Category Archives: Death & Technology

Titans of Technology Want to Defeat Death

Ariana Eunjung Cha’s recent article in the Washington Post, “Tech Titan’s Latest Project: Defy Death,” discusses the attempts by the wealthy tech elite to defeat death by using their vast resources to fund anti-aging research. These elite include, most notably, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin,  Oracle’s Larry Ellison and others. As Ellison puts it: “Death makes me very angry.” 

I have written extensively defending my belief that death should be overcome and applaud the wealthy tech elite for the commitment to this most important goal. However many aren’t convinced.

In a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent said they believed treatments to slow, stop or reverse aging would have a negative impact on society. Two-thirds said they worry that radical life extension would strain natural resources, that only wealthy people would get access to new treatments and that “medical scientists would offer the treatment before they fully understood how it affects people’s health. Fifty-eight percent said treatments that would allow people to live decades longer would be “fundamentally unnatural.”

And of course there is the opposition of Francis Fukuyama, a former member of the President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, who “argues that a large increase in human life spans would take away people’s motivation for the adaptation necessary for survival. In that kind of world, social change comes to a standstill, he said; aging dictators could stay in power for centuries.” What increased lifespans have to do with adaptation I have no idea, nor does the action of the mortal regarding climate change, nuclear annihilation or environmental destruction demonstrate much interest in survival. As for what increased lifespans have to do with stopping social change or more repressive political systems I am also in the dark.(I have responded to Fukuyama’s silly arguments previously.)

And then there is that deathist and opponent of every bit of social change ever proposed, Leon Kass, who asks: “Could life be serious or meaningful without the limit of mortality?” Kass’ arguments are even more absurd that Fukuyama’s. Kass simply hates progress and is a true enemy of the future. (I have replied to Kass previously here.)

But the most interesting objection to radical life-extension comes from a man I admire greatly, the world’s greatest philanthropist, Bill Gates. who says: “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.” I do agree that giving everyone the opportunity to live say an 80 year healthy life probably takes precedence over giving a few the opportunity to live say double that. But the ultimate goal should be to eliminate death altogether. As I’ve said many times in this blog we are not truly free nor can life be ultimately meaningful unless death is optional. (The argument in detail is in my most recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives.

How Science Can Make Us Immortal

I and many other scientists now believe that in around twenty years we will have the means to reprogram our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, aging. Then nanotechnology will let us live forever. ~ Ray Kurzweil

How Science Will Make Us Immortal

If death is our end, then all we can do is die and hope for the best. But perhaps we don’t have to die. Many respectable scientists now believe that humans can overcome death and achieve immortality through the use of future technologies. But how will we do this?

The first way we might achieve physical immortality is by conquering our biological limitations—we age, become diseased, and suffer trauma. Aging research, while woefully underfunded, has yielded positive results. Average life expectancies have tripled since ancient times, increased by more than fifty percent in the industrial world in the last hundred years, and most scientists think we will continue to extend our life-spans. We know that we can further increase our life-span by restricting calories, and we increasingly understand the role that telomeres play in the aging process. We also know that certain jellyfish and bacteria are essentially immortal, and the bristlecone pine may be as well. There is no thermodynamic necessity for senescence—aging is presumed to be a byproduct of evolution —although why mortality should be selected for remains a mystery. There are reputable scientists who believe we can conquer aging altogether—in the next few decades with sufficient investment—most notably the Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey.

If we do unlock the secrets of aging, we will simultaneously defeat many other diseases as well, since so many of them are symptoms of aging. Many researchers now consider aging itself to be a disease. There are a number of strategies that could render disease mostly inconsequential. Nanotechnology may give us nanobot cell-repair machines and robotic blood cells; biotechnology may supply replacement tissues and organs; genetics may offer genetic medicine and engineering; and full-fledge genetic engineering could make us impervious to disease.

