Growing up with the internet, millennials such as myself are often criticized as the being most atheistic generation to date. By the time I hit college I had already experienced the “new atheism” and argued with countless fundamentalists on obscure religious forums. Initially, I saw this as a way to rebel against my upbringing–“what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence,” as the late Christopher Hitchens once said. For what it's worth, I was well off by comparison; I don't have horror stories detailing physical and emotional abuse and why would I? For many people my age, religion's politicization was always a big turn off. In the United States we grew up going to megachurches, watched baby boomers make much ado about tea on national television, and saw god-fearing protestors call everyone fags without really knowing why. It doesn't take systematic oppression to understand that the core beliefs that ground these people's identities are laughably meaningless. But however much we try to reject religious dogma, we seemingly can't get away from what made them so alluring in the first place.
I went to a Death Cafe recently; I've been putting off going to one for months; this one in particular was being held during the after hours in my city's oldest cemetery. As much I would love for there to be a cafe literally named after death, there is no such thing. The closest thing to that would probably be the food truck happy hours they hold here, in which people consume gentrified eats on the graves of civil war veterans. I really don't know which is more bizzare. Death Cafes are merely informal events where groups of people can come together to discuss the nature of their own mortality; their supposed objective is:
..to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.
It isn't a group therapy session if that's what you think it's inferring. I bring this up because the topic of life extension has been on my mind for a couple months now. I briefly mentioned it in another article yet didn't elaborate on what exactly it meant. From a transhumanist perspective, the purpose of life extension is self-evident; it denotes an advocacy for defeating aging as we're all too aware of the outcome. Like most transhumanist concepts, what we're left with is more or less an umbrella term for a loose amalgamation of like-minded sensibilities. It's much easier to imply that transhumanism encompasses life extension and vice versa, but for the sake of argument I'm referring to the biological aspect of which it is more commonly understood. Advocacy for life extension goes way back; its contemporaries are typically lumped together with the SENS Research Foundation with Aubrey de Grey. Founded at the end of the oughts, the non-profit organization has dedicated itself to researching methods pertaining to life extension. More recently, the term has been receiving even more exposure ever since Google established Calico in 2013 with the explicit purpose to do similar research. Calico is privately-run; SENS is not. Aubrey de Grey has every reason to be disappointed with Google for keeping it that way.
With all of this in mind, the desire to end death has never been more overt. There's been this emerging sentiment to reclassify death as a disease so the purpose of Death Cafes almost seems reactionary in retrospect. Past events have cited people suggesting death being the "last" major taboo in society, so maybe it isn't all that disagreeable. I went to this Death Cafe with the intention of asking attendees about a term I've known about for years but have only recently started hearing it more often in transhumanist circles and that term, is "Deathism."
But what is Deathism?
Deathism is a neologism coined near the start of the decade that is used to describe those who're opponents of life extension. Technically-speaking, one is "deathist" if they consider death to be inevitable; that death is certain, the time is not. I've always been taken aback whenever I read or hear this term primarily because it's grounded in the same hateful drivel espoused by those who're influenced by the new atheism. Fight Aging! was questioning the usefulness of the term at around the same time Calico was established; and Eliezer Yudkowsky, the founder of LessWrong had been suggesting transhumanism as being a simplified form of humanism as far back as 2007. His argument for life extension goes a little something like this:
And yet – is life a bad thing?
Could the moral question really be just that simple?
That's not how this works; that's not how any of this works. Simplifying the ethical issues surrounding life and death to such an extent confounds me; "deathism" as a term must be terribly convenient in that regard especially for those with a tendency to prioritize their own state of being over everyone else. It's like an existentialist argument taken straight out of Jean-Paul Sartre's mind; usually I'd be okay with that, but it's just not particularly healthy when applied to transhumanist aspirations. I've been asked, "why wouldn't you want to live forever?" as if I was being scolded for suggesting the alternative before. Perhaps it's because transcending death means we've also transcended time itself; it shouldn't be so surprising that people are skeptical, if not downright hostile towards the idea. The issue is far more nuanced than that; until such a level of resiliency is achieved, humanity's search for the everlasting will always be flummoxed by its ephemeral existence.
The night I went to this Death Cafe I briefly spoke with its coordinator about the term and she somberly lowered her head and said, "Well, I guess I'm a deathist now." Out of the few attendees I spoke with at this small, isolated event, many of them were actually quite sympathetic towards life extension. They all unanimously agreed that the notion that one will literally, physically live forever is ludicrous. It's definitely a radical idea, for sure; they seemed far more interested in discussing how they wanted to be buried and I don't blame them. Who is anyone to say with certainty how our conceptions of time will be once we're capable of living for hundreds of years? We can only speculate. But when it comes to the prospect of reversing aging and subsequently prolonging death, it's at that point we come across something far more compelling and relevant to the now: agency, even in death; that's what transhumanism is all about. I'm reminded of a question that is often attributed to the french philosopher, Albert Camus: "Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?" Life extension lends itself to metabole; it emphasizes an endless mutation of identity. The so-called transhumanists making much ado about deathism are only trying to rationalize their desire for the everlasting and it falls short every time the term is uttered.
I used to be really interested in Max More's Principles of Extropy back in the day, but it never occurred to me that extropy itself was merely prolonged entropy; that having no reason to live was not a reason to die. But the option should still be there; in a transhumanist future, the leading cause of deaths really ought to be suicide, as the absurd courage in choosing to live is equally as palpable. I can't think of any piece of media that embodies this sentiment more other than Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain.
One biologist's desire for everlasting love is kindled by not only his significant others' untimely death, but her fervent embrace of fate; alas, his research firm had just discovered the means for life extension. The comic book adaption is hailed as the Director's Cut of the film by Aronofsky himself, so giving that a read would probably better suit. But, the story is split up into three parts and all of them intersect with one another. The biologist's significant other is a writer who dies before she could finish her book that shares the name of the film and comic. It depicts a Spanish conquistador searching for the Tree of Life under his queen's orders, mirroring what occurs in present day. The conquistador eventually accomplishes his objective, only to find himself inadvertently reliving the Mayan myth of creation.
"Death as an act of creation" or "Death is the road to awe" are phrases that are alluded to quite often throughout the story. The Fountain is ultimately a tale of a man coming to terms with his own death. Those aren't my words; they're Aronofsky's. Besides the fictitious story within a story, the third arc is more linear with regards to our single point of reference, the present. The same biologist finds himself five hundred years into the future, drifting towards a nebula wrapped around a dying star inside of an enclosed biosphere containing the Tree of Life. He's been grieving the loss of his significant other all this time, and ultimately embraces death after realizing his only means for longevity had disappeared before his eyes–the biosphere stopped sustaining itself and the Tree of Life shriveled up. He does this, as his own sort of secular religiosity had only exacerbated whatever preconceived notions he had for living indefinitely.
This is the feeling I get whenever I read or hear the term, "deathism." The sentiment it carries has about as much weight in the case for life extension as "hoplophobe" does in the gun control debate. One could go on about how much the term has merit, but at the end of the day the term only serves to belittle. What drives individuals to seek the means for living indefinitely? The allure containing promises of immortality has attracted a vitrolic methodology for approaching opponents of life extension. It's this intersection transhumanism has with the new atheism that almost makes it just another side of the same coin; it's grown militant but for the wrong reasons. So perhaps the faster these sentiments are done away, the better off transhumanism will be as a movement. Its proponents need to embrace life's meaninglessness whilst also emphasizing detachment; bask in the ordinary and let go of their futurist shackles once more. As one can only imagine what life will be like after all of this becomes commonplace.