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From Darwinian Greed to Altruistic Greed: the Strangest Period So Far in Our Planet’s History – Article by Sarah Lim

From Darwinian Greed to Altruistic Greed: the Strangest Period So Far in Our Planet’s History – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


We are smack-dab in the middle of what might be the oddest period of our planet’s history thus far. The last 200 years have seen more rapid technological and scientific advancement than all the 3.5 billion prior years of life on Earth combined. And that technological progress is set to increase even more exponentially within our lifetimes. In the span of my grandmother’s life, humanity has put a man on the Moon, and now we’re having serious discussions about Moon bases and terraforming Mars to start a colony there. Within my own life thus far, I’ve gone from using a dial-up box-shaped computer in my kindergarten years to learning about the exponential progress made in quantum computing and the invention of a material that could potentially be a non-organic substrate to download human thoughts into.

I think that John L. Smart is essentially correct in the theories he puts force in his evolutionary-developmental (“EvoDevo”) transcension hypothesis. There seems to be a kind of biological Moore’s law that applies to human intelligence. If you chart the developments in human evolution from 200,000 years ago till the present, the jump from hunting and gathering to civilization occurred at an immensely fast rate. And the subsequent jump from pre-scientific civilization to the contemporary technological age has been the most astronomical one thus far. And with that astronomical jump in humanity’s technological progress has come an incredible leap in humanity’s moral progress.

The irony of our strange epoch

One of the most ironic aspects about the current climate crisis I like to point out is this: thank goodness that the climate crisis is happening now, and not in the 1500s. That seems like a rather ironic or even flippant thing to say. But thank goodness that the two greatest existential threats to all sentient life on Earth, the existence of nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and global warming, are occurring in the 21st century. Because we are living in a time period where democracies are the most common political model across the globe. Public protests such as those led by Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s climate strike movement have proliferated across the globe. Can you imagine what would have happened if this order of climate catastrophe had occurred a thousand years ago, when monarchies were the default political model? Can you imagine what would happen if you had tyrannical monarchies across the globe, with kings and lords as the primary stakeholders in climate-destroying corporations? It doesn’t seem likely that Greta Thunberg and her ilk would have made much progress in pushing for a pro-climate action zeitgeist in a regime where criticizing the reigning monarch automatically meant decapitation.

Furthermore, we’re extremely fortunate to be living in an era where science is accelerating fast enough to pioneer carbon-capture technology, and more recently, the geoengineering as a viable solution. To paraphrase Michio Kaku, “the dinosaurs got wiped out by the meteor shower; but they didn’t have advanced technology which could detect and disintegrate meteors long before they enter the Earth’s orbit. That’s something current human beings can work on building.” The same is true of the current scramble for climate engineers to churn out anti-pollution and temperature-lowering technologies.

How the technological pursuit of a post-scarcity world is encourages altruism and egalitarianism

I often write about how the last 150 years of global society have seen an exponential jump in the perpetuation of universal human rights. And that’s because it’s nothing short of amazing. Most of the world’s major civilizations which had political and economically subjugated women, ethnic minorities, and the working class for the past 6,000 years suddenly had a change of heart overnight, seemingly. It’s no coincidence that the proliferation of universal civil rights and the criminalization of interpsersonal violence against women and minorities coincided with the Post-Industrial Revolution. As resource scarcity has been drastically reduced in the contemporary technological era, so, too, has the Darwinian impetus towards domination and subjugation of minority groups.

We have shifted from a violent Darwinian greed in the form of the colonization of minority groups, to a kind of altruistic greed. Altruistic greed is characterized by an unabetting desire for ever-higher qualities of life; but which can be made widely available to the masses. The clearest example of this is the advent of modern healthcare, beginning with the mass administration of vaccinations for diseases like polio. As Steven Pinker points out, infant mortality rates and deaths from child birth have plummeted throughout that world in the last 50 years. Across the world, the proliferation of technological infrastructure has made public transport systems faster and safer than they ever were before. Altruistic greed is a major driving force for many in the transhumanist community. Most transhumanists are advocates of making radical life extension and cutting edge medical therapies affordable and accessible to everyone. The fundamental driving principle behind transhumanism is that humanity can transcend its biological limitations through rapid technological advancement; but the benefits reaped must be made as accessible as possible.

A reason often cited by nihilists who say that we should accept human extinction is on the grounds that human beings hold the glaring track record of being the most gut-wrenchingly cruel of all the species on Earth. This is empirically and philosophically indisputable. No other species shares a historical laundry list of genocide campaigns, slavery, rape, domestic abuse, and egregious socio-economic inequality on par with human beings.

But since the post-World War II era, something miraculous happened. We became kind and peaceful; and this impetus towards kindness and peace proliferated globally. After 10,000 years of treating women as the property of their husbands, it became possible for women to get voted into positions of power across the globe, and marital rape became criminalized in an increasing number of countries. After 10,000 years of holding corporal punishment as an essential part of child-rearing in nearly every human society, an increasing number of democracies have begun to enact child-abuse laws against striking children.

We still have long ways to go.

Sweatshop labor exploitation and the sex trafficking of females remain major human-rights issues today. But an increasing number of international law bodies and humanitarian groups are cracking down on them and fighting to eradicate them permanently. They are no longer seen as “business as usual” practices that are essential parts of human society which shouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eye; despite the fact that slavery has been a staple institution of nearly every civilization for the last ten millennia.

There are, of course, many aspects of ethical progress in which human beings are still lagging sorely behind, besides human trafficking. Although wars are far less common and less glamorized than they were in millennia past, conflicts are still raging on in Congo, and dictatorial regimes still exist. Income inequality is now greater than it was at any other time in human history. Another of the great ironies of the contemporary technological era is that we now produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, but there are still 795 million people in the world suffering from malnutrition. As much as 40% of all the food we produce is wasted unnecessarily.

The exploitation of animals and the thoughtless destruction of their habitats is one respect in which humanity has actually backslid in terms of ethical progress in the last 70 years. Since the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of the human population, humans have radically decimated the earth’s natural biomass, and one million species are now facing the threat of extinction due to human industrial activity.

Nevertheless, one hopes that Steven Pinker is essentially correct in his assessment of humanity’s rapid moral growth over the last 200 years. It could be said that it’s not necessarily the case that primates are inherently more predisposed to cruelty than all other species. Rape, infanticide, and killing rival males during mating season are common amongst many species of birds, reptiles, and mammals, as David Pearce points out. It’s just that human beings have the capacity to inflict exponential amounts on damage on other humans and animals because of our exceptional intelligence. Intelligence makes possible exploitation. Human intelligence has allowed us to exploit other human beings and sentient beings for millennia. But human intelligence is what has also enabled us to radically improve healthcare, longevity, and universal human rights across the globe.

The long history of suffering endured by sentient life on Earth is why the far-flung topic of technological resurrection is a major point of discussion amongst transhumanists. We believe that all sentient creatures which have endured considerable physical suffering, manmade or naturally-inflicted, deserve a second shot at life in the name of humanitarian justice.

There’s still much room for progress.

At present we seem to be entering a bottleneck era where we might have to drastically reduce our currently excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources, in light of the current climate crisis. The good news is that a growing number of us are realizing the looming existential threat of climate change and doubling down on combating it, as I’d mentioned earlier. The even better news is that an increasing number of bioethicists, particularly in the transhumanist movement, are now touting a permanent solution to the worst of humanity’s selfish, overly aggressive monkey-brain impulses. This seems to be just in the nick of time, given that this coincides with an era where humanity has access to nuclear arms capable of obliterating all life on Earth with the press of a Big Red Button.

