Julian Huxley popularised the term transhumanism in an influential 1957 essay.
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities … transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1
The transhumanist wager can be understood as follows.2 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 do this? Suppose you bet on one of the following:
Alternative #1 – don’t use science and technology to try to defeat death and hope there’s an afterlife. But, since you don’t know an afterlife exists, 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; good gamblers say the former is the better choice. At least that’s what the supporters of the argument say.
Now 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, they 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. 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—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. There are many reasons for this, but for most, the paradigm shift required is too great, guided as they are by ancient religion, distorted views of what’s natural, or a love of stasis and disdain for change—even if this 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. 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, 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 smart money bets that God exists.
The main reason this argument fails is that it assumes there is a certain kind of God who rewards and punishes in a specific way. 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 one of the thousands of sects of Christianity is true; the version you believe is incorrect (which is likely); 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 the Christian God resurrects your body at the last judgment. 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.”
I don’t think this scenario is true but it is as plausible—if not more so—as typical religious explanations of what earns reward and punishment. The 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/her. We don’t know reality is like that. Why would reality be like that?
The Cryonics Wager
Now consider the cryonics wager.3 What happens if you buy a cryonics policy? The continuum of possibilities looks like this:
awake in a heaven never wake up awake in a hell
You might be awakened by post-human descendants as an immortal being in a heavenly world. You might be awakened by beings who torture you hellishly for all eternity. Or you might never wake up. Should you make this wager? Should you get a cryonics policy? I don’t know. If you don’t preserve yourself cryonically, then you might die and go to heaven, hell, or experience nothingness. These outcomes parallel those of Pascal’s wager.
So all you can do is assess the probabilities. Does having a cryonics policy, as opposed to dying and taking your chances, increase or decrease your chances of being revived in a good reality? I don’t know. But if the policy increases that chance, if you desire blissful immortality, and if you can afford a policy, then you should get one.
Personally, I believe that having a cryonics policy slightly 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 understand why others believe differently and I respect their right to die and hope for the best.
The Transhumanist Wager
Now recall the transhumanist wager:
1 – Do nothing (scientifically) about death -> the odds for immortality are unaffected.
2 – 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. On the one hand, it seems like doing something is better than doing nothing. On the other hand, maybe the gods think that trying to defeat death displays hubris so they’ll punish you for your efforts. Of course, the gods might favor those who try to defeat death. We just don’t know.
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 just don’t know what the future has in store for us. We don’t 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 all bets are equal. Consider again the three wagers:
Pascal’s wager – do nothing -> except have faith
Cryonics wager – do something -> use cryonics technology
Transhumanist wager – do something -> use any life-extending technology
The choice comes down to doing nothing—except hoping that you have the right religious beliefs to gain 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?
To answer this question consider a choice human beings faced in the past (and which some still face today.) What should we do about disease? Should we pray to the gods and hope for a cure or put our faith in science and technology? In hindsight, the answer is clear. Praying to the gods made no difference, whereas modern medicine has limited death and disease, and nearly doubled the average human lifespan in the last few hundred years. When medieval Europeans contracted the plague they prayed hard … and then died miserably. Today we cure the bubonic plague with antibiotics. Thank science.
Other examples easily come to mind. What is the best way to predict the weather, harness energy, capture sound, achieve flight, communicate over great distances, or fly to far-off planets? In none of these cases is praying and hoping a good strategy. The achievements above resulted from scientific research and its technological applications.
These examples highlight another advantage of placing our faith in science—the incremental benefits that accrue from living longer and better lives. Such benefits provide assurance that we are on the right path, increasing our confidence that we are making the correct wager.4 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 accrue, our existence will be more fulfilling thereby removing the need to hope for a hypothetical afterlife. Let us be bold then; wagering on ourselves, not on invisible beings.
1Humanity+ website’s FAQ section.
2Zoltan Istvan introduced the idea of the transhumanist wager.
3Cryonics preserves organisms at very low temperatures in glass-like states
4I would like to thank Joshua Shrode for this suggestion.