Debts Owed to Death

Ed Simon on the Metaphysics of Trans-Humanism

 “We are all debts owed to death.”

– Simonides of Ceos

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work;

I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

– Woody Allen

Chidiock Tichborne, of unlikely name but aristocratic birth, spent the evening of September 19, 1586, in the Tower of London awaiting his execution the following morning, and he contemplated not just the dawn that would bring his impending extinction, but indeed struggled to fit words into rhythm, feet into line, and lines into rhyme as he composed an elegy to his own death. Heretofore he was a poet of no particular distinction, and after his composition of what has been called “Tichborne’s Elegy,” or more romantically “My prime of life is but a frost of cares,” a poet of no other accomplishments (for obvious reasons, as his head had been cut off, so subsequent accomplishments would be hard to come by). Embroiled in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, Tichborne was but one of hundreds of recusants executed by the monarch in her tenure, which rivaled her sister Bloody Mary’s in said bloodiness. Dr. Johnson claimed that nothing quite focuses the mind like a hanging, and if that is the case then the gallows must prove the ultimate deadline for an aspiring writer, for Tichborne’s mind was very focused indeed. In the golden age of English verse, poor Tichborne only has three short lyrics to his name, and this elegy of eighteen lines divided into three stanzas of six lines each. Written in a steady metronome of monosyllabic iambic pentameter (which mimics a heartbeat until it stops), “Tichborne’s Elegy” is his only poem even to be anthologized, or even remotely well-known (and the threshold is low for this kind of thing).

But though it be but one poem, what a poem it is! For his elegy must count as one of the most haunting evocations of our ultimate fate written in that melancholy, death-obsessed era. Using that favored Renaissance trope of antithesis, he movingly writes (being somewhere between the age of 23 and 28) that “My youth is gone, and yet I am but young.” New Critical orthodoxy (which nobody really believes anymore) would have us separate the circumstances of the elegy’s composition from the poem itself, and yet it would be dishonest to say that some of the sublimity of Tichborne’s lyric is not in the fact that we envision him in a cold, unforgiving stone cell of the Tower desperately pressing pen to parchment as he attempts to get all of the words left within him out onto paper. Nobody would claim Tichborne to be the equivalent of a John Donne or George Herbert. And yet, is there not an incredible frankness that moves one equally when you remember that the poem, which ends with “and now my life is done,” was completed with the author’s full knowledge that indeed within hours his life would end? Tichborne, along with his fellow Elizabethan, the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell, offers a Western example of the Japanese poetic genre of the jinsei, writers composing a poem knowing that they are shortly approaching death. It is the genre that is best able to encapsulate what it means to hear a fly buzzing, to remind us that death may be abstract but that it is also always particular. As a result, despite death’s universality, it is not really an abstraction to any of us. But, Jesus, Tichborne knew that score more than most.

I’ve been thinking about Tichborne recently, not because I am an expert on him (is anyone an expert on Chidiock Tichborne?) but because I could not help but contrast his approach to death with that of the transhumanist tech denizens profiled in Tad Friend’s excellent New Yorker article of April 3, “The God Pill: Silicon Valley’s Quest for Eternal Life.” Friend interviews investors, scientists, and advocates for both the (obviously admirable) cause of life extension and the (delusional) one of technological immortality. He discusses both biological life-extension with the (appropriately named) English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, and the technological Singularity with the seemingly brilliant but huckstery inventor Ray Kurzweil – who, I should mention before appearing too snarky, did manifestly improve the lives of millions with his invention of the Kurzweil Reading Machine. What emerges in Friend’s piece is a collective portrait of tanned, toned, supplement-swallowing, vitamin-obsessed, emotionally-stunted Silicon Valley technocrats who, not content to have altered everything about how we communicate and interact with human beings over the past generation, now have the arrogance to assume that they can easily “hack” death as well. Journalist and advocate for death with dignity, Ann Neumann, said in an interview with America Magazine that ours is a society “where death is hidden inside institutions.” Among the most privileged of our citizens, that invisibility of death in our culture is taken to its logical conclusion by erasing the understanding that death even needs to exist. In my last piece for Marginalia I wrote that in our current moment “awareness of death is as repressed [as] sex was to the Victorian,” and what better example of repressing this awareness than the sanitized fantasy of dotcom millionaires and billionaires pretending that technological immortality is not just possible but likely?

