Applauding Death

[Commentary]

During the Singularity Summit 2007, one of the most unexpected moments came during a panel session on day one. Peter Voss and Dr. Stephen Omohundro sat down to answer questions from the audience after their own individual presentations. Voss had suggested during his talk that AGI could benefit health and longevity research. An audience member asked, with apparent anger and passion, why anyone would want to extend healthy lifespan and attempt to prevent death.

Voss seemed surprised by the question, and asked the audience if anyone really wanted to die. A significant minority raised their hands, cried out, and applauded.

A philosophical chasm was then suddenly laid bare, thought it appeared that neither side could wrap their heads around the alternative view. After Voss defended radical life extension, a larger portion of the crowd applauded.

Why would anyone defend death, especially with applause? I jotted down a few ideas, though no one in that camp expressed their opinions in any detail.

  • Environmentalism? Some people might consider the Earth and its environment to be more important than human life if they believe, as scientific evidence suggests, humanity is responsible for global warming and other dire consequences of rapid technological progress. Worried about overpopulation, death may seem to be an appropriate release valve. However, this particular belief does not seem to consider the promise of upcoming technological solutions, the precipitous fall in birth rate in developed and some developing countries, off-world resources, and rapid efficiency gains that could herald an age of less consumption rather than more.
  • Legacy? Some people might consider children a greater legacy than their own continued existence. Related to overpopulation and environmentalism concerns, some people believe they need to die to get out of the way of their children, in a cycle that will see immortality through descendants. Like these other concerns, however, legacy neglects important changes and paradigm-shifts occurring right now, while ignoring those who will not or cannot leave behind a genetics legacy.
  • Religion? If existence is simply a test that separates good and evil humans upon their death and the afterlife exists to provide eternal reward or eternal damnation, then striving to continue mortal life may seem to be an affront to the supernatural. The afterlife becomes more important than mortal life, with checks-and-balances included in religious dogma to ensure people do not try to enter the afterlife too soon. This is not a concern for those who are not religious, who value current existence instead of a mythical promise of supernatural eternity.

While I would expect some critics at an event related to the Technological Singularity, I assume that the majority are at least receptive to the idea. It would be surprising to me then if some proponents otherwise still retain a deathist attitude. In fact, I was approached by someone during the evening reception who could not understand why the Singularity and radical life extension were intimately tied together. He wondered why people were discussing physical immortality when AGI would either kill us all or change the world so much that we would no longer be able to participate in progress. Why, he wondered, would anyone want to try to live forever in such a world? He and his friends then ridiculed calorie restriction by informing each other they were happily eating calories (the reception included finger foods.)

During day two, this same person asked Ray Kurzweil the same questions. Kurzweil said we will likely merge with our technology to become AGI, thus ensuring physical immortality through becoming transhuman and then posthuman. He also stated that our posthuman selves will find plenty to do, without the psychological problems a modern human faced with radical life extension might suffer. However, I was struck by how proponents of radical life extension do not seem to be well-equipped to answer such questions because they do not understand why anyone would want to die in the first place. I find myself in this camp, struggling to understand why a person would not want to hold onto this existence, no matter how painful or wonderful, because this existence is all that we have. Death, if it comes at all, should be by choice, and I should like to think that people would instead choose continued existence, with the myriad possibilities it presents, including solutions to whatever currently pains us.

But then I imagine those who applaud death cannot wrap their heads around this, just as we cannot their own ideas. Will these two philosophical camps always remain so opposed?

Let that be as it may. I just hope no one requires that I die at a particular time and date, should radical life extension otherwise become possible. I may shake my head in confusion at their beliefs today, but tomorrow I will defend myself by all means necessary.

5 thoughts on “Applauding Death”

  1. I think deathists are really childlike in terms of how little they’ve really thought about their beliefs. I was talking to a deathist (and atheist) today who told me that our limited lifespan and all of our suffering was just “how things are supposed to be.” I don’t get angry about this sort of thing, I just get sad. I want to take her by the hand and show her that WE must decide how things are supposed to be…

  2. Hi, a theological voice from Denmark here: Deathists benefit from the life extension already provided by hygiene and medicine, and some accept living an additional few years – but they make a perceived virtue of Death as a perceived necessity. Moreover, Christian deathists calim that we should not “play God” – but their own doctors are already doing so and have for a long number of years. Yet, Christ healed and resurrected: You don´t have to die to be a good Christian!

  3. Some deathists use the German philosopher Heidegger to claim that we NEED Death in order to “live authentic lives”, because Death is a common condition that makes us realize our uniqueness. Well, what if it isn´t? Death conquered and deleted is mindboggling. Well, so is Christ and the Eternal Life that all Christians attain to…

  4. But this world is not a bridge and thus the metaphor collapses. 🙂

    What did people of 2000 years ago know of our time? Today, circa 2008, in a world of technological capabilities that would appear magical to our distant ancestors, falling rates of violence (perhaps the lowest in recorded human history), gradual changes in birth and death rates, an unprecedented selection of religions to choose from, and the likely advent of life and minds created artificially by humankind…in this modern world, platitudes from distant lands and times can do little more than compete with other traditional guides for common sense, values, and morality. I prefer a debate grounded in today, with at most a cursory review of reference material from the distant past.

    Jesus allegedly weighed in with a metaphor, but much more relevant to the current discussion about radical life extension is the participation of modern humans – scientists, policy makers, and citizens alike.

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