Review of Martin Hägglund’s, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

Martin Hägglund’s, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, is one of the most sublime books I’ve ever read—and I’ve devoured thousands of books in my life. It is a work of great erudition and originality; it is carefully and conscientiously crafted; it overflows with thoughtful insights, poetic passages, and sparkling prose. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Since I cannot do the book justice in a brief review, I’ll focus mostly on the compatibility of Hägglund‘s views about death and meaning with my transhumanism.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Hägglund critiques religious ideas of an afterlife as both unattainable and undesirable. Instead, he says, we should find meaning in the fragility and finitude of this life by practicing what he calls secular faith. In part two, he argues that capitalism alienates us from our finite lives while democratic socialism best provides the conditions in which we can use our time to express our spiritual freedom.

Hägglund defines finitude as being dependent on others and living in the shadow of death. Likewise, our projects are finite because they live on only to the extent that someone is committed to them. (For me, finitude also includes my physical, psychological, moral, and intellectual limitations. Regarding my projects, I’d add that they can survive us if others carry on our work after our deaths. Bertrand Russell expressed this idea beautifully.)

Religious immortality might seem to solve the problem of finitude but, according to Hägglund, an eternal afterlife is not only unachievable but undesirable. Why? Because it would be a reality where there would be nothing to be concerned about and nothing could go wrong. Moreover, activities there would be self-sustaining—not requiring any effort on our part. Therefore, activity in a heaven wouldn’t be our own.

Hägglund offers other arguments to undermine the supposed value of immortality: that things only matter to us because we could lose them; that the question of how we live our lives only makes sense if we’re finite; and that we wouldn’t use our time well if it was unlimited. Most importantly, he argues that the unchanging, permanent nature of heaven would render it static and unappealing. 

While I agree with Hägglund that a religious afterlife is unattainable and undesirable, I don’t think his arguments apply to secular or scientific immortality—using science and technology to extend good lives as long as possible, perhaps even prolonging them indefinitely. (For more see my “Death Should Be Optional“.) My wife would matter to me as much if not more if she were going to live a thousand or a million years; the question “what should I do with my life?” is perfectly intelligible without the constant threat of death; and people waste time or use it wisely independent of how much of it they think they possess.

I also agree that if things were eternally perfect, there would be nothing to do or be concerned about, but in my vision of scientific immortality, we approach perfection like an asymptote in analytic geometry—a line approached by a curve that gets continually closer to the line without ever reaching it. So there is nothing static about my view of an exceptionally long life. (Ed Gibney has suggested another image where immortality can be compared to approaching a perfect circle by shaving the edges off a polygon forever.) 

Next Hägglund says that to care about this life is the essence of secular faith. Note that this isn’t faith as in believing without evidence but the faith of savoring the fragility of what we love and care about in this life. “To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down.” I’d amend this quote slightly to say “a life that [may] end…” As long as there is the possibility of loss, we can have secular faith. So striving for scientific immortality is consistent with and even depends on secular faith because we can’t be sure of success. 

Furthermore, Hägglund claims, the prospect that the Earth will be destroyed exemplifies our finitude. Transhumanists would agree because, even if we defeat death, we may still succumb to other existential risks including the likely death of the universe itself. So secular immortality cannot promise immortality the way religion claims to. But the advantages of secular immortality are 1) it is based on real scientific and technological possibilities and 2) it can be reconciled with Hägglund’s emphasis on finitude. 

Notably, Hägglund states “Far from being resigned to death, a secular faith seeks to postpone death and improve the conditions of life … The commitment to living on does not express an aspiration to live forever but to live longer and to live better, not to overcome death but to extend the duration and improve the quality of a form of life.” And later he adds, “To affirm mortal life is to oppose death, to resist and delay it as best as possible … When we wish that the lives of those whom we love will last, we do not wish for them to be eternal but for their lives to continue.”