Trauma is a more intransigent problem from the biological perspective, although it too could be defeated through some combination of cloning, regenerative medicine, and genetic engineering. We can even imagine that your physicality could be recreated from a bit of your DNA, and other technologies could then fast forward your regenerated body to the age of your traumatic death, where a backup file with all your experiences and memories would be implanted in your brain. Even the dead may be resuscitated if they have undergone the process of cryonics—preserving organisms at very low temperatures in glass-like states. Ideally these clinically dead would be brought back to life when future technology was sufficiently advanced. This may now be science fiction, but if nanotechnology fulfills its promise there is a reasonably good chance that cryonics will be successful.

In addition to biological strategies for eliminating death, there are a number of technological scenarios for immortality which utilize advanced brain scanning techniques, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The most prominent scenarios have been advanced by the renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil and the roboticist Hans Moravec. Both have argued that the exponential growth of computing power in combination with advances in other technologies will make it possible to upload the contents of one’s consciousness into a virtual reality. This could be accomplished by cybernetics, whereby hardware would be gradually installed in the brain until the entire brain was running on that hardware, or via scanning the brain and simulating or transferring its contents to a computer with sufficient artificial intelligence. Either way we would no longer be living in a physical world.

In fact we may already be living in a computer simulation. The Oxford philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom has argued that advanced civilizations may have created computer simulations containing individuals with artificial intelligence and, if they have, we might unknowingly be in such a simulation. Bostrom concludes that one of the following must be the case: civilizations never have the technology to run simulations; they have the technology but decided not to use it; or we almost certainly live in a simulation.

If one doesn’t like the idea of being immortal in a virtual reality—or one doesn’t like the idea that they may already be in one now—one could upload one’s brain to a genetically engineered body if they liked the feel of flesh, or to a robotic body if they liked the feel of silicon or whatever materials comprised the robotic body. MIT’s Rodney Brooks envisions the merger of human flesh and machines, whereby humans slowly incorporate technology into their bodies, thus becoming more machine-like and indestructible. So a cyborg future may await us.

The rationale underlying most of these speculative scenarios has to do with adopting an evolutionary perspective. Once one embraces that perspective, it is not difficult to imagine that our descendants will resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang. Our knowledge is growing exponentially and, given eons of time for future innovation, it easy to envisage that humans will defeat death and evolve in unimaginable ways. For the skeptics, remember that our evolution is no longer primarily moved by the painstakingly slow process of Darwinian evolution—where bodies exchange information through genes—but by cultural evolution—where brains exchange information  through memes. The most prominent feature cultural evolution is the exponentially increasing pace of technological evolution—an evolution that may soon culminate in a technological singularity.

The technological singularity, an idea first proposed by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater than human intelligence. Since the capabilities of such intelligences is difficult for our minds to comprehend, the singularity is seen as an event horizon beyond which the future becomes nearly impossible to understand or predict. Nevertheless we may surmise that this intelligence explosion will lead to increasingly powerful minds for which the problem of death will be solvable. Science may well vanquish death—quit possibly in the lifetime of some of my readers.

But why conquer death? Why is death bad? It is bad because it ends something which at its best is beautiful; bad because it puts an end to all our projects; bad because all the knowledge and wisdom of a person is lost at death; bad because of the harm it does to the living; bad because it causes people to be unconcerned about the future beyond their short lifespans; bad because it renders fully meaningful lives impossible; and bad because we know that if we had the choice, and if our lives were going well, we would choose to live on. That death is generally bad—especially for the physically, morally, and intellectually vigorous—is nearly self-evident.

Yes, there are indeed fates worse than death and in some circumstances death may be welcomed. Nevertheless, for most of us most of the time, death is one of the worst fates that can befall us. That is why we think that suicide and murder and starvation are tragic. That is why we cry at the funerals of those we love.

Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent. We are not truly free unless death is optional.

The Transhumanist Wager

The Transhumanist Wager

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the “Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies,” November 10, 2014 and in Humanity+ Magazine on the same day.

You Should Make the Transhumanist Wager  

The Transhumanist Wager, brainchild of noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, can be understood as follows. If you love and value your life, then you will want the option to live as long and as well as possible. How do you achieve this?

