Can you be a death positive transhumanist?

Spes altera vitaeI recently came across the concept of “death positivity”, expressed as the idea that we should accept the inevitability of death and embrace the diversity of attitudes and customs surrounding it. Looking a bit deeper, I found the Order of the Good Death and their statement.

That got me thinking about transhumanist attitudes to death and how they are perceived.

While the brief Kotaku description makes it sound that death positivity is perhaps about celebrating death, the Order of the Good Death mainly is about acknowledging death and dying. That we hide it behind closed doors and avoid public discussion (or even thinking about it) is doing harm to society and arguably our own emotions. Fear and denial are not good approaches. Perhaps the best slogan-description is “Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”

The Order aims at promoting more honest public discussion, curiosity, innovation and gatherings to discuss death-related topic. Much of this relates to the practices in the “death industry”, some of which definitely should be discussed in terms of economic costs, environmental impact, ethics and legal rights.

Denying death as a bad thing?

Queuing for eternal restThere is an odd paradox here. Transhumanism is often described as death denying, and this description is not meant as a compliment in the public debate. Wanting to live forever is presented as immature, selfish or immoral. Yet we have an overall death denying society, so how can this be held to be bad?

Part of it is that the typical frame of the critique is from a “purveyor of wisdom” (a philosopher, a public intellectual, the local preacher) who no doubt might scold society too had not the transhumanist been a more convenient target.

This critique is rarely applied to established religions that are even more radically death denying – Christianity after all teaches the immortality of the soul, and in Hinduism and Buddhism ending the self is a nearly impossible struggle through countless reincarnations: talk about denying death! You rarely hear people asking how life could have a meaning if there is an ever-lasting hereafter. (In fact, some have like Tolstoy argued that it is only because such ever-lasting states that anything could have meaning). Some of the lack of critique is due to social capital: major religions hold much of it, transhumanism less, so criticising tends to focus on those groups that have less impact. Not just because the “purveyor of wisdom” fears a response but because they are themselves consciously or not embedded inside the norms and myths of these influential groups.

Another reason for criticising the immortalist position is death denial. Immortalism, and its more plausible sibling longevism, directly breaks the taboo against discussing death honestly. It questions core ideas about what human existence is like, and it by necessity delves into the processes of ageing and death. It tries to bring up uncomfortable subjects and does not accept the standard homilies about why life should be like it is, and why we need to accept it. This second reason actually makes transhumanism and death positivity unlikely allies.

Naïve transhumanists sometimes try to recruit people by offering the hope of immortality. Often they are surprised and shocked by the negative reactions. Leaving the appearance of a Faustian bargain aside, people typically respond by shoring up their conventional beliefs and defending their existential views. Few transhumanist ideas cause stronger reactions than life extension – I have lectured about starting new human species, uploading minds, remaking the universe, enhancing love, and many extreme topics, but I rarely get as negative comments as when discussing the feasibility and ethics of longevity.

The reason for this is in my opinion very much fear of death (with a hefty dose of status quo bias mixed in). As we grow up we have to handle our mortality and we build a defensive framework telling us how to handle it – typically by downplaying the problem of death by ignoring it, explaining or hoping via a religious framework, or finding some form of existential acceptance. But since most people rarely are exposed to dissenting views or alternatives they react very badly when this framework is challenged. This is where death positivity would be very useful.

Why strict immortalism is a non-starter

XIII: EntropyGiven our current scientific understanding death is unavoidable. The issue is not whether life extension is possible or not, just the basic properties of our universe. Given the accelerating expansion of the universe we can only gain access to a finite amount of material resources. Using these resources is subject to thermodynamic inefficiencies that cannot be avoided. Basically the third law of thermodynamics and Landauer’s principle imply that there is a finite number of information processing steps that can be undertaken in our future. Eventually the second law of thermodynamics wins (helped by proton decay and black hole evaporation) and nothing that can store information or perform the operations needed for any kind of life will remain. This means that no matter what strange means any being undertakes as far as we understand physics it will eventually dissolve.

One should also not discount plain bad luck: finite beings in a universe where quantum randomness happens will sooner or later be subjected to a life-ending coincidence.