While Hägglund doesn’t long for immortality either for himself or others, I’d argue that the desirability of immortality is implicit in what he says about wanting to resist and delay death. As I’ve argued previously, all things being equal, longer lives provide the possibility for more meaning than shorter ones. Once you realize this there is no non-arbitrary point at which a meaningful life should end, as long as you find your life meaningful—whether you’ve lived a hundred or a thousand or a million years—you won’t want it to end. Yet if you want to end your life at any time you should have that option—that follows from respect for personal autonomy. 

Hägglund also notes that, in contrast to secular faith, religious faith isn’t ultimately concerned with the fate of the Earth. For religious believers, the essential is the eternal afterlife, not this finite life. No matter the fate of the Earth, they look to God to preserve the ideal order. In fact, many religious doctrines and visions actually look forward to the end of the world.

Therefore as a consequence of emphasizing an eternal afterlife, the religious have less reason to care about climate change, nuclear war, and other existential threats. These are less important to them because they don’t believe the most valuable things depend on finite life. For if you have religious faith what is most valuable remains even if finite life is obliterated. Yes, religious believers care about this life too, but if they think this life is intrinsically valuable they manifest secular faith. 

This secular faith is committed to finite human flourishing as an end in itself. We care about our planet, ourselves, and others because we believe they’re valuable and we can lose them. Even religious people mostly care about others—not because of divine commands or the possibility of heavenly reward—but because we are all finite beings in need of care. If we care about things besides ourselves, we have secular faith.

The idea of secular faith leads to his conception of spiritual freedom—being able to use our time as we choose. But political, social, and economic environments constrain, to varying extents, our being able to choose how we live our lives. Thus we must consider these environments in order to understand how spiritual freedom can best flourish.  

Turning to these considerations in Part 2, Hägglund argues that political theology promotes the idea that secularism has no moral foundation and cannot provide life with meaning. These are pernicious ideas, as even many religious believers admit. He notes Max Weber’s claim that secular life is a disenchanted one without values or meaning. Weber says that death once had meaning because we died fulfilled knowing that we were going to heaven. But now we die dissatisfied, believing that our lives were incomplete because we can’t know that our hopes for future progress will be fulfilled. Life and death have become meaningless—this life isn’t complete and it no longer gives way to eternal life. 

But Hägglund denies that secular life is meaningless. Weber, like Tolstoy, didn’t understand a fulfilling life. “Being a person is not a goal that can be achieved but a purpose that must be sustained.” If you say that you have had enough of life you are saying that your life is no longer meaningful. (This implies, it seems to me, that to say you haven’t had enough of life is to say that your life is still meaningful. And to say that is to say that you want to continue to live. Thus, if your death precedes your desire to keep on living, then your death is bad.)

Much of the second half of the book discusses how Karl Marx’s view that a meaningful life is one in which we get to choose how to spend our time. As Hägglund states, “The real measure of value is not how much work we have done or have to do … but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us … our own lives … are taken away from us when our time is taken from us.”

Having taught Marx’s theory of alienation, I agree that most work in a capitalist economy doesn’t allow us to express or elaborate ourselves. We often must do what we don’t want to do in order to survive. But I’d also argue that this is a feature of much of the required work in any economic system. Most of us are too good for the work we do. How then might this situation be rectified?

… we can pursue technological development for the sake of producing social goods for all of us and increasing the socially available free time for each of us. We can employ nonliving production capacities for the sake of our emancipation—giving ourselves time to lead our lives—-rather than for the sake of exploiting our lifetime.

Here the compatibility of Hägglund‘s vision with transhumanism is straightforward. The spiritual freedom he imagines depends on the success of future technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. These have the potential of decreasing our labor time and increasing our free time. With an army of robotic workers and friendly AI, we might really be able to exercise spiritual freedom.

Concluding remarks

When I first heard about Hägglund‘s book I assumed he was a deathist—one who defends the value of death. But he is not.1 His views are consistent with living extraordinarily long, if not immortal, lives. Moreover, he has helped me clarify the difference between secular or scientific immortality and religious immortality. The former implies that we can and should be able to live as long as we want although we have no guarantees we will. The latter is unachievable and undesirable.

