There is a growing consensus among our tech overlords that after this life there will be another. No, the life expectancy of a Jeff Bezos, a Peter Thiel, or an Elon Musk is not (as yet) markedly different from yours or mine. Nor is the ‘other life’ that this billionaire-cabal hopes for to be found in an atemporal, eternal realm, even if it may be centered in “The Cloud.” This new life is neither simply a pipe dream, nor strictly a matter of faith, at least, that is, if by “faith” one still understands what Kierkegaard does: a belief in the impossible because it is impossible. This new life is instead a matter of scientific discovery. Thus, while it is at present not yet a tangible reality, one could not say that it is a pure speculation, either. Its time will come. Who will be prepared to welcome it?
Everyone knows the headline-grabbing plot points by now: cloning, cryogenics, genetic engineering, brain uploading, anti-senescence technologies, caloric restriction, Papal blood transfusions, immortal jellyfish. One or two episodes of Black Mirror or Ad Vitam will be sufficient to catch up. From murderous tech start-ups (R.I.P. Nectome) to Harvard-funded labs (c.f. Sinclair), the war against aging and death today rages on. Nor are the proponents of these life-extending technologies restricted to the billionaire class. They also include a number of prominent intellectuals. They count among their members not only philosophers and technologists Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, Noah Harari, and Sam Harris, but also pioneering artificial-intelligence expert Marvin Minsky, eminent physicists Max Tegmark and Michio Kaku, and a few less-savory (but certainly no less famous) adherents, in Jeffrey Epstein and Ted Kaczynski.
Immortal, or, at any rate, indefinite life, is coming. This is their consensus. And if its future arrival is not yet assured, its theoretical possibility is nevertheless felt to be sufficiently strong to justify every effort to seek it out.
I won’t take too much time to point out what we all already know: namely, how problematic the political, social, and ecological ramifications of these efforts are. Nor will I discuss at length the questionable theoretical suppositions that are made, in order to imagine that something like “brain uploading” might be possible in the first place. These questions, concerning, on the one hand, the ethics and, on the other, the technical feasibility of what is proposed by proponents of “radical life extension” have been astutely treated elsewhere. It goes without saying that discourses of “human enhancement” are molded by implicit speciesist and eugenicist projects of the most troubling variety. These discourses must be denounced for what they are. They must be analyzed and critiqued, precisely because they remain so compelling for those who find themselves economically, technologically, and academically empowered.
The problem is that, though one may denounce the transhumanist project until the very heat-death of the universe, unless one examines closely the end at which its efforts aim, every reasonable attempt to unmask the anthropogenic, techno-capitalist drives of the life-extension industry will risk falling on deaf ears. If we wish to understand what is happening among our economic and intellectual elites, we must first ask what indefinite life is and why it looms today as it has perhaps never loomed before.
In order to address these questions, I will set my sights on the two principal pathways envisioned at present to have the best chances of liberating us from our terrible “Dragon-Tyrant,” death.[i] The first is anti-senescence technologies, whereby one hopes to cancel any upper age limit of a human life through genetic engineering. The second is “brain uploading,” otherwise known as whole-brain emulation, whereby one hopes to create a replica of the individual by fabricating an informational double now freed from every biological substrate. My focus will be less on the technical feasibility of either of these goals than on how they have come to appear as possibilities for us in the first place. Each of these paths embodies a separate manifestation of “indefinite life.” We will therefore first have to establish what indefinite life is, so that we may then understand the historical specificity of brain uploading and anti-senescence. In this way, we will see in what way modern biological and technoscientific efforts represent both a continuation and a transformation of the longest line of immortalist efforts. But also, why they may be here to stay.
Immortality, Mortality, Indefinite Life
If we are to understand “indefinite life,” be it in its informational or biological forms, we must first differentiate it from two connected but opposed concepts: “immortality” and “mortality.” What do each of these terms mean and how does indefinite life represent a novel possibility?
Immortality, in the tradition that extends from Plato through Descartes, entails the imperviousness of the immortal to death. This means that not only can the immortal live forever, but that the immortal must do so. This situation is best articulated by the cautionary tale of Eos and Tithonus. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Eos, goddess of the dawn and lover of the mortal Tithonus, begged Zeus to make her amour immortal. Zeus granted her wish but not without exacting a price. Tithonus would become athanatos (immune to death), but he would not cease to senesce. Without eternal youth but with eternal life, Tithonus becomes a withered old man fated to suffer the impossibility of his own death.
