Transhumanism: A Secular Sandbox for Exploring the Afterlife?

By Malcolm MacIver | February 28, 2011 1:35 am

I am a scientist and academic by day, but by night I’m increasingly called upon to talk about transhumanism and the Singularity. Last year, I was science advisor to Caprica, a show that explored relationships between uploaded digital selves and real selves. Some months ago I participated in a public panel on “Mutants, Androids, and Cyborgs: The science of pop culture films” for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ.  This week brings a panel at the Director’s Guild of America in Los Angeles, entitled “The Science of Cyborgs” on interfacing machines to living nervous systems.

The latest panel to be added to my list is a discussion about the first transhumanist opera, Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers.” The opera is about an inventor and businessman, Simon Powers, who is approaching the end of his life. He decides to create a device (called The System) that he can upload himself into (hmm I wonder who this might be based on?). After Act 2, the entire set, including a host of OperaBots and a musical chandelier (created at the MIT Media Lab), become the physical manifestation of the now incorporeal Simon Powers, who’s singing we still hear but who has disappeared from the stage. Much of the opera is exploring how his relationships with his daughter and mother change post-uploading. His daughter and wife ask whether The System is really him. They wonder if they should follow his pleas to join him, and whether life will still be meaningful without death. The libretto, by the renown Robert Pinsky, renders these questions in beautiful poetry. It will open in Chicago in April.

These experiences have been fascinating. But I can’t help wondering, what’s with all the sudden interest in transhumanism and the singularity?

The media is so saturated with the claim that the Singularity will arrive by 2045 that skeptics are by default on the defensive. Worth noticing amidst the rancor is a recent result by friend and colleague Konrad Kording, who just showed that the number of neurons that we can simultaneously record from is following Moore’s Law. Not long ago, we were limited to recording the activity of a single brain cell at a time; more recently, we can record from several hundred at once. When you examine the trend over 56 different studies, Kording and his student showed that the number is doubling every seven years. Although this is a longer interval than Moore’s Law (two year doublings), what’s really important is that the growth is exponential. Exponential growth lies at the heart of the arguments for the nearness of the Singularity. Given Kording’s result, however, how long do you think it will be before we can record from every neuron in the brain at once? You might be surprised: even with this incredible exponential growth, it will take 220 years. If we suppose that uploading our consciousness will at a minimum entail recording the pattern of activity of the entire brain (why not–it’s no less plausible than every other argument out there), then we can’t even get cracking until 2231.

Of course, the time of the Singularity is not the time when we can upload consciousness, but rather when we create super-intelligent machines (which, according to some, will then devote themselves to figuring out how to beat aging and upload our consciousness, rather than chasing us to the ends of the galaxy). Whether 2045 is reasonable is hotly debated. I expect it’s on the short side by a century or so–but as someone who often thinks in evolutionary time scales, I still view this as an inconsequential amount of time.

But if we weigh the evidence for when the Singularity will occur versus the evidence for world-wide environmental destruction (such as that we’re now exceeding three of ten “planetary boundaries” for sustainable human existence), it’s pretty clear that these threats to our continued existence as a species are looming far faster on the horizon than either the Singularity or uploaded immortality.

So what’s going on? Is environmentalism “tired” and transhumanism “wired”? Is transhumanism just a fleeting new fascination like colonizing space was not long ago, and this soon will also pass? Or is there something more primal going on?

As I pondered these questions recently, it occurred to me that perhaps the transhumanism trend has something to do with secular people–as scientists, engineers, and sci-fi fans tend to be–having an outlet for talking about things that people with religion have more established frameworks for expressing.

Consider this: Scott Atran, among others, has argued that the urge for religion has an evolutionary basis, rooted in our fears of death and predators. Since Darwin, if not before, it’s become increasingly difficult, though, for scientifically-minded people to put stock in religion. Added to this, it’s difficult to have conversations in public about religion, not least because we live in a multi-denominational society where the public expression of creed can be viewed as exclusionary. It’s simply not politically correct in many instances. What if the reason for the rapid spread of Singularity and transhumanism talk is that it’s giving people a secular outlet for thinking through their fears of death and dreams of immortality?