As I’ve stated many times, I love this life so much that I want the option to live forever. My desire testifies to the value and fidelity I place on both my own life and the lives of others, especially those I love, as well as to the projects I deem important. But the long and hopefully immortal lives I imagine are not static, but ones that continually change and evolve —all moving restlessly toward more truth, beauty, goodness, love, and joy and away from their opposites. This never-ending process is, by definition, never complete and its ultimate goal of heavenly perfection never finally achievable. Perhaps this is the best, truest, and most meaningful existence possible.

This life is enough, but it can be more if we continually transcend its limitations—including the ultimate limitation imposed by death.

  1. In personal correspondence with me, Professor Hägglund wrote “I am particularly happy that you clearly see that I am not a “deathist”–an all-too-common misreading of my book. Living for an indefinitely long time (tens of thousands of years, etc) is completely compatible with my notion of mortality.”

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One thought on “Review of Martin Hägglund’s, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

  1. Hi John,
    I hope you are coping well with ‘social distancing’.

    IS THE WORLD GOING SOCIALIST? Andris Heks 7.04.2020

    Oh, the supreme irony of it all!

    The UK’s conservative PM committed his government to pay 80% of the wages of the unemployed during the pandemic. Yet only a few months earlier the electorate resoundingly voted against the Labour Party at the election for advocating a socialist agenda.
    Australia’s ultra-conservative government is providing free universal childcare and $1500 per fortnight to non-employed workers to keep them on the books of their small business employers. Altogether, the Australian government now is injecting into the economy ten times what the Labour Government did during the global financial crisis.
    At that time the same conservatives accused the then Labour Government of total economic irresponsibility for spending one tenth of what they are spending now to keep the economy afloat. And there is no significant opposition to this move.

    Yet in their last budgets the conservatives also got away with their refusal to step up spending on adequately combatting the effects of climate change, all in the name of economic responsibility.

    In the US in spite of their own conservatism and of the even greater conservatism of the Republican Party and the President, the Democrats are starting to succeed in turning into legislation Bernie Sander’s policies on assistance to the unemployed and universally free healthcare. The irony of this is that while the Democratic Party in its primaries gave preference to a more moderate Joe Biden as their preferred presidential candidate, now they are pushing Biden’s opponent, Bernie Sander’s policies into legislation.
    Now when the lives of millions are menaced by the health crisis and economies are threatened by resultant collapse, all of a sudden there evaporates the opposition to governments commanding the economy and to their skyrocketing welfare spending.

    Rampant socialism is starting to rule Western democracies, where the word ‘socialism’ was hitherto a dirty word. Who could have believed this even a few weeks ago?

    It has been the captains of industry together with their private media mouthpieces, prominently including the worldwide Murdock news outlets, which have brainwashed the public in democracies to privatise most government assets.
    Banks, energy, telecommunication, the oil industry and even much of education and health have been privatised. All western governments were urged to get out of running enterprises.
    As a result most of the control over media, energy, banks and even education was taken away from national governments and were acquired by giant private corporations.
    Hence western democracies rely only on taxes rather than having any earnings from lucrative and strategically important enterprises, like the energy and steel industries, telecommunications and national airlines.
    Autocratic China went in the opposite direction, where the party state has become the controlling shareholder in just about every major Chinese-come transnational enterprise.
    This enabled the party-state government to amass massive earnings to subsidise its enterprises to reduce the prices of goods and services to such an extent to which private transnationals cannot do because even their largest ones cannot match the Chinese government’s power of the purse.
    Thus China was able to drive much of Western and Third World industries out of business and gain near monopoly power in vital industries such as textile, electronics and steel production where they became the factory of the world.
    But with the world pandemic, national governments in Western democracies started to commandeer major enterprises to produce what their nations needed, such as ventilators and masks and provided major subsidies to companies to allow them to survive.
    There has been increased questioning of how come that Western democracies have allowed themselves to become dependent on China produced goods and of the need for governments to work with multinationals to bring much production back to Western democracies. For example, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, in his press conference on 05.4.2020, questioned the need of his state to having to have obtained ventilators from China because the US no longer produces enough of such strategic health equipment.
    The realisation in Western democracies that their governments have to have control over major industries to be able to cope with recurrent crises, such as epidemics and the effects of climate change may actually drive them to embrace democratic socialism to a much larger extent than they were willing to do so before.
    This could reduce the comparative superiority of Chinese state capitalism over the combined international power of Western social democracies.


