When Death is an Outlaw
If you watch 27-year-old Jason Silva on Current TV — the Emmy-winning youth-oriented cable network co-founded by Al Gore — you’d never guess that he’s a first-rate transhumanist thinker, skeptic, and passionate advocate of science in overcoming the biological limitations of being human. He looks much more like a fashion model than a stodgy philosopher of science — and, in fact, Silva was featured in the Fall 2008 GAP Icons Ad Campaign.
This young, eloquent Venezuelan-American filmmaker has already made his mark as a prolific “gonzo journalist” and founding producer for Current TV. Co-host of the nightly TV program Max and Jason: Still Up with best friend Max Lugavere, he has co-produced a wide range of stories –- on topics ranging from illegal immigration and counterfeit IDs, to a profile of a new singer songwriter just prior to signing a publishing deal, to a taped philosophical sit-down with director Darren Aronofsky.
Jason also co-hosted the first-ever global Pangea Day, a live 4-hour program of film, music, and speakers broadcast worldwide to over 150 countries and with a projected audience of 500 million people. Created by TED curator Chris Anderson, the goal of the event was “to unite the world through the transformative power of film.”
Jason studied philosophy as an undergraduate and completed a degree in film and philosophy from the University of Miami. It’s not surprising that he best expresses his viewpoint on the “will to be immortal” using the medium he knows best in a short film called The Immortalists — a “love letter to science and philosophy” that explores the idea of engineered radical life extension and biological immortality and that features Ray Kurzweil:
Jason sat down (virtually) with h+ Editor-in-Chief R.U. Sirius and Surfdaddy Orca for a 3-way conversation on a wide range of topics including science, religion, meaning, death, beauty, immortality, today’s youth, vampires, Woody Allen, Al Gore, Larry King, the Singularity, and – naturally – film and television.
See Jason’s accompanying h+ article, Immortalism: Ernest Becker and Alan Harrington on Overcoming Biological Limitations.
SURFDADDY ORCA: Perhaps a good place to start is your definition of the “Immortalist” viewpoint. You talk about defeating death in order to “Individualize eternity, to stabilize the forms and identities through which the energy of conscious life passes.” Quite poetic. I’m curious, how did you arrive at this viewpoint? Was it a sudden moment of insight or epiphany, or more of a gradual process?
JS: I’ve always been one of those people who have sought different interpretations of truth and meaning. I was caught up in this idea of man as a meaning-making and meaning-seeking creature. It’s not enough just to satisfy our biological urges. We want things to have a sense of purpose and we want a sense of transcendence associated with every idea, activity, or concept. I always felt that the more I appreciated a sensual experience in my life, or an experience of learning something new in an interpersonal relationship — I always wanted to know what it meant in the larger scheme of things. Here we are — this creature that eats and breathes and defecates and fornicates and then dies. And what do the nuanced and subtle experiences that have such meaning to us have to do with the larger scheme of things? That started me on a journey of intellectual pursuit.
My mother was an English teacher, so I was exposed to literature and books and many poetic interpretations of the human condition and the human experience. Really, for me the human condition is summed up better by Ernest Becker’s work, The Denial of Death, than any other thinker I’ve come across. He talks about the mantle of this acutely aware, self-aware creature called man that knows he is mortal. And because he knows he is mortal, he has consciously or unconsciously biased all of his actions. This mortality causes a tremendous amount of anxiety. So, we have to do something with that anxiety, right? I think all of our greatest endeavors – as well as our greatest flaws –- stem from this acute awareness of mortality.
The desire to transcend this anxiety with technology, rather than art or religion or a romantic relationship or something like that has led me to biotech, nanotech, and the accelerating exponential fashion in which technology was developing. I’d always been into this place between the philosophical and the scientific. It wasn’t enough that an idea sounded pretty in words it had to have some kind of follow up in the world of science. I studied philosophy and film in college and I wanted to use the medium of video to articulate my ideas that were philosophical and scientific in nature. This is more or the less the sum of all my experiences up until now, and the way I try to articulate them.
