That seems more likely now than ever with the advent of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and the awareness of climate change.

Do you see a new pivotal moment ahead — this time in a synchronized and connected world? Will a common global ethos emerge?

Thomas Pullin for Noema Magazine

Sloterdijk: Jaspers may have been mistaken to leave out Mesopotamia and Egypt from his Axial Age construct in order to fit it within the timeframe of simultaneity he sought to establish. But what is clear is that the “axial” breakthrough in all these civilizations was the shift from an oral culture to a written one, enabling both the interiority of reflection and transcendence — the self-distancing from one’s immediate circumstances to share common meanings with others.

Certainly, today, the ground is prepared for a new Axial Age because the main problem facing humanity is a planet synchronized by technology but not united by a common narrative. We are not yet a super-organism, as some suggest, but rather a loose agglomeration of higher-order organisms. Climate change and the imperative of immunizing all civilizations from its effects will likely be the impetus for the coming axial breakthrough.

As I wrote in my book, “You Must Change Your Life,” history so far has been a battle of immune systems between protectionism of one’s own and externalization of any damage to an anonymous environment in which no one takes responsibility. The victory of one’s own, of the holy egoisms of cities, nations and faiths, could always be purchased with the defeat of the external other. With the deterioration of Earth’s fragile atmospheric and biospheric systems, externalization has reached its absolute limit.

From now on, protectionism of the whole is the directive of what I call “immunitary reason.” The operational imperative of the future calls for a new consciousness, new habits of the heart, of cooperation and solidarity with others and nature in order to survive and thrive. I call this “co-immunism.”

I am in agreement with the British historian Arnold Toynbee that the history of the rise and fall of civilizations is a process of challenge and response. If challenges elicit a new spiritual vigor and shared inner confidence, then civilization will advance. If not, it will fail.

Most people have only very vague ideas about what the term “immune system” really means. On the biological level, it designs the inner defense and protection structures of an organism. That is why one could go as far as to say: “Life itself is the success phase of an immune system.”

Immunity, however, is not limited to an individual organism — and this is exactly what one has to learn with all its radical consequences. The security of groups depends on the faculty of its members to provide each other with the advantages of individual and collective immunity combined. So what we call “herd immunity” — a term occurring quite often these days — is a form of deep mutualism that means a state of protection that can only be reached collectively. That is why I have coined the term co-immunism. It is part of a moral-political reflection leading to a new definition of togetherness.

The coronavirus pandemic is an emergency strongly hinting that the co-immunism imperative has arrived. In this crisis, one can already see that there is no real private property of immunity advantages. The virus ignores national borders, fences and walls. Now, the moment has come to share the means of protection even with the most distant members of the family of man/woman. There is something sublime in the worldwide colloquium that has been going on among physicians sharing their best ideas to confront the new menace.

Global immunitary reason would create such a response; it is a step higher than the philosophical idealism or religious monotheism of the past. In this sense, what I call “general immunology” is the organic successor of metaphysics and of religion. All previous divisions between one’s own and the other, between humans and nature, collapse.

“History has been a battle of immune systems between protectionism of one’s own and externalization of any damage to an anonymous environment in which no one takes responsibility.”

Gardels: “Everything essential and of great magnitude,” Heidegger told his “Der Spiegel” interviewer, “has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.” In the 21st century, then, the planet itself is that home. It is a return to the earthly virtue of place on a planetary scale, a kind of return to wholeness and the unity of origins.

Sloterdijk: Yes, I think so. Heidegger was right that humans are essentially residential beings. To be a resident and to acquire higher degrees of mobility are no longer necessarily oppositions. Now, thanks to observation from space combined with the lived experience of climate change and of pandemic, we are finally seeing that the Earth is our home.

Gardels: As you have noted, the shift from oral to written culture was key to the advent of the Axial Age. The interiority of reflection and the critical self-distancing from one’s immediate circumstances introduced the quality of transcendence into human consciousness. This “great disembedding” of the person from nature and community, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has called it, in turn gave rise to the theoretic culture of monotheistic religions and ethical systems across the boundaries of individual experience, ultimately leading to the Enlightenment, science and modern autonomy of the individual.

With the new global awareness of the climate crisis you mention, with our ability now to intervene in evolution with synthetic biology and with the hyper-intelligent potential of AI, we seem to be “re-embedding” transcendence in nature and the confines of technological systems in a way that will once again diminish human centrality, perhaps even extinguishing individual autonomy.

What moral and ethical codes would undergird this new ecology of being as humanity commits to its mutation? Will we be able to salvage the human autonomy that emerged from the Axial Age in the coming epoch?

Sloterdijk: We must not forget that the concepts of human freedom and individual autonomy are not only grounded in metaphysical and religious assumptions like the presence of a divine spark or an inalienable birthright in every human person. They are also grounded in cultural and technical habits and skills, such as making fire, burning clay pots, shaping statues, melting metals, producing knives and weapons, domesticating animals, erecting buildings, riding horses, sailing ships — and mastering all the respective language-games. The strength of a person depends on his or her active participation in these abilities.

What we see emerge in all of them is autonomy in cooperation with others and creativity as the will to transform the found into the made. Both of these human features that culminated in modern times will survive in many ways, even if not always in authentic forms. Already, the world is full of empty pretensions to autonomy and endless displays of pseudo-creativity.

“With the deterioration of Earth’s fragile atmospheric and biospheric systems, externalization has reached its absolute limit.”

Gardels: Because the corporeal and mundane from which humans forge their tools are materially grounded in diverse realities — contingency — their fusing with the learned-shared meanings of transcendent understanding results in a hybrid being composed of both archetype and unique individuation, just as every musician creates a different sound from the same score. 

As Hui sees it, the planetary synchronization by Western modernity will ultimately fragment precisely because it has completed its course, opening the space once again for an incommensurate diversity of cultures within a connected unity. Do you see this dialectic at work?

Sloterdijk: That is the distinct hope.

The concept of anthropotechnics refers to the entire autopoiesis, or self-creation, of mankind in its many thousands of cultural specializations. It is empirical, pluralistic and egalitarian from the ground up — in the sense that all individuals, as heirs to the memory of mankind, are free to surpass themselves. This implies the almost classical idea that humans are “mikrokosmoi” — today we would say small factories — embedded in the super-factory of the grand universe. The idea of the singularity, promoted by the likes of [the American inventor and futurist] Ray Kurzweil, by contrast, contains futuristic, monistic and elitist elements. Although the singularity, according to its logical and rhetorical design, is meant to integrate mankind as a whole, it is evident that it could only encompass a tiny group of exceptional transhuman individuals. In speaking of the cloud and singularity, Kurzweil positions himself in a field that is preformatted by traditional philosophy, which has become obsolete.