    They are Xi Jinpin and Donald Trump.

    According to researchers from the University of Southampton, China could have cut the number of cases of Corona virus by an astonishing 95 per cent, if Wuhan, the source of the virus, was locked down 3 weeks sooner.

    Yet Xi Jinpin’s regime denied the epidemic outbreak until the 21th of January by when the virus spread to the rest of China and to most of the world.

    This criminal suppression of news coupled with the failure to lock down Wuhan then and non-intervention for three weeks makes Xi Jinpin responsible for infecting over one million people and the 59,179 deaths world-wide by April 2, 2020 and the numbers are growing exponentially daily.

    In the meantime, President Trump, against all the staggering evidence of the spreading of the virus and expert advise, delayed action in the US even longer than his counterpart Xi Jinpin did in China.

    US Intelligence agencies sounded the alarm in January and February but

    for six weeks President Trump, had stayed in denial and actively mislead the American public about the exploding pandemic.

    On the 13 of March, Trump declared a national emergency over the virus. The declaration would have required him to take over the leadership of management of the crisis from the states and provide centralised, co-ordinated national leadership. But even though he boasted that now he was a war-time President, he refused to lead and continues to mislead. He has failed to take responsibility for providing ventilators, protective masks and clothing to emergency staff, he refused to issue a nationwide stay home order, he declared he will not wear a protective mask and keeps blaming the states for shortages of treatment supplies. In the absence of a centralised emergency command, there are only patchwork interventions by the federal government, with one arm of the government not knowing what the other is doing. For example, Trump boasted at a recent press conference that the army would provide hundred thousand masks to hospitals directly to cut through red tape to relieve the shortage of masks in hospitals. But in fact the masks were to be sent to a store which was to sell the masks to any bidders on the commercial market.

    On the 30th of March he declared that if his administration keeps the death toll from the pandemic to 100,000, it will have done “a very good job” – a startling shift from his optimistic predictions a few days earlier when he bragged that he hoped to see Churches filled with worshippers and the economy restarted by Easter. Yet as of the 4th of April the death toll from the virus in the state of New York alone is nearly 3000, threatening to overwhelm the state’s morgue capacity.

    But it is still not openly admitted in the US, that multi-millions of Americans could be killed by the virus. To people who have chronic diseases the virus is a lethal threat. Yet chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the total population of the country.

    In spite of such looming threat, out the 50 states of the US, 10 still has not required its citizens to stay at home.

    Add to this that the vast majority of the population still has not been tested for the virus and testing kits are in short supply and it is clear that the pandemic is being allowed to exponentially infect an ever greater portion of the US population.

    Despite this, at the time of writing, the 5th of April, President Trump is still refusing to make a nationwide stay home order.

    In spite of Trump’s compounding the national crisis and causing increasing number of preventable deaths by the failure of his leadership, his national popularity has soared to 60%. This is only explicable by the incredible ignorance of the majority of the American electorate and that the majority gets its news from the Fox media which is a propaganda outlet for Trump and the Republican Party.

    In the meantime, Xi Jinpin’s regime is continuing to lie and claim that they have the pandemic under control in China. In fact, independent research suggests that the number of deaths in Wuhan alone is 16 times higher than what is admitted officially.

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