Alternative #1 – don’t use science and technology to try to defeat death and hope there is an afterlife. But since you don’t know there is an afterlife, doing nothing doesn’t help your odds.

Alternative #2 – use science and technology to try to defeat death. By doing something you are increasing your odds of being immortal.

The choice is between bettering your odds or not, and good gamblers say the former is the better choice. At least that’s what the supporters of the argument say.

There are two basic obstacles that prevent individuals from taking the wager seriously. First, most people don’t think immortality is technologically possible or, if they do, believe such technologies won’t be around for centuries or millennia. Most are unaware that research on life-extending and death-eliminating technologies is progressing rapidly. Some researchers think we are only decades from extending life significantly, if not defeating death altogether.

Second, even if convinced that we can overcome death, many feel we shouldn’t. I have written extensively about this topic in my recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, and in recent articles, arguing that death should be optional, not mandatory. I am always amazed at how many people—when confronted for the first time with the idea that technology may give them the option of living much longer, happier, and healthier lives—claim to prefer death. There are many reasons for this, but for most the paradigm shift required is too great, guided as they are by superstition, ancient religion, distorted views of what’s natural, or a general love of stasis and disdain for change—even if it means condemning their consciousness to oblivion!

In order to better clarify the transhumanist wager let’s compare it to two other wagers—Pascal’s Wager and the Cryonics Wager.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager advances a pragmatic argument for the existence of the Christian God. Here it is in matrix form:

It’s simple. Bet that God exists, believe in God, and you either win big (heaven) or lose nothing (except perhaps a little time and money in church), or bet that god doesn’t exist, bet that you don’t believe in God, and you either lose big (hell) or win nothing (except perhaps saving a bit of time and money in church.) The expected outcome of betting that god exists is infinitely greater than betting the reverse. Thus the wise would be that God exists.

The main reason this argument fails is that it assumes there is only a single God who rewards and punishes. But we don’t know reality is like this. You might bet on the existence of the Christian God, but in the afterlife find that Allah or Zeus condemns you for your false beliefs. Or even if the Christian God exists, you can’t be sure that your version of Christianity is correct. Perhaps only 1 of the approximately 41,000 sects of Christianity is true; the version you believe is incorrect; and you will be condemned for your false beliefs.

Or consider another scenario. You believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, go to church, do good deeds, and are awoken at the last judgment by the Christian God. You’re feeling pretty good, until you hear a voice say: “I made you in my image by giving you reason. Yet you turned your back on this divine gift, believing in supernatural miracles and other affronts to reason. And you believed in me without good reason or evidence. Be gone then! Only scientists and rationalists, those who used the precious gift of reason that I bestowed upon them, can enter my kingdom.”

This scenario may not be true, but it is as plausible as typical religious explanations of what earns reward and punishment. It may even be more just. But the main point is that Pascal’s wager doesn’t work because we don’t know that there is a single god who rewards or punishes us based on whether we believe in him. We don’t know if reality is like that.

The Cryonics Wager

Now consider the cryonics wager. What happens if I preserve my whole body or my brain? The continuum of possibilities looks like this:

I——————————————————l—————————————————————-I

awake in a great reality                       never wake up                      awake in an awful reality

I might be awakened by post-human descendents as an immortal being in a heavenly world. I might be awakened by beings who torture me hellishly for all eternity. Or I might never wake up. Should I make this wager? Should I get a cryonics policy? I don’t know. If I don’t preserve myself cryonically, then I might die and go to heaven, hell, or experience nothingness. If I do preserve myself, as we have just seen, similar outcomes may await me.

In this situation all I can do is assess the probabilities. Does having a cryonics policy, as opposed to dying and taking my chances, increase or decrease my chances of being revived in a good reality? We can’t say for sure. But if the policy increases that chance, if you desire a blissful immortality, and if you can afford a policy, then you should get one.

Personally I believe that having a cryonics policy greatly increases your chance of being revived in a better reality than dying and taking your chances. I place more faith in my post-human descendants than in unseen supernatural beings. Still I can understand why others would make a different choice, and we should respect their autonomy to die and hope for the best. In the end we just can’t say for certain what the best move is.