My biggest hope for humanity is not only that our exponential technological progress will persist, but that our ethical and altruistic progress will continue in tandem with it. We have gotten to a stage of technological development where the forces of nature have become almost entirely subjugated, and our own impetus towards aggression has become the single greatest existential threat. It could be that every single sufficiently advanced alien civilization that is capable of exploiting all the natural resources on its home planets or inventing WMDs is eventually forced to cognitively recondition itself towards pacifism and altruism.

There is an ongoing debate in the existential-risk movement about whether or not SETI or METI could be unintentionally endangering all life on Earth by attempting to make contact with alien civilizations several orders of magnitude more advanced than ours. The analogy commonly cited is how the first European explorers of the Americas massacred scores of indigenous tribespeople who didn’t have guns. But the opposite could also be true. It could be that once other alien civilizations achieve a post-scarcity global economy, the neurobiological Darwinian impetus to colonize less developed groups gets steadily replaced by an altruistic impetus to ensure the survival and flourishing of all sentient species on that planet. We can’t tell for sure until we meet another alien species. But on our part, we’ve yet to ride out the tidal wave of the strangest period of Earth’s history. As we take our next steps forward into a radically different phase of human civilization, we gain an ever greater ability to control our own development as a species. Here’s to Pinker’s hope that we’re going in the right direction, and will do our best to head that way indefinitely.

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

Kindness, the Greatest Temperer of Hubris – Article by Sarah Lim

Kindness, the Greatest Temperer of Hubris – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


In light of the increasingly alarming reports on climate catastrophe that have been released in the past few months, more and more transhumanists are taking up the gauntlet and putting climate-change solutions on their political agenda. Sadly, the transhumanist movement hasn’t exactly been well-received by the environmentalist movement. Environmentalists such as Charles Eisenstein have blamed “scientism” and excessive faith in the scientific materialist worldview as being primarily responsible for the overexploitation of the natural world. Other environmentalists are hostile towards the transhumanist imperative to find a cure for biological aging, arguing that curing aging will further exacerbate the resource scarcity (a common criticism which LEAF has dealt with so extensively, they have a page dedicated to it).

It probably doesn’t help that a handful of transhumanists are very vocally “anti-nature”. One of transhumanism’s primary goals is to knock down fallacious appeals to nature which are propped up against the pursuit of radical human lifespan extension or cyborgification. However, the way we present these ideas could perhaps be phrased in a more palatable manner.

Environmentalists and bioconservatives are fond of claiming that transhumanism is the apogee of human hubris. They claim that transhumanism’s goals to overcome humanity’s biological limits are inseparable from the rapacious greed that has driven developed economies to violate the natural world to a point of near-collapse. Deep Greens go so far as to call for a total renunciation of the technological fruits of civilization, and a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Radical environmentalists claim that a return to Luddism is the only thing that can save humanity from pillaging the natural world to a point where it becomes utterly inhabitable. But I would argue that the either-or split between human progress through technological advancement and compassion towards non-human life is a false dichotomy.

Drawing on David Pearce’s hedonistic imperative, I will argue that transhumanism and environmentalism aren’t necessarily at loggerheads with each other. You could even say that transhumanism entails a benevolent stewardship of nature, and that care for all non-human life is a logical extension of human exceptionalism. If the core imperative of our movement is to minimize suffering caused by biological limitations, that should apply to minimizing non-human suffering as well.

Benevolent stewardship: the Aristotelian mean between Deep Green Ludditism and Radical Transhumanist Anti-Naturism

I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody whose ideas have so radically changed my views on existential teleology and the natural world as quickly as David’s have. What I love about David’s hedonistic imperative and his involvement in the Reducing Wild Animal Suffering (RWAS) movement is how radically his ideology reframes the idea of human exceptionalism.

“Human exceptionalism” is generally seen as a bad thing, and with good reason. For the better part of human civilisation’s history, humans have been exceptionally bad – exceptionally bad to ethnic minorities who didn’t have guns or cannons,  exceptionally bad to women by depriving them of equal status to men and bodily autonomy, and exceptionally bad to all the animals humans have needlessly slaughtered or whose habitats they obliterated. Human beings are stand out as being exceptionally intelligent amongst the animal kingdom, and they also stand out for using that intelligence in extremely innovative ways to amass vast amounts of resources for their “in” groups, by brutally exploiting “out” groups in the most unimaginably vile ways.

But the hedonistic imperative puts a new spin on “human exceptionalism”. The hedonistic imperative is the great Uncle Ben lesson for humanity. With our exceptional intelligence comes great responsibility – responsibility not just to currently marginalized ethnic groups, genders, and social classes within humanity, but to non-human species, too. If we have the intelligence to turn humanity into a planet-ravaging force, then we have the intelligence to find a way to repair the damage humans have done.

The hedonistic imperative movement has also been credited with helping to convert a growing number of transhumanists to veganism, and to supporting planet-saving initiatives.

Aristotle is best known for describing virtue as the golden mean between two vices. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Deep Green environmentalism or radically anti-naturist transhumanism “vices”, but I would say that the hedonistic imperative manages to gel the most effective aspects of both schools of thought while avoiding the practical blind spots of both.

Deep Green environmentalists like Charles Eisenstein tend to promulgate the idea of nature’s sacredness as entailing an acceptance of natural malaises. These include death due to biological aging, but a logical extension of this is that it is immoral for human beings to intervene in nature and prevent animals from harming each other, since it is part of the “natural order”. Radically anti-naturist transhumanists tend to view anything natural as being automatically inferior to whatever man-made alternatives can be technologically manufactured. While we shouldn’t accept invocations of naturalism prima facie, this view isn’t quite tenable for primarily practical reasons. It would probably be extremely unwise to replace all the organic trees in the world with man-made synthetic ones, because the Earth’s biosphere is an exceedingly complex system that even our best biologists and geologists still do not fully understand. Likewise, we cannot solely on carbon-capture technology or geoengineering to be the ultimate solutions to the ongoing climate crisis. Much more still needs to be invested in reforestation and the restoration of currently endangered animal and plant species which have been afflicted by habitat loss or resource depletion.

Homo Deus: Already Here

For all the utter destruction that humanity has wrought over the past 10,000 years, we can’t overlook the great capabilities we hold as stewards of nature. Say what you will about humanity, but we’re literally the only species on Earth that has evolved to a point where we can use science to resurrect the dodo bird, the woolly mammoth, and the pterodactyl. And we can do that with all the other species we’ve driven to extinction. Perhaps those will be the reparations we pay to the animal kingdom for the previous damage done.

Humanity is also the only species in existence that actually has the power to contradict the forces of natural selection and end natural suffering in its tracks. We just choose not to because we can’t be bothered to. I had never in my life thought about how powerful the implications of this were until I listened to David speak about it. We are the only species with the requisite technological power to end hunger, disease, and infant mortality amongst animals, if we so choose.

Basically put: we’re already gods and goddesses.

We are literally gods in the eyes of animals.

But many humans have chosen to emulate the very worst behaviours of the Old Testament Biblical God rather than being the kind of God all human civilizations would long hope would care for them kindly.