As the French literary critic and philosopher Maurice Blanchot would put it in the twentieth century, immortality names the impossibility of my death. Immortality thus contrasts first and foremost with mortality. And what is mortality? Briefly put, mortality names the susceptibility of the living to death. The possibility that I might die. Mortality names the experience of us, mortals, who live in a relation to our future non-being. As another infamous twentieth-century philosopher, Martin Heidegger, put it, we mortals live as dying.
If immortality names the impossibility of death for the living, then mortality names the necessary possibility of death. Now, up to the eighteenth century, it was largely accepted that embodied human life was by nature mortal. And by mortal it was understood not only that the embodied could die, but also that it would die. The difference here is slight but significant, as we shall see in a moment. Biological, or embodied life, for Descartes, is by nature mortal. And the mortal not only can, but will die, on a long enough timeline. The soul, by contrast, being indivisible and immaterial, is the only immortal thing in us.
It is because embodied, biological life, is interpreted up to the eighteenth century not only to be susceptible, but also to be fated to death, that we can oppose “mortality” to what I am calling “indefinite life.” To recap: to be alive and mortal means both to live in a relation to death as a possibility (Heidegger) and to be destined eventually to succumb to this fate in reality (Descartes). Insofar as I am alive—i.e., embodied and mortal—I can be sure not only that I can, but also that I will die. So, where does indefinite life come in? Indefinite life names the state of being susceptible to death as a possibility, but not as an inevitable, fated actuality. Indefinite life is not immortality in the specific sense that what lives indefinitely remains susceptible to death. But neither is it, strictly speaking, any longer mortal, if by mortal one understands the dual predicates of 1) susceptibility and 2) the inevitability of death. Indefinite life represents the lifting of the second condition for what lives.
Differentiating between immortality, mortality, and indefinite life is essential if we are to understand the novelty of life-extension efforts in bioengineering and neural interfacing. The concept of indefinite life only makes sense once it is contrasted with a concept of mortality that entails the inevitability of death. Without this notion of biological fate, there is no legitimate ground on which to oppose the first concept to the second.
Now, it is broadly accepted by transhumanist proponents of brain uploading that something like the Platonic-Cartesian notion of immortality is all but impossible. The fundamental laws of physics preclude any certainty that what lives will live, and so, no matter the state of technological sophistication, the term “immortal” is a misnomer. Thus, even though one commonly hears “immortality” bandied about by transhumanists, what is meant is something akin to “indefinite life.” A life, in other words, that might go on forever, given the right external conditions, but that, all the same, might also not do so.
Where, given that our mammalian lives still appear to be very much limited, does this confidence in the future possibility of indefinite life come from? As I pointed out above, it was in the eighteenth century that one began to question whether organic life equaled a death sentence. If Enlightenment philosophers were among the first to pose this question seriously, it was nevertheless molecular biologists in the twentieth century, who conclusively answered it when they demonstrated that there was no fundamental age limit imposed upon organic life. Leaving aside the question as to whether there is an upper age limit for humankind, the association between life and death, the life sciences taught us, was at best a contingent one. All life may be susceptible to death, but nothing internal to the nature of organic life as such dictates that what lives will die. Indefinite life is no mere hypothetical speculation, but an undeniable, empirical reality.
Interestingly, when biologists speak of lifeforms without age limits, they call them “biological immortals,” thereby propagating the same confusion as transhumanists. It should also be pointed out that, while no universal claims concerning “death” can be made for the living as such, individual organisms do have preprogrammed and de facto age limits. “Sexual cannibalism” is part of the life cycle of many insects, and female octopuses, being semelparous, usually die after giving birth. Within “consortia” of bacteria, emergent effects of apoptosis organize the dissolution of individuals within the colony, and most mammals do in fact appear to lead very much mortal lives, even if biologists and gerontologists have yet to establish robust etiological accounts of “aging.” What all of this means is that if there is a lesson to be learned from the existence of “biological immortals,” that lesson is not necessarily that we will one day become like the Great Basin bristlecone pine, planarian, or jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii, but only that the so-called necessity of death, like warm-bloodedness, nervous systems, sex, and opposable thumbs, is itself an evolutionary development always intimately tied to the specific morphology of a given organism.
And so, the lesson of the life sciences is at best an ambivalent one. On the one hand, there can be no universal, apodictic certainty in the necessity of death across all life; on the other hand, neither can there be any certainty that the lifting of this general principle entails anything about the prospects of biological immortality for us. We are thus left with the following choice: either amend our makeup to make it suitable for longer lifespans, or liberate ourselves from the energetic and informational constraints that come along with any complex, organic lifeform.