The Transhumanist Wager

Now recall the transhumanist wager:

Do nothing (scientifically) about death -> the odds for immortality are unaffected.
Do something (scientifically) about death ->  the odds for immortality improve.
Thus, doing something is better than doing nothing.

The problem is with alternative #2. You don’t know that doing something to eliminate death increases your odds of being immortal. Perhaps there are gods who favor you doing nothing. Perhaps they think that doing something to defeat death displays hubris. I don’t believe this myself, but it’s possible. On the other hand, the gods may favor those who try to defeat death. Moreover, as was previously discussed, even if you do achieve immortality you can’t be sure it will be desirable. On the other hand, technologically achieved immortality may be wonderful.

Again the problem, as was the case with the other wagers, is that we just don’t know the nature of ultimate reality. No matter what we do, or don’t do, we may reap infinite reward, its opposite, or fade into oblivion. We can never know, from an infinite number of possibilities, what the future has in store for us. We can never know with certainty how we should wager.

Conclusion: Make The Transhumanist Wager

Still not knowing for certain where to place our bet doesn’t mean that some bets are better than others. To see this consider again are the three wagers:

Pascals wager – do nothing -> except have faith
Cyronics wager – do something -> use cyronics technology
Transhumanist wager – do something ->  use other life-extending technology

The choice comes down to doing nothing—except hoping  that you have the right religious beliefs to enter into a blissful immortality—or doing something—buying a cryonics policy and/or supporting scientific research to defeat death. (Cryonics is a particular use of science and technology.) So what should you do?

Perhaps the best way to illuminate the choice is to consider a previous choice human beings faced in their history. What should they do about disease? Should they pray to the gods and have faith that the gods will cure them, or should they use science and technology to find the cures themselves? In hindsight the answer is clear. Praying to the gods makes no difference, whereas using modern medicine has limited death and disease, and nearly doubled the human lifespan in the last century. When medieval Europeans contracted the plague they prayed hard … and then died miserably. Other examples also easily come to mind. What is the best way to predict weather, harness energy, capture sound, achieve flight, communicate over great distances, or fly to far off planets? In none of these cases is doing nothing and hoping for the best a good bet. All of the above were achieved through the use of science and technology.

These examples highlight another advantage to making the transhumanist wager—the incremental benefits that accrue as we live longer and better lives as we approach the holy grail of a blissful immortality. Such benefits provide assurance that we are on the right path, which should increase our confidence that we are making the correct wager. In fact, the benefits already bestowed upon us by science and technology in the past confirm that it is the best path toward a better future. (Half the readers of this essay would have died from a childhood disease just a century ago.) As these benefits accumulate, and as we become aware of them, our existence will become increasingly indistinguishable from the most enchanting descriptions of any afterlife.

So we should throw off archaic superstitions and use our technology? Yes Will we do this? Yes. I can say with confidence that when an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy—it will be popular. Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your intact consciousness transferred to your younger cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or a virtual reality, most will use such technologies when they have been shown to be effective. By then almost everyone will prefer the real thing to a leap of faith. At that point there will be no need to make a transhumanist wager. The transhumanist will already have won the bet.

The Overpopulation Objection to Living Forever

[This column is dedicated to my mother, Mary Jane Hurley Messerly (1919-2005). Today would have been her 95th birthday. Death is indeed a tragedy.]

Nana

I have been engaged in a dialogue with a scientist who is doing anti-aging research. He worries that anti-aging technologies, including the possibility of physical immortality, will lead to overpopulation and ecological destruction. In other words, while it may be best for individuals to live forever, it might be collectively disastrous. Readers may recognize this situation as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons.” Acting in their apparent self-interest, individuals destroy a common good. It may be convenient for individuals to pollute the air, earth, and water, but eventually this is catastrophic for all.