RU SIRIUS: Physical immorality is a physiological thing. How does the idea of immortality, and other transhumanist ideas, satisfy your quest for meaning? How do you move from physical immortality into the realm of meaning?
JASON SILVA: I’ve heard this human poetic thing that "death is what gives meaning to life" and that our brief time on Earth is what makes us appreciate life. The fact that we know that it’s going to end is what gives life any value at all. I don’t feel that way. I feel the opposite! I feel that every time I have a beautiful experience, I’m simultaneously saddened because I know that it’s a brief, temporary, impermanent moment in time. For me, the fact that experiences are fleeting, temporary, and impermanent is an unfair scenario in the face of something that to me is meaningful.
I’m reminded of an idea in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, one of my favorite books. He says that when human beings experience something sublime, they have this urge to, say… put the flag down and say "I was here" – they are saying that this matters even though we know everything is so fleeting. But nothing matters if everything is so fleeting. We discover our finitude, our mortality, and our existential angst. Some people satisfy this with religious affiliations, which I think do not serve as well in the modern age because religion is a force of stagnation and of an anti-progress mentality. Some people satisfy this itch with romantic projections, turning lovers into gods and goddesses, writing pop songs about their lovers and being saved by them. But then again, no relationship can bear the burden of these projections and such relationships never work.
So man is stuck in this existentially desolate place where, as Nietzsche said, he’s walking a fine line between ape and overman. But now he’s almost got the technology that will get us to that other place where the limitation on his mortality can be removed. I think that mortality is an existential imposition on the human race that is no longer acceptable. I identify with this viewpoint philosophically and, also, it makes scientific sense that this is where we’re going. I watched Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man recently and I thought it was brilliant. I think that extrapolating where technology is going to go with logarithmic graphs and the data that we have on human innovation –- it makes more sense to me than going to a church or a mosque to pray for salvation. Let’s engineer our own salvation.
SO: I read through the Buddhist-Immortalist debate between you and Ian MacKenzie (“The End of Death: Further Conversations with Jason Silva”). The thing that struck me was that the core of Buddhism is an appreciation for the fleeting nature of beautiful transcendent moments that we feel. Do you think that something is lost in appreciating the beauty of transience when you can live forever?
JS: What really resonated with me about the Immortalist thesis in Alan Harrington’s book The Immortalist, in Kurzweil’s books, and in “The Death of Tragedy” is… well, I like them because they’re being realistic. They speak the truth. And they’re saying: why have this horrific cessation of what is up until now the most luminous thing in the universe that we know of –- human consciousness and self-awareness. Man is a being that has emerged from nothing, and consciousness itself has a deep inner meaning and we have this excruciating yearning for life and expression. And instead of realizing this, we end up as food for worms. That’s horrific. It’s a tremendous, unfathomable horror.
What you have in Buddhism (and you have also in Christianity and any other philosophy that was created as a consolation in the face of death) is just a very clever way of sugar coating and adding poetry to tragedy. Up until now –- when human beings could really do nothing in the face of death –- it made sense that we would be so smart that we’d even turn death into something poetic, so that we can die with grace. Today, because of where we’re arriving with technology –- the idea of using technology to extend ourselves beyond our usual limitations – I think all those philosophies that console us are obsolete. If anything, they get in the way, because they might make us not work as fast to bring about the type of things that Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey are talking about. People object to these transhumanist ideas because they say we’re messing with nature or that we want to eliminate death. But I say, why not eliminate death? A hundred thousand people are robbed of their consciousnesses every day when they die; it’s just horrible.
RUS: But Buddha wasn’t just responding to death, he was responding to life as he knew it. He said that life is suffering. For a tremendous number of people alive on the planet today, death is a relief from suffering.
JS: You’re right. I think what you’re saying is totally fair and it makes perfect sense. In the face of unacceptable living conditions for a large number of people, it makes sense that death is a relief. But I also think that technology is lifting standards of living across the board. In just the past 25 years, haven’t hundreds of millions of people been taken out of poverty? Hasn’t the average life expectancy been rising in liberalized economies? The more affluent that societies become, the more time people have to think about the bigger questions and the more they realize that if we all die in the end… then what the hell does it all mean?
