May 24, 2004

The Meaning of Life

[There. That ought to get everybody's attention.]

Via KurzweilAI, an article in the Biloxi Sun Herald provides an introduction to transhumanism and gives a run-down on some of the pros and cons. Here's an interesting argument:

But living forever could rob life of its meaning, said Bill McKibben, author of "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." In the book he argues that without death, humans have no opportunity to sacrifice for their children, no reason to pour out a life's work under the literal deadline of mortality.

"Human meaning is more vulnerable than they imagine," McKibben said.

Well, first off: there aren't that many transhumanists who see "living forever" as being in the cards. Aubrey de Grey talks about life extension that might buy us a few centuries. Eliezer Yudkowsky has a more expansive view, promoting a Theory of Fun that would help us to make the most of a life that extends to millions or even billions of years. The only transhumanist I can think of offhand who talks in terms of "living forever" is Frank J. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality. But to object to Tipler's model of living forever is to object to the religious idea of dying and going to heaven, since it amounts to the same thing. I wonder whether McKibben has the same objections to religious ideas about living forever as he does transhumanist ideas on the same subject?

In any case, I take issue with the idea that human meaning is more "vulnerable" than we imagine. On the contrary, I believe that human meaning is much more resilient than we imagine. In Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl demonstrated how people found and held onto meaning in their lives while subjected to the most horrifying of circumstances, imprisonment at Auschwitz.

If life rendered unrecognizable by the cruelist of suffering can still be found meaningful, isn't it just possible that we will be able to find meaning within life rendered unrecognizable by the removal of hardship? Maybe we won't be able to make sacrifices to our children, but there will still be things to learned, long-term projects to be taken on to provide a sense of direction and accomplishment. There will still be friendship and family. And, as Yudkowsky points out, there will still be fun.

So will life in an engineered, transhumanist future be meaningful? Personally, I'm willing to take my chances.

UPDATE: Stephen , in a recent e-mail on a related topic, wrote the following:

When Leon Kass accused life extension advocates of robbing humanity of "necessary" sorrow, I countered:

"Does anyone think that a prolonged life will eliminate sorrow? If anything you will have more opportunity to experience sorrow. In fact, if you eliminate aging as a cause of death, a larger percentage of the population will die violently than
before. You are, in effect, trading a peaceful death soon, for the chance of being offed by a jealous lover in a couple of centuries."

Exactly. Even if one must define meaning in life as coming from sorrow and hardship, there will be plenty of those things to go around in an extended lifespan. The removal of some difficulties isn't the same of the removal of them all. Life may yet be difficult, even in a transhumanist future.

(But I'll still take my chances.)

Posted by Phil at May 24, 2004 09:13 AM | TrackBack

Doesn't it say something about our capacity to worry that we are capable of worrying about running out of worries? Likewise, human meaning will turn out to have an elastic waistband Abraham Maslow seemed to think so. Check out Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" pyramid.

Transhumans will probably spend less time worrying about needs at the base of the pyramid than we do. Their time will be devoted to pursuing "self-actualization."

Our society has already started down this road. Today's first-world middle class home worries less about basic physiological needs than "safety," "love," and "esteem."

Transhumans will have a very different life (at least as different from us as our lives are from people in the 19th century), but they will still have their challenges.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 24, 2004 01:45 PM

As you know, I've been grappling with these concepts for the past few weeks. There's a difference in anticipating an extended lifespan in time and space as we know it, and envisioning an eternal life as we hope for after death. I'd like to hear other peoples' ideas on what eternity will be like. Not the physics of immortality as in artificial intelligence, but existence without linear time as we know it. I keep thinking that it's another kind of Singularity.

Posted by: Kathy at May 24, 2004 02:32 PM

Well, to be fair to Tipler, the physics of immortality does in fact describe a scenario in which linear time as we know it is transcended. Which raises an interesting question: would a technology that provided an infinite lifespan (we won't use the term "eternal life") render religions that offer the same obsolete?

I think not. They would just raise the bar on what would be expected of the promised "afterlife." Which presents a conundrum --how do you raise the bar on an infinite lifespan? You have to start with the understanding that some infinite numbers are greater than others -- infinitely greater, in fact.

I agree with you, Kathy, that as soon as we start talking about anything infinite, we're in the realm of Singularity. Speculations as to what eternity "will be like" are hard to pull off. I really can't imagine a timeless existence. Any image of it that my mind conjures still has plenty of time imagery and dependencies associated with it.

Consider the last verse of Amazing Grace:

When we've been there ten thousand years *
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days
To sing God's praise
Than when we first begun

I love this, but it's a cop-out. I think your point is that -- once we're there -- ten thousand years doesn't mean anything any more. But as for what kind of experience of reality will take its place...I think we'll have to talk about that later.

Much later, if you get my drift.

* Why not 10 trillion, really?

Posted by: Phil Bowermaster at May 24, 2004 03:25 PM

The quote can be found here. What makes McKibben an expert anyway? He washed out as a reporter and writes books on "human meaning". At least that's what I gather from his biography. OTOH, an expert on human meaning would be expected to have an unorthodox background. :-)

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at May 25, 2004 09:56 AM

Meaning is an odd Philosophical term; one that is abused so often by the Left. Meaning was always defined as God's intent. Philosophers asked the questions, "Why did God make the universe in its present form? What portent is hidden that God wants us to know? Where does an increase in understanding of God's methods lead?"

As you can see these questions would be useless to anyone who disbelieves-- to an atheist. But, why does the Left, who claim to be atheists, use the word "meaning" so often? That is because the Left lies. They have a God; just one they don't talk much about for fear of being laughed at. They believe that God is collective humanity or Mass mind. Another term for it is "Mob Rule." Or "the lowest common denominator." God envisions the best of mankind; Mob Rule is brute, unthinking power. Where would anyone get meaning out of that?

Is God against us humans having an extended life span? I think not. Why? Consider what reason, science and good government has done for mankind in last few hundred years. Disease, hunger and privation has receded as our life spans got longer. A longer life gives us more chances to do good. America, the richest country in the history of the world, is also the most generous. And the most religious. We are more religious now than in the 1920's; 65% of us are affiliated with churches and only 49% then. Yet, we are also a secular country; one that says that people have a right not to believe.

This is an expression of free will-- that God wants willing helpers. If those helpers lived a thousand years might they not create even greater wonders? Most of the sorrow and hardship we experience in life we create-- for ourselves and others. The meaning of life is that we are part of a plan greater than ourselves. We can take part or sit on the sidelines. In taking part, we find that which fulfills us. The time taken in the task is less important than the joy we take in doing it. But, if science finds ways to extend our lives, don't think it is by accident. God's hand may be at work here too.

Posted by: Louis Wheeler at June 6, 2004 09:49 PM
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