One of Ben Goertzel’s major life goals is to create the most benevolent possible AI nanny who will be programmed to watch over humanity, make us immortal and create a post-scarcity condition where all of our physical needs can be met through the application of nanotechnology. Ben acknowledges that deliberately programming an AI to be as benevolent and compassionate is possible, because at present, everyone and their mother is preparing for a possible Terminator scenario where AI goes rogue and decides that it is under no obligation to be kind to its human creators.

If you would like to know exactly how badly an indifferent or uncompassionate posthuman AI could treat us, you need only look at how badly humans treat chickens and cows. You would only have to look up YouTube videos of desperate orangutans feebly trying to push aside construction cranes that are in the midst of pulverising the trees in which they reside.

And it wasn’t too long ago that humans treated different races of human beings in a similar fashion (although they weren’t slaughtered for consumption).

A posthuman ultra-intelligent AI inflicting the same treatment on humans in developed industrial economies might just be karma coming to pay what’s long been due.

“The benevolent AI god who will resurrect the dead and keep us prosperous forever” is the one wild fantasy which transhumanist forums are constantly salivating over. But why should we expect the AI god to be so propitious to us when humans are not even showing a fraction of that expected mercy to the elephants, cows, and salmon alive today?

Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Pearce and the RWAS movement crank this imperative up a notch:

“Be the ultra-intelligent, highly-evolved benevolent steward whom you’d like to see overseeing the well-being and survival of your species.”

The New Narrative of Human Exceptionalism

At their core, the primary message of the Deep Green environmentalism and the transhumanist hedonistic imperative aren’t so different. Both movements say that the narrative of Man as the Mighty Colonizer must now come to an end. Charles Eisenstein and Jason Godesky propose we get there by returning to having Animism as the overarching religious paradigm of global society, and by returning to a more hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle.

Julian Savulescu argues that we nip the problem in its biological bud by using biotechnological intervention to delete the human genes that predispose us to excessive aggression towards “out” groups, excessive resource hoarding, and rape. For reasons I’ve explained in detail elsewhere, I tend to side more with Savulescu. But put aside the means, and you’ll realise that both the Deep Greens and more pacifist-humanitarian transhumanists are both proponents of the same end.

One reason why I tend more towards siding with Savulescu and Pearce is because I think that forsaking technological advancement would be a mistake. If transhumanism is about transcending our biologically-saddled limitations through the application of technology, it follows that the shortcomings of primate-based moral psychology shouldn’t be an exception. As leading primatologist Richard Wrangham points out in his often-cited Demonic Males, our primate ancestors evolved to wage war on hominids from other “out” groups and to be predisposed towards hyper-aggression and selfishness, as a means of surviving on the resource-scarce savannah. And our neurobiological hardwiring hasn’t changed significantly since then. One of Savulescu’s favorite argument points is claiming that had genetic moral editing been available earlier, we’d probably have averted the climate catastrophe altogether. Savulescu sees the climate catastrophe as being a glaring symptom of still-dominant monkey brains’ failures to consider the long-term consequences of short-term consumer capitalist satisfaction.

Furthermore, renouncing the fruits of technology and modern medicine would make us far less effective stewards of the animal world. If we go back to a hunter-gatherer existence, we’ll be renouncing the technology needed to resurrect both long and recently extinct species. Another major goal of the RWAS movement is to use CRISPR gene-editing to help reduce the propensity towards suffering in wild animals, and to engage in fertility regulation. Pearce claims that we might even be able to make natural carnivorism and mating-season-induced violence obsolete using gene-editing in various aggression-prone species. While we’re at it, we could edit the physiological basis for craving meat out of human beings, since our primate ancestors evolved to be omnivorous. Or we could at the very least try to create a future where all of our meat is lab-grown or made from plant-based substitutes.

It’s also worth noting that human beings are the only species on the planet to find out about the ultimate fate of life on Earth. We’ve very, very recently found out that the duration of the planet’s habitability has an expiry date, and that the Sun will eventually turn into a red dwarf and fry the Earth into an inhospitable wasteland. Given that human beings are the only species which has the necessary intelligence to engage in space travel and colonization, the survival of every single non-human species on the planet falls into our hands. The sole hope for the perpetuation of non-human species lies in future humans setting up space colonies in other habitable planets outside our solar system, and taking all of Earth’s animal species with us. Again, this isn’t something we can achieve if we renounce technological progress.

Conclusion

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus has become a staple read for many in the transhumanist movement. But in the eyes of the world’s animals, we have already become all-powerful gods, who can dole out exploitative cruelty or interventional mercy on a whim. The criticisms of the Deep Green environmentalist movement are increasingly forcing techno-utopians to confront this question; exactly what kind of gods and goddesses will we continue to be to the non-humans of the Earth? If we are going to reconceptualize human exceptionalism from being associated with exceptional human greed and exploitation, to being based on exceptional human wisdom and interventionary benevolence, we need to heed the words of both Savulescu and Eisenstein, and pursue a different human narrative. We’re generally kinder towards women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the working class than we were three hundred years ago, so there is hope that we’re steadily changing course towards a more altruistic track. If every great moral school of thought has an overarching axiom, the one that defines the hedonistic imperative should be this: “Treat less sentient animals the way you would like the posthuman AI god to treat you and your family.”

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

In Support of “Unfit for the Future”: When the Vessel is Unfit for the Task – Article by Sarah Lim

In Support of “Unfit for the Future”: When the Vessel is Unfit for the Task – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


This essay has been submitted for publication to the Journal of Posthuman Studies.

This essay is written in support of the ideas presented by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson in their book Unfit for the Future: the Need for Moral Enhancement. I will argue that Savulescu and Persson’s arguments for moral bioenhancement should be given more serious consideration, on the grounds that moral bioenhancement will most likely be humanity’s best chance at ensuring its future ethical progress, since our current achievements in rapid ethical progress have been highly contingent on economic progress and an increasing quality of life. As a vehicle for for ethical progress, this is becoming increasingly untenable as the world enters a new period of resource scarcity brought about by the ravages of climate change. This essay will also respond to some of the claims against human genetic enhancement, and transhumanism in general, made by critic John Gray. Finally, the concluding remarks of this essay will examine a possible long-term drawback to moral bioenhancement which has not net been raised by Savulescu’s critics thus far – namely, that genetically altering future human beings to be less aggressive could unintentionally result in them becoming complacent to a point of lacking self-preservation.

Maslow and Malthus

Ethical philosophers in Steven Pinker’s camp may argue that the consideration of moral bioenhancement is absurd because moral education has apparently been sufficient enough to bring forth radical moral progress in terms of civil liberties in the 20th and 21st centuries. The 20th century heralded in never-before-seen progress in terms of the civil rights granted to women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people, and the working class. As Pinker points out, crime rates plummeted over the past 150 years, and so has the total number of wars being fought throughout the world. Savulescu admits that this is a valid point.

However, Savulescu’s main point of contention is that while the overall rates of violent crime have been drastically reduced, rapid advancements in technology have enabled rouge individuals to inflict more mass damage than at any other point in human history. While overall rates of interpersonal violence and warfare are decreasing, advancements in technology have exponentially increased the ability of individual actors to inflict harm on others to a greater extent than at any other point in human history. It takes just one lone Unabomber-type anarchist to genetically engineer a strain of smallpox virus in a backyard laboratory, to start a pandemic killing millions of innocent people, argues Savulescu. A statistic he constantly cites is that 1% of the overall human population are psychopaths. This means that there are approximately 77 million psychopaths alive today.

