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Transhumanism - Considering Ideas From Existentialism and Religion
Alex Nichols   Sep 16, 2014   brighterbrains.org  

“Immortality formulas” are often our biggest motivators in our life endeavors. There are similar concepts that philosophers, theologians, and transhumanists have pushed forward. All of which support different means of enhancing ourselves as a way of life. The core of transhumanist values seem to view death as a disease to be overcome, and that science will produce the means to conquer it.

“Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life’s limitations… and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.” ― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Other philosophical and religious realms of thought have offered their own version of solace towards death. For example, Christianity offers salvation and an eternal afterlife in heaven. Other religions have articulated their own heavens, interpretations of God, reincarnations…etc. However, despite these hopeful solutions, they overlook that we still have to face death before any of these consolations can be experienced.

Existentialism also tackled the impending threat of death. Some of its philosophers believing life was utterly meaningless, and some advocating how to find temporary meaning using the fear of death as a motivation. In effect, numerous philosophies and religions all seem acutely aware that death needs a solution.

How can we draw on parallel ideas from these older philosophies to build momentum for the growing visions of eradicating death? My goal is to encompass pieces of existential, religious, and transhumanist views to highlight how we might mould our attitudes about this issue in the future. Moreover, I want to stress how to we might enrich our perspective of the future overall by embracing a present mindset, and how religious thinking hinders our progress towards this objective.

If transhumanism claims to have the capacity to overcome death and achieve immortality as a means to enhance the human condition, I have a number of concerns with the way in which such ambitious goals are presented. While I very much agree and support the definition of transhumanism being, “an intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities” (definition from IEET.org), there tend to be more troubling terms that become associated with transhumanist aims. If “all transhumanism tries to do is extend life” (Santamaria, 2011), then that is what should be emphasized rather than appealing to descriptions like achieving a, “digital immortality because brains and a person’s intelligence will be digitally stored forever, even after they die” (Wollaston, 2013).

Another example, would be contending that:

“transhumanism means uploading your mind to a machine, discarding your body, then achieving immortality by living forever through machines and robots.” (Adams, 2013).

In my opinion, such language warrants some criticism for what’s implied.

What do these words really mean? Immortality, eternity, nothing, heaven, an afterlife, reincarnation? For the same reason that transhumanists criticise religion, what is the purpose in throwing around words that are vague and (for the sake of argument) poorly understood concepts. I think there are some similarities between transhumanists and religious frameworks when hope towards an unclear concept (e.g. becoming Gods, immortality, eternity) is part of their greater quest. It is my view that we don’t actually comprehend such concepts. Therefore, using such diction to convey any transhumanist goal merits the same criticism atheists often share towards religion. With that in mind, it is my view that we should be more prudent in how we articulate the main visions of transhumanism, so as to avoid encouraging unquestioned frameworks ruled by a hope for something like immortality.

This worrisome vocabulary often found in transhumanism and religion is frequently followed by a great hope for its actualization. This reinforces my notion that vague concepts backed by hope are inherently problematic. I take a stance similar to Luc Ferry in A Brief History of Thought, who writes, “hope is a manifestly a misfortune rather than a virtue. It is a blight, and not an attitude which can give any zest to life” (Ferry, p. 225). The ‘zest’ that Ferry speaks of seems directly traceable to the language used to voice some future promises of transhumanism. The important point is to distinguish hope for something like immortality, to what is still very much the reality of death.

“Hope means to desire without power since, self-evidently, if we had the capacity or the power to act out our wishes, here and now, we would not deprive ourselves but would put them into effect without the preliminaries of hoping for them” (Ferry, p. 225).

I am not hinting that we shouldn’t have dreams for a better future. I am however, nagging at the very complex task at hand for those of us inclined to carve out a moral, meaningful, and comprehensible future landscape. Especially to do so without making extraordinary claims that seem eerily similar to a religious-like mentality fueled by hope for concepts like an eternal afterlife.

Transhumanism’s vision of harnessing God-like capabilities isn’t a meaningful goal for me if it is articulated in this incomprehensible way. I am confident that their intentions are good, but I think that advocates of transhumanism can work towards modifying the language they used to convey their passionate views of a future civilization.

Lastly, what it means to improve or enhance everyday existence can also start with fine tuning the mental hardware tied to attitudes about our existence right now. For example, the philosopher Herbert Dreyfus discusses his thoughts on how western civilization has evolved to embrace such a fast paced environment that often skims over questions about our everyday existence. This fast paced environment seems evident in transhumanism’s race to overcome death. Nonetheless, how often to we take the time to, “nurture the moods of everyday existence?” (Dreyfus, p.163). Or perhaps work on what exactly that means to us and what surfing into this present state of mind entails? It might be one of the most valuable exercises to practice without jumping to these fantastic realms of thought (like religion) that offer vocabulary far beyond our immediate understanding. What we can do now is take a plunge into everyday experiences.

