A friend published on Facebook a couple of days ago the news that a whale spent 17 days of grief before leaving its child’s corpse behind. As a psychology student, she tried to go beyond reporting and argued that this was an example that illustrated the way that we, as human beings, deal with death, especially in Western cultures. Her position was one of criticism against the way we deny death and don’t respect our personal timing as funerals are performed in a hurry, with no real time to process the fact and experience the ritual. For this reason, we experience death in an even harder way, or ultimately we don’t even process such an event: we rather deny death and our own mortality.
It wasn’t always like that, as someone stressed on the comments: Victorian societies, for instance, used post-mortem photography as a means to grieve and deal with the loss of some beloved one. The photograph thus worked as a means to “freeze” the person’s image in time, allowing that people processed loss on their own pace. From a psychoanalytical point of view, Sigmund Freud describes in “Writing on war and death” (1915) how or ancestors reacted in face of death, and that seeing someone die made them realize themselves as mortal beings too. This conciousness of death is what some anthropologists and sociologists argue to be unique among all other animals, to the point that it enabled us to create culture, art, philosophy, religion, politics, morality, and so on. Since we know that we are mortals and that our life has an expiration date, we therefore create these symbolic “crutches” as a means to justify our will to live in face of the inevitability of death — otherwise, we would end up in a state of complete nihilism or even of paralysis.
This way, death is both our uttermost certainty and mystery; we try to absorb it through metaphors, beliefs that the best is yet to come or that this is just a “comma” in our journey, not a full stop as argued by Buddhists and Hindi, for instance. However, at the same time that we extend our life expectancy with technological innovation (from sanitation to penicillin, from vaccines to a possible cure for AIDS), we also begin to find ways to actually make ourselves immortal. In other words, if life expectancy has almost doubled in the past centuries, why can’t this be reproduced or even potentialized in the next years? When we are presented to the concept of technological exponentiality (Moore’s law), it’s not difficult to imagine that exponentiality can cover our own existence too.
What we have is thus technological initiatives that not only seek to extend life, but actually make it possible to eradicate death and ageing, which is nothing more than the likings of entropy making us closer to the disorganization of death — the moment when we are disorganized as an individual to be dissolved into the environment. Since the 1970s, in the United States, we have examples of companies such as Alcor Cryonics that use cryonics to preserve bodies in the hope that, in the future, we have enough resources to bring these people back to life.
On the other hand, gerontologists such as Aubrey De Grey have been searching for a means through biotechnology to overcome entropy and this way achieve the so-called escape velocity. This concept encompasses the ability to develop treatments that are not only able to revert the damage caused by ageing, but in fact, able to augment our bodies to an even more advanced stage than it was previously found, so we achieve death and corruption’s escape velocity all the same time.
Likewise, in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics, there’s also people working on ways to make us immortals and release us from our short expiration dates, as well as the fallibility of our biological bodies. In the 1990s, authors such Hans Moravec brought the idea that our mind is over our body, to the point that this biological substrate is rather a burden that limits our capabilities instead of allowing us to reach our full potential. After all, there’s been some time since men started using tools and technology as a means to extend their capability, being it when we use wheels for mobility or the smartphone as an extension of our brain. So why can’t we opt for literally replace parts of our body or allow new technological implants to be part of our organism?
From cyborgism to biohacking, we have the example of accessory implants such as magnets or RFID chips and further more extreme and even dangerous experiments being performed. But it is especially in the case of people with disabilities that the adoption of bionic prosthetics is growing as a trend, which brings the question if we are more likely to accept this kind of intervention when they “compensate” some disability or are we open for further intervention in our bodies? Such questioning poses an ethical dilemma, but we didn’t arrive to the point of seriously think about that collectively because we still didn’t develop enough technology, so this kind of discussion keeps resonating only between specialists and aficionados.
In any case, today we seem to be more open to procedures such as organ transplant, pacemaker implants or even ophthalmologic surgeries, but because these are examples of therapeutic procedures, that is, techniques that aim to cure people from existing conditions and not to solely extend their lives. But what if someone starts to “function” better than they used to after going under such procedures? It is a side effect, not the objective of the treatment.
It is in these cases of disease or accident that we often face death in a more significant way. This was the case of Liz Parrish, a billionaire of gene therapy who only joined this industry by founding the startup BioViva after learning that her son had childhood diabetes, a life-risking condition. But at the same time that Parrish begin to fight for a cure of this disease, she also realized that, above all things, it is the pursuit for longevity, or ultimately immortality, that will bring within itself the challenge to overcome diseases that also affect children.
Likewise, also Martine Rothblatt, who was already considered the most well paid CEO in the United States, migrated to the pharma industry after learning that her child had a condition with no cure. But more than that, today Rothblatt’s challenge is to deal with the reality of eventually losing her beloved wife, Bina. If some artists in the past tried to immortalize their muses and lovers through poetry, sculpture and paintings, Martine however build a robotic bust with an AI that is constantly learning how to emulate Bina, so it will allow the woman to be forever present even after her death. This is one of the steps when building what they call mindfiles, AI-powered software designed to learn how to emulate people, a core value for the Terasem Movement, also created by Martine and her family.
Described as a transreligion, the Terasem Movement Foundation aims t o investigate the so-called Terasem Hypothesis, which consists in: (i) a conscious analogue of a person can be created after combining enough detailed data about an individual (a mindfile) by using a future consciousness simulation software (mindware); (ii) this analogue consciousness can be transferred to a biological or nanotechnological body that will provide life experiences similar to those typically experienced when human beings are born. That is, Terasem, as much as the 2045 Initiative, is searching for a means to solve the problem of the body as a burden, as seen in the 1990s with Moravec. It uses technology as a means to sublimate our bodies and release them from their expiration dates.
