Now more than ever, the topic of death is marked by no shortage of diverging opinions.
On the one hand, there are serious thinkers — Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Michio Kaku, Marshall Brain, Aubrey de Grey and others — who foresee that technology may enable humans to defeat death. There are also dissenters who argue that this is exceedingly unlikely. And there are those like Bill Joy who think that such technologies are technologically feasible but morally reprehensible.
As a non-scientist I am not qualified to evaluate scientific claims about what science can and cannot do. What I can say is that plausible scenarios for overcoming death have now appeared. This leads to the following questions: If individuals could choose immortality, should they? Should societies fund and promote research to defeat death?
The question regarding individuals has a straightforward answer: We should respect the right of autonomous individuals to choose for themselves. If an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy, then you should be free to use it. (My guess is that such a pill would be wildly popular! Consider what people spend on vitamins and other elixirs on the basis of little or no evidence of their efficacy.) Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your consciousness transferred to a younger, cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or into a virtual reality, you should be free to do so.
I believe that nearly everyone will use such technologies once they are demonstrated as effective. But if individuals prefer to die in the hope that the gods will revive them in a paradise, thereby granting them reprieve from everlasting torment, then we should respect that too. Individuals should be free to end their lives even after death has become optional for them.
However, the argument about whether a society should fund and promote the research relevant to eliminating death is more complex. Societies currently invest vast sums on entertainment rather than scientific research, although the latter is clearly a better societal investment. Ultimately the arguments for and against immortality must speak for themselves, but we reiterate that once science and technology have extended life significantly, or defeated death altogether, the point will be moot. By then almost everyone will choose to live as long as possible. In fact, many people do that now, at great cost, often gaining only a few additional months of bad health. Imagine then how quickly they will choose life over death when the techniques are proven to lead to longer, healthier lives. As for the naysayers, they will get used to new technologies just like they did to previous ones.
Nonetheless, the virtual inevitability of advanced technologies to extend life does not imply their desirability, and many thinkers have campaigned actively and vehemently against utilizing such options. The defenders of death advocate maintaining the status quo with its daily dose of 150,000 deaths worldwide. Prominent among such thinkers are Leon Kass, who chaired George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics from 2001-2005; Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford; and Bill McKibben, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.
Kass opposes euthanasia, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research and was an early opponent of in vitro fertilization, which he thought would obscure truths about human life and society. (IVF had none of the dire consequences that Kass predicted; in fact, the technology now goes mostly unnoticed.) One of Kass’ main concerns is with the enhancement capability of biotechnology, which he fears will become a substitute for traditional human virtues in the quest to perfect the species. His concerns about modifying our biological inheritance extend to his worries about life extension. He values the natural cycle of life and views death as a desirable end — mortality, he says, is a blessing in disguise.
Fukuyama argues that biotechnology will alter human nature beyond recognition with terrible consequences. One would be the undermining of liberal democracy due to radical inequality between those who had access to such technologies and those who did not. (Although there is plenty of social and economic inequality around today.) At an even more fundamental level, Fukuyama worries that the consequences of modifying humans is unknown. Should human beings really want to control their very natures? Fukuyama argues that we should be humble about such matters or "we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls."
McKibben, meanwhile, admits the allure of technological utopia, knowing that it will be hard to resist, but he fears that the richness of human life would be lost in a post-human world. Even if we were godlike, spending our time meditating on the meaning of the cosmos or reflecting on our own consciousness like Aristotle’s god, McKibben says he would not trade his life for such an existence. He wouldn’t want to be godlike, preferring instead to smell the fragrant leaves, feel the cool breeze, and see the fall colors. Yes, there is pain, suffering, cruelty and death in the world, but this world is enough. “To call this world enough is not to call it perfect or fair or complete or easy. But enough, just enough. And us in it.”
There is a lot to say against all these views, but one wonders why these thinkers see human nature as sacrosanct. Is our nature so sacred that we should be apologists for it? Isn't it arrogant to think so highly of ourselves? This human nature produced what Hegel lampooned as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized.” Surely we can do better than what was created through genetic mutations and environmental selection.
