One of the biggest challenges we face as transhumanists, is conveying our philosophy to the uninitiated in a manner that is successful and productive. For the purpose of this article, I will be speaking of cryonics and transhumanism in the same context. Cryonics really isn’t a separate idea, but in my view, a tool in the transhuman ordinance to attain one of its most fundamental goals, which is radical life extension. Essentially it is a Plan B.
I have advocated for cryonics for 17 years. In that time I have encountered very few people who on first glance, found it to be something they could imagine for themselves. Very recently, I have devoted much time to the study of transhumanism, and have found the same barriers. People don’t tend to like what we have to offer. I have struggled for a long time to come to terms with this fact, and have spent a great deal of energy trying to understand why. What makes “us” look at the world in such different terms than “them”? What are we missing? Are we just a different species?
I would like to believe that humans can learn, evolve and come to accept radically new ideas. I think that we should continue to reexamine our own approach, and continue to be “missionaries” to the transhuman cause. Lives depend on it- ours and theirs. We need to be kind, approachable, and be prepared to be patient about expecting results. We should also be prepared to discard messages that clearly alienate the average man and create an adversarial or suspicious atmosphere when trying to teach others. We must also grow.
I wish to tread cautiously on this point however. I do not think that we should compromise our values or our ambitions in order to make transhumanism comfortable for everyone. It is a complex philosophy that is boldly unafraid of the future, and honest in its examination of who we are as a species. This is a concept that is life altering for some, and sadly, unthinkable for many. We must also prepare for the possibility that we will be making this journey alone, and leaving much of humanity behind. The part that weighs most heavily on my imagination though is that if we are not careful with our approach, the most fundamentally opposed to us will declare a jihad on our ideas. This would be unthinkable, but ultimately it is possible if we ignore the message we are sending to the world.
One of the first things I feel we are doing wrong is speaking to the public about immortality. We are jumping to the end of the story, and expecting others to buy it without ever having learned about all of the other steps. Immortality is an unrealistic expectation that makes us sound like fundamentalist zealots. We can never prove to be immortal, no matter how long we live, so why come out of the gate running with it? It’s not the right approach to take with the Everyman and seems to be a poor sales tactic. I think that simply going with the concept of extending one’s life- for a decade or a century- seems to be an easier concept to sell. Let’s worry about immortality later.
Another aspect of transhumanism that I am not sure has been well communicated, is that as with any philosophy, people will find themselves on a spectrum of tolerance for what changes they are comfortable making, and the rate in which it is done. There are some that wish to be uploaded tout de suite, and would like to dispense with their meat carcasses yesterday, whereas there are other transhumanists who are more moderate, and would like to evolve a bit more slowly, giving themselves time to decide which aspects of humanity they would like to hold on to. I for one think that the concepts of merging with AI, The Singularity and Immortalism are equally amazing and frightening. I can only imagine what the uninitiated think of such concepts. I think it is fair that people understand that as with any other philosophy or belief system that a spectrum of participants is to be expected. This, I feel, creates a more approachable system, where a novice can choose their entry point and tolerance level to the rapid changes we are predicting and planning for. I have not personally seen forums for novice transhumanists, or the trans-curious which could cultivate a less intimidating environment to absorb the steep learning curve of information we take for granted. One of the most common questions I get is “What’s transhumanism?”
In its most basic definition, transhumanism is the philosophy of improving the human condition using technology and knowledge. When we really examine that statement, it can be said that we have been transhumanists since we discovered how to harness fire. The difference now, which seems to be the clincher, and the threshold of our next great evolution as a species, is that we stand at a point where we can actually begin modifying a human being, and changing who we fundamentally are to serve that purpose. This is a delicate matter. We need to give as much attention to the ethics of this transformation and to the comfortable integration of our best human ideals as we do to the revolution in technology. These changes will affect everyone in one way or another and they have a right to decide their level of involvement.