By the way, this was the very common trope in science fiction of the 1980 and 1990s. Subgenres such as cyberpunk and titles such as Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell and Matrix addressed these topics at the same time that the internet became an actual, commercial product, and the desire to live in an immersive simulation became resonant to the Christian imaginary.
Even before the series Caprica brought such religious concepts that would be better unraveled in the universe of Battlestar Galatica, but right after Neal Stephenson published his novel Snow Crash, Margaret Wertheim published the book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (1999). The author offers a historical, technological, and artistic panorama on how our perception of space is congruent to our perception of being. Wertheim highlights the very fact that our new cybernetic technologies, or more specifically the internet and cyberspace, have become a new metaphor for heaven. In magazines such as Wired, journalists even used expressions such as “in cyberspace, we can be angels” back in the day.
So it is not that surprising to find out religious grupos such as the Christian Transhumanism Association and the Mormon Transhumanist Association, which aim to establish a connection between their faith and the narratives of transhumanism. Likewise, this same philosophical movement has in its core a religious connection that dates back from the past century, when the Jesuit father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin talked about an “evolutional curve” very similar to the concept of Moore’s Law. He believed that it was through the noosphere (some kind of network where all minds are connected) that we would be able to achieve a super intelligence that would ultimately culminate in what Teilhard called the Omega Point, now more popularly known as Singularity after the publications of authors such as Ray Kurzweil (Singularity is Near) and Yuval Noah Harari (Homo deus).
In this sense, Micah Redding became a prominent name in the field of Christian Transhumanism after his essay was published on the website Motherboard, where the software developer reunites several testimonials from believes such as the Catholic monastery student that, at 27, declared that “technology isn’t going to solve all our problems, nor is technology going to advance forever at an exponential rate, but so what? Cochlear implants can help deaf kids hear and cybernetics can help lame men walk. That’s good enough for me…that’s my Christian transhumanism.” According to the engineer Jonathan Gunnel, “Christians are uniquely placed to be ready for massively extended lifespans. We already have a view of what kind of mind you need. Without [that] I can foresee the Singularity degenerating into civil war.”
But if we already started this reflection pointing to the very possibility that our finitude consciousness is what makes us create ways to give life a meaning (religion and morality being some of them), what Gunnel’s testimonial says is that, in fact, Christian transhumanists that when we eliminate death, we may not necessarily eliminate our needs to eliminate these symbolic “crotches” that we have been using for ages. On the contrary: it is the very reason why they are Christian and that they live under the learnings of God that they are more capable of living an infinite life fulfilled with purpose.
However, when we think about our own mortality (memento mori), we also find carpe diem (seize the day) as a connected advice that we need to do our best with this finite time we have on Earth. But the problem is that our world is growing increasingly faster, more populous and with more information being created each second, so rather than seizing the day, we are actually constantly afraid of missing something (FOMO or fear of missing out). In this particular case, the gerontologist Aubrey De Grey tells that when someone asks him if living forever would not be boring, he argues that there is so much more to be lived, known and reflected. In other words, if we had more time to live today, would we suffer less for the things we are missing now, but that can be done tomorrow or later? It’s not very likely, considering our propensity to develop mental diseases such as anxiety and depression — but maybe even these conditions can be eliminated in the equation of future immortal humans.
However, authors such as Francis Fukuyama alert to the fact that transhumanism and the achievement of immortality could rather be one of the most dangerous ideas of our century. The reason why he says so is that, in the first place, the access to these technologies and treatment will be reserved only to an elite due to its high initial costs, which means the rise of a new kind of inequality that could be even stronger than the current ones. On the other hand, the philosopher also argues that achieving eternal life could ultimately change or even extinguish what the author calls the “human essence,” since our finitude (and our consciousness of it) is a very important asset in the definition of what we are: “Modifying any of these main characteristics means modifying a complex and connected pack of characteristics, and we will never be able to anticipate the results of it” — and this is one of the central problems in the case of the Chinese babies who had their genes edited.
What is left for us, therefore, is the current scenario in which an elite is dedicated to this kind of entrepreneurship at the same time that we see the rise of anti-vaccine movements and the resurfacing of diseases that were already eradicated. That is, while the rich are thinking about these more technological solutions as an escapism to a supposedly eminent catastrophe, what we see is that while an average Brazilian citizen can live up to 79 years of age, the LGBT community, black people and favela dwellers don’t have the same chances. This is the argument reinforced by Fukuyama when he says that this could mean the perpetual rupture with the search for equity, since inequality won’t be translated into who lives longer and better, but instead who lives forever and who doesn’t. In any case, there is also Douglas Rushkoff’s viewpoint that says that these ideas of human augmentation, exponentiality and longevity may not be as dangerous as they seem in an isolated way, but the problem is that the scenario that we have today is marked by “a league of tech billionaires that were taught to believe human beings are the problem and technology is the solution.”
Finally, while we still don’t reach this point of achieving immortality, it is our duty to not simply reflect and discuss about these possible futures (which have been explored by science fiction titles such as Altered Carbon, for instance), but also think about the ways we understand death currently. Therefore, I finalize this essay returning to its beginning: what if the most urgent thing for us to do is changing the way we see and deal with death instead of trying to eradicate it through technology? In other words, finding technological means to “kill death” isn’t just another means to keep denying it?
It is in this sense that movements focused on the “good death,” such as is the case of the Order of the Good Death and the blog Morte Sem Tabu on “Folha de S. Paulo”, try to bring another viewpoint that is not the same we are used to when we think about death. So here’s my advice for you to revisit the transhumanist quest for immortality from another perspective, one in which death is understood in another way than denial.