The Promise of Immortality in a Tech-Enhanced Heaven

"Singularité à l'orée du Bois": Photo by flickr user Fabrice Gillet via Creative Commons

Immortality, resurrection, the human place in the order of the things: these themes are generally claimed for religion, but they might just as easily be questions posed to science. Can a human being live forever? Can life exist beyond the body? What’s next in the evolution of the human species

Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity is a new book by cyberculture icon R.U. Sirius and co-author Jay Cornell—the perfect guides for this deeply informative (and wildly entertaining) trip across the transhumanist universe. I talked to both of them via email recently about God and sci-fi, synthetic children, Mormon futurists, and more.

Lisa Webster: The use of “transcendence” in your title is a great way to break the “religion” frame when thinking about immortality, the nature of the human being, ethics, the planet. But I’ll start by asking: what caused you to realize there was a need for an encyclopedia of transhumanism? And remind us of the implications of the term “disinformation”…

transcendencecoverR.U. Sirius: I’ll answer the first part, since it was my idea. I did an A-Z User’s Guide to the New Edge back in 1993, introducing the then-novel ideas of a cyberculture or cyberpunk — the idea that the digital revolution was changing everything. We’ve seen that happen. The entire world and its economy has moved online, speeding things up, “disrupting” industries, increasing our vulnerability to hackers and spies.

Now we’re at the beginnings of feeling the impact of robotics; 3D home production and the printing of body parts; nano-medicine, virtual reality (finally!) and so on. There’s even some talk about a longevity pill on the near future horizon. Even if that doesn’t happen, the potential for something along these lines needs to be on our agendas. So it seemed like a good time to inform people, in a very readable, playful way, about some of the technologies and ideas that are likely to impact our future.

Jay Cornell: Don’t be confused by the word “disinformation.” The publisher is Disinformation Books, which publishes various kinds of edgy content, and their use of the term is tongue-in-cheek. We assure you that our book includes no disinformation.

LW: Transcendence has been the province of religion, historically — the whole promising-of-immortality thing. What about the idea that transhumanism, the hope for tech-assisted transcendence of the human, is a whole lot of hubris?

Jay: I think the hubris charge has some sting, but first let’s look at history. There are many examples of humans over-reaching and thinking they can do things that they can’t. One of the big questions of 20th century economics was whether centrally-planned economies are better. As it turns out, no, they are much worse. I’d consider central economic planning a form of hubris.

However, there have also been many charges of hubris directed at people who ended up making valuable progress. “If God had meant man to fly, He’d have given him wings.”

I think transhumanism contains both elements: there will be real progress that, in retrospect, won’t look like hubris. Few will complain if medical nanobots cure cancer or dementia. At the same time, there are some starry-eyed predictions that cause me to raise an eyebrow. I think claims that the Singularity will “end scarcity” are naive, and I think the human mind is so complex and subtle, and so rooted in our meat bodies, that successful mind uploading will be far more difficult than many think, and perhaps impossible.

R.U.: Well, I don’t personally think that there is some ultimate seat of judgment — a God or what have you — that sets limits on what we should pursue or how we should behave or anything like that. But hubris is a real thing in the sense that we make our plans and we (some of us) think, “Hey this is going to go well” and we wind up in another fine mess. But we do need to resolve problems like disease and death, potable water, clean energy and, yes, scarcity.

I’ve got to also say that I think the most dangerous form of quasi-political hubris isn’t economic planning, although the totalist version of that certainly has led to a lot of death and destruction, but the assumption that we can do almost anything in the environment that sustains us and it’ll be OK.

LW: It’s true the idea of hubris or human overreaching implies that there’s a God, or gods, deciding how far is too far to reach. And, as you mention in the book, there’s a powerful dystopian sci-fi legacy that takes that equation to heart: we create artificial intelligence and it ends up taking over. One of the takeaways from transhumanism, though, if I understand it, is that (if we drop the mythology) the very idea of “natural” is not all that meaningful.

Would it be fair to say, though, that it is part of the nature of the human being, that urge toward transcendence?

