The Transhumanist Wager: Can We and Should We Defeat Death?
The Transhumanist Wager, brainchild of noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, can be understood as follows. If one loves and values their life, then they will want (the option) to live as long as possible. How do they achieve this?
Alternative #1 – do nothing and hope there is an afterlife. But since you don’t know there is an afterlife, doing nothing doesn’t help your odds.
Alternative #2 – use science and technology to gain immortality. By doing something you are increasing your odds of being immortal.
The choice is between bettering your odds or not, and good gamblers say the former is the better choice. At least that’s what the arguments supporters say.
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, believe such technologies won’t be around for centuries or millenia. Most are unaware that research on life-extending and death-eliminating technologies are progressing rapidly. 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 have written extensively about this topic in my recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, and in recent articles, arguing that death should be optional, not mandatory. I am always amazed at how many people—when confronted for the first time with the idea that technology may give them the option of living much 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 superstition, ancient religion, distorted views of what’s natural, or a general love of stasis and disdain for change—even if it means condemning their consciousness to oblivion!
But for the progressive among us, for those willing to use technology to overcome all human limitations, especially our now infinitesimally small lifespans, I’d like to clarify the transhumanist wager by comparing it to Pascal’s Wager and the Cryonics Wager.
Pascal’s Wager advances a pragmatic argument for the existence of the Christian God. Here it is in matrix form:
It’s simple. Bet that god exists and you either win big (heaven) or lose nothing (except perhaps a little time and money in church), or bet that god doesn’t exist 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 wise would be that god exists.
The main reason this argument fails is that we don’t know the structure of reality. 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 awaits, you can’t be sure that your version of Christianity is correct. Perhaps only 1 of the approximately 41,000 sects of Christianity is true; the version you believe is incorrect; 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 are awoken at the last judgment by the Christian God. Your 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. And you believed in me without good evidence or good reasons. Begone 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 know if this scenario is true, but it is as plausible as typical religious explanations of what earns reward and punishment. It may even be more just. The main point is that Pascal’s wager doesn’t work because we don’t know the ultimate nature of reality.
The Cryonics Wager
Now consider the cryonics wager. What happens if I preserve my whole body or my brain? The continuum of possibilities looks like this:
awake in a great reality never wake up awake in an awful reality
I might be awaken by post-human descendents as an immortal being in a heavenly world. I might be awakened by beings who torture me hellishly for all eternity. Or I might never wake up. Should I make this wager? Should I get a cryonics policy? I don’t know. If I don’t preserve myself cryonically, then I might die and go to heaven, hell, or experience nothingness. If I do preserve myself, as we have just seen, similar outcomes await me.
In this situation all I can do is assess the probabilities. Does having a cryonics policy, as opposed to dying and taking my chances, increase or decrease my chances of being revived in a good reality? We can’t say for sure. But if the policy increases that chance, if you desire a blissful immortality, and if you can afford a policy, then you should get one.
Personally I believe that having a cryonics policy 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 can understand others would make a different choice, and we should respect their autonomy to die and hope for the best. In the end we just can’t say for certain what is the best move.
The Transhumanist Wager
Now recall the transhumanist wager:
Do nothing about death -> the odds for immortality are unaffected.
Do something 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. Perhaps there are gods who favor your doing nothing because they think that doing something to defeat death is arrogant. I don’t believe this myself, but its possible. Of course the gods may favor those who try to defeat death too. Moreover, as was previously discussed, even if you do achieve immortality you can’t be sure this state will be desirable. On the other hand, technologically achieved immortality may be wonderful.
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 can never know, from an infinite number of possibilities, what the future has in store for us. And that is why none of the case for making any of these wagers is not convincing.
Conclusion: Make The Transhumanist Wager
Here again are the three wagers briefly summarized:
Pascals wager – do nothing -> except have faith
Cyronics wager – do something -> use cyronics technology
Transhumanist wager – do something -> use other life-extending technology
The choice comes down to doing nothing—except hoping that you have the right religious beliefs—or doing something—buying a cryonics policy and/or supporting scientific research. (Cryonics is a particular use of science and technology.) So what should you do?
Perhaps the best way to illuminate the choice is to consider a previous choice human beings faced in their history. What should they do about disease? Should they pray to the gods and have faith that the gods will cure them, or should they use science and technology to find the cures themselves? In hindsight the answer is clear. Praying to the gods makes no difference, whereas using modern medicine has limited death and disease, and nearly doubled the human lifespan in the last century. Other examples also easily come to mind. What is the best way to understand earthquakes, harness energy, communicate instantly over great distances, or fly to far off planets?
So we should throw off archaic superstitions and use our technology. Will we do this? Yes. I say with confidence that when an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy—it will be popular. Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your intact consciousness transferred to your younger cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or a virtual reality, most will use such technologies when they are demonstrated effective. By then almost everyone will prefer the real thing to a leap of faith. At that point there will be no need to make a transhumanist wager. The transhumanist will already have won the bet.
John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com