To Be or Not to Be Immortal

The Transhumanist WagerYou know that psychological process whereby, once you learn a new word, you suddenly seem to hear or read it everywhere? For me, this has been happening with transhumanism.

First I decided I would read and review a recent novel that features a radical version of transhumanism. Then I learned that Russell Blackford, an atheist philosopher whose book I once reviewed, is an expert on transhumanism. An essay appeared in The New York Times on the topic. And then, to cap it off, I watched the film The Amazing Spiderman and saw the hybridization of teenager and spider in a new way.

Transhumanism is the science of using technological advancements for the betterment of mankind, particularly with the goal of extending life. I wouldn’t have thought such a movement would be all that controversial, so long as rational efforts are made at keeping the research ethical.

And yet, religious people have come up with the usual arguments as to why humans ought not to “play god.” As if we don’t do that every time we pop an aspirin or use antiseptic on a wound, or, even post to a blog.

Utopia or Dystopia?

The novel by Zoltan Istvan is called The Transhumanist Wager. Enough readers are intrigued by the topic to have made the ebook a recent #1 Philosophy bestseller on Amazon.com. Aiming to create a compelling version of the near future that might inspire and warn readers, Istvan intended more than anything, he told me, “to create a dialogue” as scientists start perfecting AI, transhuman technology, and the science needed to prolong life and overcome death.

Istvan, 40, is married and the father of a three year old. He says that he has a nice family life. I note that here because you won’t get it from the book itself. It’s quite hostile in parts, suggesting transhumanists take over the world and get rid of those who don’t accept their views. Explains Istvan, “I’m actually a very normal person who has spent years doing humanitarian and wildlife-saving work. I too worry that science will make it all worse if we’re not careful. I hope we can guide civilization into a better future.”

My Q & A with Zoltan Istvan, author of The Transhumanist Wager:

Q: Can readers assume that your protagonist Jethro’s views are entirely your views? I totally agree about religion’s primitive anti-science attitudes. But the strongly libertarian angle was off-putting to me,  especially how you used some tired old phrases about welfare and those who don’t want to work and health care being something you have to earn (or it’s fine if you just die instead).

No, Jethro’s views are not entirely mine. His love interest Zoe Bach’s views are also some of mine. And some things (not many) in the book are just put out there to provoke questions and ideas. That said, most of Jethro’s views are mine, and I stand behind them.

A lot has been made of my libertarian ideas in the novel. But note that I never mention the word in The Transhumanist Wager, and much of the politics in the story are a natural and reasonable response to the happenings of the characters. I try not to subscribe to a specific political agenda myself, except that when life and death are on the line, expediency is the best and strongest evolutionary way. I know the middle- and older-aged crowd has got caught up on the politics in the book, but the younger crowd (many in college or just out) have not; they have concentrated on the personal moral philosophy required to live forever and perhaps the defiance of Jethro to a religious society.

Q: There’s a minor spiritual element in the book by way of Zoe. That surprised me. Comments?

My take is that Zoe may represent a very high and important form of understanding. But much of it is pointless and doesn’t work in today’s world unless we can actually live much longer as conscious entities–thousands of years longer. So I take Jethro’s approach until we get to a point where I can have the luxury of spirituality.

In the sequel, I’m going to have Zoe brought back and she’s going to philosophically battle Jethro in the profoundest of ways. However, in the meantime, my father had his first heart attack and bypass at age 51, and I’m only 11 years from that time frame myself. So I take the aggressive transhuman stance until I am more stable as a life entity, and not on a ticking time bomb of mortality.

Q: As you published this yourself, I expected the writing might not be as polished as it would have been if an editor’s skill were added to the mix. What was your publishing journey like?