If we can extend ourselves and connect with each other in rich and more meaningful ways for a much longer amount of time, well… from what I’ve read in transhumanism, this is just the next step in evolution. The organism improving itself. Before, we had to improve ourselves over the course of generations. And now, rather than being a blind process, evolution can be a process that we can control. Maybe now we don’t all have to become martyrs to improve the species. Maybe now we can now improve the species while continuing to live on.
SO: Would you characterize your boss Al Gore as more of a Buddhist or an Immoralist?
JS: Well, that’s interesting. Al did attend TED conferences, and Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey spoke at them. I know a lot of the TEDsters are really into biotech. Al wrote the book, An Assault on Reason, in which he’s talking about certain aspects of society that don’t hold up in the face of reason. For a guy that’s pro-reason and pro-science, as he seems to be, I don’t think that he’d be opposed to longer lifespan or eliminating diseases or nanotechnology to clean out our insides. I assume that he’d be into it, but I can’t speak for him.
RUS: I had heard… I think it was from John Perry Barlow [former lyricist for the Grateful Dead]… that in the early days of the Clinton Administration, Al Gore was nervous that The Singularity would happen during his administration… (laughter) presumably meaning between 2000 and 2008.
JS: Well… Larry King might be into it. I read a GQ article recently where he said that he signed up for cryonics, and — as a fellow skeptic and atheist — he doesn’t want to go quietly into any night.
RUS: Other than technologies for expanding life and maintaining youth, what other areas are you finding yourself attracted to and interested in?
We’re this luminous, frickin’ miracle. I just can’t believe that each individual consciousness is doomed to die! That’s bad. That’s horrible. It’s such a tragedy!
JS: My involvement with these ideas is in the form of advocacy… of being somebody who’s in the media and on this TV network that is way ahead of its time — that’s been called "the HBO of the YouTube generation." It’s more like a high-level, curated version of television for a generation of participators and people who want to create new media, change the conversation, and get away from top-down content. Because I’m in the middle of that world, I see my role as being the person who bridges the latest and greatest happenings in science, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and brings it to an audience that doesn’t know about it. My job is to be enthusiastic and to let people know about things they didn’t know about… and then have them scratch their heads wondering why they didn’t know about these things before.
RUS: I’m interested in the generational perspective. Being in the midst of a culture of people largely in their twenties, how do you think they receive these ideas? Do you think they take in these ideas differently than people in older generations?
JS: Yes, absolutely. I think the current generation feels really empowered by the web. Rather than consuming mind-numbing content from traditional television, they are instead curating their own social media experience on various platforms. This includes Facebook and FriendFeed, and the idea that you can share meaningful content by social broadcasting. You can share content with your friends, and then their friends will see it… and then friends of your friends will read it. At its best, this acts as an auto-filter of meaningful discussion. Of course, at its worst, you’re still surrounded with all the crap that you can encounter on the web. For those that are receptive to it, the new social media represents an unbelievable platform for reaching people – time and space are no longer limiting factors for meaningful interactions. We no longer have to worry about time and distance being filters. You can reach anybody anytime. And you can engage them, communicate with them, and help them join your team. Continuing this advocacy, it spirals exponentially onwards.
RU: Do you run into people close to your own age who think that you’ve become a bit of a madman as a result of your interest in immortalism?
JS: Well, I tell you what I find really interesting. People give me feedback all the time about the stuff I blog or talk about. They say, “OMG, this is really interesting, but why would you want to live forever? I want to die one day." This, of course, is a gross rationalization on their part. First, they’re not really conceiving of their own death yet. It’s a fact that most adolescents and twentysomethings think that they’re immortal. It’s subconscious, but they never really think they’re going to die. It seems so far off to them that it’s not in their cognitive reality. Second, they don’t think that this scientific stuff is "real" yet. It’ll be "real" when we have the first ageless human being, or the first person to have rejuvenation therapy — when we make an old man or an old woman young again. That’ll change everything. But right now, this stuff seems so much like science fiction that people are sticking to their traditionally held beliefs because they’re reassuring and comforting.