I would like to raise a further point in support of Savulescu’s argument. I would argue that the exceptional progress in ethics and civil rights that the developed world has witnessed in the last century has been the result of unprecedented levels of economic growth and vast improvements in the average quality of life. The life spans, health spans, and accessibility of food, medicine, and consumer goods seen in developed economies today would have been an unbelievable utopian dream as little as 250 years ago. One of X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis’s favorite quips is that our standard of living has increased so exponentially that the average lower-income American has a far higher quality of life than the wealthiest of robber barons did in the 19th century.

As Pinker himself points out, the first moral philosophies of the Axial Age arose when our ancestors finally became agriculturally productive enough to no longer worry about basic survival. Once they had roofs over their heads and sufficient grain stores, they could begin to wax lyrical about philosophy, the meaning of life, and the place of the individual in wider society. Arguably, the same correlation was strongly demonstrated in the post-World War II era in the developed economies of the world. Once the population’s basic needs are not just met, but they are also provided with access to higher education and a burgeoning variety of consumer goods, they’re much less likely to be in conflict with “out” groups over scarce resources. Similarly, incredible advancements in maternal healthcare and birth control played a major role in the socio-economic emancipation of women.

Our ethical progress being highly contingent on economic progress and quality of life should concern us for one major reason – climate change and the resource scarcity that follows it. The UN estimates that the world’s population will hit 9.8 billion by 2050. At the same time, food insecurity and water scarcity are going to become increasingly common. According to UNICEF, 1.3 million people in Madagascar are now at risk of malnutrition, due to food shortages caused by cyclones and droughts. There could as many as 25 million more children worldwide suffering from climate-change-caused malnutrition by the middle of this century. This is on top of the 149 million malnourished children below 5 years old, who are already suffering from stunted growth, as of 2019.

This is the worst-case scenario that climate-change doomsdayers and authors of fiction revolving around dystopian civilizational collapse keep on warning us of. There is a legitimate fear that a rapid dwindling of access to food, medical care, and clean water could lead currently progressive developed economies to descend back into pre-Enlightenment levels of barbarism. Looting and black markets for necessities could flourish, while riots break out over access to food and medical supplies. Ostensibly, worsening scarcity could encourage the proliferation of human trafficking, especially of females from desperate families. The idea is often dismissed as wildly speculative alarmist screed by a considerable number of middle-income city dwellers living in developed nations. Food shortages caused by climate change have mostly affected the sub-Saharan Africa and India, where they’re far out of sight and out of mind to most people in developed economies.

However, the World Bank estimates that 140 million people could become refugees by 2050, as a result of climate change. These populations will predominantly be from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but it is likely that a significant percentage of them will seek asylum in Europe and America. And developed Western economies will only be spared from the worst effects of climate change for so long. North Carolina has already been afflicted by severe flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018, just as it was  affected by Hurricane Matthew which had struck two years earlier. Climate journalist David Wallace-Wells has gone so far as to claim that a four degree increase in global temperature by 2100 could result in resource scarcity so severe, that it will effectively double the number of wars we see in the world today.

Savulescu argues that the fact that we’ve already let climate change and global income inequality get this bad is itself proof that we’re naturally hardwired towards selfishness and short-term goals.

A Response to John Gray

As one of the most well-known critics of transhumanism, John Gray has said that it is naive to dream that humanity’s future will somehow be dramatically safer, more humane, and more rational than its past. Gray claims that humanity’s pursuit of moral progress will ultimately never see true fruition, because our proclivities towards irrationality and self-preservation will inevitably override our utopian goals in the long run. Gray cites the example of torture, which was formally banned in various treaties across Europe during the 20th century. However, this hasn’t stopped the US from torturing prisoners of war with all sorts of brutal methods, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gray claims that this is proof that moral progress can be rolled back just as easily as it is made. Justin E. H. Smith makes similar arguments about the inherent, biologically-influenced cognitive limits of human rational thinking, although he does not explicitly criticise transhumanism itself. And Savulescu agrees with him. Throughout their argument, both Savulescu and Persson hammer home the assertion that humans have a much greater predilection towards violence than altruism.

But here Gray is making a major assumption – that future generations of human beings will continue to have the same genetically-predisposed psychology and cognitive capabilities as we currently do. Over millennia, we have been trying to adapt humanity to a task that evolution did not predispose us towards. We’ve effectively been trying to carry water from a well using a colander. We might try to stop the water from leaking out from the colander as best we can by cupping its sides and bottom with our bare palms, but Savulescu is proposing a radically different solution; that we should re-model the colander into a proper soup bowl.

It seems that Gray is overlooking some of his own circular reasoning which he uses to perpetuate his arguments against transhumanist principles and genetic enhancement. He argues that humanity will never truly be able to overcome our worst proclivities towards violence and selfishness. However, he simultaneously argues that endeavoring to enhance our cognitive capabilities and dispositions towards rationality and altruism are a lost cause that will be ultimately futile. Following Gray’s line of reasoning will effectively keep humanity stuck in a catch-22 situation where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Gray is telling us that we need to resign ourselves to never being able to have a proper water-holding vessel while simultaneously discouraging us from considering the possibility of going to a workshop to weld the holes in our colander shut.

Windows of Opportunity

There is one final reason for which I will argue for greater urgency in considering Savulescu’s proposal seriously. Namely, we are currently have a very rare window of opportunity to execute it practically. If Gray is right about the likelihood that moral progress can be rolled back more easily than it is made, then he should acknowledge that we need to take full advantage of the current moral progress in developed economies, while we still have the chance to. Rapid advancements in CRISPR technologies and gene-editing are increasing the practical viability of moral bioenhancement without the consumption of neurotransmitters. Savulescu argues that we need to strike while the iron is hot; while the world economy is still relatively healthy and while STEM fields are still receiving billions in funding for research and development.

If nothing else, a rather intellectually sparse appeal to novelty can be made in defence of Savulescu’s proposal. Given that climate change could be the greatest existential risk humanity has ever faced in its whole history to date, we should begin considering more radical options to deal with its worst ravages. The limited faculties of rationality and altruism which nature has saddled us with have brought us millennia of warfare, genocide, radical inequality in resource distribution, and sexual violence. We keep on saying “never again” after every single cataclysmic man-made tragedy, but “again” still keeps on happening. Now is as good a time as ever to consider the possibility that humanity’s cognitive faculties are themselves fundamentally flawed, and inadequate to cope with the seemingly insurmountable challenges that lie ahead of us.

A Possible Future Negative Consequence of Moral Bioenhancement to be Considered

Multiple objections to Savulescu’s proposal have been raised by authors such as Alexander Thomas and Rebecca Bennett. I would like to raise another possible objection to moral bioenhancement, although I myself am a proponent of it. A possible unforeseen consequence of radically genetically reprogramming homo sapiens to be significantly less selfish and prone to aggression could be that this will simultaneously destroy our drive for self-improvement. One could argue that the only reason human beings have made it far enough to become the most technologically advanced and powerful species in our solar system was precisely because our drive for self-preservation and insatiable desire for an ever-increasing quality of life. You could claim that if we had just remained content to be hunter-gatherers, we would never have gotten to the level of civilization we’re at now. It’s more likely that we would have gone extinct on the savannah like our other hominid cousins, who were not homo sapiens.

