Transhumanism’s “Futurama” Future

Every child who grew up in the 1970s knew for a fact that Walt Disney’s head had been “frozen” to await a future in which science has progressed enough to heal his cancer-ravaged body and restore him to life in order to provide joy for future generation.

None of that was any more true than the flights of fantasy transhumanists continue to sell like techno-new-age hucksters with university posts, but that doesn’t keep them from trying.


Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at the Future of Humanity Institute [FHI] and his co researcher Anders Sandberg have agreed to pay an American company to detach and deep freeze their heads in the advent of their deaths.

Colleague Stuart Armstrong is instead opting to have his whole body frozen. Preserving the full body is technically more difficult to achieve and can cost up to £130,000.

Bostrom, Armstrong, Sandberg are lead researchers at the FHI, a part of the prestigious Oxford Martin School where academics complete research into problems affecting the globe, such as a climate change.

 Nick Bostrom is an intellectual moron. He’s mostly notable for pitching the idea that we’re all living in a computer simulation created by our descendants, and even did some math to “prove” its likelihood.

Naturally, this is such a phenomenally dumb idea that its transcendent wrongness loops around the minds of the self-styled brights and appears to meet on the other side at that gossamer dividing line between “dumb” and “brilliant.” You can read the whole fatuous bit of pseudo-intellectual onanism here, but I’ll spare you the boring bits and get to the conclusion:

A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.

See people: this is why you don’t drink the bong water. So many faulty assumptions, not the least of which being that transhumanism or extinction appear to be our only options. It’s not like selling panicky bullshit about the immanent end of humanity is anything new: this is just The Rapture for atheists. It’s just that most sensible people pass by the guy with the “End is Nigh” sign rather than giving him lucrative speaking gigs.

And it’s profitable, too. He’s now accepting donations!  Hey, it’s worth it!

Whilst the Future of Humanity Institute is currently small, it arguably represents humanity’s best effort to understand its future prospects and the existential challenges confronting our species.

They tell us themselves that “FHI is pioneering research of immense importance” (No it’s not.) and it’s just not right to make them sit around filling out grant applications when you can kick a little something in the kitty. Because dreaming up implausible future scenarios is really expensive for some reason. Pulp science-fiction writers did the same thing for pennies a word, and did it better. Our future will be inspired more by Star Trek and Doctor Who than by anything dribbling out of FHI.

But let’s get back to the heads-in-a-jar for a minute:

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Sandberg said that life with just a head would be limited, but that he hoped by that point the process could involve downloading his personality and memories onto a computer.

Armstrong, whose wife Miriam is heavily pregnant, has chosen the Cryonics Institute and even plans to take out a policy for his unborn child. “It costs me £25 a month in premiums to cover the cost of getting cryo-preserved, and that seems a good bet,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper than joining a gym, which is most people’s way of trying to prolong life.

“If you picture the world in, say, 200 years, when reanimation is possible, it will probably be a wonderful place. I want to sign up the baby so she has the same chance.”

So much stupidity, and so densely packed! Why, yes, life without a body would be limited, although it doesn’t stop Nixon from becoming president again in a thousand years. I assume the gym line is a joke, but it does say a lot about the mindset that thinks only of extending life using technology, and views the body not as integral, but as merely in the way.

The idea that the world of 200 years hence will “probably be a wonderful place” really gives the game away. Only a thin veneer of philosophical, mathematical, and pseudo-scientific jargon separates them from your garden variety new age nut. Give it a wild-eyed stare and an extra bit of crazy, and it’s Heaven’s Gate. These human popsicles think that, upon death, they are boarding an ark through time on a journey to a future earth where the magical healing power of technology has made everything wonderful and cured humanity of its intrinsically fallen nature. Their bodies are limitations to be shed, not divine creations.

It never seems to occur to them that such a techno-Utopian future would inevitably be fascistic, with the poor and “unworthy” of society excluded or eliminated. In their imagined perfect future, eugenics is baked right in the cake, and grotesque inequality between a cybernetic Ubermensch over a merely-human Untermensch is a given.

The only people opting for this treatment are a wealthy, self-selecting elite of self-styled intellectuals, which means if this did work, our future would be run by atheistic, moneyed techno-fascists. In other words, there’s no good ending to the story. This is the kind of thing Jaron Lanier warns about. It’s the Utopia of the “cybernetic totalists” who see us as meat computers with limitations to be overcome, rather than unique, organic, ensouled creatures in whom embodiment is integral to being.