Mythically it is a profoundly old story, the assumption that there is an easy material cure for death, traceable as far back as Gilgamesh confronting the immortal Utnapishtim and learning that death is indeed the mother of beauty. Figures in Friend’s essay, like Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos (neither of whom he interviews), come across with all the hubris of characters from Greek myth, as if inventing PayPal and writing checks to de Grey’s Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence ensure that they can still that bell which tolls for all, or halt the wheels on time’s winged chariot. Friend quotes Arram Sabeti, founder of something called ZeroCater, who says, “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we will achieve it,” to which I respond with: “Ask not for whom the heat death of the universe ultimately cools, it cools for thee.” Sabeti’s proclamation is a stunning bit of positivist hubris, not least of which because it is literally incorrect, for in the end nobody and nothing, not even the universe, can escape the most poetic law of physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But what does Tichborne have to do with Sabeti, or Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who sunnily tells an assembled party in Mandeville Canyon, Los Angeles, that “I’m not actually planning to die?” What does Tichborne, who perhaps melodramatically, but still honestly, wrote that he “sought my death and found it in my womb, / I looked for life and saw it was a shade, / I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb, / And now I die”—what does he have to do with Brin, who thinks that if he writes a big enough check he can bribe the Grim Reaper?

The difference between the assembled technological utopians and Tichborne is that despite his melodramatic posturing, his romantic pose, and his at times overwrought verse, Tichborn’s approach to mortality was fundamentally more mature, and in his maturity he conveyed a deep wisdom that de Grey, Kurzweil, and the rest of them lack. This maturity is not because the techno-utopians believe in immortality and Tichborne did not – far from it. Despite the fact that at no point in the elegy did Tichborne ever hint at anything concerning an afterlife, I have no doubt that as a staunch Catholic willing to be martyred, he firmly believed in a heavenly reward. Five years before his execution, Tichborne and his father narrowly escaped punishment for smuggling Catholic relics from the continent into Britain. A man willing to risk decapitation for some bits of bone, rag, and wood is not wishy-washy, milquetoast, or agnostic when it comes to questions of the afterlife. No, what made Tichborne more mature was his despairing honesty. What made Tichborne more mature is that he understood that he was going to die, he knew that whatever came next that the process itself wasn’t an option or a choice. And he knew that fact, though he was on an abbreviated schedule; he knew that it is a fundamental truth for all of us – maybe the only universal and fundamental truth. What also made Tichborne more mature is the presumed basis for his trust in an afterlife, for in embracing religious justification for such a belief, he was, I would argue, on much more legitimate epistemological ground.

Do not mistake what I’m arguing; I am not claiming that a supernatural life-after-death is “real” or not. I of course have absolutely no certainty about that. Like most people aspiring to honesty I’ll admit that at some moments, I’m sure that we’re nothing but meat for vermiculation, and in the next, I’m certain that there is a transcendence that we’re all destined to enjoy, a world of light unto which we shall all ascend. Sometimes I have those contradictory feelings in the space of a few minutes. Except for those people that know neither the score nor the definitions, there are no atheists or theists, only an admixture of both. This is not a claim for some personal superiority, merely an observation on the contingency of doubt since the dawn of modernity. But what I do know with certainty is that if there is to be true, genuine, eternal life, then there is no materialist explanation for such a possibility. That is not a dictate of theology; it is one of science, which the transhumanists abuse and make an idol out of to balm their fear of death. Since Karl Popper’s useful “falsification principle” it has been a philosophical matter of course to evaluate whether a proposition is scientific or not based on whether there is the possibility for said claim to be empirically falsified. That is to say, can one envision an experimental or observational method by which a claim can be proven false? Note that the falsification principle can’t verify the accuracy of a claim, only its status as a scientific one. So, as the famous example goes, the claim that “All swans are white” is a scientific claim, because whether correct or not it is possible to envision a situation in which the statement can be falsified, namely the discovery of a black swan. Now a theological proposition such as the Filioque clause is one that can’t be empirically falsified: it is epistemologically beyond measurement. No cyclotron can falsify either the Latin or Greek Church’s positions on the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or also from the Son.