Jay: I think there is something like a human urge toward transcendence. Humans evolved from animals and at some point went from simply perceiving the world to thinking about it. Many animals sense the difference between another animal being alive or dead, but only humans think about what life and death mean. Animals may perceive the stars, but only humans wonder about them. Add that to the mammalian motives and ambitions we’ve inherited, and I think you have an urge toward transcendence.

As for the idea of “natural,” you’ve put your finger on one of the central philosophical issues in transhumanism. Certainly all transhumanists at least want to stretch the concept of what is natural. Being healthy for 150 years is unnatural. But I believe the concept has a valuable meaning, if only as a check on hubris (supernatural enforcement or not).

People who believe in progress often fall prey to human limits of knowledge and rationality. Good ideas often fail because factors were missed or ignored or underestimated. Even the most enthusiastic transhumanists should remember that the reason anything is “natural” in the first place is because it works, however imperfectly.

R.U.:  What Jay said about transcendence. The fact that humans have brains that can envision or think about something that abstract probably inevitably means that we will. We also seem to have various chemicals in our mind that when activated give us visions of and/or feelings of transcendence.

And transhumanism is certainly all about transcending the natural, although it’s not because [transhumanists] believe in a force greater than physical and biological reality. A lot of people in the transhumanist world lean pretty heavily towards evolutionary psychology with its concordant ideas of biological determinism. But in a way, that may be a source of their optimism. If human tendencies are systemic in a fundamental, biological sense, then it’s a system, and a system can be hacked.

LW: In a recent-ish piece in UK Telegraph, fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana were quoted saying: “I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalog.” Also: “The family is not a fad. In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.” 

This really became news when Elton John (who has two children with husband David Furnish who were carried by surrogate) was livid via Instagram: “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic.'”

This notion of “synthetic children” reminded me of our conversation — and I’m intrigued by the discursive weirdness of all of this intra-gay argument about what’s natural. Does transhumanism offer a way out of this cultural quicksand?

R.U.: Just from reading your question, I thought maybe D&G were trying to be cool and hip and playful and futuristic with language and this was a linguistic tussle over the use of the word “synthetic.” I’d prefer that.

Unfortunately, it seems that D&G are being trad and Elton is being his usual huffy self. Yawn.

Still, there’s some content in this. As you implied, transhumanists would like to pretty much wipe out the last vestiges of the boundary between the supposed natural and the synthetic or artificial. Calling someone synthetic would not be seen as demeaning. In fact, people will be more likely to be bigoted against the non-designed — the unenhanced — which would be just as shameful.

But I’d like to step back from this futurist perspective and explore the whole notion of authenticity versus the synthetic or the artificial in terms of gay culture.  Because there’s long been this discussion of authenticity versus artifice in art… and then in rock and roll… and a lot of gay artists — and gay culture in general — have been aligned with the idea that artifice is a good thing.  This was eloquently explored by Susan Sontag in her famous 1964 “Notes on Camp.” The artificial or synthetic or synthesized or hybridized creates a zone of play in which the solid boundaries of authenticity are elided and anything can happen.

And let’s not forget that Elton made his leap to superstardom during the glitter/glam rock movement of the mid-‘70s, which was all about artifice and campiness and which was a challenge to the prevailing (boring) blue denim authenticity of your Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and that sort of thing.

You can, perhaps, trace a line from the synthetic or artificial in culture to the notion that our entire lives have succumbed to the artificial — Jean Baudrillard talked about living in the simulacrum even before the popularization of the internet.

And then, some people feel their food is artificial — from weird chemically enhanced junk food to GMOs. And then, we’re into the era of test-tube babies, three-parent babies, genetic choice regarding gender. And finally, we’re entering the age of designer children, which promises and threatens to add more genetic choices regarding temperament, intelligence, health and so on.

Anyway, the attitudes displayed by D&G against the synthetic and for tradition will undergo an unceasing series of shocks. Still, as long as people are allowed to have their own minds, there will be reactions. I don’t like the reactions, but I like that people can still have them. And, Elton, dear, there’s no need to get our panties all in a bunch every time someone says something regressive.

There’s a whiff of the mob in these Twitter storms…”

Jay: D&G’s position does seem rather old-fashioned, and even though I don’t agree, I’m a believer in diversity of opinion. I’m glad they have the guts to say what they believe, especially because it doesn’t fit with what they are “supposed to” believe. They are counteracting a certain form of stereotyping that’s increasingly pervasive, one that says people of various ethnicities or gender orientations or whatever are all supposed to think alike. So kudos to them for that.

