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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.

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.

The Hedonistic Imperative – The End of Suffering – Video by David Pearce and Duarte Baltazar

The Hedonistic Imperative – The End of Suffering – Video by David Pearce and Duarte Baltazar

logo_bgDavid Pearce
Duarte Baltazar


Editor’s Note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party has featured this brief video highlighting the thinking of one of our members, transhumanist philosopher David Pearce, on the abolition of suffering. This video, produced by Duarte Baltazar of Utopian Focus, illustrates one possibility for transhumanist messages reaching larger audiences through concise, powerful films that distill particular transhumanist concepts and aspirations.  

~ Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman, United States Transhumanist Party, April 15, 2018

Description by Duarte Baltazar of Utopian Focus: Learn more about Utopian Focus at https://utopianfocus.com.

Excerpt from “The Hedonistic Imperative” by David Pearce. Read the full essay at https://www.hedweb.com.

States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture – a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss.

States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

Two hundred years ago, powerful synthetic pain-killers and surgical anesthetics were unknown. The notion that physical pain could be banished from most people’s lives would have seemed absurd. Today most of us in the technically advanced nations take its routine absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as psychological pain, too, could ever be banished is equally counter-intuitive. The feasibility of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of social policy and ethical choice.

Video Editing, Post-Production and Soundtrack by Duarte Baltazar

Utopian Focus: https://facebook.com/utopianfocus

Narration by Elvis Andrumora

Circle of Synths: https://www.circleofsynths.com