The Tired Old, “Death Gives Life Meaning” meme, as Expressed by Neil deGrasse Tyson
by Chris T. Armstrong
The “deathist meme” is strong in human culture right now…and probably always has been. That’s all we’ve known. It’s the one thing that has been guaranteed to all of us, regardless of our “station” in life. But it’s the constricted vision of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who can be so visionary on other topics, that is disappointing to me. He’s basically saying: Even in the face of the most radical change in the nature of humanness that we’ve ever experienced and the scientific/breakthroughs and understanding that will accompany the achievement of a an indefinite lifespan (a choice about how long we want to live), he still wants/expects our psychology/motivations to remain the same, and any alteration from they way these things operate in an 80-year-lifespan paradigm will be a loss.
To me, this is such a passive way of looking at it. As though we cannot adapt or invent a new way of finding motivations and “reasons to get out of bed” in a scenario of a radically extended lifespan. He’s so un-creatively mentally stuck in “the way it’s always been” mode.
How about looking at the upside possibilities that can arise from an indefinite lifespan as well? Our timescale and level of urgency will change, but we will be able to have many “careers” (areas of learning and focus/activity). Such a finite and short lifespan as we have now could be seen as a mockery and a waste of all we achieve and learn — it can “live” on if we leave behind our thoughts in books, etc., but all that accumulated knowledge, skill, wisdom, and the ability to express it and act upon it, is just extinguished when we die. There is an African proverb: “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” And I have personally known some great human-libraries, built-up over some wonderful, adventurous lifetimes, burned to the ground via death.
As far as the obvious “over population” issue that is the first go-to argument of anyone who hasn’t spent 15 minutes exploring the many ideas on this, outside of their own knee-jerk reaction…
“Immortality” has not been with us from the beginning, so we can dispense with the “we would have 100 billion people on this planet” issue that Tyson mentions. Yes, that sounds very dramatic, but it is a complete “red herring,” non-issue. We are now developing technological solutions to many human-problems that will lead to greater resource-abundance/access and cleaner ways of producing them. Many analysts have noted that populations level off and even decline when people (particularly women) acquire more education and individual rights and autonomy (strong pillars of the Transhumanist paradigm), but beyond that, the “x billions-too-many people inhabiting this one planet” fear, is also a result of a myopic vision. It ignores the various breakthroughs that will come along with a Transhumanist vision and research. For one thing, we won’t remain locked on this one planet forever AND we will alter ourselves so that we can actually survive in environments exceedingly harsher than what our current bio-meat-bags have evolved to withstand on this one idiosyncratic speck of dust in the universe.
Additionally, we will be moving toward a time, probably in this century, when our consciousness can be moved into completely non-bio platforms, which will be able to function on multiple energy sources (to our design-specs rather than evolution’s): energy from stars, and even some energy sources that haven’t yet been conceived of…no longer needing to consume the biome of this planet to sustain us in a non-bio form. We will be able to put our consciousness into virtual worlds as well, etc. Once we are able to capture our complete consciousness-pattern in the form of an information/data specification, we are no longer just another bio-being trapped on this planet and forced to consume its resources and pollute it to death, just to remain alive for a short time.
Yes, these are all far-fetched/far-future possibilities/eventualities, but these and other far-less exotic breakthroughs need to be considered when thinking about how humans and post/neo-humans will function in a completely transformed Transhumanist scenario.
When thinking about any given breakthrough, we all must be careful to avoid the very common mental-error that Ray Kurzweil has warned against: The mistake of considering one particular mega-transformative breakthrough and then mentally placing it in a scenario in which all other factors remain the same — to assume that no other huge breakthroughs happen in nearly the same time-frame as the one under consideration. In this case, Tyson is assuming that we will achieve a monumental scientific breakthrough in life extension and the population will explode, but we will still have the same limitations we have today in all other areas: the same resource-scarcity; the same shitty-forms of energy with the same power-structures as we have today continuing to control them; nothing new that would affect human reproductive behavior and we would just reproduce rampantly; no other concomitant scientific breakthroughs that will help to mitigate issues that arise in people’s minds about such a huge change in human lifespan.
When we think of the many scientific pieces that will need to come together to make “radical life extension” a reality, it is inconceivable that these things will happen “out of context”: in a world wherein other major breakthroughs are NOT occurring as well.
Yes, timing is everything and transitions to new paradigms are always rough, but particularly so for those who insist that “the way that it has always been done” and “the things that motivated us in the past” must remain operative, even in the face of monumental technological/scientific/social/behavioral change…in MANY domains.
Finally, if “deathists” want to shun life-extension breakthroughs and extol the virtues of dying “to get out of the way” for the next generation” or the “practicalities” of retaining such a paltry finite lifespan, that is their prerogative, but if they follow-through with this world-view, there will eventually be a time when people of that mindset will become self-selected for extinction and they will leave the adventures of experiencing multiple phases of learning, multi-relationships, creativity in multiple fields, and exploring the universe, to we non-deathist, transhumans, and eventually, post-biological entities, of our own design.
“Personally, I’ve been hearing all my life about the Serious Philosophical Issues posed by life extension, and my attitude has always been that I’m willing to grapple with those issues for as many centuries as it takes.” — Patrick Hayden