Some philosophers, historically the logical positivists of the first few decades of the Twentieth Century, against whom Popper was reacting, would argue that such theological claims (and indeed the claims of aesthetics, metaphysics, myth and so on) are logically meaningless. That may or may not be the case; of course the great objection to such a “verification principle” (associated with the analytical philosopher Rudolf Carnap) is that the principle that the only legitimate statements are those that can be confirmed empirically is itself self-contradictory. But I digress, my task is not necessarily to denigrate logical positivism as an epistemic system, but rather to point out that religious claims about immortality, as they lay beyond the realm of Popperian falsification, are beliefs that belong epistemologically to a different category than do claims that could be empirically proven false. But of the whole litany of transhumanist snake-oil chicanery—from the Robot Jesus of Kurzweil’s Singularity, a human consciousness downloaded to a computer hard-drive, to cryogenic chambers and visions of electronic immortality dancing in our heads—what of those? Well, those are claims about the material world, privy to potential falsification. And, unless I’m missing something, there is no physical process or law which can ensure the immortality of an individual human consciousness—none. Certainly life-extension is a possibility, and even if de Grey is correct that scientists will soon be able to extend human life-spans to a minimum of a millennium (though I’m dubious), that’s just a more extreme version of good ol’ fashioned life-extension facilitated by throwing out your cigarettes, pouring your tumbler of Scotch down the drain, eating your spinach, looking both ways before crossing the street, and being the beneficiary of pure good luck. No, for eternity-eternity, as in forever-eternity, there can be no physical guarantee, only supernatural hope, for once again we come upon that most poetic law of physics, one which enshrines mortality in the dictum that all things must eventually tend towards entropy.

In Friend’s article, Martine Rothblatt, the CEO of a biotech firm with the distressingly ambiguous name United Therapeutics, matter-of-factly claims, “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional.” Clearly. Or not. I can’t even keep the computer that I am writing this on from crashing. Clearly it is possible through technology to extend life, and one would hope also to improve it. We know that that’s true because that’s the history of modern medicine. Ideally one would hope it is possible to extend and improve the lives of the largest number of people possible, and not just the millionaire anarcho-capitalists of Silicon Valley, but that’s a political question for later. But Rothblatt is not talking about modern medicine; she’s talking about modern magic masquerading as medicine, for this is not life extension but the making of death itself “optional.” For some techno-utopians this is the ultimate validation of a certain libertarian-minded fetishizing of their god the Invisible Hand, which becomes so powerful it can still Death itself. For the techno-utopian libertarian, late capitalism is late not because of the impending collapse of the market under its own excess, but because eschatologically what lies beyond is immortality purchased through check (or PayPal). In the fevered brain-in-a-vat imaginations of such transhumanists death can be an option, like a choice of appetizers in a Palo Alto bistro or between different shades of paint you might pick for your glass-walled living room overlooking Big Sur. For Rothblatt is like Max von Sydow’s knight in The Seventh Seal, except she is naïve enough to believe that she can pay Death to throw the game. But the techno-utopian forgets that the house always, always wins. Peter Thiel, despite his worst intentions to enshrine inequality into the very nature of metaphysical reality, is thankfully, like all of us, mortal.

Death always has a way of coming to the programmer, no matter how plucky or optimistic. Because again, whether in flood or fire, in Big Freeze or Big Crunch, the universe must die and so shall you. That is the dishonesty of the transhumanist promise – it has already failed the falsification test. By seeking a materialist explanation for an afterlife it lost the race before the starter fired. Now, none of this means that religious versions of the afterlife are necessarily true (or what “true” might even mean in that context). But what it does mean is that theological explanations for immortality, in that they are epistemologically not under Popper’s jurisdiction, are ones that can’t be disproven empirically. A less complicated way of putting this is that heaven and hell may or may not be bullshit, it is impossible to know either way; but we know that totalizing transhumanist claims must ultimately be bullshit, for they come up against the very laws of physics that they claim undergird their plans. And in that sense I see far more maturity in the religiously faithful, even (or maybe especially) those of an orthodox bent, because taking that leap of faith into the unknown is a more authentic and more honest approach to the universal tragedy of death than pretending that immortality lies in injections, Elizabeth Bathory-style, with the blood of healthy young people (seriously, in the article…) or having a digitized version of your brain merge with the infinite interconnected Cloud, which Kurzweil prophesizes will independently emerge by the year 2045.

