The “visionary” and “philosopher” Zoltan Istvan says that, as an atheist, he must be a transhumanist. You probably think I’m going to start mocking transhumanism again. Once again, you’ve misjudged me.
I actually think what Ishtan says makes some sense. Atheists of old didn’t think transhumanism—or moving beyond mortality--was possible. So they thought of themselves as living beyond hope and fear, knowing that they were stuck with all the inevitable consequences—beginning with death—of being defined by natural necessity. Being an atheist, being a philosopher meant learning how to die.
The pleasure of insight, for the philosopher, it a compensation for rational awareness of one’s own impending death. It would, it seems, still be better not to die, because dead men don’t philosophize. Someone might argue that dying is the precondition for insightful pleasure. But that doesn’t mean that someone would choose to die just to experience it. The choice of mortality for philosophers didn’t come up, except in this way: By freeing myself through reason from all illusions about immortality, I really see my death for what it is. The choice was self-conscious mortality versus some kind of religious illusion.
But the transhumanists promise that that through our techno-inventiveness we will soon be able to choose against death. That might be bad for being a philosopher or being a lover. But who cares? It’s death we’re getting out of, after all.
Some say that the only way we can make our days count is to be able to count our days. It’s the necessities connected with our scarcity of time that lead us to rank our activities, to really deliberate about how to live seriously. But that kind of thinking, although more right than not, doesn't really seem to do justice to our capacity to be in love in the present, to be free from being burdened by consciousness of time and still be rational and relational beings.
Others, in a more Darwinian or naturalistic or generational mode, talk about living a complete life. It’s true enough, from the point of view of the species, that I’ve done my duty once I’ve pair-bonded, spread my genes, and raised my young. But it’s just not true that we self-conscious mortals experience such a sense of natural completion that we’re ready to let go. Just because we generate replacements doesn’t mean we want to be replaced. And that’s not just the result of our narcissism. We want to stay around in love and being lovable. Those who love me as a particular, relational person don’t want to let me go.
The theologian Gilbert Meilaender, in his Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging, notices that each of us, in truth, has a “two-sided being.” As long as the transhumanist promise of immortality or at least indefinite longevity doesn’t kick in, “we move inexorably through life toward old age and death.” But we also “quite naturally—and it seems rightly—long for more time, more life.” That longing is natural because it’s the result of the capacity members of our species alone have been given for profound self-consciousness, for being aware of time, personal contingency, and one’s own death.
Virtuous men and women through the ages—the sages and saints or even quite ordinary people--have “displayed patience and humility in the face of life’s limits.” But that doesn’t mean they were happy to be stuck with those natural limits. That’s why, Meilaender acknowledges, we also “strive to discover ways to retard aging and prolong life’s banquet.”
The Christian theologian Meilaender’s thought is that the natural experience of the incompleteness of particular human lives means that we’re on a journey that points beyond this life.
The transhumanists disagree on the nature of the journey, but they too long to be freed from their natural limits. The theologian is right to criticize their hope that endless life would somehow be paradise, and he adds that what we really long for is immortality not of our own making.
The transhumanist atheist doesn’t have to disagree with the theological criticism of endless life of our own making. He just has to add that incompleteness of endless life is better than the abrupt finality of no life at all.
It seems to me, however, that a philosopher today would still be on firm ground in thinking that transhumanist hope of particular persons around today is no more reasonable that the Christian hope for personal salvation. From that view, transhumanism isn’t really so atheistic. The hope is that we can transform ourselves into the functional equivalent of gods. The philosopher, I think, still knows that there is no techno-remedy for the misery of our mortality. On that point, he agrees with the theologian.
The genuine atheist, such as Christopher Hitchens, thought he was tough enough to die without the solace of either form of hope. There’s an old-fashioned atheist for you! Hitchens, of course, moves us because he was so clear that he would have preferred, for himself and those he loved, not to die.