I’ve always been a bit of an agitator, you know. There’s this company called Transcendental Media, and their motto is "to agitate the sleep of mankind." I like to borrow that one to describe my endeavors promoting biotechnology, exponential growth, and transformation.
SO: I don’t know if you follow the True Blood series on HBO. But a recent episode involves the 2000-year-old vampire, Godric. He’s a Christ-like immortal who finds his way to peace, integrity, and nobility by exposing himself to sunlight and turning himself to dust (rather than worm food). Also, the 20th century philosopher Sartre describes existential ennui (boredom) as basic to the human condition. Do you think we might ultimately want to transcend life through death like Godric… or that we might end up becoming bored after a couple of thousand years and want to end things?
JS: Alan Harrington goes into this poetically in The Immortalist. He envisions a world where people don’t just live indefinitely. He wants to eliminate the parabolic arching of life onto death; the idea that you’re going to die just because you were born — that is, that you’re going to degenerate and wither away in front of your own weary eyes and rot. I think that if you’re bored and you want to end your life, that’s totally fine. I just don’t think that mortality is something that should be imposed on a species that is able to reflect and care about meaning. I identify a lot with Woody Allen. In his latest film Whatever Works, there’s a beautiful monologue about this. Woody Allen has famously said that he doesn’t want to achieve immortality through his work — he wants to achieve it through not dying.
I’m all about trying to suck the marrow out of everyday experience… taking every moment, every nuance and little instance of grace and connection and revelatory ecstasy to mean something and to matter and to make sure that those moments are celebrated and savored. I’m not the kind of person who can enjoy a magical moment unless I’m videotaping it so that I can return to the moment later. For me, it’s not about getting lost in the moment –- you can get lost in the eternal now like when you’re in love – that’s immortality of a sort, but not really… because you’re in love, but then you go back. The moment passes and you find yourself reflecting on the moment. That’s when you write a poem or a song or a book about it, or you make a film about it because you really don’t want to let go of the purity of that moment.
What I’m saying is this: wouldn’t it be great to engineer an actual physical realization of what we’re all longing for in all our videos and pop songs? We’re struggling to use art to give us some semblance of forever. What if we could actually achieve it with engineering? People have no problem reading about all this crazy new science that’s becoming a reality every single day, but when you tell them that this science is going to prevent you from dying, they say "you’re crazy." (chuckles)
People are so wired and accustomed to believing what they’re used to, that they resist change. I’m always interested in the intersection of what we’re capable of achieving and the philosophical implications of the human story. Why are we trying so hard? Why didn’t we just stay in the caves? Why are we — creatures who were once in the caves — now able to go the moon? We’re creatures who create a Shakespeare. We’re Einstein, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the things we create –- the products of individuated consciousness and the fact that the substrates for these conscious entities have to die –- it’s almost barbaric!
Having invented the gods, we can now –- as Alan Harrington says –- become them. We’re this luminous, frickin’ miracle here. I just can’t believe that each individual consciousness is doomed to die! That’s bad. That’s horrible. It’s such a tragedy!
RUS: Have you been looking into cryonics?
JS: Oh, I would definitely consider cryonics. If these breakthroughs that Kurzweil is talking about don’t happen in time, well… cryonics is better than being food for worms.
SO: Both Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey talk about a "live to see it” strategy – if you’re 50 today and you make it to 80, the technology should be sufficient to get you to… let’s say, 110. At that point, the anti-aging therapies will then get you to 150, and so forth.
JS: I think Aubrey de Grey calls it "bootstrapping your way to an ageless future." Kurzweil refers to it as the "three bridges." I’m 27 years old and I’ve been thinking about mortality since I was six.