Transhumanists are the neo-Gnostics, maintaining a dim view of the human body. If they could shed their flesh for a nifty new memory bank or a shiny robotic shell, they’d do it in a heatbeat, and that should frighten any sensible person.

The post-human world they imagine will never come to pass because they’ve planted their flag on the wrong side of the mind-body debate, and all their errors of thought flow from that fundamental mistake. You cannot separate mind from body and maintain human nature, and you cannot postulate a human consciousness that is simply “brain” and no more. They are right to speak of “post-humanity,” because whatever would emerge would be a thing, not a human. Naturally, the soul plays no role at all in their calculations, because they deny its existence.

We’re in a moment that is seeing the ascendancy of the physicists and the neuroscientists in the debate about being.  This moment will pass, and when it does, it will take post-humanism with it. And we’ll be left with just a lot of silly frozen heads in jars that someone, some day, will need to provide with a dignified burial.


H/T Dale Price for the initial story.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Yeah… Can I raise a practical question at this point? What makes these nutjobs think that any human, whether living now or in the future, is going to bother to keep their head frozen? If there are rolling blackouts, power grid failures, and the choice is to leave either the AC on or keep the head freezer running, who’s going to opt for the latter? They may get some smug satisfaction in the few moments before they die through believing that their frozen heads will live on, but one, two, or five years down the road they’re going to look like so much thawed-out ground turkey.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    But they’re all paid up!

    Actually, it’s already happened. At least 2 cryonics companies ran out of money and let their dead thaw out without telling anyone.

    It’s fascinating to think that “faith” in a future where frozen brains can be reunited with shiny new bodies is wrapped in jargon and made to sound reasonable, while faith in the transcendent order of reality–obvious from our mere ability to conceive it, not to mention all the evidence of our senses–is labelled “superstition.”

    There is nothing more “superstitious” than believing you can live forever by freezing your own decapitated head.

  • Harry

    Have you ever read the author John Gray? He’s a British philosopher (an atheist, interestingly) who specializes in taking down this sort of rubbish – the idea that the future will be of necessity better than the present, and that transhumanism is the next step for the human race. He sees it as a kind of non-religious eschatology.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I’ve heard the name, but never read him. I think the idea of total progression is a fascinating delusion, since history is absolutely loaded with evidence to disprove it. As Chesterton wrote: “The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles.”

  • Anna

    Funny how at the same time that we get people touting the benefits of future life as a disembodied head we also get people who think life is unlivable for people with severe disabilities and so they should be euthanized. Societal cognitive dissonance strikes again.

  • Christian Stillings

    Interesting! There aren’t really many other such “continuous posthumous transactions”- most transactions are either (relatively) finite in the present or continuous within the span of a person’s actual life. I guess at a certain point the accountability on the company breaks down- there probably isn’t much incentive for those beyond the nuclear family to regularly check in on the frozen head to make sure it’s still, y’know, frozen.

  • tedseeber

    I think the people tempted to this, must be experiencing an awful lot of chronic pain in their lives.

  • advancedatheist

    Cryonicists want to turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state, and now some mainstream neuroscientists consider this a discussable proposal. Use a search engine (at your own risk) to look up the Brain Preservation Foundation. Michael Shermer, the critic of pseudoscience and editor of Skeptic magazine, serves as one of this foundation’s advisers, so apparently he considers the idea scientifically legitimate.

    As for the new bodies problem, look up 3D organ printing, an emerging (real, not speculative) medical technology. With enough development, an organ printing system could print a functional human body from the neck down.

  • advancedatheist

    Cryogenic dewars don’t work that way. Remember the thermos bottle you took with you to school? Did you have to plug one of those into the wall to keep your milk cold?

    Of course not. The bigger ones used by cryonics organizations operate on the same principle.

    BTW, the first cryonaut, Dr. James Bedford, has stayed cryopreserved continuously since 1967. According to Gott’s Principle, he has a 95 percent change of staying cryopreserved for between another 14 months and another ~ 1,800 years.

