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Deconstructing the Voldemort Fallacy
Anne Corwin   Aug 6, 2007   Existence is Wonderful  

Someone apparently found my blog recently by searching for “voldemort transhumanist”. After laughing out loud (literally), I spent a bit of time thinking about the implications of this particular combination of search terms.

Like fifty gazillion other Earthlings, I’ve read (and shamelessly enjoyed) the Harry Potter series of fantasy novels by J.K. Rowling.  I’m going to assume that you, the reader, have at least a passing familiarity with these books, and that you will permit me the indulgence of making pop-culture references in my writing on occasion. 

While I can’t be certain that the wanton Googler noted at the beginning of this writing was thinking what I think he or she was thinking, I do see this as an opportunity to make a few points about misconceptions and strawmen and the “image” projected by life-extensionists and others of similar ilk.  Clearly, pop culture influences (and is influenced by) people’s attitudes.  And when I was reading Harry Potter, I did note a few things that I filed away in my mental “cultural attitudes toward death” drawer. 

(I won’t give any spoilers from Book 7 since it was released recently relative to the time of my writing this, but anything from the previous six books is fair game for this discussion.)

There’s a lot to like, philosophically speaking, in the Potter books.  The “good guys” aren’t always necessarily the nice guys, and the “bad guys” are a fairly diverse and occasionally unpredictable lot—we get to see evil in the form of the “guru” model (Voldemort) as well as the institutional model (e.g., the corruption within the Ministry of Magic).  The books provide plenty of strong female characters (always nice to see), an anti-racist (anti-human racist, in fact) message, and additionally deal with some of the same political issues associated with notions of “enhanced” humans.  Simplistic?  Perhaps.  But what better way to introduce people to ideas about diversity, power imbalances, and the myriad incarnations of good and evil than through a story that is both accessible and fun to read? 

So long as the reader is careful to take note of the usual goals of authors, there is no reason not to use a series like Harry Potter as a springboard into realms of very interesting discussion.

Now, on to the subject of “Death in the Potterverse”.  Death is a big deal throughout the entire series, starting with the very first book—in which we learn that Harry is famous throughout the wizarding world for the mere fact of being alive, and that his parents were killed by a man/monster whose murderous tendencies seem to stem from his own fear of death.  Voldemort (or, “The Evil Formerly Known as Tom Riddle”) is absolutely terrified of nonexistence, to the point where this terror is transformed into a callous disregard for everything (and everyone) else in the world.  He engages in symbolically reprehensible acts (like drinking unicorn blood) and co-opts the bodies of hapless passerbys all out of a desire to avoid being snuffed out. 

The pivotal object of the first book is a small chunk of matter called the Philosopher’s Stone (American versions of the book call it the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I will stick to the original terminology chosen by Ms. Rowling).  The stone has magical properties which grant the one who bears it—you guessed it—immortality.  Which means that Voldemort wants it.  Harry manages to best Voldemort in their confrontation at the end of Book 1 by resisting the desire for immortality, and only wanting to possess the stone in order to keep it from his enemy.  The message here is that heroism and a willingness to embrace death go hand in hand, whereas evil and the desire to avoid death are directly correlated. 

Again, while I do think the Potter books have a lot going for them, I find the whole “not wanting to die makes you evil” thread to be, well, annoying.  Annoying because sometimes I suspect that those opposed to healthy life extension probably do go around comparing longevity advocates to Voldemort and other mythic villains of his ilk—I am reminded strongly of conservative bioethicist William Hurlburt’s suggestion that those who seek very long lives are “spiritually immature”.  To some of the bioconservative mindset, Voldemort probably represents the quintessential transhumanist—a person who is so obsessed with their own survival that everything else falls by the wayside, leaving a dark and perilous inner void. 

Additionally, there’s the fact that Voldemort takes various nonhuman forms (that are described as frightening and grotesque) in his quest to remain a part of reality beyond the destruction of his original body—it is doubtless that some consider ideas like reanimating cryonicists, or growing cloned body parts, to be equally gross and disturbing.  Couple all this with his undisguised Nazi-esque insistence upon destroying those insufficiently “pureblooded” and you have quite a package of unfortunate connotations.

But what about the question of what makes a person a hero (or, more precisely, what makes them good)?  Goodness, in the Potterverse, seems inextricable from a willingness to sacrifice onesself if the situation calls for it.  I don’t see any reason why this cannot apply to life-extensionists; most (if not all) of us would not hesitate to defend our loved ones and friends with our lives if it became necessary to do so. 

Just because a person doesn’t quite fancy the idea of dying of “old age” or disease doesn’t mean that that person wouldn’t dive into a pond to save a drowning child, or pull a pedestrian out of the path of an oncoming car at personal risk.  Additionally, in the real world, there is not so clear of a relationship between sacrifice and heroism as there is in story; in real life, you might very well be able to save both the preschooler and the old lady lying on the railroad tracks. 

