Everyday over 150,000 people die on our planet. Many billions of people have died since we evolved into the modern species that we are. In fact, to the majority of the world's population, few things seem as sure as the inevitability of death. Yet, a powerful scientific movement is afoot with plans to stop human death. That movement goes by many names, but perhaps the most universal one is: transhumanism. "Transhuman" literally means beyond human. And for many transhumanists, to overcome human mortality is the most "transhuman" of achievements. Some scientists and longevity experts believe human mortality could come to an end in as short as thirty years, provided that science continues to advance at quickly as it has in the last half century.
Nikola Danaylov, founder of Singularity Weblog and one of the leading voices of the transhuman movement, recently had his world shaken when three close family members died within a period of three weeks.
Here's the start of a blog he wrote last month detailing his tragedy:
"In the past three weeks I had three deaths in the family: First, my aunt died suddenly from pancreatic cancer. Then my dad had a burst brain clot. And a few hours ago my grandmother had a stroke. All in all, I haven’t had so much death since my mother passed away when I was 14-years-old..."
Yesterday, I had the chance to interview Nikola. I want to share his transhumanist views on death:
Q. Nikola, it sounds like you've been through a nightmare. We all fear such a thing with our loved ones. Three close members of your family died within a few weeks of each other. What are your thoughts and feelings about these deaths?
A. In all three cases, death was sudden and unexpected. Each one of those would be a hard and painful thing to go through, even on its own. Enduring all three within such a short period of time had brought immense sadness and a helpless feeling of eternal loss and tragedy. I had no time say good bye or get ready in any way. I was just shocked by the events.
Q. You have been an admired member of the transhuman and life extension communities for many years. You've interviewed everyone from Noam Chomsky to Natasha Vita-More to Jacque Fresco. Your website, blog, and podcasts are very popular. Can you tell us if these family deaths you've just experienced have shaken your views on transhumanism and mortality? Or perhaps they have reinforced them?
A. If anything those recent deaths have reinforced my convictions because they brought home the fact that Transhumanism is no mere theory. It is the only rational recourse that we have to fight death and make a real difference for people—and to try to alleviate suffering for everyone.
People have sought a way to defeat death since Gilgamesh. And for many millennia this void has been filled with religion—which promises life after death. But the only rational path to defeating death is science. It's the only path that has demonstrated that we have made measurable progress towards extending healthy life-spans—and that we can eventually defeat death.
Q. What are some of the greatest scientific and technological challenges facing the human race when it comes to people overcoming their mortality?
A. In some sense death is a technical problem—a hardware malfunction. And I have no doubt that eventually humanity will find a number of technical solutions. Whether it happens in a few decades or centuries is really not so important in the grand scheme of things. The timing is more of a selfish issue related to particular individuals such as you and me. But what is more important than whether the two of us will personally survive death or not, is the outcome for humanity in general.
As a philosopher I rarely see the greatest challenges as merely technological and/or scientific. Yes, science and technology are very, very important, but in the end, it is their application that makes all the difference for good or for bad, for life or for death. And so I believe that we ought to engage the ethics of defeating death even before we have the technical means to do so; it is important that we challenge and eventually change the age-old acceptance of death as inevitable. For example, we used to take for granted that when someone got a heart-attack they will inevitably die very soon thereafter. Then we figured out how to do by-pass surgeries (or whole heart transplants), and now people can have high-standards of living for decades after something that used to condemn them to death. Thus, the inevitability that one dies during or shortly after a heart attack is gone. And there are countless other examples like that. So what we need to do is create the ethical momentum and moral framework which will provide impetus for an explicit, vocal, global, coordinated, and focused scientific quest against death. Especially death from old age. That is the first step on the path towards overcoming our mortality. The rest will come in time through scientific persistence and focused effort.
Q. You have written that "One day humanity will write Death’s obituary." The majority of the world's population does not see that as a good thing—mostly because it counters their religious beliefs where death is an integral part of their faith. Can you tell us what needs to be done so that one day everyone will welcome writing death's obituary?
A. Most religions see death as inevitable. Yet, they also promise another life after death. And people rarely question the ethics of eternal life after death, as envisioned by major religions.
It is generally assumed it is a good thing to be resurrected like Jesus allegedly was. So if we do not object to everlasting life as promised by religion, why object to extended healthy life-spans as promised by science? After all, it is science that has made a measurable difference in both improving the quality of our life and its duration, not religion.
We humans are material beings made of atoms. We are sophisticated biological machines made of many complex parts. But in time, and with the help of science, we are learning more and more about how those machines work and how we can fix them. Today, nobody thinks twice about getting a cardiac bypass, or a pacemaker, or a Cochlear implant. Eventually most (and probably all) medical conditions will succumb to the ever growing body of scientific knowledge that we are accumulating. This is the nature of scientific progress. Sooner or later it will happen. So the more important question is: “How do we make life the default option?”
Since time immemorial, death has been the default position of which life is just the deviation. But so have been ignorance and darkness. And just like a single candle can dispel 10,000 years of darkness, knowledge can illuminate and dispel our age-old presumptions about death and its inevitability. So why not turn the equation upside down? Why should death be different than flying, instant communication, or going to Mars and beyond? Why shouldn’t death die?
At the very least, death from old age could (and would) be defeated. And so death would become an accident, a tragic deviation of the norm. Not the other way around, as it is now.
There is a difference between walking the way and knowing the way. It is one thing to become immortal beings, it is another to be good at it. As we stumble into the future we are eventually going to resolve all the technical issues related to death. The ethical ones may turn out to be harder and longer lasting. So I think that scientists, philosophers, and laymen alike will need to start thinking about the ethics of defeating death as if we’ve already done it.
Q. What are your final thoughts in this interview?
A. It is said that: "Those who cling to life die, and those who defy death live."[i] So let us not merely cling to life but be bold and defy death outright. Let us embrace our mortal challenge and be loud and clear about it. Let us declare that we want to bring “Death to Death!” and live our lives with the explicit knowledge that by doing so, even if we personally lose that battle, collectively we will eventually win the war. One day, humanity will write Death’s obituary.
[i] Uesugi Kenshin in Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 78
Zoltan Istvan is an award-winning journalist, philosopher, and activist. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook,and LinkedIn. Zoltan is also the author of the recently published #1 Philosophical bestseller novel The Transhumanist Wager. Available in ebook or paperback, the controversial novel is a revolutionary reading experience. You can check it out here.