I’m an indie author. And the journey of an indie author is wrought with many challenges that mainstream published writers never face, like lack of editors and a promotional team. Yet, the indie author is ultimately his or her own boss. In a controversial and challenging story like mine that presents an original philosophy, that’s essential. No one was able to temper my book’s content in the name of political correctness, religiosity, or commercialism. It would be difficult to get a story like The Transhumanist Wager past the lawyers and executives at big publishing companies without rewrites, added action scenes, and endless stylistic polishing.

Yet it’s exactly the indie rawness of my book that makes the story what it is. Today’s mainstream books from big publishing companies are designed to sell the maximum amount of books for profit. They’re designed to keep drama-addicted readers turning the pages. My novel’s primary purpose is not to entertain readers. It’s designed to introduce them to transhumanism and life extension goals so that they may also realize the urgent need to eliminate human death via science.

Q: What did you think of the essay in The New York Times by Charles M. Blow the other day?

Here’s what I responded online:

There will be technological fixes to everything in the future, including what others call supposed overpopulation. As a species, we push ourselves to points that require these fixes and leaps of innovation. The more important thing is why most people still don’t desire to live longer. What the heck is wrong with them, I have to ask? In the 21st century, to have such backwards notions about what a living entity can become and do is not only naive, it’s a betrayal of our evolutionary destiny. We are 15 years from AI that will be smarter than us and 25 years from uploading our brains into machines the size of a grape. It’s puerile to talk about pension problems and to quote the Pope in an article like this. There’s much more at stake and so much more for us to achieve. We are at the cusp of incredible things. It’s time to wake up and embrace it. We didn’t evolve through billions of years to remain animals.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape

  • Zoltan Istvan

    Thank you Susan for writing this about my novel up on Patheos. It’s much appreciated! Zoltan Istvan

  • advancedatheist

    Cryonics plays an important role in Zoltan’s novel. The hero even confronts terrorists who plan to blow up a cryonics facility.

    In the the real world, mainstream neuroscientists have started to give cryonics a second look as a way to turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state by pushing hard with current techniques. Refer to the website of the Brain Preservation Foundation:

    http://www.brainpreservation.org/

    Michael Shermer, the atheist, critic of pseudoscience and editor of Skeptic magazine, serves as one of this foundation’s advisers, so he apparently considers its goals scientifically defensible:

    http://www.brainpreservation.org/content/advisors

  • http://radicalamericancentrist.blogspot.com/ PLUTOCRATS FEAR POPULISM

    god wants u 2 be immortal…the bible said so

  • busterggi

    I’m highly skeptical of possibility of transhuman immortality but would I choose it if it were an option? Maybe, how much of the real me will be immortal though? I don’t consider an AI simulation, no matter how much data is input from me, to actually be me.

    And then there’s the matter of who else is choosing immortality – I’ve a very long list of people I never wish to encounter again and immortality would make such encounters inevitable.

    Its a chewy idea.

  • Frank Key

    Cool review. DL’ed for Kindle in about 10 secs after reading.

    • Zoltan Istvan

      Thank you Frank. Hope the book moves you. Cheers, Zoltan

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    As a progressive Christian myself, I have much sympathy for transhumanists.

    Unlike the New Atheist, they recognize there is a genuine human longing for life after death and transcendence, and do their best to strive towards their realization.

    Lovely greetings from Germany.
    Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • Stephen Kipp

      You imply that atheists do not recognize there is a genuine human longing for life after death and transcendence. This is a patently false and thoroughly misleading statement. We fully recognize the basic human desire for life after death. We simply do not see any good evidence to suggest a theistic realm of continued existence awaits any of us post death.

      I find it helpful to actually understand & fairly represent the opposing views of others. But then again, I place a high regard on maintaining my intellectual integrity. To each his own, I suppose.

  • Scott__F

    I am surprised that Tolkien’s work doesn’t come up more discussions about immortality. World-weariness is a major theme in LotR which has really expanded my thinking on the matter.

  • GeorgeLocke

    We are 15 years from AI that will be smarter than us and 25 years from uploading our brains into machines the size of a grape.

    citation needed.


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