Our inability to be satisfied with the naturally-determined status quo is the very reason the transhumanist movement itself exists. What happens, then, if we genetically re-dispose homo sapiens to become more selfless and less aggressive? Could this policy ironically backfire and create future generations of human beings who become complacent about technological progress and self-improvement? Furthermore, what happens if these future generations of morally bioenhanced human beings face new existential threats which require them to act urgently? What happens if they face an asteroid collision or a potential extraterrestrial invasion (although the latter seems to be far less likely)? We don’t want to end up genetically engineering future generations of human beings who are so devoid of self-preservation that they accept extinction as an outcome they should just peacefully resign themselves to. And if human beings become a space-faring species and end up making contact with a highly-advanced imperialist alien species bent on galaxy-wide colonization, our future generations will have to take up arms in self-defence.

This raises the question of whether it might be possible to simultaneously increase the human propensity towards altruism and non-violence towards other human beings, while still preserving the human predisposition towards ensuring our overall survival and well-being. If such a radical re-programming of humanity’s cognitive disposition is possible, it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act. This major shortcoming is one that proponents of moral bioenhancement have not yet formulated a plausible safety net for. Techno-utopian advocates claim that we could one day create a powerful artificial intelligence programme that will indefinitely protect humanity against unforeseen attacks from extraterrestrials or possible natural catastrophes. More serious discussion needs to be devoted to finding possible ways to make moral bioenhancement as realistically viable as possible.

Conclusion

The arguments put forth by Savulescu in Unfit for the Future should be reviewed with greater urgency and thoughtful consideration, and this essay has argued in favour of this appeal. We cannot take the great strides in civil rights made in the last 100 years, which have been heavily dependent on economic development and the growth of the capitalist world economy, for granted. As resource scarcity brought about by climate change looms on the near horizon, the very system which the 20th and 21st centuries’ great ethical progress has been contingent upon threatens to crumble. Gray is right in arguing that the human animal is fundamentally flawed and that repeated historical attempts at better models of moral systems have failed to truly reform humanity. And this is where Savulescu proposes a controversial answer to Gray’s resignation to humanity’s impending self-destruction. We must consider reforming the human animal itself. As the field of gene-editing and the development of impulse-controlling neurotransmitter drugs continue to show great promise, world governments and private institutions should begin to view these as viable options to creating a less short-sighted, less-aggressive, and more rational version of homo sapiens 2.0. There are only so many more global-scale man-made catastrophes that mankind can further inflict upon itself and the planet, before this radical proposal is finally undertaken as a last resort.

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

How Transhumanism Changed My Views on Teleology – Article by Sarah Lim

How Transhumanism Changed My Views on Teleology – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


My views on teleology and existentialism have changed considerably since I’ve joined the transhumanist movement. This is my attempt at reconciling my views on humanity’s quest for cosmological purpose with the role of human agency and value creation.

I used to have a rosier view of the universe and nature before I got more involved in transhumanism. I’ve been quite heavily influenced by Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. Swimme invokes cosmological fine-tuning as proof that the universe wants humans to be around and cares about us (to some degree). Even the Earth itself has carefully regulated its temperature to ensure that life could thrive on it, despite the fact that the heat emitted from the Sun has gone up thousands of degrees since the inception of homo sapiens. If you agree with Paul Davies’s interpretation of cosmology, then you could say that the universe is happy to have intelligent creatures around because the universe “wants” to be observed. Davies and Swimme argue that the universe created intelligent life so that it could understand itself through us, via our higher cognitive faculties and our ability to conceptualise mathematics and physics. We are the universe experiencing itself, a la Carl Sagan. Andrei Linde shares this sentiment with Davies.

Some of my readers will disagree with me on this, but I do think that there is some merit in what Davies, Swimme, and Linde claim. Swimme points out that almost all the major traditions in the world have a creation myth which points to the celestial realm as being the home of the creative force. This can’t be a mere coincidence, Swimme argues. It’s almost as if the universe was subconsciously nudging our ancestors towards the greater scientific truth of Big Bang cosmology. Obviously, this isn’t a claim that can be empirically falsified (yet, anyway), but it’s at least food for thought.

As I began to read up more on transhumanist philosophy, however, a nagging objection to this teleological value claim dawned on me.

If the universe did indeed intend to create intelligent animals to observe itself, it didn’t do a very efficient job of it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it made an exceedingly clumsy, slow, and wasteful job of it.

It has taken 13.8 billion years for the universe to give rise to modern homo sapiens who know how to execute the requisite mathematics and science necessary for the physics of cosmology. And we only exist in a ridiculously minuscule corner of a galaxy, which is itself one out of a hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. And 90% of the universe is still unobserved.

Even within the confines of the pale blue dot we call home, the process of life hasn’t exactly been a cake walk. Like most kids my age raised on Animal Planet and school field trips to flower parks, I had a relatively rose-tinted view of the natural world. I hadn’t really taken time to think about the nastiest parts of Darwinian natural selection and the last five major mass extinctions that have occurred throughout Earth’s history. I hadn’t thought about how death and starvation were biological inevitabilities only because the forces of natural selection dictated that they had to be. Natural selection itself is an apparently purposeless process. The only goal of a species is to ensure that its genes survive to the next generation, by any means possible. Hence why rape and infanticide are common amongst various species.

Even Swimme himself views suffering in nature as being unavoidable and something that must be gracefully accepted rather than stamped out. “Humans and animals are cruel because the universe that created them is cruel; even galaxies eat each other,” says Swimme. But transhumanist philosophers argue otherwise. David Pearce asserts that the witticism, “suffering is inevitable; misery is a choice,” is just that – a hackneyed saying. It’s a cop-out that encourages intelligent agents to resign themselves to fate instead of finding ways to overcome that suffering. Until I discovered the transhumanist movement, it had never occurred to me that we could one day phase out suffering amongst wild animals through a combination of genetic alteration and deliberate healthcare and food-supply intervention. And I had no idea how much progress had been made in terms of anti-aging research, whole-brain emulation and the development of prosthetics.

To paraphrase Nick Bostrom, “Mother Nature is a crappy parent.”

To my mind, the big question of teleology and humanity’s search for meaning isn’t so much “Does the universe want intelligent apes to observe it?” as much as it is, “Does the universe actually care enough about us to keep us around well into the future?”

Even if the universe does have a purpose for intelligent creatures, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that it has to keep the human species going. Given the sheer number of stars in the observable part of the universe alone, there could be thousands, if not millions, of alien civilisations which are vastly more advanced than we currently are. It would be exponentially more unlikely for us to be the sole sentient species in the universe, than it would for there to be more highly advanced alien civilisations out there. We could be one of millions of sentient species that the universe creates and then disposes of on a cosmic whim.

But does it really matter if the universe cares about us or not?

An analogy I hadn’t really thought of came to my mind while I was waxing lyrical about this topic with Adrian Chia. Adrian said that even if the universe doesn’t give a toss about whether humanity survives or perishes, it shouldn’t stop us from caring about ourselves and seeking an enhanced transhuman future. I told Adrian that that’s exactly the kind of advice I give when I counsel people who grew up in abusive homes with parents who clearly have no interest in their well-being. I’ve counseled people whose parents have tried to throw them out of windows as children, gashed wounds into their backs with knives or beaten them so badly they had the majority of the bones in their legs broken and were forced to crawl around their homes on their forearms. I tell them that even if their parents fail to care for them as a parent should, it shouldn’t stop them from loving or valuing themselves.