A great deal has been written about relationships between religion and transhumanism. Much of it has drawn parallels between transhumanism and religion. But I don’t think that transhumanism is trying to be a religion: I think that it’s giving secularists (like me) an opportunity to talk publicly about death, the afterlife, and the strange puzzles of personal identity that will someday arise in transforming ourselves into cyborgs, copies of our original selves, or fully digital beings (which I’ve explored herehere, and here). It is letting us safely explore these ideas in a less morose way than the typical meat-to-worms narrative to which secularists are usually limited. In doing so, perhaps it is filling a void that religion used to fill but no longer can for many of us.

Image of cylon by Shawn Sharp, from DVICE’s steampunk cylon contest, via GIZMODO.

Plot from “How advances in neural recording affect data analysis,” by Ian H. Stevenson and Konrad P. Kording, in Nature Neuroscience. Published online 26 January 2011; doi:10.1038/nn.2731.


Comments (18)

  1. Hans

    Disclaimer: I am not against atheists.

    Ok! Here we go!

    Is it possible that the rising interest in transhumanism is also liked to the rising level of atheism? To a person who believes there is no afterlife, it would be comforting to think that you could continue to live in some way or another. No one wants to disappear completely.

  2. Idlewilde

    I like that picture.

  3. Skrim


    Possibly. I certainly think the desire to live forever in some form is what is causing Kurzweill and other overoptimistic Singularitarians to put the date of mind-uploading at 2045, within their lifetimes. Maybe they hope that, in some bizarre manner, their Singularity prediction will somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    And if that doesn’t work out, a lot of said Singularitarians turn to the extremely unproven idea of cryonic preservation to give them some kind of tiny tiny chance of keeping their mind preserved long enough to be uploaded some time in the distant future when transapient AIs have devised sufficiently advanced phleboti… uh, nanotechnology to repair and upload them. (assuming said AIs care about them, and said cryonic preservation is maintained constantly for all those centuries)

    I wouldn’t call transhumanism a religion – it’s merely a collection of ideas unified by the notion that we should transcend our naturally-evolved biological state, that our present minds and capabilities are not the best we can do.
    I would call Singularitarianism (with a capital ‘S’) a kind of weird belief system in one pointlike event – the sudden invention of a superintelligent AGI (rather than the development of increasingly intelligent and increasingly general AIs over time) or mind-uploading (instead of a gradually increasing sophistication of neural-technological interfaces that eventually achieves full-mind simulation) – that would suddenly change everything forever. Still not a religion per se, but similar to one in its psychological origins.

  4. E. Manhattan

    People don’t, generally, have enough imagination or knowledge to invent plausible futures. We don’t have many H.G. Wells or Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke types, and amazing as they were, their predictions only occasionally matched the real future. Judging from past predictions of futures which never arrived, our own future will be very different from any of the current predictions.

    Yesterday, I heard an astronomer on a BBC science show say “we now think there may be as many as 400,000 planets in the galaxy”. Out of billions of stars, less than 400,000 may have planets? He was probably one of the astronomers who claimed for many years that the solar system must be alone in having planets, since we hadn’t detected them elsewhere. Not a good example of science-based prediction.

    Educated guesses are still guesses, and are mostly wrong.

    So – yes, I’m sure we will have self-aware AIs in the future, and the ability to record and store brain patterns (including the patterns of how a specific brain has used/will use it’s neurons, the equivalent of the epigenetic side of the genome). But how either of those things will actually function, and what effect they will have on meat-based humans, is another matter. And I may be wrong.

    We really can’t make accurate predictions about anything as complex as the effect of self-aware AIs on human cultures. Climate change is dead simple compared to that level of complexity. Anyone who claims to know what is going to happen when AIs become real has certainly slipped into religion.

