Optimists And Deathists: Thinking Critically About The World Of Tomorrow

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Think carefully: are you a “deathist”? That’s apparently a person in our culture who thinks that death is inevitable and doesn’t buy into the ripe and exciting transhumanist future in which technology will (according to the theory) allow us to live forever.

This article on the Institute For Ethics & Emerging Technologies website will fill you in: “Can Transhumanism Overcome A Wide Deathist Culture?” The premise is that continuing innovations in science and technology is not only going to extend our average lifespans considerably, but will finally give us the “choice” whether to die or become immortal. What a choice!

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Further, the article argues that the biggest challenge to the immortality of humans are not viruses, cancers, over-population, or the stray black swan event (this last factor is, tellingly, never discussed as even a possibility)—but, rather, the religious people in the world:

The rapidly growing field of transhumanism—an international social movement whose highest immediate priority is overcoming human death via science and technology—is facing a colossal challenge. About 85 percent of the world’s population believes in life after death, and much of that population is perfectly okay with dying because it gives them an afterlife with their perceived deity or deities—something transhumanists often refer to as “deathist” culture.

If the deathist culture could just stop believing in things like the afterlife and souls, then humanity could embrace their immortal future without hindrance of any kind (still no word here on things like sudden extinction-level events, the stray asteroid, sudden natural disasters of all stripes—not to mention the idea that the humans themselves, in the midst of their now un-restricted scientific and technological experimentation, could fuck things up but good):

Recently, a number of transhumanists, including myself who is an atheist, have attempted to work more closely with governmental, religious, and social groups that have for centuries endorsed the deathist culture. Transhumanists are trying to get those groups to realize we are not necessarily wanting to live forever. Transhumanists simply want the choice and creation over our own earthly demise, and we don’t want to leave it to cancer, or an automobile accident, or aging, or fate.

We are going to overcome Fate! Isn’t that amazing?

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The best part of this article is where the author, an atheist, explains to his Christian friends that they need not be afraid of immortality: “I’ve often told Christian friends, for example, that living longer could be seen as a way for religious missionaries to spread their message further—to save more people if that’s how they want to view it.”

So here is my question—if we are going to live, if not “forever,” let’s say a Pretty Long Time, won’t the Earth start to get really crowded? If people don’t die, or live for, as the article suggests, “thousands of years,” where will everybody live? Certainly, if we perfect off-world colonization by that point, we could simply “ship” people off to Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons.

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But let’s be realistic here. Is this transhumanist/immortal future going to be for Everyone? Or just for those who can afford it?

Consider comments made by Yuval Harari from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who believes that transhumanist advances will be mainly used by the rich, widening the gulf between them and the poor. You will have god-like wealthy immortals on one hand, and grub-like mortal “have-nots” on the other.

…what we see in the last few centuries is humans becoming more powerful and they no longer need the crutches of the Gods. Now we are saying we do not need God just technology. The most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Middle East, it’s Silicon Valley where they are developing a techno-religion. They believe even death is just a technological problem to be solved.

Harari also says that abolishing the human religious impulse will, in effect, kill the vital human capacity for imagination.

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Another perspective on the whole “over-population debate” can be found at the New York Times article “The Unrealized Horrors Of Population Explosion.” It points out that the apocalyptic viewpoint of Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb” hasn’t come to pass. To which I’d ask…uh, hasn’t it? (ask the people dying in literal piles of bodies over in India during their recent heatwave).

While it’s true that across the Western world birth rates are going down, it’s also true that we have smaller groups of privileged people consuming ever-increasing amounts of resources. Resources are being drained from the Earth at a rate far exceeding our interest in replenishing them. And the “fruits” of our excess resource consumption are creating an ever-unstable climate situation, which has the potential then to restrict our resources even further through drought, flooding, and freezes.

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In order to attain this “Tomorrowland” utopia, we—the global We—would have to stop being such goddamn selfish over-consumers of resources. But that’s not going to happen. Because the “Tomorrowland” aesthetic and ideal is built on a very specific post-war American suburban point-of-view.

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It’s about the optimism of the 1950s and early 60s—a time of great expansion (get a load of those cars!) and conspicuous consumption. But while this optimism was “sold” to the citizens of the United States—and, in turn, to much of the rest of the world—it is a closed-system where there will inevitably be the “have-nots,” a system ruled, ultimately, by Capitalism.

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(And here is a very good example of how the medical innovations that augment life-extension, without accompanying humanitarian support, causes excess misery: how elderly cancer patients in Russia are committing suicide in droves because they can’t get the financial support or painkillers they need)

That Ayn Randian point-of-view—that particular Reality Tunnel—is fine, if that’s what you cotton to. But to present it as this amazing populist utopia in which everyone will have a slice…that’s just misrepresentation, in my view.

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Finally, to wrap things up, here is an article by Chris Hedges entitled “America’s Mania for Positive Thinking and Denial of Reality Will Be Our Downfall” (I know, I know—I must be very fun at parties!):

The yearning for positivism that pervades our corporate culture ignores human nature and human history. But to challenge it, to state the obvious fact that things are getting worse, and may soon get much worse, is to be tossed out of the circle of magical thinking that defines American and much of Western culture. The left is as infected with this mania for hope as the right. It is a mania that obscures reality even as global capitalism disintegrates and the ecosystem unravels, potentially dooming us all.

As you can see, Hedges must also be very fun at parties.

Separated at birth?:

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