So what if the universe doesn’t have any vested interest in taking care of us? We shouldn’t expect it to. Rather, we owe it to ourselves to overcome the biological limitations nature has slapped on us. We no longer pray to gods for a good harvest; we’ve invented modern agriculture and GMO crops. We no longer make sacrifices and hold rituals to beg the gods to heal the sick; that’s what we invented modern medicine for. We no longer sacrifice animals in an attempt to appease the gods so that earthquakes will not devastate our villages; that’s why we’re getting better at developing disaster-evacuation plans and earthquake-proof infrastructure. And hopefully one day, our immortal post-human descendants will look back at us and snicker at how we used to pray that some transcendental deity would answer our prayers for eternal life.

The forces of natural selection and whatever whims the universe may have, have gotten us up to a certain point; but ensuring a better future for ourselves lies squarely on our shoulders now. Plenty of neglectful parents have children without any particularly strong commitment to ensuring those children’s welfare. But I’ve also seen lots of kids from broken homes grow up to become successful doctors, lawyers, and CEOs and go on to lead very fulfilling lives.

This article is dedicated to David Pearce and Andres Gomez Emilsson. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

Life Extension, Inequality, and Resource Scarcity: Dealing with Anti-Transhumanist Stereotypes – Article by Sarah Lim

Life Extension, Inequality, and Resource Scarcity: Dealing with Anti-Transhumanist Stereotypes – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


One of the most major accusations the transhumanist movement faces is the charge of elitism. Journalists such as Alexander Thomas and Jessica Powell have claimed that the spread of transhumanist ideals could lead to the worsening of already severe income inequality in developed nations such as the U.S. With billionaires like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel being the most prominent investors in the immortality industry, liberal journalists have tended to paint the transhumanist movement as a vain pursuit for the wealthy.

This article is a message to my fellow transhumanists. While these charges might seem unreasonably derisive, we cannot leave them unanswered. It’s easy to dismiss our critics as luddites, “deathists”, or a group of unimaginative bioconservatives who are suffering from sour-grape syndrome. As I keep saying to my friend Hank Pellissier, “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” It may not be wise to alienate our critics by dismissing them as bitter have-nots or bioconservatives who are resistant to technological progress because they can’t imagine the potential benefits of having a triple-digit health span.

Anti-immortalist sentiment

The single greatest charge levied at immortalists is that we are inevitably going to exacerbate the existing problem of overpopulation and resource scarcity. In the last two centuries and a half, the world’s population has grown exponentially. In 1800, the global population stood at 1 billion; as of last year it was 7.6 billion. By the time we’re little way past the Singularity in 2050, the global population is projected to hit 11.2 billion. Most folks and most mainstream scientists argue that a double-digit lifespan is an absolute biological necessity to keep this number from exploding further. This is probably the greatest objection the mainstream public has to radical lifespan extension.

“Privilege” has unfortunately become a very hackneyed word in the last decade, but it’s one that mainstream liberal critics keep on bringing up in their objections of radical lifespan extension. Here comes That Eye Roll-Inducing Statement; in particular, liberal feminist journalists like to criticise that transhumanist movement for “being a movement made for cis straight white upper-middle class men with enough disposable income to benefit from the latest advancements in healthcare.”  Sanjana Varghese at The New Statesman forebodingly warns her readers that “the first men to conquer death will create a new social order – a terrifying one.” Varghese warns that the rich, able-bodied Caucasian men who will be the first to have access to immortality treatments will create a dystopian future where we have Elon living to be 500, while the have-nots live much shorter lives and are forced to deal with a declining global economy and increasingly unaffordable healthcare.

Anyone who isn’t a Tumblr native probably has their pupils in the backs of their skulls right now.

Nevertheless, we can’t let these criticisms go unanswered. We can’t just dismiss them as liberal whinging or bioconservative paranoia. Public intellectuals like Nassim Taleb, John Gray and Leon Kass have gained a lot of media traction for their impassioned criticisms of radical life extension. The perpetuation of the view of transhumanism as an elitist “cis, straight, rich, able-bodied white man’s” game is going to undermine the potential for transhumanism to be taken seriously.

There are ideas, and then there are ideas.

Transhumanists are aware that we are of a minority viewpoint and that we view human exceptionalism differently from both the world’s religious majority and from the mainstream scientific atheist community. We don’t view biological death and the termination of individual consciousness as facts of life that need to be accepted prima facie, and we don’t unquestioningly accept natural biological functions as being sacred and off-limits from deliberate technological alteration. However, we must acknowledge that much more PR work needs to be done to assuage the public’s hostilities towards the transhumanist movement’s long-term goals.

The fact that the transhumanist movement itself even exists is itself remarkable. Our movement is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and humanity’s inextinguishable desire for perpetual self-improvement, beyond biological determinism. But we must also constantly remind ourselves that radical shifts in social paradigms are long-term goals. Making transhumanism mainstream is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Our paradise-engineering goals are noble, but we have to be realistic in our approximation of the time it will take to reach them.

Climate change is another hot-button issue closely related to overpopulation. Since the end of last year, scientists have become increasingly pessimistic about humanity’s ability to cope with environmental degradation in the decades to come.

While our individual opinions on this may vary, I applaud Gennady Stolyarov II for making a public statement declaring that the U.S. Transhumanist Party takes climate change seriously, as he states in this article here: “Ideas for Technological Solutions to Destructive Climate Change“. 

Critics of transhumanism, especially liberal journalists and online environmental activists, have often painted transhumanists as having our priorities wrongly arranged. Indefinite biological lifespan extension and cryonics won’t matter if society collapses due to resource scarcity, droughts, tornados, and food shortages, they retort. Again, proposing that the time is now right for biomedical and biotech fields in developed nations to pursue the goals of indefinite lifespan extension can appear to be utterly tone-deaf in the face of the oncoming ecological crisis. And rightly so.

The World Bank estimates that over 200 million people from the sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia could be driven into refugee status by 2045 – which is, coincidentally, Ray Kurzweil’s much-hyped appointed year of the Singularity. To give us an idea of how disruptive this is going to be, says David Wallace-Wells the 2015 Syrian migrant crisis in Europe was the result of just one hundred thousand refugees entering Europe; and look at the unprecedented level of political destabilization that followed it in just a span of 4 years.

Transhumanists cannot forget that the majority of us were lucky enough to be born into relatively favorable circumstances. Most of us live in developed nations, or at least developed cities, away from natural-disaster-prone, pandemic-prone, and conflict-prone areas. If we don’t have diabetes or heart disease and don’t smoke, we can reasonably expect to live until 75 (barring a freak accident). In contrast, the expectancy in some of the least developed parts of Africa is as low as 50 years flat. I was talking to my friend Hank, who runs the Brighter Brains Institute and who does humanitarian work in Kenya, was telling me that he’s often called the “really old man” by the Kenyan children he works with, because anyone who manages to survive past 60 is considered exceptionally long-lived in Kenya.

So what can be done about this?

How can we can dispel the negative stereotypes surrounding transhumanism and radical lifespan extension? The most immediate thing that comes to mind would be more public dialogues and conferences to engage a mainstream audience. The Methuselah Foundation’s CEO David Gobel has publicly stated in a CNBC interview that, “the vast majority of life-extension proponents don’t want things to be expensive,” and would rather make life extension affordable for the majority of the public. A fellow immortalist and Cosmist, Giovanni Santostasi like to use the analogy of mobile phones when they first came out in the 1980s. They were the size of bricks, had minimal connection, and cost a few thousand dollars each; but they became a major status symbol for rich Americans, anyway. Fast forward to 2019; literally everyone and their mother has a cell phone you can text on and take pictures with, i ncluding farmers living in rural Indonesia who are barely above the poverty line. Giovanni is optimistic that radical life extension treatments (and later mind-uploading services) will have a similar trajectory of development.