I introduce the term “indefinite life” to replace “biological immortality.” However, as is perhaps now becoming clear, the first notion is not simply synonymous with the second. For one, it encompasses the currently fully speculative inorganic life of the uploaded brain, as well as embodied, organic existence that has the capacity to persist for indefinitely long periods of time. “Indefinite life” responds to the necessity of viewing each of these efforts together, as part and parcel of the same. But, you will retort, how can they be the same? They are anything but! How can we simply equate the empirically-attested “immortality” of biological organisms with the purely speculative possibility of a disembodied, cyber-brain?
This is an important question. Moreover, it raises a critical point about the difference between the notions of “life” at work in each of these projections. Though both brain uploading and genetic engineering are presented as solutions to the problem of death as it currently confronts us, in point of fact, each of these paths appeals to a different—if related—notion of life. “Biological immortality” comprehends life to be a matter of physiology. It understands the life of the living to consist in the persistence of metabolism, which allows “an organism” to be the organism that it is and to be that organism for as long as it continues to exchange matter and energy with its environment, thereby permitting it to maintain its internal, biochemical difference. It is because organic life consists in physiology—which is to say, function—that it is susceptible (conceptually speaking) to being extended for indefinite lengths of time. Life is change. No organism remains, materially speaking, identical with itself. But biological life is a controlled change that is homeostatically monitored by the self-organization of the organism itself.
The appeal of biological immortality today, whether or not it is in fact possible or feasible for us, is our ready acceptance of the physiological character of our lives. We are “meat machines,” as Tegmark puts it, and insofar as we are these machines, it is a simple logical step to hope merely to extend the functioning of what already functions just a little bit (or a lot bit, or indefinitely…) longer.
So, where does brain uploading come in? Well, for those of us not willing, or not sufficiently convinced, that our thumbs or our toes, or even our digestive tracts or our immune systems or our sleep cycles, are essential attributes of who we are, for those, in other words, not exactly in denial of physiological reality, but who are willing to extract a more essential persona irreducible to these goings-on, “brain uploading” names an algorithmic reduction of the cognitive essentials. I do not wish to enter here into debates concerning the “Cartesian” nature of such positions. Wherever we may ultimately fall on the problematic reduction of the brain to a machine, or better, on the reduction of the self to a brain (and then to a machine), the following point nevertheless stands: one is all too ready to accept the possibility of these identities. And the faith of our scientists, our tech moguls, and our public intellectuals in the possibility of these translations between the “biological” and the “informational” is itself supported and reinforced by the physiological account of life, which tells us that life “is” just the persistence of a certain organization. When skeptics decry the reduction of biology to information, they are not wrong, but they miss an essential point: the question is not whether “the human”—that old, vague, broken category—could ever possibly be perfectly simulated in an inorganic, neural network. The question is instead: who is willing to accept this facsimile as equivalent, or as more or less equivalent, to the real thing? If “I” am the persistence of a program (be it genetic or cognitive) that unconsciously generates a feeling, speaking, reflecting “I,” then “I” am already a facsimile. It is thus precisely at this point that the difference between the real and the virtual “me” begins to break down. If we—as individuals, collectives, societies—decide to bequeath our future to colonies of cyber-brains, then, in the words of Minsky, “[they] will inherit the earth.”[ii] They will inherit it, because we will have given it to them.
Inheriting the Earth
Discussions of immortality and indefinite life often focus on whether they are possible. The opposition between what is possible and what impossible is commonly understood as one between reality and virtuality. That which is possible can be brought into reality, whereas that which is impossible must remain virtual, a mere figment of our half-baked representations. Such binaristic thinking, I would like to argue, is inadequate to the consideration of indefinite life. It is inadequate because it takes a problem that is in its essence cultural and represents it as one that is merely technical. It is inadequate because what “life extension” ultimately comes down to is not mere mechanical know-how, but a conception of life that allows for a mechanical solution in the first place. Where mortal life is considered physiologically, indefinite life will be taken in keeping with this conception . Where mortal life is considered informationally, indefinite life will be interpreted according to the informational paradigm, instead. What the sciences can offer us—and they have much to offer!—are plausible accounts of the mechanisms by which the effects of life come into being. We may, one day soon, create fully artificial life in a lab. We may, with any luck, succeed in reversing the genetic biomarkers of senescence. And we may even, in spite of ourselves, create a plausibly convincing simulation of an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos. The choice, at that point, will be whether we are willing to imbue that creation with the right to inherit either name, and the with the name, estate. It will come down, once more, to an act of faith. And then, only god can help us.
[i] Bostrom, Nick, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics 31.5 (2005): 273-277.
[ii] Marvin Minsky, “Will Robots Inherit the Earth?” Scientific American 271.4 (1994): 108-113.