The Heat Death of the Universe and Quantum Murphy’s Law are a very high upper bounds. They are important because they force any transhumanist who doesn’t want to dump rationality overboard and insist that the laws of physics must allow true immortality because it is desired to acknowledge that they will eventually die – perhaps aeons hence and in a vastly changed state, but at some point it will have happened (perhaps so subtly that nobody even noticed: shifts in identity also count).

To this the reasonable transhumanist responds with a shrug: we have more pressing mortality concerns today, when ageing, disease, accidents and existential risk are so likely that we can hardly expect to survive a century. We endlessly try to explain to interviewers that transhumanism is not really seeking capital “I” Immortality but merely indefinitely long lifespans, and actually we are interested in years of health and activity rather than just watching the clock tick as desiccated mummies. The point is, a reasonable transhumanistic view will be focused on getting more and better life.

Running from death or running towards life?

Love triangleOne can strive to extend life because one is scared of drying – death as something deeply negative – or because life is worth living – remaining alive has a high value.

But if one can never avoid having death at some point in one’s lifespan then the disvalue of death will always be present. It will not affect whether living one life is better than another.

An exception may be if one believes that the disvalue can be discounted by being delayed, but this merely affects the local situation in time: at any point one prefers the longest possible life, but the overall utility as seen from the outside when evaluating a life will always suffer the total disvalue.

I believe the death-apologist thinkers have made some good points about why death is not intensely negative (e.g. the Lucretian arguments). I do not think they are convincing in that it is a positive property of the world. If “death gives life meaning” then presumably divorce is what makes love meaningful. If it is a good thing that old people retire from positions of power, why not have mandatory retirement rather than the equivalent of random death-squads? In fact, defences of death as a positive tend to use remarkably weak reasons for motivations, reasons that would never be taken seriously if motivating complacency about a chronic or epidemic disease.

Life-affirming transhumanism on the other hand is not too worried about the inevitability of death. The question is rather how much and what kind of good life is possible. One can view it as a game of seeking to maximise a “score” of meaningfulness and value under risk. Some try to minimise the risk, others to get high points, still others want to figure the rules or structure their life projects to make a meaningful structure across time.

Ending the game properly

Restart, human!This also includes ending life when it is no longer meaningful. Were one to regard death as extremely negative, then one should hang on even if there was nothing but pain and misery in the future. If death merely has zero value, then one can be in bad states where it is better to be dead than alive.

As we have argued in a recent paper many of the anti-euthanasia arguments turn on their head when applied to cryonics: if one regards life as a too precious gift to be thrown away and that the honourable thing is to continue to struggle on, then undergoing cryothanasia (being cryonically suspended well before one would otherwise have died) when suffering a terminal disease in the rational hope that this improves ones chances clearly seems better than to not take the chance or allow disease to reduce one’s chances.

This also shows an important point where one kind of death positivity and transhumanism may part ways. One can frame accepting death as accept that death exists and deal with it. Another frame, equally compatible with the statement, is not struggling too much against it.  The second frame is often what philosophers suggest as a means for equanimity. While possibly psychologically beneficial it clearly has limits: the person not going to the doctor with a treatable disease when they know it will develop into something untreatable (or not stepping out of the way of an approaching truck) is not just “not struggling” but being actively unreasonable. One can and should set some limit where struggle and interventions become unreasonable, but this is always going to be both individual and technology dependent. With modern medicine many previously lethal conditions (e.g. bacterial meningitis, many cancers) have become treatable to such an extent that it is not reasonable to avail oneself to treatment.

Transhumanism puts a greater value in longevity than is usual, partially because of its optimistic outlook (the future is likely to be good, technology is likely to advance), and this leads to a greater willingness to struggle on even when conventional wisdom says it is a good time to give up and become fatalistic. This is a reason transhumanists are far more OK with radical attempts to stave off death than most people, including cryonics.


Long term careCryonics is another surprisingly death-positive aspect of transhumanism. It forces you to confront your mortality head on, and it does not offer very strong reassurance. Quite the opposite: it requires planning for ones (hopefully temporary) demise, consider the various treatment/burial options, likely causes of death, and the risks and uncertainties involved in medicine. I have friends who seriously struggled with their dread of death when trying to sign up.