  5. Jody

    @1  I don’t necessarily believe in 2045 singularity, but I am a secular transhumanist who certainly sees the parallel between transhumanism and religion.  Most religions (at least the big three) talk about perpetuating human existence indefinitely and in ” paradise”. There is a great amount of appeal in that idea for humans; I don’t think I’m risking offense if I said one of the primary draws of religion is this life after death idea.  Well we atheists don’t believe in religion, but I don’t see why we can’t absorb some of those ancient and universal goals.  I’d like to live forever and in some sort of bliss, I just don’t think I need to die and be judged by some sort of sky magician in order to achieve
    that end.  I think that technology will do it. The 2045 date doesn’t really resonate with me, but it’s in my lifetime, so great.  I’d certainly gamble on cryonics, too.  Worst case senario – I’m dead and my head is frozen.  Best  case senario (although admittedly a longshot), I am revived and continue living
    in secular heaven.  I don’t know that it will be uploading, cryonics, transference to a new body, or some unforeseen science…but  I am very confident that that some form of technology will be my deus ex machina. That isn’t irrational belief in religion – rather, it’s optimistic prediction based on the progress of science – but the parallels are there.

  6. Hank Fox

    The conscious desire to not die is a basic drive of every living thing with a brain large enough to be even minimally self-aware. And that’s probably been a constant for the past couple of hundred million years.

    Religion annexed the idea, and so today we find it difficult to talk about the subject without roping in religious ideas at the same time. We’re forced to approach the discussion as if religion invented the idea of cherishing life and its continuation.

    But in reality, religion has nothing to do with the discussion, except that it is one of MANY things that could be said on the subject.

    Transhumanism, as one model of thinking about living on beyond the normal human span, is not trying to ape religion. It’s trying to solve a basic human desire, a desire that precedes the late-comer religion by millions of years.

    Religion is the wrong answer. Maybe it’s the only answer we had for a long time, but it hasn’t gotten us one step closer to solutions, and in fact, has stood in the way of real answers for all the years of its existence.

    In a time when we have a chance at real answers, religion still stands in the way, in the sense that we can’t even talk about the subject without instantly having to contend with the silly idea that it all started with religion, and any new answer has to be couched in religious terms.

    It’s like you have a baby after years of owning cats, but your friends insist you’re only trying to replace your cats, and the baby is really just a poor version of a cat. When the truth is that maybe, for the first time, you’re thrilled to have something DIFFERENT from a cat, something bigger and realer and more joyous.

  7. Why so much excitement about transhumanism and the Coming Singularity? Well, isn’t it simply that hype about transhumanism follows a version of Moore’s Law: publication hype about T grows exponentially for every real advance in T? The singularity is thus every closer. Now THAT’s explanation …

  8. Malcolm MacIver

    Thanks for the interesting thread –
    @E. Manhattan – I’m completely with you on our not having sufficient imagination to envision the future with much accuracy. We see examples of your 400,000 planet point most recently in discussions about Watson beating human Jeopardy champions. I would say few if any of the folks who now downplay the result would have predicted it happening this year. I would make exceptions for strong trends that are fairly well understood, like the increase in Co2 and population, and the decrease in ground water reserves around the globe. These point to consequences that we are already seeing clear evidence for.

    @Hank. You mention how our urges for immortality predate religion (as you say, it’s a basic axiom of any sentient organism that it’s a being that pursues its own continuance). I completely agree. My point is that transhumanism is now giving us a secular sandbox for thinking of those things — helpful in a culture which is suffused in all directions with Judeo-Christian concepts. If we were not in such a culture, no such refuge would be needed. If you had never been a cat lover, there’d be no need to point out that your desire for a baby is unrelated. Since religion has largely had a monopoly on this conversation, it seems unrealistic to me to say that the new conversation can go ahead without any reference to the prior one. This is particularly the case when religion has actually inhibited public conversation on these topics for many secular people. Also, for newcomers to the transhumanist party, perhaps it is helpful to point out that talk of uploading and being immortal in some non-spatial realm is sort of like afterlife – or would you argue that this is giving people the wrong kind of metaphor? Interesting points…

    @Rob – hah! If true, we should see transhumanism following the same rise and fall cycles as AI in the past. We might have a couple of centuries to go, so we really should pace ourselves.