For that matter, an engaged and serious atheism, which rejects the possibility of the perseverance of identity after death, is also a more authentic and honest approach to extinction. My argument concerns not whether one should believe or disbelieve metaphysical claims about an afterlife, only that believing in an afterlife for metaphysical reasons is more legitimate, and as a result more mature in its honesty, than believing in a heaven programed into a computer or a resurrection facilitated by liquid nitrogen. The chimeric mirage of physically finding an elixir for everlasting life is as old as Tithonus and as recent as Thiel. The motivation lay behind Gilgamesh searching for the boxthorn at the bottom of the sea and Ponce de Leon looking for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. A very old potion in new test tubes, for transhumanism offers nothing novel, just a positivist religion written in the metaphysics of materialism, ironically a philosophy that disproves the precepts of the cybernetic and cryogenic faith. What’s telling is that from the Wandering Jew to Sir Galahad immortality is never seen as a prize, but a curse. Tichborne may have bemoaned his early departure, but he did not want to wander the Earth forever either, for again his was a mature relationship to death. Lest I be too hard on the men and women interviewed in The New Yorker article, I should state that I clearly and deeply understand their desire – but I think the leap of faith into belief in religious immortality has the benefit of not being so easily disprovable as transhumanism.

But what do I know? Who am I to talk about transhumanism as easily “disprovable?” It is true, I am a lowly literary scholar, no more well-versed in cybernetics, cryogenics, artificial intelligence, or uploading consciousness to a computer than any other educated reader perusing articles like Friend’s – but can you begrudge me my skepticism? As a humanist, who has spent his adult life enmeshed in texts both canonical and not, texts from Ecclesiastes to Julian Barnes’ brilliant Nothing to Be Frightened Of, works penned within the valley of the shadow of death, I know that no traveler has ever returned from that undiscovered country. When Austrian roboticist Hans Moravec, a prominent transhumanist not mentioned in Friend’s article and a professor at my alma mater Carnegie Mellon University (we’ve never met), says innocently that he has “already mentioned the possibility of [digitally] making copies of oneself, with each copy undergoing its own adventures,” and that as a result “Concepts of life, death and identity will lose their present meaning,” can one fault me for feeling that we’ve left the domain of science and entered that of a secularized religion, a positivist theology which enshrines technology as the engine of teleology? Moravec is a committed atheist (whose wife, fascinatingly enough, is an evangelical Christian), and yet despite his atheism he seems unable to shed the traditional comforts of religion at its most basic level. Since I do not know Moravec, I have no insights into his psychology, and no desire to play the armchair psychoanalyst for him. But I wonder if in general, those techno-utopians, those transhumanists, are not largely composed of men (and to a lesser extent women) who have intuited that because of the insights of the scientific revolution, the supernatural promises of faith must be incorrect, but who have not yet personally dealt with the implications of that supposed fact, and so they immaturely use the tools of positivist materialism to construct a new promise of immortality. Thiel, for his part, was raised as an evangelical Christian during his youth in Germany, and he still claims to be a religious Christian (even appearing on a dais with the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright).