Still we must concede something to these warnings. The same technologies that may make us immortal are also the ones that bring robotic police and unmanned planes. Yet there is no way to assure that we will not suffer a nightmarish future no matter how we proceed. There is no risk-free way to proceed. With greater knowledge comes greater power; and with greater power comes the possibility of making life better or worse. The future with all its promises and perils will come regardless—all we can do is do our best.
The defense of immortality against such attacks has been undertaken most thoroughly by the recent intellectual and cultural movement known as transhumanism, which affirms the possibility and desirability of using technology to eliminate aging and overcome all other human limitations. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, transhumanists maintain that humans are in a relatively early phase of their development. They agree with humanism — that human beings matter and that reason, freedom and tolerance make the world better — but emphasize that we can become more than human by changing ourselves. This involves employing high-tech methods to transform the species and direct our own evolution, as opposed to relying on biological evolution or low-tech methods like education and training.
If science and technology develop sufficiently, this would lead to a stage where humans would no longer be recognized as human, but better described as post-human. But why would people want to transcend human nature?
Because they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to post-humanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills and intelligence.
And why would one want these experiences to last forever? Transhumanists answer that they would like to do, think, feel, experience, mature, discover, create, enjoy and love beyond what one can do in 70 or 80 years. All of us would benefit from the wisdom and love that come with time.
The conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time; in the last quartets of Beethoven, the last words and works of "old men" like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw, we see glimpses of a maturity and substance, an experience and understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present in children or in teenagers. They attained it because they lived long; because they had time to experience and develop and reflect; time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals -- a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, an Einstein -- enriching our world not for a few decades but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called "Childhood’s End" -- the beginning of the adulthood of humanity.
As for the charge that creating infinitely long life spans tamper with nature, remember that something is not good or bad because it’s natural. Some natural things are bad and some are good; some artificial things are bad and some are good. (Assuming we can even make an intelligible distinction between the natural and the unnatural.) As for the charge that long lives undermine humanity, the key is to be humane, and merely being human does not guarantee that you are humane. As for the claim that death is natural, again, that does not make it good. Moreover it was natural to die before the age of 30 for most of human history, so we live unnaturally long lives now by comparison. And few people complain about this. But even if death is natural, so too is the desire for immortality. Yes, people had to accept death when it was inevitable, but now such acceptance impedes progress in eradicating death. Death should be optional.
Additionally there are important reasons to be suspicious about the anti-immortality arguments; many are made by those who profit from death. For example, if a church sells immortality its business model is threatened by a competitor offering the real thing. Persons no longer need to join an institution if its promise of immortality is actually delivered elsewhere for a comparable cost. Anti-technology arguments may be motivated by self-interest and, as we all know, most people hesitate to believe anything that is inconsistent with how they make money. Just look at the historical opposition to the rise of modern science and the accompanying real miracles it brought. Or to tobacco companies' opposition to the evidence linking smoking with cancer, or to the oil companies' opposition to the evidence linking burning fossil fuels with global climate change.
A connected reason to be suspicious of the defenders of death is that death is so interwoven into their worldview, that rejecting it would essentially destabilize that worldview, thereby undercutting their psychological stability. If one has invested a lifetime in a worldview in which dying and an afterlife are an integral part, a challenge to that worldview will almost always be rejected. The great American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce captured this point perfectly:
Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.
The defeat of death completely obliterates most worldviews that have supported humans for millennia; no wonder it undermines psychological stability and arouses fierce opposition. Thus monetary and psychological reasons help to explain much opposition to life-extending therapies. Still, people do change their minds. We now no longer accept dying at age 30 and think it a great tragedy when it happens; I argue that our descendants will feel similarly about our dying at 80. Eighty years may be a relatively long lifespan compared with those of our ancestors, but it may be exceedingly brief when compared to those of our descendants. Our mind children may shed the robotic equivalent of tears at our short and painful lifespans, as we do for the short, difficult lives of our forbearers.
In the end death eradicates the possibility of complete meaning for individuals; surely that is reason enough to desire immortality for all conscious beings. Still, for those who do not want immortality, they should be free to die. But for those of us who long to live forever, we should be free to do so. I want more freedom. I want death to be optional.
John G. Messerly is the author of "The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives." He blogs daily these issues at reasonandmeaning.com. You can follow him on twitter @hume1955.