Monday, July 31, 2017

Can Technology Delete Death?

In an attempt to escape this fallen world, what if we instead find ourselves eternally stuck inside it? Since the time of Prometheus, the Greek demigod, or more recent stories of people stuck in a conscious coma, aware of everything around them but unable to move their mouths or bodies, the inability to die can become the ultimate trap, the most haunting horror.

 

Few prophets of the technological revolution are more respected than Ray Kurzweil, and his answer is Yes. One day, soon enough, science will deliver us from physical death, from the awful reality of mortality, and from the snubbing out of our conscious existence on earth.

Human evolution now demands such steps, Kurzweil says. “Our bodies are governed by obsolete genetic programs that evolved in a bygone era, so we need to overcome our genetic heritage” (The Singularity, 371). The idea of transhumanism is that we can evade our biological bodies — like a man fleeing out the top hatch of a damaged submarine, or maybe more like a thumb drive escaping the top hatch of a damaged submarine.

Kurzweil is talking about a form of mind uploading — the ability to extract the cognitive dimension of the human experience, digitize it, separate it from biological mass, discard the biological body, and end up with some sort of consciousness contained inside a computer who is you, eternal you, deathless you.

Standing in his way are supernaturalists, like us, because for Kurzweil, “a primary role of traditional religion is deathist rationalization — that is, rationalizing the tragedy of death as a good thing” (372).

Immortality Trap

But even pragmatists are slow to embrace Kurzweil’s promise.

In an attempt to escape this fallen world, what if we instead find ourselves eternally stuck inside it? Since the time of Prometheus, the Greek demigod, or more recent stories of people stuck in a conscious coma, aware of everything around them but unable to move their mouths or bodies, the inability to die can become the ultimate trap, the most haunting horror.

Recently, when asked if he would embrace the immortality of a demigod, podcaster and life hacker Tim Ferriss said no, he wouldn’t. Easy answer. But if he was given an exit option, to end that eternal existence when he wanted it to end, “assuming that option is on the table, yeah, I would take that option.” In other words, immortality at the hands of technicians raises haunting insecurities about whether or not such an exemption from death would be worth “living.” Hence the need for an “escape” button option, to terminate what is left of us.

The connection got even more interesting when Ferriss was next asked if humanity would be better off if immortality was an option. “I’m all for extending my functional life span, but I am not pining after immortality,” he said. Why? “I worry about having all the time in the world, or the perceptionof having all the time in the world.”

“If I were immortal,” he concluded, “I would feel no rush and no compulsion to do many, many things.”

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