His research suggests:

that aging is controlled by biochemical signals. If we wish to be younger, we don’t have to repair everything that goes wrong with the body, one by one, with a bio-engineering approach.  All we have to do is to tamper with the body’s signaling chemistry … But … the increase in human life span from ~40 years 200 years ago to ~80 in advanced countries today has been accompanied by devastating global overpopulation … The rate of extinctions is far higher than during the great extinction events of the past … Never before has a single species adapted to every climate and habitat.  Never before has a single species systematically mined the biosphere as if it were a disposable trifle.

While I am unqualified to assess the worthiness of these scientific conclusions, I do not believe that overpopulation and its attendant problems should give researchers in this area pause. Here are some reasons why.

If we have conquered death we may already be transhumans or post-humans living after a technological singularity. Such beings may not want to propagate, since achieving a kind of immortality is a major motivation for having children. Such beings may be relatively independent of the physical environment too—their bodies may be impervious to environmental stressors or they may not have bodies at all. In such cases concerns about overpopulation would be irrelevant. I am not saying that they will be irrelevant, but that the tragedy of 150,000 people dying each and every day—100,000 of them from age-related causes—is a huge price to pay for speculative hypotheses about the future. We should not assume that our concerns as biological beings today will be relevant in the future.

Of course I don’t know how the future will unfold. But preserving the minds that now exist may be a better survival strategy than educating new ones. In the future we will probably need educated and mature minds—their invaluable knowledge and wisdom. So I argue that we should try to eliminate death, dealing with overpopulation—assuming we even have to—when the time comes. (Remember predictions are for global population to start stabilize around 2050.) My suggestions may be considered reckless, but remember there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. Whatever we do, or don’t do, has risks. If we cease developing technology we will not be able to prevent the inevitable asteroid strike that will decimate our planet; if we continue to die young we may not develop the intelligence necessary to design better technology. Given these considerations, I wouldn’t let hypotheticals about the future deter my research into defeating death.

Note too that this objection to life-extending research could have been leveled at work on the germ theory of disease or other life-extending research and technology in the past. Don’t cure diseases because that will lead to overpopulation! Don’t treat sick children because they might survive and have more children! I think most of us are glad we have a germ theory of disease and treat sick children. Our responsibility is to help people live long, healthy lives, not worry that by doing so other negative consequence might ensue. We are glad that some of our ancestors decided that a twenty-five year life span was insufficient, instead of worrying that curing diseases and extending life might have negative consequences. 

Most importantly, I believe it is immoral for us to reject anti-aging research and the technologies it will produce, thereby forcing future generations to die involuntarily. After anti-aging technologies are developed, the living should be free to choose to live longer, live forever, or even die young if they want to. But it would be immoral for us not to try to make death optional for them. If we made decisions for them, we would be imposing our values on them. (At the moment we tolerate a high death rate to compensate for a high birth rate, but our descendants may not share this value.)

Moreover, as I have argued previously, death is like a bomb strapped to our chest waiting to go off. The bomb is with us from birth. If it is in our power to remove that bomb for future generations, then we should. We should not let hypothetical concerns about negative consequences deter our removing those explosives. I’d bet future generations will thank us for removing such bombs. And even if  our descendants do decide that a hundred years of consciousness is enough, they will probably be thankful that we gave them the option to live longer. But I’d guess that higher forms of being and consciousness will want to preserve to their being. (For more watch this ted talk by Aubrey de Grey.)

(For a more detailed discussion about these issues and a plethora of arguments for life-extending therapies see Max More’s: “Superlongevity Without Overpopulation.”)

Death Should Be Optional

(This article was reprinted Salon, November 10, 2014 and in the online magazine of the “Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies,” November 6, 2014)

There are serious thinkers—Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Michio Kaku, Marshall Brain, Aubrey de Grey and others—who foresee that technology may enable humans to defeat death. There are also dissenters who argue that this is exceedingly unlikely. And there are those like Bill Joy who think that such technologies are technologically feasible but morally reprehensible.

As a non-scientist I am not qualified to evaluate scientific claims about what science can and cannot do. What I can say is that plausible scenarios for overcoming death have now appeared. This leads to the following questions: If individuals could choose immortality, should they? Should societies fund and promote research to defeat death?