However, this leads us back to the overpopulation problem. If radical longevity becomes readily affordable to 70% of the public in developed nations, how will the world deal with a further exacerbation of the overpopulation problem? Perhaps what could be done is to hold a public forum specifically dedicated to addressing issues regarding the relationships between transhumanism, resource scarcity, and income inequality. Sociologists, economists, and humanitarian advocates in the transhumanist movement could mobilise to make such a forum a reality soon.

This article is dedicated to my fellow transhumanist humanitarian advocates, Dinorah Delfin and Hank Pellissier.

Disclaimer: If you don’t think that climate change and income inequality are major global concerns, and feel that I’m being a climate alarmist or preachy moralist who’s just delivering holier-than-thou declarations from my soap box, I won’t try to change your mind. If however, you’d like to rationally and politely debate the points I’ve raised in this article, you can PM me at Sarah Chowhugger on Facebook.

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

Why Non-Existence is Suffering, and Why We Shouldn’t Accept It as a Given – Article by Sarah Lim

Why Non-Existence is Suffering, and Why We Shouldn’t Accept It as a Given – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


My friend Alexey Turchin, a fellow supporter of the mass technological resurrection, has made an eyebrow-raising claim in one of his recent presentations: non-existence is a form of suffering. That in itself appears to be an oxymoronic claim. How can an individual suffer when they have no conscious experiences at all, since personal consciousness is permanently annihilated forever upon bodily death? Philosophically speaking, this is impossible. You need to be conscious to be able to experience either pain or pleasure. However, Alexey argues that the permanent cessation of consciousness can be considered the ultimate form of suffering because it means that the individual will forever be deprived of any further opportunities to experience the physical world. This means literally never existing ever again; which makes it doubly worse if you happened to get an unfortunate lot in this current life. This is a grim reality that atheists across the entire world must contend with.

Being an atheist in the late modern period is a very unique experience in its own ways, especially for those who fell out of the womb into religious abodes. The Richard Dawkinses of the world can attest to the extent of the cognitive dissonance that comes with a life trajectory of being repeatedly told that an all-loving, all-powerful deity exists and that everything your religious tradition says is truth that must be accepted at face value — only to go to a secular public school and receive a proper education in history, critical thinking, and good ol’ science.

The shattering of your entire worldview and belief system can be likened to coming home at the end of the day to find your wife in bed with a Mickey Mouse impersonator who works at Disneyland, while he’s still fully clad in the Mickey suit. The realization of absurdity that comes with an overhauling of one’s worldview this radical can range from breeding quiet cynicism, to full-blown distress and an existentialist crisis. This depends on the degree to which your previously held religious convictions held sway over your life. Both Michael Shermer and I went down this same route (although I was fortunate enough to have my transformative moment at a considerably younger age than Shermer). Shermer was previously in pursuit of a PhD in theology when he lost his faith; I was cajoled into a far-right radical Calvinist sect when I was 13, by an online friend who had convinced me that if I didn’t proselytize my faith to everybody else in Singapore, God would force me to watch my family get repeatedly eviscerated with hot iron blades for all of eternity. My church strongly discouraged women from pursuing higher education and regularly reminded its female parishoners that God would like them to obey their husbands. When I was 16, I was propositioned by a 21-year-old male youth group member who strongly hinted that I was at the appropriate age where he could ask me to become his wife.

And then when I was 17, I studied enough philosophy to find out that the whole damn thing was made up by a bunch of people as they were going along and that Heaven wasn’t real. And that every single human being who is born will naturally be destined to spend all of eternity in an empty, dark void once each of our individual brains cease all neural function. Needless to say, I didn’t take to this revelation well.

Understandably, most atheists aren’t chuffed about the idea of spending the next 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years being unable to see, hear, feel, smell, or think anything at all. But most of us still consider that a veritable improvement from spending the next 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years being fully conscious while being boiled in a pit of sulfur as punishment for not tithing or sharing a kiss with someone of the same biological sex. The choice between eternal oblivion and eternal torture isn’t a hard one to make. But it still doesn’t make it all that easy for atheists to accept their permanent annihilation. While some psychological studies claim that atheists apparently fear death considerably less than their religious counterparts, I’d also say that atheists tend to be more frank with themselves in openly discussing their fear of eternal oblivion. It’s only been very recently that I’ve begun visiting online atheist forums and was surprised to find that “how do I cope with my fear of non-existence?” is an exceedingly common question.

The typical suggestions given to deal with this extreme existentialist dread are, more often than not, “you were dead for 13 billion years before you were born, so it shouldn’t bother you that you’ll be dead for the next 13 billion years after you’re dead (again).” Or trying to convince the original poster that death is no different from being under general anesthesia for all of eternity (“if you’ve already undergone surgery, you have nothing to fear!”) Or just plain ol’, “suck it up; the entire universe is going to perish in heat death, anyway, and it’s taking all of us with it.” While I applaud my fellow atheists for being thoroughly honest with themselves in facing the most terrible prospect all of humanity has ever faced, I can’t help but feel that this is a form of very pained resignation. I’ve met numerous other atheists who have had to undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy and take psychiatric medication because their thanatophobia (fear of death) is so severe that they’re terrified to leave their own houses on a daily basis and that they’ve developed severe insomnia because they can’t fall asleep regularly without having panic attacks.

How should the atheist community cope with the biggest question any human being will ever face? Should the acceptance of the permanent annihilation of consciousness continue to be the modus operandi for the atheist and scientific community for the rest of humanity’s existence?

Or should we dare to stick our necks out and consider the very far out possibility of a third alternative, that is neither the acceptance of eternal oblivion nor delusional faith in the promises of a spiritual life in a castle in the sky?

What if we reconceptualized the way we see non-existence? What if this is the next great paradigm shift that humanity will eventually come face-to-face with?

Up till the very recent modern period in human history, slavery and wife-beating were seen as perfectly normal facts of life that just had to be accepted. It was considered a given fact that some men (and the overwhelming majority of women) were effectively going to be someone else’s property and could be completely at their mercy. Try holding a similar attitude today in a developed nation. Try, in 2019 A.D., to stand on a soap box in the middle of California and scream at the top of your lungs that women should be denuded of all their political rights and that the government should make it legal for you to sell your teenaged daughter into prostitution so that you can pay off your mortgage.

“BECAUSE THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE.”

Try yelling at the top of your voice that slavery should be re-institutionalized and that Caucasian Americans should be granted the legal right to forcibly capture their African-American, Native American and Latino neighbours, have them shackled in chains and put them up for auction in a human market.

“THIS IS HOW IT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, SO THERE’S NO REASON FOR US TO BREAK THE HABIT.”

Everyone can obviously guess how that’s going to go down. Good night, and good luck, to whomsoever endeavors to try this out.

Given that modern human civilization is approximately 10,000 years old, the shifts in moral attitudes that have occurred over the last 200 years can be considered astronomical in every sense of the word. And if technological progress continues to press forth, who knows what on earth our descendants will think of us at present?

I personally had never remotely considered reconceptualizing the way I view death and aging until I was first introduced to the transhumanist movement when I watched a documentary on it, featuring Ben Goertzel.

So said Ben, “one day, our descendants are going to look back at us and be unable to believe that we let our elderly folks die of aging and accepted it as being natural. They’re going to think it’s absolutely barbaric that we accepted death so unquestioningly. It’s going to be how we now look at our forebears and remember that they thought rape and murder were pretty much okay.” Needless to say, I was pretty flabbergasted when I first heard this. It’s taken me some time to really think over the implications of what death really is, and just how great the potential for human society to shift its values and conceptions of the world is.