Barnes writes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Kurzweil once said, “Does God exist? I would say ‘Not yet.’” Parse the difference, for the transhumanists push their religious anxiety to the point of deigning themselves gods and then patenting the afterlife. The difference, however, between a Christian, or Jewish, or Islamic, or any other view of the afterlife and Moravec’s is that the former are not constrained by physical limitation, the metaphysical rules which define them are different from transhumanism’s. Note that that doesn’t mean that they are correct or not, merely that they can’t be dismissed in the same manner, because to critique them within the schema of materialism is to perform a category mistake. Transhumanism on the other hand is defined by materialism, a materialism that by the very nature of physical law means that ultimately the transhumanist promise itself must fail. British philosopher John Gray, one of the wittiest and most cognizant critics of the new immortality, writes, “transhumanism is not as rational as it seems.… Deriving from mystical philosophies such as Platonism and gnosticism, it is an idea at odds with scientific materialism.” But Platonism and Gnosticism both have the dignity to understand what they are, and not to masquerade as provable sciences. The promises of Christian resurrection may or may not be true, but they are promises that by their very definition are not of this world, and thus whether we believe them or not, we must judge them by a different criterion than that of Popper’s falsification principle. But transhumanism? Well, I know for a fact that you can always unplug a computer. Or debug it of the ghost in the machine.

Not just as a humanist but also as a human I am fully aware of that most precious wisdom which explains that “Sic transit gloria mundi.” In our ever-continuing season of disciplinary mortality, humanists churn out copy concerning the utility of the humanities, with arguments normally running within the relatively narrow spectrum of appeals towards pragmatic utility (critical thinking!) to mealy-mouthed, rapturous canonicity (the Great Books!). Here is what I think is a novel argument to inject into that discussion: the humanities provide the wisdom that reminds you that you too shall die. If all of culture, all of art, all of literature, indeed all of religion is one great reaction against that most fundamental of truths, then the transhumanist promise is just one more bit of denialism that pretends that mortality is a problem to be simply solved by human ingenuity. Montaigne said, “to study philosophy is to learn to die.” Peter Thiel doesn’t like academics or college much; no doubt he rejects most philosophy as only so much navel-gazing (in spite of, or perhaps because of, a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford). Far more practical to envision Randian utopias floating as constructed islands on the Pacific or eternity as organized on the circuit boards of an artificially intelligent super computer. He would do well to put a statue of himself amongst the sands of Silicon Valley with the admonition that we should “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But might I humbly suggest that the immature rejection of such a basic fact as one’s own death robs one of life before it has even ended? For in rejecting the very idea of death, we by necessity reject the idea of the good death, of the Ars moriendi. This is a dangerous road to travel, and ironically the fantasies of Silicon Valley and the tremendous accumulation of capital, which they represent, indicate a deeper malignancy in our body politic. While Peter Thiel’s friends dream of electronic immortality, the president, whom he advises, oversees the dismantling of our healthcare system and the condemnation of twenty-four million Americans who will lose their insurance. Transhumanists attend TED talks about how death for them is “optional,” while advocating for a system that denies the poor based on “pre-existing conditions,” and so we witness the new eugenicist doublethink logic of a type of genocide. Death is inevitable to all, but the myopia and narcissism that allows the über-rich to pretend that they alone can escape it while denying others the medical care that we know we are capable of as a society has very real implications. Death might be inevitable, but a good death is not. The first is the purview of God and nothing can be done about it, the later is the purview of humans, and we should offer to as many as possible the dignity of the Ars moriendi. While Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos pretend that they will live forever, others suffer and die. It is an obvious obscenity. Transhumanism, far from being a regenerative or imaginative world-view, is one that is moribund to the core; it suffers from a profound lack of creativity in terms of restructuring social organization, preferring instead to masturbate to thoughts of a mythic lifeboat, one reserved for the very rich, which will preserve them from our common end. Again, if humanism has any wisdom to impart against the machinations and mirages of theologized techno-utopianism it is that old adage that “This too shall pass.” Perhaps, as with the Roman generals of old, men like Thiel (or the president Thiel endorsed) would do well to have an assistant at their side, periodically whispering in their ear Respice post te. Hominem te memento. “Look after yourself. Remember that you’re human,” whether you’ve taken your ninety vitamin supplements or put your head on ice or not.