Talking about the cryonics choice with family is one of the hardest parts of the practice and has caused significant heartbreak, yet keeping silent and springing it as a surprise guarantees even more grief (and lawsuits). This is one area where better openness about death would be extremely helpful.

It is telling that members of the cryonics community seeks out each other, since it is one of the few environments where these things can be discussed openly and without stigma. It seems likely that the death-positive and the cryonics community have more in common than they might think.

Cryonics also has to deal with the bureaucracy and logistics of death, with the added complication that it aims at something slightly different than conventional burial. To a cryonicist the patients are still patients even when they have undergone cardiac arrest, are legally declared dead, solid and immersed in liquid nitrogen: they need care and protection since they may only be temporarily dead. Or deanimated, if we want to reserve “death” as a word for irreversibly non-living. (As a philosopher, I must say I find the cryosuspended state delightfully like a thought-experiment in a philosophy paper).

Final words

Winter dawnI have argued that transhumanism should be death-positive, at least in the sense that discussing death and accepting its long-term inevitability is both healthy and realistic. Transhumanists will not generally support a positive value of death and will tend to react badly to that kind of statement. But assigning it a vastly negative value produces a timid outlook that is unlikely to work well with the other parts of the transhumanist idea complex. Rather, death is bad because life is good but that doesn’t mean we should not think about it.

Indeed, transhumanists may want to become better at talking about death. Respected and liked people who have been part of the movement for a long time have died and we are often awkward about how to handle it. Transhumanists need to handle grief too. Even if the subject may be only temporarily dead in a cryonic tank.

Conversely, transhumanism and cryonics may represent an interesting challenge for the death positive movement in that they certainly represent an unusual take on attitudes and customs towards death. Seeing death as an engineering problem is rather different from how most people see it. Questioning the human condition is risky when dealing with fragile situations. And were transhumanism to be successful in some of its aims there may be new and confusing forms of death.

Aristotle on trolling

Watchful AristotleA new translation of Aristotle’s classic “On trolling” by Rachel Barney! (Open Access)

That trolling is a shameful thing, and that no one of sense would accept to be called ‘troll’, all are agreed; but what trolling is, and how many its species are, and whether there is an excellence of the troll, is unclear. And indeed trolling is said in many ways; for some call ‘troll’ anyone who is abusive on the internet, but this is only the disagreeable person, or in newspaper comments the angry old man. And the one who disagrees loudly on the blog on each occasion is a lover of controversy, or an attention-seeker. And none of these is the troll, or perhaps some are of a mixed type; for there is no art in what they do. (Whether it is possible to troll one’s own blog is unclear; for the one who poses divisive questions seems only to seek controversy, and to do so openly; and this is not trolling but rather a kind of clickbait.)

Aristotle’s definition is quite useful:

The troll in the proper sense is one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he is not part of it, but opposed. And the community has some good in common, and this the troll must know, and what things promote and destroy it: for he seeks to destroy.

He then goes on analysing the knowledge requirements of trolling, the techniques, the types or motivations of trolls, the difference between a gadfly like Socrates and a troll, and what communities are vulnerable to trolls. All in a mere two pages.

(If only the medieval copyists had saved his other writings on the Athenian Internet! But the crash and split of Alexander the Great’s social media empire destroyed many of them before that era.)

The text reminds me of another must-read classic, Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”. There Frankfurt analyses the nature of bullshitting. His point is that normal deception cares about the truth: it aims to keep someone from learning it. But somebody producing bullshit does not care about the truth or falsity of the statements made, merely that they fit some manipulative, social or even time-filling aim.

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

It is pernicious, since it fills our social and epistemic arena with dodgy statements whose value is uncorrelated to reality, and the bullshitters gain from the discourse being more about the quality (or the sincerity) of bullshitting than any actual content.

Both of these essays are worth reading in this era of the Trump candidacy and Dugin’s Eurasianism. Know your epistemic enemies.

Universal principles?

