Death, Transcendence and Transhumanism
How does the futuristic drive to enhance humans beyond their most worrying biological limits using technological means relate to faith-based approaches to humanity’s worldly limits?
Transhumanist aims have an undeniable appeal for religious and non-religious people alike, but the commitment to defeat death using medical science and technological augmentation may entail admitting a lack of any faith in an afterlife. This fact seems to present a clash between transhumanism and faith-based approaches to humanity’s future, which is considered here.
One could also easily present the judgment that transhumanism is a kind of alternative to religion, with the same kind of push to create hopeful “forecasts” against death – although this time with technology as the panacea. Could the transhumanist approach be like a religion, or contain some of the same facets of a religion wrapped in apparent secular clothing?
In the acknowledgement that the above is certainly a valid question, one must anticipate and remedy some differences between transhumanism and faith-based approaches to the mortal problem always spotted in our biological nature. There is a plethora of other philosophical questions that the transhumanist approach has raised, and will continue to raise, but for now let’s focus on possible clashes and comparisons between transhumanism and religious philosophies.
Why is death bad? I would argue that there are two “problems” of death that make humans despise it so much. First, there is our animal fear of death, or at least retreat from death, which is common to all living things from bacteria to the most disciplined humans. Wanting to live is intrinsically bound up in being alive, simply because the present state of life is the evolutionary result of past organisms competing to survive to their maximum. This has imbued every animal with a profound fear of death, which is overshadowed only by the inability of even the smartest humans to fully comprehend and face death. Terror Management Theory (TMT) even holds the view that the whole obsession with attachment to cultures, groups and worldviews among humans stems from innate terrors at the inevitability of each person’s own eventual nonexistence.
Despite how “death” can be understood very well as a biological process and can even be reversed before our eyes if medical science can act in due time, the fear of death is confounded when we add its second major problem for us: it is unknowable. This is tied to what some (such as David Chalmers) have called the “hard problem of consciousness”. That enigma of seemingly continuous inner experience arguably led to the formulation that there may be a “soul” – and from that idea countless religious approaches that are still accepted by so many people. It might be impossible for anyone to really come to terms with the idea of experiencing no continuity beyond death, and therefore most people easily accept a theological explanation or ignore the problem of consciousness and death as an irrelevant, irresolvable exercise.
A good contention from an atheist perspective would say that our stance on death and possible afterlives is not consequential, because our will to avoid death remains just as potent no matter what we believe, and nothing can be done to change the fact that we will eventually cease to exist. There is nothing we can really do to change the final fate of our bodies as mortal pieces of flesh. In this regard, atheists and theists are alike in their acceptance of the inevitability of death. Both overwhelmingly accept this body as something that will eventually be gone, no matter how much effort is put into maintaining it.
While theistic philosophies try to assure people that death is not the end, with a supreme being holding the answer to eternal life, atheistic philosophies are not able to comfort people regarding death as easily. The Buddha, who rejected deities, taught that the world is full of suffering and nothing can really be done to solve this. Even worse, suffering and deterioration are sufficiently part of the very nature of existence that we should blame our own struggle against them as the cause of suffering. A similar view of the individual as the root cause of suffering is shared by some modern spiritualists who take inspiration from Buddhism.
The human mind can be conditioned to not care about death when it arrives, but this conditioning often comes at the cost of a lot of life’s pleasures. The idea of being tranquil in the face of death is a little like telling people not to become rich, simply because being rich will burden you with the fact that you now have more to lose. It is true that if you have nothing to lose, the weight of death will seem lighter – therefore, one way to overcome the fear of death is to make sure you have nothing to lose at the time of death (or perhaps welcome death) when it arrives. A more absurd application of this kind of thinking might say that we should be as evil as possible, so we at least deserve to die when death actually arrives and can accept death that way.
For the immortalists, physical death can and should be cheated using science and technology for as long as we are still alive. Even if immortality is not coming soon, people can at least hang onto their chances to have it, with exponentially improving medical technology coupled with crynonics to keep at bay the afflictions currently impossible to heal. This could be a stop-gap, buying time for the wonders of science to come up with even more brilliant defenses against one’s ageing and bodily limits in decades or centuries to come. One might enlist to have his body frozen in the present day, once dead, it in the hope that medical technology will advance sufficiently to revive the frozen body (even if the freezing process is irreversibly harmful to the brain according to current medical science).