Kurzweil says, “It is a common philosophical position that death gives meaning to life, but death is a great robber of meaning.… It robs us of love. It is a complete loss of ourselves. It is a tragedy.” Kurzweil is wrong, but for understandable reasons. Death is most certainly a tragedy; to paraphrase Donne the loss of any human diminishes us all. And the fact that death is intrinsic to life, well, that’s by definition one of the most unfair things conceivable. Where Kurzweil errs is in thinking that death’s tragic nature makes it a “robber of meaning,” for nothing about the nature of tragedy necessarily implies meaninglessness. Again, do not mistake what I’m saying. Nothing is more insulting in its triteness than consoling those left behind with the cheap adage that God must have his reasons. Rather I am arguing that death in and of itself neither implies meaning nor meaninglessness, but rather it is the job of the living to endow life with meaning. Samuel Loncar recently wrote in Marginalia, “We can believe death ends this poetry of bodies making meaning in the world, or merely interrupts it, but in either case we can find in death not just an ending but a beginning of wisdom.” The sentiment is less a rebuke to a worldview like Kurzweil’s and more of a promise, or even a consolation, to one who fears that death is the end of meaning – which is all of us sometimes. And meaning is what defines a numinous experience, for religion has always had meaning at its core and not just the opiate comforts of immortality. Religion seeks to endow the profane with the charged electricity of the sacred, whether we survive individually or not. What faith at its fullest expression promises, whether through “Carpe Diem” or “Memento Mori,” is not necessarily the existence of life after death but rather the capacity to live your life with such beauty, justice, truth and love that it doesn’t matter whether life continues after death or not.

I do not wish to be callous, but as death is our common fate (whether the party in the article acknowledges that or not) I feel like I have a stake in such questions and can render my judgment. I understand the fear which motivates the transhumanist perspective, for I am human and let nothing which is post-human be alien to me – but what is more human than to fear death? And not just the process, but also the possibility of nothingness itself. Our old friend Tichborne, in a different poem, this one to his old friend Anthony Babington who got him into that whole mess in the first place, sweetly writes that God “shall remove our grounded ship far from this dangerous place… And keep ourselves on land secure… Sweet friend, till then content thy self.” Who doesn’t pray for some secure destination away from this dangerous place of life, some field on the other side of true and false where we may once again see those we have loved, and love still? Kurzweil explains how he lost his father at a relatively young age, as indeed many of the transhumanists have, indeed as I did as well. Friend writes that Kurzweil “hopes to someday create a virtual avatar of his father and then populate the doppelgänger’s mind with all this information, as well as with his own memories of and dreams about his father, exhuming a Fredric Kurzweil 2.0.” His hope is understandable, even poignant, but it is also unspeakably sad, for it appears to be much more of a delusion than those dusty desert promises of religious faith that have been roundly rejected. I do not suggest that faith comes easily, or that we want to have a cheap faith – no, a faith worth anything must be very expensive. I ask not to trade the delusions of technocratic fundamentalism for those of a primitive religious faith, but I do believe that, however uncomfortably, we can dwell in contradiction, for in that ambiguity there is always hope. Perhaps we all shall meet again, but I both doubt and hope that it will not be in a hard drive.

I contrast Kurzweil’s hologram with something said by the children’s book author Maurice Sendak, who discussed the death of his beloved brother Jack with the NPR interviewer Terry Gross. Like Kurzweil, and de Grey, and Moravec, and the others, Sendak could not reconcile himself to traditional religious faith. He told Gross that “When [people] die they’re out of my life, they’re gone forever,” but he continued, “I still fully expect to see my brother again.” There is a beauty in that view of mortality, having shuffled off certainty with our bodily coil, finding more hope in a paradoxical promise than in that old myth that eternal life can be found just around the corner, or in some exotic land, or in some alchemist’s elixir. Such a perspective is beautiful not in spite of the doubt at its center, but because of it. Such a perspective has a particular kind of truth precisely because of that doubt. Such a perspective is the very essence of genuine faith.

Ed Simon is a Senior Editor at the Marginalia Review of Books and a scholar and freelance writer who covers literature, culture, and religion. His work has appeared in The AtlanticThe Paris Review DailyAeonAtlas ObscuraNautilusReligion DispatchesKilling the Buddha, and The Revealer, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon and at his website