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 conceptions 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 reveals 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. 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, believers 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 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 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, rather, they 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.”

This post originally appeared on April 6, 2020. 

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2 thoughts on “Martin Hägglund’s, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

  1. Plus there’s uploading, which I accept without knowing at all what it is about: don’t want to know at this time. Ignorance is not bliss—but it can be bliss. Whereas, multiple copies of a person can readily be grasped.
    Other technologies as well, but you’d need to have interviews with scientists and engineers to begin to scratch the surface.
    Only thing I’d disagree with here is that a religious immortality would be boring: am not a philosopher, but it might be proving a negative or a tautology to presume so.
    The Book of Revelation states that after the Apocalypse, a 1,400 mile by 1,400 mile by 1,400 paradise consisting of many precious metals and jewels will be formed. Including a pearl exterior— the fabled Pearly Gates. Hypothetically, it doesn’t sound too boring, does it? Heavy emphasis on ‘hypothetical’.

  2. This is regarding Al’s comment above: To me this does sound extremely boring and more importantly, to me, completely meaningless. “Precious metals and Jewels”, Precious to whom? Precious why? As far as earth is concerned precious metals are precious because they are rare and/or valuable to humans. In heaven how could something have value? Are we working in heaven and therefore need these precious metals to build things and pay people? 4200 Square miles seems very small regardless of how many precious jewels we all have. If everyone has precious metals and jewels are they really precious? Just like if every work email is marked urgent, urgent becomes meaningless. Then again, if god of the Hebrew bible does exist, he does seem like the kind of entity that would still put value on things even in heaven and have people fight over who’s jewels were better.

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