From the perspective of teaching and advocacy, I recently asked several of my friends who aren’t transhumanists, what were the reasons why they rejected this concept. I would like to outline a few of these ideas and potential responses to them. I realize this has been done many times before, but again, I am hoping that patience and perseverance will in the end win the day.
“It’s not natural”.
This one is pretty straightforward. Plague is natural. So is hunger, pain, cholera, cancer and high infant mortality rates. We have been shaping the world for millennia to serve our needs and make it less natural to enable us to survive, and thrive in a hostile environment. Natural and desirable are not the same ideas. The computer I am writing with is an excellent example of man using his ingenuity and determination to improve my life. So is the roof over my head and the insulin that my father uses to keep himself in a healthy state. Nature is neither good nor bad. It is a force that knows no morals, and will destroy us with impunity. Most of our society has come to accept our attempts at staving off death using surgery, pharmaceuticals and organ transplantation. It is something we are all pretty comfortable with. Faced with a life threatening illness, when offered hope for a cure, most people I have met will at least consider that cure. Why? Because ultimately, we are creatures with a deeply rooted survival instinct. Death is generally bad, unless one imagines that life would involve suffering that would be intolerable, or a state in which one could no longer meaningfully interact with the world around him. Everyone has a different set point for where they feel they can tolerate this kind of suffering.
Along with an instinctual survival mechanism there is the duality of acceptance. In my experience, people accept death on the whole because they simply have no choice. There has never been another option, so we have created cultural, spiritual and personal defenses against such a devastating experience. These defenses, or belief systems, are so deeply ingrained into our collective psyches, that changing them is extraordinarily difficult. Again, we must be patient and persistent if we are to make any difference at all. Acceptance is a survival mechanism for our spiritual and psychological well being. When man first looked up at the stars and realized he was mortal, and that his life would be short and brutal, he created gods, heavens and hells to help him cope with such an existential horror. From this evolved religions and rules to keep society operating with some measure of control. For a long time, and even still, these were useful measures. As we adapted to be tribal and our survival improved by living together, such codes of behaviour and belief systems served as the grease which kept our civilizations from falling into chaos… more or less.
For the first time in history, we are beginning to realize that there may indeed be a choice. This is a revolution in thought so profound that I feel it will take decades before it is accepted by even a small percentage of our population. Change takes time. Telling them that they are wrong about life and death won’t work. They need to be shown that there is a choice and be allowed to accept that fact in their own time. Many won’t and will indeed be lost to us. Some will. I have always believed that cryonics will never catch on, until the day that we successfully restore a person to health. That day will change the world as we know it. Until then, I don’t think this is a battle we are going to win. We must keep our sights on other goals, and survive until that day comes.
“What About Overpopulation?”
I was born to this earth and for as long as I live, I will not be able to increase the population of this world by simply living in it. I am one person. It has been proven many times over that the problem of “overpopulation” is one of unchecked reproduction and poor management of resources. It has been demonstrated that the more educated and affluent a society becomes, the fewer children its members have. Population in first world nations is actually on the decline. We need educated, motivated, experienced people to help solve some of the very real problems our world faces. By eliminating poverty, warfare and illiteracy, we will be making improvements to the sustainability of this world and eliminate the need to worry about overpopulation. Let’s not blame the desire to live longer on the problems we have already created. If people truly believe that life extension is a selfish act that deprives the youngest members of our society of a habitable resourceful planet, perhaps we should start culling our citizens at the age of 65 to ease the burden of others of the need to care for our ageing members. Telling a person that he or she shouldn’t try everything in their power to live longer is a similar concept that I feel is equally unethical.
Humanity is looking towards the stars. It is very realistic to predict that the next century will have us harvesting resources from our solar system and expanding our civilization to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Recent announcements from Mars One and Planetary Resources have proven that those plans are on the design table as we speak. Mankind must and will flourish be expanding our reach. By relying solely on one habitat, we are running a terrible risk of being decimated by a single extinction level event.
