With yesterday’s futuristic technologies increasingly becoming today’s product announcements, the progress of science seems unstoppable. Mark O’Connell’s excellent new book “To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death” follows the author’s interactions and interviews with self-professed transhumanists.
This eclectic collection of scientists, tech giants, journalists, and enthusiasts are prophets of a coming post-human species that embraces technology as the means to transcend present biological and psychological limitations. The book itself is masterfully and humorously written, and gives the reader a thorough introduction to the ideas and people behind the transhumanist movement.
The book serves a more important purpose than simply describing transhumanism, however: O’Connell’s interactions with transhumanists show that modern man is not prepared to argue against transhumanism. He must either accept it or find a theological alternative.
The Relationship Between Transhumanism and Religion
It seems that, sociologically speaking, transhumanism springs from the same part of man that desires to create religion. Man fears death, so must overcome it in some way. From this fear, the social scientists tell us, man creates fantasies about deities and paradises, resurrection and glorification. In its own way, transhumanism becomes religious insofar as it represents another in a long line of sets of belief adopted by man in hopes of overcoming his mortality. This time, man seeks help not from mystical transcendent beings but from his own will, instantiated in technology.
Some religious sects like Mormonism have made a place for transhumanist ideas, but transhumanists like Max More have made clear that traditional Christian doctrine and transhumanism are largely incompatible, given the difficulty of reconciling both sets of claims. However, on at least one point, the transhumanist and the Christian agree: death is an enemy to be conquered. The Christian New Testament claims “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Transhumanists concur, and propose that if death can be conquered through technology, death should be conquered through technology.
I am not a scientist. I lack the knowledge to tell scientists who advocate transhumanist ideas that they are wrong about what technology can accomplish. When non-experts like myself grapple with the transhumanist ideas, we traffic in intuitions and philosophies about consciousness, personality, death, and what it means to be human, rather than in scientific arguments.
This is true of O’Connell as well. In his research, O’Connell encounters scientists who tell him that living to extreme ages will be possible soon, within his and his child’s lifetime. Some subjects interviewed even theorize that eventually we could theoretically “upload” consciousness and become more machine than man. O’Connell clearly sees the progression from the thought of men like Thomas Hobbes to the ideas of transhumanism. Hobbes saw man as fundamentally an organic machine, so there seems to be no reason that machine could not be upgraded.
Defending Death Is a Lost Cause
Despite hearing the arguments and understanding their source, O’Connell refuses to accept transhumanism. This is not because he thinks transhumanist ideals are unachievable, but because he cannot stomach the idea of living forever, or being himself in any other physical form. He ultimately objects not to the practicality of the transhumanist project but to the propriety of it.
O’Connell’s resistance to transhumanism culminates in a fascinating exchange in the book where O’Connell is forced to defend death and mortality as preferable to eternal life and vitality. He mounts standard arguments: Life’s brevity is what gives it value. Impending death makes our continued existence meaningful in some way. Also, life sucks; why extend it?
O’Connell’s transhumanist companions deftly deflect his objections. “There [is] no beauty in finitude,” they say. They argue that O’Connell’s qualms come from an essential human need to grapple with death and somehow justify it as good so we can avoid constant dread and despair. And, O’Connell admits, the transhumanists are right. There is something palpably absurd about defending death as some sort of human good.
Despite conceding the point, O’Connell concludes the book by restating his rejection of transhumanism, and the reader is left wondering why. If the transhumanists are correct in theorizing that our continued acceptance of death is just an evolutionary symptom of a disease that can and will be cured, what possible reason could we have to deny the inevitable?
In a poignant scene in the book, O’Connell’s child begins to wrestle with mortality following the death of his grandmother. The boy is comforted when he learns that his father is writing a book on people who are trying to create a world in which people no longer have to die. What comfort is there to offer if we are to reject both religion and transhumanism? What compelling reason do we have to embrace despair when technology offers hope?
Simply put, defending death is a lost cause. Even if, as O’Connell theorizes, “the idea of meaning [is] itself an illusion, a necessary human fiction,” man has continued maintaining that illusion for millennia and seems to persist in preferring life to death. Unless O’Connell and others like him are prepared and able to convince the bulk of humanity that death is a happy end to be embraced, not fought against, it seems a choice has presented itself. This choice is between different religions that offer escape from death. Transhumanism offers the materialist a religion through which to conquer death; other religions offer the same to those who have faith in gods other than technology.
Will O’Connell and others who reject both transhumanism and other religions refuse anti-aging treatments if they become available? Will they abstain from extending their lives, if given the choice? Only time, the one thing transhumanism cannot hope to overcome, will tell.