As for Elton John and the boycotters, I wish people would calm down and not turn every disagreement into a political and economic battle. John Stuart Mill warned of the “tyranny of prevailing opinion,” which can be a restrictive, conformist force that isn’t officially censorship, but which can be just as damaging. Too often these fights move beyond the perfectly valid countervailing speech of “I disagree,” into efforts to drive people out of business for saying the wrong thing. There’s a whiff of the mob in these Twitter storms, and I don’t think many of the participants grasp that their actions are legitimizing countervailing mobs who might use the same tactics to go after the livelihoods of people they agree with.

Our transhumanist future will inevitably have major debates about what new technologies and enhancements are considered acceptable. I’m fine with that, but I’d rather they stayed as debates, and did not escalate into competing mobs trying to make unpopular opinions inexpressible, and trying to drive people out of their careers.

LW: So, regarding religion and transhumanism: we’re always reminding people that “religion” and “belief” are not the same thing. I’m certain there are scholars of religion who would say that transhumanism has some features of a religion: a cosmology, a set of practices.

You do confirm in the book that many (most) transhumanists are atheists–but does that mean a simple refusal of God or gods? Or is it something more complicated?

R.U.:  I’ll start my response by quoting myself in the book:

“The transhuman future does indeed seem to make many of the same promises as most religions: an immortality in a sort of heavenly place (a technologically improved world, real or digital, where most or all of the ordinary difficulties of biological life are transcended).”

However, I don’t think transhumanism has a singular cosmology. Ask a dozen transhumanists for a cosmology or a cosmogony and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers, particularly since the big bang seems to be turning into a whimper. And there isn’t a set of practices at all.

Some people eat whatever they want, exercise little and wait for the technology to do it all. Some people take hundreds of nutrients; eat almost nothing; quantify their lives; do all kinds of exercises and on and on. And there are all sorts of points in-between. That’s why I have to laugh at people who refer to transhumanism as a cult. There are certainly more than a few people in transhumanism who would turn it into a cult if they could (although they wouldn’t acknowledge this), but most participants are too slippery.

I would say that some transhumanists and singularitarians are sort of religious about it in the sense that they have faith. If they are certain that humans can live 1,000 years (or forever); that we can make [artificial intelligences] that far exceed human intelligence; that we can upload our minds into another medium – then they are involved in faith. If, however, they look at the science and technology and think that these things are likely to be possible but they lack certainty, then they are just science-based optimists or commoners deciding to accept someone else’s science-based optimism.

Jay: I agree with what R.U. said. I do see some of what could be called cultish or religious energy in transhumanism, but that doesn’t make it a cult or a religion. That sort of energy manifests in many human endeavors: partisan politics, followers of boy bands, the seemingly eternal questions of Microsoft vs. Apple vs. Android.

As for transhumanists and their ideas of God, it’s something about which I have limited knowledge. Certainly transhumanism can be considered another attempt to “immanentize the eschaton,” and a hubristic attempt to give humans godlike powers. Advocacy of those things seems to fit better with atheism and agnosticism than with many forms of religious belief, but there are religious transhumanists.

I also think that if Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were still alive, he’d read about the Singularity and say: “That sounds like what I called the Omega Point!”

LW: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what you say in the book regarding Mormons. Intriguing the idea that Mormon theology might have some kinship with transhumanist thinking. Is there something particularly American in both, maybe?

R.U.: It does seem that the idea that anything might be possible tends to be peculiarly (but not exclusively) American.The Mormons themselves seem to have a unique view among most offshoots of Christianity, at least according to the Mormon transhumanists. They seem to believe in a sort of heaven in the phenomenal world. Who knew?

Jay: Transhumanism does have an American flavor: a dissatisfaction with tradition and the status quo, a restless urge to improve. As for Mormons, I’m no scholar of religion but I’ve read that all religions start as cults, and it usually takes quite a long time for them to develop into full-blown religions. Mormons went from being a cult to a respectable religion quickly, which seems very American.