What should we do about death? To live means to live in its shadow. Death haunts us and shapes a large part of our culture, especially religion. Each of us knows we are going to die, but we spend most of our lives happily ignoring that fact. Last week I came across a quote from Jack London that really forced me to be on my tail regarding this overwhelming question. Today I want to think about it a little, especially in the light of the so-called Transhumanism and his attempt to “conquer death”.
Here is the quote:
âThe real function of humans is to live, not to exist. I will not waste my days extending them. I will use my time. “
So what does that have to do with it Transhumanism? As a general definition, transhumanism is “the belief or theory that the human race can develop beyond its current physical and mental limits, particularly through science and technology”. The ultimate limit for humans, of course, is death. Many transhumanists hope to use Science to Escape Death. Because of this, some people plan to freeze their bodies in hopes of being resuscitated later as technology advances.
The ultimate hope rests in “The Singularity” when the capacity of computers accelerates exponentially, leading to general artificial intelligence. As part of this machine awakening there will also be the possibility to upload your consciousness in silicon, which guarantees a kind of immortality (as long as there are machines that store and process your “connectome”).
Personally, I find the goals of the transhumanists both tragically misguided and misguided dangerous wrong (in the truest sense of the word). The misdirected part is nicely summed up in the London quote. How can there be life without death? How can our time without its end have any meaning? To borrow a page from the Buddhists (and many other spiritual traditions), death is not just “out there” somewhere. Every moment is an arising and a falling. Every moment is a birth followed by a death. Missing this point is missing out on what makes life so poignant and full of meaning and potential.
Yes, death is scary and crazy, but then again I have no direct idea of ââwhat it actually entails (I’ve never been dead myself). In the face of this reality, it is my job to live this life as completely as possible. You can fully immerse yourself in its riches, sorrow, and beauty, or you can miss it by worrying about when or how that aspect of being ends.
Transhumanism is religion
From this perspective, the transhumanist desire to “conquer” death sounds like the worst form of religious zeal. Both science and spiritual practice are designed to help us look directly into the truth of life, the universe, and everything else. Death, whatever it means, is part of all three. Trying to think differently, unfortunately, means missing the point deeply.
More importantly, however, is the madness of the transhuman view of what it means to be human. Your idea is that it is literally all in your head. In the transhumanist view, your life can be reduced to the calculations in your brain. The entirety of your experience – its liveliness and immediacy and the strange, inescapable luminosity of its presence – is all just meat processing. And if so, who needs the meat? Let’s just swap the neurons for silicon chips and everything will be the same. Damn it, it gets better and it will go on forever and ever.
There are so many assumptions and metaphysical beliefs in these ideas that it is difficult to know where to start. Most important, however, is reducing life to meat computing. It is really nothing more than an unjustified hope. It’s an infatuation with a technology that is just defining the limits of technology. But after more than half a century of AI research, there is no evidence that you can upload yourself to a machine. That is not to say that there cannot be brain-machine interfaces that expand the ability to do simple tasks. But just like us fail time and again to build a “general AI”, we will not replace the holistic âlifeworldâ in silicon.
While I am all in favor of lengthening the years of life a little (if those years are really lived), the idea of âââconqueringâ death with machines sounds more like a nightmare than a dream. So, let’s not waste our days just lengthening them, but instead embrace this day and all of the adventures of learning, compassion, and experience that it promises.