“If I am cryopreserved, and come back in 100 years, I won’t know anyone and I won’t be productive or useful any more”
This concern speaks to the individual value system of a person. I, for one would rather be alive and have to adjust to a new world, than be dead. Not so for many other people though, and this concern is valid and should not be ignored. One thing that can be done to mitigate this risk is put all of our efforts into perfecting cryopreservation and its reversal, so that a person who undergoes the procedure can expect to return within decades rather than centuries. If I was to propose to someone that they could be restored to health and vigor but would have to undergo 20 or 30 years of suspended animation to do that, I think that I would be more likely to get volunteers than if I said it would take a century or two to accomplish the same goal. This is where we really have to focus most of our energy, so that cryonics can become a reversible suspended animation. Cryonics needs big thinkers, big dreamers, and the financial resources to make this happen. It needs a bold revitalization that I think is very possible if we want it badly enough.
Part of the responsibility for solving this concern also lies in the hands of the patient. If it is so important to be near your loved ones that you would rather die than return to a world without them, then do everything you can to convince them to sign up as well. I did this. It took me almost two decades, but I managed to get my family to agree to come with me.
“You can’t bring someone back from the dead”
Cryonics advocates are very clear about what the definition of death is, but it deserves restating. Death is not an absolute event. It is a grey area that is currently negotiable with modern medicine. To declare someone dead is simply an arbitrary statement that a physician makes that states that he or she no longer has the skill or means to restore someone to health. This point where a person is pronounced varies greatly from practitioner to practitioner, depending on his or her skill set and means to revive someone. It doesn’t mean that a switch has been turned off. Improvements made every day in the field of resuscitative medicine have proven that the more skill and knowledge we have the better chance we have of saving a critically ill patient. We currently employ CPR, powerful medications, therapeutic hypothermia and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to keep a clinically dead patient “alive” for hours while we work at repairing them and restoring them to health. We are making progress. To be dead means that so much information within one’s brain is lost, that the person is meaningfully gone. Cryonics seeks to halt the dying process before a person is irreversibly lost. They seek to extend the reach of medicine, not bring back the dead, so that this person can benefit from even more advanced resuscitative techniques in the future.
“What Happens To My Soul?”
Speaking from the perspective of one that was raised Roman Catholic; I feel I can offer an opinion on this matter. According to most monotheistic faiths I have encountered, the soul is considered to be an eternal entity. This question is often intimately linked with another which is about us “daring to play God”. Obviously no matter what response I give on this matter, it will not satisfy everyone. What I can offer is this: If the soul is eternal, why would it care if it has to wait a few years for me to be resuscitated?” What happens to the “soul” of a frozen embryo that is later implanted and grows to become a viable human being? If cryonics isn’t destined to work, then it won’t matter what I do. The “soul” will go wherever it needs to go.
The real problem here is one of fear. Fear of change and radical ideas. We got used to heart transplants and frozen embryos. They are now regarded more as products of our modern society, than trespassing on the realm of God. Once a radical idea comes to fruition, and the world doesn’t end in fire and brimstone, people come to accept it, and tend to forget that they feared it in the first place. If someone is truly fearful of the radical changes that are coming for all of us, no amount of talk about the destiny of a soul will appease them. They must come to accept technology at their own speed, on their own terms, if they do at all. Many won’t.
This is where I would like to impart my final message to transhumanists. Enough with the theist bashing please. Ridiculing my neighbour because he or she believes in a religion isn’t going to make me look smarter, and it’s not going to get them to say “aw shucks” and change teams. It helps to perpetuate a rift that will continue to grow and impact everyone. We don’t need a holy war. We need the world to support us in order to see our dreams manifest. They need us to enrich and extend their lives. Creating great ideological divisions between “us” and “them” only helps to perpetuate a world that is fuelled by fear, mistrust and stagnation. That doesn’t get us any closer to our goals and it doesn’t do anything to elevate the human condition, which is of course our primary purpose.