Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Who Wants to Live Forever?

I sometimes ask my students if they wouldn't want to live forever and often receive the reply, even from students who are religious, strangely enough, that they don't want to live forever. Yet so much that we do in life seems to be an attempt to stave off death.

If you had a terminal illness and a cure was discovered would you not want to avail yourself of the cure? Do not many of us exercise and diet in a perhaps futile effort to extend our years? The idea of eternal life is what gives most major religions their appeal (except for some of my students, apparently) and it's what drives a relatively recent secular movement called Transhumanism.

An article by Philip Bunn in which he discusses a book about transhumanism explains the goals of, and rationale for, the movement. Here are some excerpts:
Mark O’Connell’s excellent new book “To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death” follows the author’s interactions and interviews with self-professed transhumanists.

This eclectic collection of scientists, tech giants, journalists, and enthusiasts are prophets of a coming post-human species that embraces technology as the means to transcend present biological and psychological limitations. ...

The book serves a more important purpose than simply describing transhumanism, however: O’Connell’s interactions with transhumanists show that modern man is not prepared to argue against transhumanism. He must either accept it or find a theological alternative.

It seems that, sociologically speaking, transhumanism springs from the same part of man that desires to create religion. Man fears death, so must overcome it in some way. From this fear, the social scientists tell us, man creates fantasies about deities and paradises, resurrection and glorification. In its own way, transhumanism becomes religious insofar as it represents another in a long line of sets of belief adopted by man in hopes of overcoming his mortality. This time, man seeks help not from mystical transcendent beings but from his own will, instantiated in technology.

Some religious sects like Mormonism have made a place for transhumanist ideas, but transhumanists like Max More have made clear that traditional Christian doctrine and transhumanism are largely incompatible, given the difficulty of reconciling both sets of claims. However, on at least one point, the transhumanist and the Christian agree: death is an enemy to be conquered. The Christian New Testament claims “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Transhumanists concur, and propose that if death can be conquered through technology, death should be conquered through technology.

.... In his research, O’Connell encounters scientists who tell him that living to extreme ages will be possible soon, within his and his child’s lifetime. Some subjects interviewed even theorize that eventually we could theoretically “upload” consciousness and become more machine than man. ...
Like my students, O'Connell himself refuses to accept that an eternal life is desirable:
Despite hearing the arguments and understanding their source, O’Connell refuses to accept transhumanism. This is not because he thinks transhumanist ideals are unachievable, but because he cannot stomach the idea of living forever, or being himself in any other physical form. He ultimately objects not to the practicality of the transhumanist project but to the propriety of it.

O’Connell’s resistance to transhumanism culminates in a fascinating exchange in the book where O’Connell is forced to defend death and mortality as preferable to eternal life and vitality. He mounts standard arguments: Life’s brevity is what gives it value. Impending death makes our continued existence meaningful in some way. Also, life sucks; why extend it?

O’Connell’s transhumanist companions deftly deflect his objections. “There [is] no beauty in finitude,” they say. They argue that O’Connell’s qualms come from an essential human need to grapple with death and somehow justify it as good so we can avoid constant dread and despair. And, O’Connell admits, the transhumanists are right. There is something palpably absurd about defending death as some sort of human good....

Even if, as O’Connell theorizes, “the idea of meaning [is] itself an illusion, a necessary human fiction,” man has continued maintaining that illusion for millennia and seems to persist in preferring life to death. Unless O’Connell and others like him are prepared and able to convince the bulk of humanity that death is a happy end to be embraced, not fought against, it seems a choice has presented itself. This choice is between different religions that offer escape from death. Transhumanism offers the materialist a religion through which to conquer death; other religions offer the same to those who have faith in gods other than technology.
Quite so, but death cannot be conquered completely through technology. Even were we to become machines no machine is indestructible. We will still die through accident, murder and war, and our deaths will be all the more tragic since we could have lived indefinitely longer than we did. A child's death is always much more grievous than that of an elderly person for that very reason.

Moreover, the sense of despair and grief at the death of loved ones would not be alleviated in a transhumanist world because there'd still be no hope, on transhumanism's atheistic materialism, of ever being reunited with those we've lost again. The loss would be eternal.

Perhaps the problem with the transhumanist project isn't the desirability of living forever. The problem is the indefinite extension of a meaningless life. Even if a few generations from now people were to live for two hundred years their lives would be no more meaningful or happier for being longer. Meaning, significance, and purpose are what makes life worth living and these are not qualities we acquire by making ourselves more machine-like. To live just to live would be tedious and boring. Whether we live eighty years or eight hundred years the important question is "what are we living for?"

The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his novel The Nausea describes a man sitting in a restaurant thinking to himself, "Here we are eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence, and there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing." Living forever would do nothing to fill the existential emptiness in the soul of modern man.

Whether we are materialistic transhumanists or we believe the traditional Christian version of eternal life the eternity to which we aspire must be meaningful and immensely satisfying. Otherwise, it'd be hell.