While the idea of body preservation would seem to offer a substantive remedy to the fear of death by old age, it does not alleviate the fear of one’s eventual death by some accident, futuristic war or even the heat death of the universe itself (supposing the immortalist actually evades the violence of humanity for billions of years enough to witness the final “end of everything”). Many violent specters can be guaranteed to eventually catch up with even the maximally successful immortalist. Just as future repairs and cures can be expected, we must also expect new weapons of mass destruction and crisis situations beyond our current comprehension to sneak up on humanity in the distant future.
Medical “immortality” also would not actually remedy the unknowable nature of death. We would still be no closer to knowing “what happens when we die”. Reuniting with others who have died (often more appealing than one’s own everlasting life, for a lot of believers) would be rejected as impossible in even the most outlandish transhumanist speculations. Medical “immortality” is not really a substitute for “Heaven” because it leaves two significant nagging problems of death unresolved – how to bring back deceased family and friends, and the mind-boggling problem of what really happens in your inner experience, if by some accident you do eventually die.
Even if immortalists met their most ambitious goal of perpetuating a generation of “post-humans” to the furthest limits of time, voids left by deceased loved ones and the continued problems of consciousness and looming eventual death would remain unattended. These remain areas occupied by religion and spirituality, and they seem unlikely to ever gain any counsel from the fields of science and technology yet. It is important to add “yet”, because science and technology do have a habit of failing to cover certain areas of human concern, yet can suddenly swoop in and give all the best answers, expelling religion and spirituality entirely from the discussion. One might be able to posit a science-fiction scenario in which all the big and typically religious questions are answered via advanced machines in the future, but it is difficult to imagine how answers alone could alleviate the distress that typically arises in the face of mortality.
Transhumanists waiting for the technological singularity, so vague and yet so wonderful, may appear to be following their own techno-utopian eschatology quite similar to a religious eschatology. Is the ultimate stage of human progress, the singularity, really approaching or is that simply equivalent to Christians repeatedly proclaiming signs of the “End of Days” at many junctures throughout history? In that regard, some transhumanist approaches might not be compatible with rational thinking at all. Belief in our compulsion towards an inevitably noble and good fate is a facet normally associated with religion. Does transhumanism have this facet? Perhaps it does. However, not intentionally, because transhumanists also devote a lot of effort into thinking about risks and ethics and do not simply have “faith” in a good outcome.
Even if the ideas described by transhumanists do not deserve to be included among the religious kind, the habit of optimistic forecasts of future events can easily degenerate into an almost religious way of thinking. However, in spite of similarities between religious and transhumanist goals, fanatical belief is certainly not part of transhumanism, which merely promotes overcoming as many traditional human limits as possible with technology.
What transhumanism and faith-based approaches to the human condition have in common is their goal to “overcome” the human experience and conquer what are our current earthly vulnerabilities. Both share hopes that humans can remedy their dissatisfactions about their own nature. Since religion asks for faith while transhumanism asks for scientific efforts, the two may disagree on the efficacy of each other’s approaches. However, both share the same end goal of bettering humanity in some way. This makes it possible for the secular transhumanism to be perfectly compatible with religious approaches to the problem of mortality.
By their use of secular terms such as “life-extension” and “longevity”, immortalists tend to decrease their chances of ever being mistaken for pseudo-religious personalities. However, the smuggling of religious language into science is a commonplace problem (“god particle” for the Higgs Boson?), so people advocating the technological “transcendence” of humanity ought to avoid infiltration by such religious language.
To conclude, it is likely that all faith-based approaches to the human condition can be reconciled with the transhumanist approach, simply because both sides have the same end goals of happiness and overcoming humanity’s limits. Faith-based approaches already have no qualms about humans transforming into something more than human, by professing a belief that our fate will ultimately be good. All the religions are already transhumanist by definition – they just believe in an unverified transhumanism that has no science to back it up or any guarantee of being real.
Where any two systems or movements have the same ultimate goal or preference, mutual tolerance is possible even if the two movements pursue radically different approaches.