  9. Logan

    I don’t see it as being like a religion, at least from my perspective. Liberal theists and agnostics seem to be rife with the next big reason to prove that atheism is such as faith-based as any other worldview, and from my point of view they nearly always exaggerate and miss the mark (like that Richard Dawkins was “preaching” because he wrote about religion critically). Similar to the Singularity, I remember a few years ago a book come out whose thesis was that ETIs were the atheist versions of gods, and that SETI was a pseudo-religious endeavor. For AGIs and ETIs, you can apply Shermer’s Last Law: “Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from a god”, but even though atheists would agree with that, that doesn’t mean a sufficiently advanced intelligence IS God, in the sense of an all-powerful being who created the universe and cares for humans.

    I would say I am a transhumanist (but agnostic about The Singularity), and generally I am supportive of efforts to “cure” and reverse aging, and I would like to live longer than a normal human lifespan if I could, but that doesn’t mean I have existential dread about death and want to avoid it forever. I honestly don’t see the value in immortality, or living for tens of thousands of years. I forget who, but there was an ancient Greek philosopher who said “Where death is, I am not. Where I am, death is not,”; why then (I forget the rest of the quote) should I fear something I by definition cannot experience? It’s like being afraid of an unfeelable feeling. Fear of how you will exist during your nonexistence. The dying process itself will probably suck, but, meh, what can you do?

    Granted, death-dread cannot be overcome by logic alone, but it should give you a good place to start as far as how atheists think and feel about death. Among atheists, there is a good deal of stoicism in the face of the inevitable and contentment with the limited amount of time (if it’s 20 years or 200 years or 2000 years) you have to live. See, for example, the last chapter of Ronald Aronson’s book “Living Without God”. There’s also a good extended interview between Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett where they talk about the beauty of science and naturalistic perspectives on death (I think it was for Dawkins’s “Genius of Charles Darwin” documentary series).

    No, the reason I support transhumanism and anti-aging research is because it is just an extension of principles and goals of medicine (and living in general) that we all take for granted: to increase the quality and quantity of the years we are alive for the greatest percentage of people. There is no necessary conflict between this perspective and the stoicism/contentment perspective; to risk cliche, it’s just about recognizing what conditions you can change and what you cannot.

  10. Jody

    @9. I am an atheist, and I am terrified of death. The thought of ceasing to exist is horrifying to me, and I find no contentment in it. I just don’t fear it enough to become irrational and believe in magic. But I’m a transhumanist because I want to prevent death – or as some transhumanists call it “non voluntary” death. I don’t think death, specifically the death of a human consciousness, is good or nobel or necessary. I think it is something to be defeated.

  11. Robert Ando

    It would seem that some people may confuse transhumanism with existence in another dimension. It is posited that there are multiple dimensions by some, only one dimension by others, and infinite numbers of dimensions by a few.
    Out of body experiences may account for a parallel dimension to our present one.
    Go figure.

  12. I’ve been thinking more and more about the relationship between transhumaism and traditional religion and the more I consider it the more in common they seem to have. Now I should say that I am an atheist and as a general rule I view religion as outdated at best but it seems obvious that religion, or an analogue to it, still serves a purpose in modern society.

    The problem with these kinds of discussions starts with defining what exactly a religion is. If we accept the definition as a system involving the worship of gods and goddess, a concept of the sacred and the profane, and the trappings of religious ceremonies then obviously transhumanism does not make the cut. But religion has had many definitions and not all of them are quite so restrictive. If we accept a definition of religion as a worldview that attempts to answer some of the deep questions that humans have about our own existence (why are we here, what purpose does my existence have, etc.) than the difference between the two become less and less apparent

    All that being said I don’t believe that transhumanism is a religion but I do tend to agree with the author that it’s allowing secularists an avenue to talk about death and meaning. In fact I’ll go one step further and say I believe it is fulfilling largely the same purpose as religion for secular people. Humans still search for meaning in our lives and transhumanism may be just another avenue for that searcn=h.