And funnily enough? The exact same thing can be said for the entire atheist movement. It isn’t much of a miraculous coincidence that religious “nones” are the fastest-growing worldview demographic in contemporary developed nations which place a premium on the scientific enterprise. Understandably, all the way up till the industrial revolution, people didn’t really think too hard about whether or not God really existed and if we really did evolve from monkeys, because most people were too busy trying to survive and feed their eight children (six of whom most likely wouldn’t survive till adulthood). Famines, plagues and warfare were a norm rather than exceptions that remain unimaginable to most of us living in developed nations today.

“No afterlife, no problem,” is an attitude that has only developed amongst modern atheists in very recent times. You can tell people to be content with just having one shot at an 80-year-long life, because that option is actually available to them now. If you have the good fortune to be born into a middle-class family without any significant disabilities or health issues, and you stand a fairly good chance of living a happy, fulfilling life without any significant hardships. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for the better part of the last 9900 years of human civilizational history. Wishing very badly that something could be true doesn’t make it true, of course. But we should at least be able to sympathize with the reasons our forebears had, and many people currently living in hardship still have, for clinging on fervently to the hope of a second chance in an afterlife.

Nevertheless, atheists today should begin to see humanity’s dreams of immortality not as a slice of pie in the sky; we should see it as a challenge and a goal post we will eventually cross with the aid of science. It’s a big dream and one that may seem impossible at the moment. But that hasn’t stopped humanity before. Transcending our biological limitations and striving for a better world than the one we currently live in has been the whole narrative of the human story. Our dreams of greater things will always seem absurd, until available technological advancements arrive to deliver them. But those dreams are what keep us pressing forward.

This essay is dedicated to Nick Bostrom and Giulio Prisco, who are my philosophical inspirations.

Due to space constraints, this essay has not dealt with the issue of overpopulation and resource depletion which are alleged by some come with indefinite lifespan extension. Other transhumanists such as Gennady Stolyarov II have addressed such concerns in other writings and videos.

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.

In Defense of Human Exceptionalism and Immortalism – Article by Sarah Lim

In Defense of Human Exceptionalism and Immortalism – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


This essay will be attempting to rebut some of the main objections raised to indefinite lifespan extension, technological immortality, and technological resurrection. The overwhelming majority of the objections to immortalism are based on arguments from naturalism. Devotees of religious traditionalism argue that death is a doorway to an afterlife or reunion with a higher deity in the spirit world. Some atheists argue that death is unavoidable because the limit of the human lifespan is the result of natural selection, and should thus be unquestioningly accepted. However, what if a different perspective were taken on death and the natural limits of the human lifespan?

This essay will primarily attempt to go toe-to-toe with scientifically-based objections against immortalism raised by prominent atheists like Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Shermer. As an atheist myself, I think that the objections to the claims of religious traditionalists that a spiritual afterlife exist are already well-worn and solidly established. Modern neuroscience has solidly established the fact that consciousness is wholly generated by the brain and that there is no empirical evidence to substantiate the claim that immaterial souls exist. Nearly the entire atheist and scientific community accepts this as having been conclusively proven time and again (in spite of this, those who believe in the existence of a spiritual afterlife still make up the vast majority of the world’s population).

One of the major scientifically-based objections to immortalism is the charge that human beings should not be spared from death because we’re not God’s special people, but merely a bunch of apes that were lucky enough to get smart. This is the argument against human exceptionalism or anthropocentrism. There are plenty of other natural entities that have far longer lifespans than human beings do. The turritopsis dohrnii, the famous immortal jellyfish, is known for being able to naturally live indefinitely. Bristlecone pine trees are known to live up to 5000 years old. To quote Michael Shermer, “even stars die,” although they can live for billions of years. But what separates you from the turritopsis dohrnii, or a star? Well, for one thing, the turritopsis dohrnii can’t create self-driving cars and pioneer the practice of modern dentistry. Stars, including our own sun, are wonderful and all, but they can’t do the mathematics and quantum physics necessary to give a full account of the Big Bang theory and the Planck epoch. Human exceptionalism exists because of the sheer degree of human intelligence, compared to every other existing organism in our solar system. There might ostensibly be highly advanced alien civilizations far more intelligent than us residing somewhere in the Milky Way, or in any other of the 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, but we can at least pat ourselves on the backs for being the smartest meat robots in our own solar system.

As Ernest Becker and pretty much everyone else in the history of modern homo sapiens has realised, two things set human beings apart from every single other species that has ever existed. These are the ability to question the story of our origin, and the ability to be cognizant of the termination of our own consciousnesses. Unless, of course, one day zoologists devise a way to read the minds of animals with perfect accuracy and will be surprised to find out that penguins and dolphins believe in heaven, hell, and reincarnation. But with that particularly odd possibility off of the table, homo sapiens are the only known creatures to be actively cognizant of the Eternal Oblivion all of us must face when our consciousnesses are terminated at bodily death. This is the basis of Becker’s arguments regarding terror management theory, and the basis of every single afterlife belief in every single culture throughout human history. Human beings have attained such a developed state of cognitive function that we can actually comprehend the concept of eternity; and we can comprehend the horrors of ceasing to exist for all of the rest of it.

But we shouldn’t think we’re special, the nihilistic atheists argue. We shouldn’t think we’re special because we’re just insignificant specks of protein within an extremely vast, indifferent universe that doesn’t give a rat’s hide about whether we exist or go extinct. Nothing human beings do matters, because we’re so ridiculously insignificant in the grand cosmological scheme. If that argument were taken to its logical conclusion, I can tell you about something else we can stop giving a damn about: the whole of the scientific enterprise. If nothing we do matters, all of us can happily abandon the scientific method and go back to believing that the Earth was made 6000 years ago, in seven days. If nothing we do matters, we can all happily wrap up our efforts to combat global warming and to prevent the utilization of nuclear weapons. For all intents and purposes, I’ve yet to actually meet a nihilist who will willingly let themselves and their family members stand directly in front of an oncoming truck.

I know some atheists who will respond to this with the retort that, “the universe doesn’t owe you a significantly longer lifespan just because human beings wish for it.” Well, the universe doesn’t theoretically owe us effective root-canal treatments, general anaesthesia, Reebok sneakers, hearing aids, or iPhones, but here we are, anyway. The universe may not owe any particular aforementioned desirable to human beings, but that shouldn’t in any way stop us from trying to attain it through our own ingenuity.

Death and a lifespan under three digits might be natural, but guess what else is? Giving birth without epidural. And cancerous tumors. And dying prematurely from various diseases in the absence of medical care. And spending your life stumbling about and squinting if you’re short-sighted but aren’t fortunate enough to have access to laser eye surgery or spectacles.

And plenty of our forebears accepted those aforementioned ailments as such. In every single pre-modern culture, a whole crapbundle of ailments we now have readily available medical treatment for were seen as “God’s will”. The agonizing pain of natural childbirth was, up till very recently, seen as the “curse of Eve” and a burden all women had to suck up and bear as punishment for being women. And then came epidural, and that long-held belief went right out the window. Ostensibly, cancer and viral infections are great ways for the forces of natural selection to keep human population in steady state; but that still hasn’t stopped us from inventing anti-viral medication and chemotherapy.

To quote Alan Harrington, “We must never forget that we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order that kills everybody.”

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.