What are we to do about Death? To live is to live in its shadow. Death haunts us and shapes much of our culture, especially religion. Each one of us knows that we will die, but we spend most of our lives happily ignoring that fact. Last week, I came across a Jack London quote that really forced me back on my heels in relationship to this overwhelming question. Today, I want to reflect a bit on it, especially in light of what’s called transhumanism and its attempt to “conquer death.”
Here’s the quote:
“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”Jack London
So, what does this have to do with transhumanism? As a general definition, transhumanism is “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” The ultimate limit for human beings is, of course, death. Many transhumanists hope to use science to escape death. That is why some folks plan to freeze their corpses in the hope of being revived later when technology progresses.
The ultimate hope rests in “The Singularity,” when the capacity of computers accelerates exponentially, leading to general artificial intelligence. As part of this machine awakening, there also will come the possibility of uploading your consciousness into silicon, guaranteeing a kind of immortality (as long as there are machines to store and process your “connectome”).
Personally, I find the goals of the transhumanists to be both tragically misguided and dangerously wrong-headed (in the most literal sense of the word). The misguided part is beautifully summed up in the London quote. How can there be life without death? How can our time have any meaning without its terminus? To borrow a page from the Buddhists (and lots of other spiritual traditions), death isn’t just “out there” somewhere. Every moment is an arising and a falling. Every instant is a birth followed by a death. To miss this point is to miss what makes living so poignant and so ripe with purpose and potential.
Yeah, death is scary and freaky, but on the other hand, I have no direct idea of what it actually involves (having never been dead myself). Given that reality, my job is to live this life as completely as possible. You can engage fully in its richness, its sorrows, and its beauty, or you can miss it by worrying about when or how this aspect of being ends.
Transhumanism is religion
From this perspective, the transhumanist desire to “conquer” death sounds like the worst forms of religious zeal. Both science and spiritual practice are supposed to help us look directly into the truth of life, the Universe, and Everything. Death, whatever it means, is part of all three. To spend effort thinking otherwise is to, quite sadly, miss the point profoundly.
Even more important, however, is the wrong-headedness of the transhuman conception of what it means to be human. Their idea is that it’s literally all in the head. Your life, in the transhumanist conception, is reducible to the computations happening in your brain. The totality of your experience — its vibrancy and immediacy and the strange inescapable luminosity of its presence — is all just meat computing. And if that’s the case, who needs the meat? Let’s just swap out the neurons for silicon chips, and it will all be the same. Heck, it will be better, and it gets to go on forever and ever.
There are so many assumptions and metaphysical beliefs wrapped in these ideas, that it is hard to know where to begin. The most important, however, is that reduction of life to meat computing. It is really nothing more than an unjustified hope. It is an infatuation with a technology that happens to define technology’s frontier right now. But after more than half a century of research in AI, there is no evidence that you will be able to upload yourself into a machine. This is not to say that there cannot be brain-machine interfaces that extend the ability to do simple tasks. But just as we keep failing to build a “general AI”, we will not replace the holism of the “life-world” in silicon.
While I am all in favor of extending the years we get to live a bit (if those years are truly lived), the idea of “conquering death” with machines sounds more like a nightmare than a dream. So, let’s not waste our days trying simply to prolong them, but instead embrace this day and all the adventures in learning, compassion, and experience it promises.