  13. Malcolm MacIver

    @Matt – exactly right. Let’s face it: even in the meat-to-worms scenario, we leave something behind. What stays may not count as afterlife under certain definitions, but so be it. In some sense, as Tod Machover put it during our panel on the robot opera the other day, art is about making a deposit for that afterlife. You’re creating an object that is an expression of you. But, secular folks have a hard time bringing this stuff up and thinking it through because there’s few ways they can sanction for doing so. Transhumanism gives one such way.

    @Jody – I think we sometimes try to romanticize death and its importance in renewal as a way to comfort ourselves about it, but I largely agree with your take. Life is fantastic – death, and the painful long lead in of cognitive and physical decline, is everything but.

  14. Mario Nano

    Interesting article. I have just finished reading Arthur C. Clarkes 3001-The Final Oddysey. In the beginnig of the book, he describes the achievements of the humanity in one thousand years. And there, he writes that the humans finally freed the mind on the “taranny of the matter” by uploading the mind into machines. And one sentence struck me and remained in my memory. THEY NO LONGER NEEDED PILOTED SPACESHIPS. THEY BECAME THE SPACESHIPS. Its a fascinating concept of shedding the body and let only the mind travel in a metal vessel. And I am very optimistic, that we will one day be able to download the mind into a computer of some sort. Its also mindbogling to think of the possibilities of that.

  15. Jay Fox

    The BORG are coming!

  16. Based on demographics, I expect a different kind of singularity. Fundamentalists will be a large enough fraction of the population to suppress science and any technology they find distasteful, long before we can upload our minds to computers.

    I also doubt that the intelligence of a few individuals (human or AI) is the limiting factor for progress. Average intelligence may be an issue, but scientific and technological progress is massively parallel, so effective interaction among components is more important than the components themselves. So progress is accelerating, but super-intelligence won’t make that much difference.

  17. cacarr

    “So progress is accelerating, but super-intelligence won’t make that much difference.”

    If there were 6+ billion chimps on the planet in place of H. sapiens, there would be no particle accelerators. The components matter.

    @Skrim: “I certainly think the desire to live forever in some form is what is causing Kurzweill and other overoptimistic Singularitarians to put the date of mind-uploading at 2045, within their lifetimes.”

    That may be the case, but then one must also concede the possibility that when 50+ year old people put the date centuries in the future, it’s motivated by the extreme fear and dread associated with considering the possibility that they might _just_ miss it.

  18. Curiosity plays as big a part in my interest in Transhumanism as the fear of death. Until recently, you either accepted your fate as a finite creature, or if you were religious, you hoped (at least if you were on the right side of the sin/virtue equation) that your priest/rabbi/imam/minister was right and there was something great on the other side. Or … you could arrange to freeze your head when you die and hope (a little too gross for moi).

    Those were the options. When I read Kurzweil’s article on mind-uploading in 2000 it really intrigued me. I’m not a scientist–just nosy. I want to know which one of those 400,000 planets has something or someone interesting. I’d like to see how things on the home planet front progress–experience one more page of the Story of Man (and Woman)–maybe one more whole chapter–one that was previously out of reach after seventy or so years on this earth.

    Kurzweil describes the wonder of living in a virtual environment, including physical choices–look like Lady Gaga if you’re so inclined and sing like Michael Jackson. Michael Asimov thinks the digital versions of us will relate to each other on a deeper more complex level. But according to author John Gray, we’re fooling ourselves and we’ll be worse off–imperfect cartoons-copies carrying all of our foibles and conflicts with us into cyberspace. Maybe Gray’s right, but it would still be worth a try just to be around for a while longer. Ultimately, I believe all of us will want to know what’s really on the other side. Then we’ll release any pretense of control and go with the flow.


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