Did you guys read the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? It’s about this tree and a little boy. And the boy keeps taking things from the tree. He takes its branches, takes its fruits, and pretty much takes everything from it. Then, one day, the boy comes back as a little old man and there’s nothing left of the tree except a stump. The old man just sits there on the stump. It’s supposed to be a story about giving. But what I understood from this story was the parabolic arching from youth to old age, and it freaked me out. I turned to my parents and asked them, "are you guys are going to die one day?" I think that the more self-aware you are, the more troubling mortality becomes. Anybody who’s ever felt a longing for romance or love, anybody who’s ever been moved by art –- I always get the chills when I see something beautiful –- it’s because it’s the exception, we know that entropy destroys all. Evolution is the opposite of entropy. It’s the move to greater complexity and organization. It’s the spreading of intelligence. And now we’re talking about a way to subvert entropy, a huge victory!
RU: Science fiction has become a huge influence on culture. The release of some superhero and science fiction movies become like religious events. I wonder if you see that as a reflection of what we’re headed towards. And is there science fiction that appeals to you?
JS: I love the quote, "the science fiction of today is the science of tomorrow." Even the Singularity has a science fiction aspect to it – some people refer to it as "the rapture of the geeks." It’s not a coincidence that something like the Singularity has a religious quality to it. Every single religion throughout the history of time talks about an eternity, a god, a heaven, and a recurring life, and an unending essence of human consciousness. Maybe these are just necessary rehearsals for what is a fundamental human drive. Perhaps the drive to become immortal is embedded in us. Or perhaps this is the evolutionary role of the human species –- perhaps this is how life makes sure that it continues on. I do love science fiction, though.
RUS: Are there anything specific movies you find interesting? You’re interested in Darren Aronofsky.
JS: I interviewed Darren Aronofsky. I particularly liked his film The Fountain. I empathized a lot with the main character. Ultimately that film embraced falling into the void and accepting the grace of death. I didn’t really agree with the ending.
A science fiction film I really enjoyed that deals with human mortality is Vanilla Sky. I think a lot of people really didn’t understand that film. It’s quite nuanced. The first line — when the guy is looking at himself in the mirror and says, "32 years old, and I’m believing secretly that I’ll be the first man in the history of mankind to live forever" — sets up the film, which is about someone who longs for immorality and doesn’t want to wither away and doesn’t want to die. And then the ending, with the lucid dream and living in the perpetual present moment-to-moment built on the iconography of his youth, the symbolism and images of love and longing and relationships and art and the things that touched you when you were young –- these are things that you can sculpt into an eternity. The film talks about meaning and how meaning affects our desire for permanence. I think we all want some permanence in the face of all this despair.
Why do people tell each other that they want to be with each other forever? Underneath just about everything is our lust for immortality. Underneath our lust for power, our lust for success, our need for validation, our desire for money, and secretly underneath pretty much all of our desires is the desire for immortality. Every human myth, every human story is fully embedded with the longing for human immortality. Hey, I’m just putting it out there!
SO: You’re quite passionate about it, too.
RUS: The passion is great. We probably should ask about your Current TV show and how you take your passion and advocacy and this broad spectrum of high-intensity interests and filter it down into a television show?
JS: I host an hour every night with my very best friend [Max Lugavere], and our show is basically curated with short-form segments because the network itself is primarily short documentaries. Many of them are citizen journalism pieces made by audience members. We do a different theme every day. Sometimes it’s just contemporary issues of the day: gay marriage, medical marijuana — it runs the gamut. Sometimes we’re able to do a segment on the impact of technology on society. We’ll air a bunch of different pieces about technology, but we’ll also do shout outs to organizations and think tanks on the cutting edge of science. We’ve done shout outs to Ray Kurzweil and his web site. We’ve talked about the Ernest Becker foundation and how mortality awareness is one of the major sources of anxiety for mankind. I bring these things into the show in ways that make sense for the show, without being too overt. But my personal advocacy is such that I’m a TV personality with an opinion. I’m more than just a neutral, stuffy journalist. I get to have an opinion!