Real life is not a word problem in a law school test book; in real life, we have options, and we can innovate.  So while trade-offs are inevitable, the trade-offs we are likely to encounter in our daily existence are not going to be (generally speaking) as clear-cut as what we see in film and literature.  In books, there often seems to be a kind of prescience on the part of the heroes; they seem to “know” that their death, if it happens, will end up saving innocents.  In reality, on the other hand, there is just as much chance that the would-be hero’s “sacrifice” will lead to nothing more than one extra body for the cleanup crew.  But still, again, there is no reason to characterize longevity advocates as selfish brats who wouldn’t so much as lift a finger to help someone else if it meant risking their own safety, or who would even go so far as to directly harm others if it meant that they got to live longer. 

This here is the essence of the Voldemort Fallacy: the notion that seeking longevity beyond that which is “naturally” granted is somehow intrinsically harmful—even if it doesn’t look that way at first, and even if harm itself is not the life-extensionist’s goal.  Some of the conversations I’ve been involved in on the subject of longevity have been with people who seem to have the idea that the mere desire for personal longevity will somehow indirectly harm others.  This, to me, seems to be the result of a particular brand of superstitious thinking—one that is heavily reinforced by literary portrayals of longevity-seekers. 

Voldemort’s direct harm to others can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the indirect harm that longevity-seeking is often assumed to perpetrate.  Nobody really knows what sorts of evils might come about if people could live as long as they liked, but many people assume that evils must be there regardless, and that it takes a certain kind of weakness of character not to passively accept one’s demise.  (I would suggest to such people the thought exercise of actually trying to imagine a person of strong character who is also a longevity advocate. It probably won’t be all that difficult.  The key is to separate the idea of longevity from the archetype of “bad guy”.)

The main point I am trying to make here is that anyone who attempts to suggest that healthy life extension is a bad thing because only “evil” characters in stories want it (or that evil characters in stories who want long lives are somehow representative of real people who want long lives) is not exercising his/her imagination very hard.  There is quite a dearth of literary characters (especially outside science fiction) who are as matter-of-fact and clearheaded about longevity as most actual longevity advocates are.  I am not saying that Ms. Rowling should have written her books differently, but rather, that people who find themselves thinking of Voldemort as the poster child for the likely fruits of biotechnology should spend some time examining that idea critically. 

It was obvious to me when I read the books that Voldemort was a bad guy because he ran around killing and torturing people, not because he’s afraid of death.  In other words, Voldemort is flawed because he is a murderous bigot—you don’t really need anything more than this to proclaim him a villain.  A lot of people are afraid of death, but very few engage in horrendous acts of violence because of this.

Additionally, it isn’t necessary to be afraid of death in order to want to avoid it for as long as possible; I don’t expect to perceive anything at all, much less possess a sense of self, when dead, so it isn’t something I fear so much as something I see as being sort of pointless.  I like being alive, I like this interface I have with the world, and there’s a lot of cool stuff to see and do here.  I am basically never bored and I can’t imagine not wanting to exist, which means I’m plenty motivated to investigate ways to keep existing. 

The hope for a very long life is no different, as far as I’m concerned, from the hope that I will wake up tomorrow morning.  The question, “Why live?” is best responded to by the question, “Why not live?”  It isn’t all that complicated.

Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.



COMMENTS

I thought of a happy foil to the Voldemort Fallacy, a positively-portrayed immortalist protagonist from another recent pop culture behemoth: Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Sure, Captain Jack Sparrow is technically supposedly a scumbag, but he’s definitely loveable. Captain Jack explicitly seeks immortality in these films.  Sure, he gives his best shot at it away at the end, but only to save a friend from information-theoretical death. And at the end of the film, he’s off in a little boat to seek the Fountain of Youth.

Bear in mind, too, that this (immortalist) character is probably one of Disney’s most beloved, ever.

Nevertheless… am I the only one who has read J.K. Rowling and found myself (without consciously meaning to denigrate anybody) thinking of non-Transhumanists as muggles? Ah, I hope that’s not too evil

Very interesting reading 😊 Although Voldemort’s obsession with immortality is quite clear to anyone who reads the series, I completely missed Rowling’s point. In fact, I only (incorrectly) assumed that Rowling was condemning “immortality at all costs” (ie. sacrificing innocents in order to get a longer life; and killing anyone who opposed his “plan”). But I failed to capture the reverse message: dying for your friends is important.

Thanks for pointing it out to me. Yes, Rowling might be constructing a case against “artificial” life extension, which I definitely don’t agree : the whole purpose of the emergence of medicine as a science was exactly to try to keep us sound in body and mind as long as possible, and you transhumanists even want to go further than what medicine allows. I cannot possibly imagine why that should be “evil” since it’s part of our human nature.

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