The question regarding individuals has a straightforward answer—we should respect the right of autonomous individuals to choose for themselves. If an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy, then you should be free to use it. My guess is that such a pill would be wildly popular! (Consider what people spend on vitamins and other elixirs on the basis of little or no evidence of their efficacy.) Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your consciousness transferred to your younger cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or into a virtual reality, you should be free to do so. I believe that nearly everyone will use such technologies once they are demonstrated effective. But if individuals prefer to die in the hope that the gods will revive them in a paradise, thereby granting them reprieve from everlasting torment, then we should respect that too. Individuals should be free to end their lives even after death has become optional for them.

The argument about whether a society should fund and promote the research relevant to eliminating death is more complex. Societies currently invest vast sums on entertainment rather than scientific research; although the latter is a clearly a better societal investment. Ultimately the arguments for and against immortality must speak for themselves, but we reiterate that once science and technology have extended life significantly, or defeated death altogether, the point will be moot. By then almost everyone will choose to live as long as possible. In fact many people do that now, at great cost, and often gaining only a few additional months of bad health. Imagine then how quickly they will choose life over death when the techniques are proven to lead to longer, healthier lives. As for the naysayers, they will get used to new technologies just like they did to previous ones.

Nonetheless the virtual inevitability of advanced technologies to extend life does not imply their desirability, and many thinkers have campaigned actively and vehemently against utilizing such options. The defenders of death advocate maintaining the status quo with its daily dose of 150,000 deaths worldwide. Prominent among such thinkers are Leon Kass, who chaired George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics from 2001-2005, Francis Fukuyama, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford, and Bill McKibbon, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.

Kass opposes euthanasia, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research and was an early opponent of in vitro fertilization, which he thought would obscure truths about human life and society. (IVF had none of the dire consequences that Kass predicted; in fact, the technology now goes mostly unnoticed now.) One of Kass’ main concerns is with the enhancement capability of biotechnology, which he fears will become a substitute for traditional human virtues in the quest to perfect the species. His concerns about modifying our biological inheritance extend to his worries about life extension. He values the natural cycle of life and views death as a desirable end—mortality, he says, is a blessing in disguise.[i]

Fukuyama argues that biotechnology will alter human nature beyond recognition with terrible consequences. One would be the undermining of liberal democracy due to radical inequality between those who had access to such technologies and those who did not. (Although there is plenty of social and economic inequality around today.) At an even more fundamental level, Fukuyama worries that the consequences of modifying humans is unknown. Should human beings really want to control their very natures? Fukuyama argues that we should be humble about such matters or “we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.[ii]

McKibbon admits the allure of technological utopia, knowing that it will be hard to resist, but he fears that the richness of human life would be lost in a post-human world. Even if we were godlike, spending our time meditating on the meaning of the cosmos or reflecting on our own consciousness like Aristotle’s god, McKibbon says he would not trade his life for such an existence. He wouldn’t want to be godlike, preferring instead to smell the fragrant leaves, feel the cool breeze, and see the fall colors. Yes there is pain, suffering, cruelty, and death in the world, but this world is enough. “To call this world enough is not to call it perfect or fair or complete or easy. But enough, just enough. And us in it.”[iii]

There is a lot to say against all these views, but one wonders why these thinkers see human nature as sacrosanct. Is our nature so sacred that we should be apologists for it? Isn’t it arrogant to think so highly of ourselves? This human nature produced what Hegel lampooned as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized.” Surely we can do a better than what was created through genetic mutations and environmental selection.

Still we must concede something to these warnings. The same technologies that may make us immortal are also the ones that bring robotic police and unmanned planes. Yet there is no way to assure that we will not suffer a nightmarish future no matter how we proceed. There is no risk-free way to proceed. With greater knowledge comes greater power; and with greater power comes the possibility of making life better or worse. The future with all its promises and perils will come regardless—all we can do is do our best.

