In Defense of Human Exceptionalism and Immortalism – Article by Hilda Koehler
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.”
Hilda Koehler 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.
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