“This ability to live at the surface, to take the events of daily life with the meanings they present rather than to seek their hidden purpose, to find happiness and joy in what there already is, finds its easiest expression in a pre-Christian age. Indeed, not just a pre-Christian age, but a pre Buddhist, pre Platonic, pre Hinduist, pre Confucian one as well” (Dreyfus, p.163)

Moving forward, I am confident that those involved with generating philosophies what it means to be a human in the future will consider what it means to harness a present mindset. Furthermore, it will be of paramount importance to dislodge frameworks of thought bound to religion. This will require the fortitude to step back from ambitious transhumanism projects and make reasonable moral evaluations about how to express future objectives.

If we can understand that as much as we may value transhumanist visions, we ought to value what we can experience presently. This explosion of technological innovation has accelerated us to a place where we will always be distracted and inevitably suspended from realizing. “That it is always right now,” as Sam Harris would say. The mindset of a future always being a grasp away, will always be a grasp away.

Keeping the sense of ‘right now’ in mind, there are some who I believe are arguing for a more meaningful avenue of thought. Listening to Aubrey de Grey at the first Transhumanist Visions conference in San Francisco, he stated “when I get asked how long do I want to live, the question is similar to asking if I know what time I will go to the toilet next Sunday. I’ll have more specific information when I get closer to that date”. De Grey went on to articulate that his simple point to take home is that we could all easily agree that right now, we’d like to postpone our death. Living forever, or for another thousand years, isn’t the main focus.

For the time being, immorality is available to us right now in a different sense. In a sense that Ludwig Wittenstein meant when he said,

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

Images:

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http://embracethespace.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/artistty1.jpeg

conscioushugs.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/The-Beginning-is-Near-e1356357617368.jpg

References:

1. Becker, Ernest; The Denial of Death (1973); New York: Simon and Schuster.

2. Bruere, Dirk; “The Praxis” - Transhumanism as Religion and the Conversion of Philosophy into Action (2013); http://transhumanity.net/articles/en
try/the-praxis-transhumanism-as-religion-and-the-conversion-of-philosophy-into

3. Dreyfus, H., & Kelly, S. D.; All things shining: Reading the Western classics to find meaning in a secular age (2011); New York: Free Press.

4. Ferry, Luc; A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (2011); New York: Harper Perennial.

5. Notaro, Kris; Was Bertrand Russell a Futurist (2012); http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/notaro20120604

6. Russell, Bertrand; The Impact of Science on Society (1953); Simon and Schuster: New York, Print.

7. Swayne, Matt; Singularities Happen: Alan Watts Explains the Singularity; http://www.singularityweblog.co
m/singularities-happen-alan-watts-explains-the-singularity/

8. Definition of Transhumanism; http://ieet.org/index.php/tpwiki/transhumanism/

9. Wollaston, Victoria; The Daily Mail (2013); http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2344398/Google-f
uturist-claims-uploading-entire-MINDS-computers-2045-bodies-replaced-machines-90-years.html

10. Adams, Mike; Natural News (2013) http://thewatchers.adorraeli.com/2013/06/25/transhumanism-debunked-why-drinking-the-kurzweil-kool-aid-will-only-make-you-dead-n

Alex Nichols currently lives in San Francisco California working at Lyft. Attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver BC, he graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in philosophy where he studied under the tutelage of two pioneers in health and cultural psychology.



COMMENTS

Hi Alex, very interesting column being presented here. I am fairly certain that I am skewing the intention or the full intention of your article here, but would like to focus on mortality as some aspect of Transhumanism. It was the Greek Epicurean philosopher, Epictetus, who said “It’s a poor, philosopher, who cannot help a person solve their problems.” Therefore, let us utilize Transhumanism as a philosophy, remediating the problem of death

Of course this is as they say very tall order, but wanted to at least address the issue of mortality, practical, pragmatic, problem. The way we can do this is through two venues. One is through the basic sciences or rather the hard sciences like physics. The others through the venue of philosophy.

There has been two basic attempts the last 40 years to address the problem of mortality. The better known as from Prof. Frank Tipler of Tulane University. The other is by Prof. Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University. Both methods as described in their books
On the re-simulation of who have died. They also both rely on utilizing uploading methods of some future technologies.

What I feel this needs into this discussion, is a better fleshing out of their ideas, better technological description. I do not know from who, headwear, this new flushing out, as I termed it, will come from, but it is beyond dispute that expansion of what has already been postulated is sorely, needed. If this is done successfully, then you could have a rapid expansion of Transhumanist thought, and popularity.

However, some Bright mind, still has to do the scientific, and physics, work on such a expansion. I’m not sure if there’s anyone out there in academia willing to do the intellectual work, on virtual immortalism.

Good article.

Regards,

Mitch

However, despite these hopeful solutions, they overlook that we still have to face death before any of these consolations can be experienced

Not overlooking- they’re saying death is illusory. In Heaven one supposedly gets a new body. Reincarnation gives one a new life on Earth; or perhaps a new life in a different galaxy, etc. This link demonstrates the thinking common in Christianity.

http://www.christiandoctrine.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=783:will-we-have-bodies-in-heaven&catid=187:salvation&Itemid=563

It is far-fetched- yet it is what they believe.

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