The defense of immortality against such attacks has been undertaken most thoroughly by the recent intellectual and cultural movement known as transhumanism, which affirms the possibility and desirability of using technology to eliminate aging and overcome all other human limitations. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, transhumanists maintain that humans are in a relatively early phase of their development. They agree with humanism—that human beings matter and that reason, freedom, and tolerance make the world better—but emphasizes that we can become more than human by changing ourselves. This involves employing high-tech methods to transform the species and direct our own evolution, as opposed to relying on biological evolution or low-tech methods like education and training.

If science and technology develop sufficiently, this would lead to a stage where humans would no longer be recognized as human, but better described as post-human. But why would people want to transcend human nature? Because

they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to posthumanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills, and intelligence.[iv]

And why would one want these experiences to last forever? Transhumanists answer that they would like to do, think, feel, experience, mature, discover, create, enjoy, and love beyond what one can do in seventy or eighty years. All of us would benefit from the wisdom and love that come with time.

The conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time; in the last quartets of Beethoven, the last words and works of ‘old men’ like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw, we see glimpses of a maturity and substance, an experience and understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present in children or in teenagers. They attained it because they lived long; because they had time to experience and develop and reflect; time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals—a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, an Einstein— enriching our world not for a few decades but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called “Childhood’s End”—the beginning of the adulthood of humanity.[v]

As for the charge that creating infinitely long life spans tamper with nature, remember that something is not good or bad because it’s natural. Some natural things are bad and some are good; some artificial things are bad and some are good. (Assuming we can even make an intelligible distinction between the natural and the unnatural.) As for the charge that long lives undermine humanity, the key is to be humane, and merely being human does not guarantee that you are humane. As for the claim that death is natural, again, that does not make it good. Moreover it was natural to die before the age of thirty for most of human history, so we live unnaturally long lives now by comparison. And few people complain about this. But even if death is natural, so too is the desire for immortality. Yes people had to accept death when it was inevitable, but now such acceptance impede progress in eradicating death. Death should be optional.

Additionally there are important reasons to be suspicious about the anti-immortality arguments—many are made by those who profit from death. For example if a church sells immortality its business model is threatened by a competitor offering the real thing. Persons no longer need to join an institution if its promise of immortality is actually delivered elsewhere for a comparable cost. Anti-technology arguments may be motivated by self-interest and, as we all know, most people hesitate to believe anything that is inconsistent with how they make money. Just look at the historical opposition to the rise of modern science and the accompanying real miracles it brought. Or to tobacco companies opposition to the evidence linking smoking with cancer, or to the oil companies opposition to the evidence linking burning fossil fuels with global climate change.

A connected reason to be suspicious of the defenders of death is that death is so interwoven into their world-view, that rejecting it would essentially destabilize that world-view, thereby undercutting their psychological stability. If one has invested a lifetime in a world-view in which dying and an afterlife are an integral part, a challenge to that world-view will almost always be rejected. The great American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce captured this point perfectly:

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.[vi]

The defeat of death completely obliterates most world-views that have supported humans for millennia; no wonder it undermines psychological stability and arouses fierce opposition. Thus monetary and psychological reasons help to explain much opposition to life-extending therapies. Still people do change their minds. We now no longer accept dying at age thirty and think it a great tragedy when it happens; I argue that our descendents will feel similarly about our dying at eighty. Eighty years may be a relatively long lifespan compared with those of our ancestors, but it may be exceedingly brief when compared to those of our descendents. Our mind children may shed the robotic equivalent of tears at our short and painful lifespans, as we do for the short, difficult lives of our forbearers.

In the end death eradicates the possibility of complete meaning for individuals; surely that is reason enough to desire immortality for all conscious beings. Still, for those who do not want immortality, they should be free to die. But for those of us that long to live forever, we should free to do so. I want more freedom. I want death to be optional.

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[i] Leon Kass, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).
[ii] Francis Fukuyama, “Transhumanism,” Foreign Policy (September-October 2004).
[iii] Bill McKibbon, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York: Henry Hold & Company, 2003), 227.
[iv] http://humanityplus.org/learn/transhumanist-faq/#answer_20
[v] http://humanityplus.org/learn/transhumanist-faq/#answer_40
[vi] Charles Sanders Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12, (November 1877).