Essence of ethicsI got challenged on the extropian list, which is a fun reason to make a mini-lecture.

On 2015-10-02 17:12, William Flynn Wallace wrote:
> ​Anders says above that we have discovered universal timeless principles.​ I’d like to know what they are and who proposed them, because that’s chutzpah of the highest order. Oh boy – let’s discuss that one.

Here is one: a thing is identical to itself. (1)

Here is another one: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (2)

Here is a third one: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (3)

(1) was first explicitly mentioned by Plato (in Theaetetus). I think you also agree with it – things that are not identical to themselves are unlikely to even be called “things”, and without the principle very little thinking makes sense.

I am not sure whether it is chutzpah of the highest order or a very humble observation.

(2) is from the UN declaration of universal human rights. This sentence needs enormous amounts of unpacking – “free”, “equal”, “dignity”, “rights”… these words can (and are) used in very different ways. Yet I think it makes sense to say that according to a big chunk of Western philosophy this sentence is a true sentence (in the sense that ethical propositions are true), that it is universal (the truth is not contingent on when and where you are, although the applications may change), and we know historically that we have not known this principle forever. Now *why* it is true quickly branches out into different answers depending on what metaethical positions you hold, not to mention the big topic of what kind of truth moral truth actually is (if anything). The funny thing is that the universal part is way less contentious, because of the widely accepted (and rarely stated) formal ethical principle that if it is moral to P in situation X, then the location in time and space where X happens does not matter.

Chutzpah of the highest order? Totally. So is the UN.

(3) is Immanuel Kant, and he argued that any rational moral agent could through pure reason reach this principle. It is in many ways like (1) almost a consistency requirement of moral will (not action, since he doesn’t actually care about the consequences – we cannot fully control those, but we can control what we decide to do). There is a fair bit of unpacking of the wording, but unlike the UN case he defines his terms fairly carefully in the preceding text. His principle is, if he is right, the supreme principle of morality.

Chuzpah auf höchstem Niveau? Total!

Note that (1) is more or less an axiom: there is no argument for why it is true, because there is little point in even trying. (3) is intended to be like a theorem in geometry: from some axioms and the laws of logic, we end up with the categorical imperative. It is just as audacious or normal as the Pythagorean theorem. (2) is a kind of compromise between different ethical systems: the Kantians would defend it based on their system, while consequentialists could make a rule utilitarian argument for why it is true, and contractualists would say it is true because the UN agrees on it. They agree on the mid-level meaning, but not on the other’s derivations. It is thick, messy and political, yet also represents fairly well what most educated people would conclude (of course, they would then show off by disagreeing loudly with each other about details, obscuring the actual agreement).

Philosopher’s views

Do people who think about these things actually believe in universal principles? One fun source is David Bourget and David J. Chalmers’ survey of professional philosophers (data). 56.4% of the respondents were moral realists (there are moral facts and moral values, and that these are objective and independent of our views), 65.7% were moral cognitivists (ethical sentences can be true or false); these were correlated to 0.562. 25.9% were deontologists, which means that they would hold somewhat Kant-like views that some actions are always or never right (some of the rest of course also believe in principles, but the survey cannot tell us anything more). 71.1% thought there was a priori knowledge (things we know by virtue of being thinking beings rather than experience).

My views

Do I believe in timeless principles? Kind of. There are statements in physics that are invariant of translations, rotations, Lorenz boosts and other transformations, and of course math remains math. Whether physics and math are “out there” or just in minds is hard to tell (I lean towards that at least physics is out there in some form), but clearly any minds that know some subset of correct, invariant physics and math can derive other correct conclusions from it. And other minds with the same information can make the same derivations and reach the same conclusions – no matter when or where. So there are knowable principles in these domains every sufficiently informed and smart mind would know. Things get iffy with values, since they might be far more linked to the entities experiencing them, but clearly we can do analyse game theory and make statements like “If agent A is trying to optimize X, agent B optimizes Y, and X and Y do not interact, then they can get more of X and Y by cooperating”. So I think we can get pretty close to universal principles in this framework, even if it turns out that they merely reside inside minds knowing about the outside world.