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.
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.