  • advancedatheist

    According to Terror Management Theory in psychology, when we learn about our mortality as children, the knowledge causes a kind of traumatic stress disorder which we spend the rest of our lives “buffering’ with delusions about afterlives, human exceptionalism, self-esteem and such. Cryonicists want to treat the cause of this traumatic stress disorder at its source by finding technological solutions to mortality (for example, refer to my post elsewhere on the Brain Preservation Foundation) instead continuing to lie to ourselves with this imaginary nonsense.

  • advancedatheist

    Plenty of people who think of themselves as atheists, humanists and skeptics believe that something spooky happens at death which resists technological interventions to turn death into a temporary and reversible off-state, as the neuroscientists associated with the Brain Preservation Foundation want to do. Any so-called secular rationalist who still thinks this way hasn’t liberated himself from religious indoctrination as much as he believes.

  • victor

    I don’t know about that. Even my milk was a little warm by lunchtime. And as for Dr. James Bedford, has anyone checked in on him lately?

  • LeftPlusRight is forbidden

    when will you admit that humans do not think rationally about certain areas of life?

  • TC

    Check out Michael Flynn’s anthology “Captive Dreams”, there are several stories about attempts to “improve” humans, one of which is about an ongoing debate between a philosopher and a high-tech entrepreneur who is on a quest to achieve digital immortality. He succeeds — or thinks he has.

  • tedseeber

    I learned about mortality when I killed Fluffy the Bunny and ate him for dinner. If that causes TSD in your normal world, then I’d say you failed to experience enough farm life as a child and your entire theory of psychology is very suspect and quite possibly entirely tied to the teachings of an old cocaine addict from the 19th century.

  • JohnH2

    It also means that the persons diet is probably way out of proportions. Either they are eating too much meat and not considering where it comes from at all or they are not eating any meat because they can’t stand the thought of eating a dead animal. Both extremes aren’t healthy in any sense.

  • tedseeber

    “Either they are eating too much meat and not considering where it comes from at all or they are not eating any meat because they can’t stand the thought of eating a dead animal.”

    Doesn’t that include about 75% of the world’s population these days?

    I have a suspicion that much of this modernist and postmodernist obsession with death is caused by the fact we only need maybe 1% of our population working in raising livestock these days. If that. Most people have had NO experience on the farm.

    I was 5 when I was raising rabbits for meat. My son won’t touch an animal at all being raised in the city and a bit of a coward to begin with, but he loves to eat meat. One of his young friends is in rabbit 4-H, but every time I mention that her bunnies would fill a good sized stew pot I get “ew”.

  • Katy

    I love nutjobs. Nutjobs are fun. Some science fiction writers start religions, and some invent pseudo-sciency stuff!

  • TommyD

    My experience with dewars is that the insulation is not 100% effective. So, the coolant slowly begins to boil, and without a pressure relief of some kind the dewar turns into a bomb. Since government safety regulators frown on inadvertent bombs, a pressure relief mechanism must exist. Adding a pressure relief mechanism ensures that the coolant will eventually run out. So, additional coolant must be purchased and replenished.

    This is also true of cryonic telescopes in orbit. Despite the best insulation and shading from the sun, the coolant always runs out eventually.

    Same with a thermos bottle. Put cold milk in one and leave it at room temperature for a week. The milk will be warm, since the insulation is not 100% effective (the weak point here is the neck and cap – better caps can be made, but the neck will always transfer some heat from the outside world).

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    He doesn’t seem to consider this: are the wealthy individuals of our time interested in running ancestor-simulations? Does Bill Gates have a fully-functional, historically and socially accurate, eighteenth-century village complete with actors performing the trades of the time with authentic implements on his estate? Then why would an entity from two hundred or five hundred years in the future be interested either?

    For an idea of why our descendants might thaw out a frozen head in a jar, he should try watching the 90s British television serial Cold Lazarus – that, I think, is much nearer the mark than a shiny techno-future where fossils from the 21st century will be gladly welcomed into and given every advantage of the 24th century society.

  • PhilJourdan

    I am not a Scientologist, and do not care for the religion. But I can tell you from reading experience, he is better at religion than at SciFi writing.

    I’ll stick with the masters – Sturgeon, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Farmer, Herbert, etc. (NOT inclusive).

  • enness

    You read my mind…only with more eloquence.

  • enness

    That’s great if you assume your afterlife is heaven. Not everyone does. Who comes up with hell as a coping mechanism if he thinks there’s a possibility he might end up there?

    Please, point out another species that is quite like us.