The Revolt Against Transhumanism
Having introduced transhumanists ideas to university students for more than a decade, I am familiar with typical objections to transhumanist philosophy: if we don’t die the world will become overpopulated; transhumanism is science fiction; things can go wrong; technology is bad; death makes life meaningful; immortality would be boring; not having a body would be yucky; etc.
I have also encountered responses like: “we shouldn’t play god,” or “we should let nature take its course.” Here is an example of this type of critique from an essay, “Transhumanism: Mankind’s Greatest Threat.”
Various organizations desire to use emerging technology to create a human species so enhanced that they cease to be humans. They will be post-humans with the potential of living forever. If these sciences are not closely monitored and regulated, transhumanists’ arrogant quest to create a post-human species will become a direct assault on human dignity and an attack on God’s sovereignty as Creator. We must decide on an unmovable line now, one that upholds human dignity based on Biblical Truth.
It is no longer enough to be pro-life, these critics contend, we have now entered a time when we must be pro-human. Education about the implications of these emerging sciences, according to the critics, is the key to fighting these assaults on humanity. Clearly some find transhumanism threatening.
I will admit that if you believe that humans should accept their fate, that they were specially designed and created by the gods, that the divine plan includes evil and death, and that we shouldn’t interfere with the god’s plans, then you should condemn transhumanism. However, the chance that all these things are true is infinitesimal. Moreover, the opposition to the advance of science and technology will not likely succeed. Most don’t desire to go back to the middle ages, when believers prayed sincerely and then died miserably. Today some still consult faith healers, but the intelligent go to their physicians. Furthermore, everything about technology plays god, and letting nature takes its course means that half the people reading this article—had they not benefitted from modern medicine—would have died from childhood diseases.
Still, there are good reasons to be cautious about designing and using future technologies, as Bill Joy outlined more than a decade ago in his article, “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” But I reject Joy’s suggestion that we relinquish new technologies. Yes, we should be cautious about implementing new technologies, but we shouldn’t discard them. Do we really want to turn the clock back a hundred years before computers and modern medicine? Do we really want to freeze technology at its current level? Look before we leap, certainly, but leap we must. If we do nothing, eventually we will die: asteroids will hit the planet, the climate will change irrevocably, bacteria will evolve uncontrollably, and in the far future the sun will burn out. Only advanced technologies give us a chance against such forces.
If we do nothing we will die; if we gain more knowledge and the power that accompanies it, we have a chance. With no risk-free way to proceed, we should be brave and bold, unafraid to guide our own destiny.
The Transhumanist Wager
A better way to understand the risks and rewards of transhumanism is to think in terms of a wager. The Transhumanist Wager, brainchild of noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, is such a device and it 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? There are two alternatives.
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 since doing something you are increasing your odds of being immortal.
The choice is between bettering your odds or not, and good gamblers recommend the former. 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 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 longer, happier, and healthier lives—claim to prefer death. Perhaps their current lives are just too unfulfilling to want more. Or perhaps 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 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). 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 bet on 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. 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’s as plausible as typical religious explanations of what earns reward and punishment, and it is 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.
Now consider the cryonics wager. What happens if I preserve my whole body or my brain? 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 cryogenically, then I might die and go to heaven, hell, or experience nothingness. If I do preserve myself, as we have just seen, similar outcomes 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.
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.
Unfortunately alternative #2 is problematic. 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.
Still not knowing for certain where to place our bet doesn’t mean that some bets aren’t better than others. Consider again are the three wagers:
Pascal’s wager – do nothing -> except have faith
Cryonics wager – do something -> use cryonics 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. 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 have done about disease? Should they have prayed to the gods and have faith that the gods will cure them, or should they have used 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 life-span in the last century. When medieval Europeans contracted the plague they prayed hard … and then died miserably. Other examples 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 alongside 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 confirm that it is the best path toward a better future. 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. Will we do this? 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 into 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.
Death Should Be Optional
In the end, 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 there are now plausible scenarios for overcoming death. 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 creation 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.
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 are unknown. Should human beings really want to control their very natures? Fukuyama argues that we should be humble about such matters or we may deface humanity.
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, 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.
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. As we have admitted continually, 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 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 emphasize 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, as the transhumanists say,
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.
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.
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 in childbirth or childhood or adolescence 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 impedes progress in eradicating death. Death should be optional.
Additionally there are 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 a church if its promise 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. Doubt leaves us uncomfortable, belief the reverse. And we find peace in believing exactly what we already believe.
The defeat of death obliterates most world-views that have comforted humans for millennia; no wonder it undermines psychological stability and arouses 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 twenty 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 life-span 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 life-spans, 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 don’t 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 to be a different kind of being. I want death to be optional.
We agree with the religions, we want infinite being, consciousness, and bliss. We agree with the philosophers, we want to escape the darkness of the cave, live well, be rational and choose freely. We agree with the scientists, we want lives not determined by economics, irrationality, or Pleistocene brains. To have all this we must change ourselves. The problem is not mostly in the stars, it is in our selves.
I don’t know the future. But I know that if we survive, and if science and technology continue to progress, our descendents will live in a radically different reality. I don’t know if the future will be glorious, nightmarish, or non-existent. But I do know that we will decide what the future is like—no help will come from the heavens. Changing ourselves and the world for the better is up to us. The great biologist Julian Huxley poetically painted our vision:
I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.
Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.
I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time