X-Message-Number: 14108
From: "Mark Plus" <>
Subject: Deathist Humanism is so "retro"!
Date: Sun, 16 Jul 2000 13:15:47 PDT

Given the recent discussions about religion, afterlife beliefs and openness 
to cryonics, I find it  puzzling that more Atheists, Skeptics and Secular 
Humanists (whom I lump together as "Retrohumanists" because of their 
backwards-looking view of human prospects) haven't at least endorsed the 
idea that conquering aging and death would be a Very Good Thing, even if 
they find cryonics a dubious way to go about it.  Instead they tend to go 
towards the opposite extreme outlined by Epicurus and Lucretius, arguing 
that since human existence offers only a finite range of possible 
experiences, and that "death is nothing to us," merely extending human life 
past 100 years wouldn't necessarily add that much more utility to one's 
consciousness (the "immortality would be boring" cliche).  Besides, in a 
universe operating according to materialist principles, "where we are, death 
is not; where death is, we are not," so it won't matter what happens after 
we are dead because "we" no longer are.  Shakespeare got it wrong; death is 
a "discovered country," but there's no "there" there.

While I appreciate what Epicurus and his Retrohumanist followers tried to 
accomplish with this argument, I don't agree with their assumption that 
human existence offers only a finite range of possible experiences, 
especially if you allow for Transhuman upgrades and the potential for 
adventures scarcely conceivable today, either in neuro-space, cyberspace or 
outer space.  The argument also implicitly assumes that we are somehow 
"entitled" to only so much life, at the end of which we are "destined" to 
die, but this strikes me as theistic and at odds with explicit 
Retrohumanism.  Who or what is doing the "entitling" and "destining"?  Any 
Retrohumanist who believes that might as well profess belief in the Three 
Fates from Greek mythology.  However, because the ancient philosophers and 
theologians lived in a world where people died for mysterious reasons and 
little or nothing in a very hard human condition changed from one generation 
to the next, the beliefs that human longevity was determined by forces 
beyond our control and that it had little to offer beyond a few decades' 
duration would have seemed plausible to them..

But modern Retrohumanists don't have these excuses.  Instead I suspect that 
they really do feel that death is bad, and that the more scientifically 
enlightened ones do understand that it could be eradicated some day, but 
because of inertia in the Retrohumanist culture, they still go along with 
the neo-Epicurean bravado about death.  Professing "death is nothing to us" 
as a rationalization for accepting death might have been liberating in a 
god-haunted past, but today it seems really dysfunctional when extended 
human existence is more worthwhile and we can foresee some alternatives to 
aging, decrepitude and dying.

And, ironically, when you put Retrohumanists on the spot, their defense of 
the goodness of annihilation doesn't sound like they've fully convinced 
themselves, much less others.  I have a tape of Retrohumanist guru Paul 
Kurtz on a Christian radio talkshow, back in the late 1980's, where when the 
host asked Kurtz how he will confront death, Kurtz clearly stumbled in his 
answer, saying that life in "heaven" (whatever that means) would be boring 
and otherwise acting as if the question caught him off guard.  (I would 
point out that since, according to the Christian story, there has already 
been one rebellion against God's authority in heaven, what's to keep that 
from happening again and again throughout eternity?)

Michael Shermer, editor of _Skeptic_ magazine and author of a couple of 
books mentioning cryonics and Immortalism, provides another example of the 
Retrohumanists' cultural inertia.  He says he's not going to do anything 
regarding his radical life extension because of his "skepticism" about its 
feasibility, showing that despite his familiarity with what cryonics is 
about, he is blind to the _dire_ moral urgency for conquering death that is 
so obvious to us. What he really means is that he's too lazy and comfortable 
in his current, doomed life, criticizing others' unorthodox beliefs (which 
he calls "weird things," including cryonics and Immortalism, in one of his 
books), to exert himself over something that might also evoke the 
disapproval of his Retrohumanist friends and colleagues because of its 
controversial nature.  (Despite their rhetoric about free inquiry and the 
freedom to engage in lifestyle experiments that don't harm others, 
Retrohumanists can be just as conformist and sheeplike as the rest of 
humanity, even if doing so costs them their very lives.)

There are a couple of exceptions that I know of, fortunately.  Frank 
Zindler, editor of _American Atheist_ magazine and immensely learned, has 
written favorably of using biotechnology to conquer aging and death 
[http://www.americanatheist.org/win98-99/T2/zindler.html].  And Anne Stone, 
another member of American Atheists, has posted a whole book on the Web 
[http://www.nodeath.org] advocating physical immortality, though critical of 
cryonics because she's hung up on the fact that the patient has to be 
declared "dead" under current laws before the cryosuspension procedure can 

Nonetheless, Retrohumanists are long overdue for an intellectual 
housecleaning.  Questioning, and then discarding, the ancient neo-Epicurean 
beliefs about the undesirability of radical life extension and the bravado 
of accepting death would take them a long way towards replacing the "Retro-" 
prefix with the "Trans-" prefix.  Out of these people we could then find 
some good candidates for cryonics.

Trans-millennially yours,

Mark Plus
"Letting go of the 20th Century."

"And so this darkness and terror of the mind
Shall not by the sun's rays, by the bright lances of daylight
Be scattered, but by Nature and her law."
Lucretius, _On the Nature of Things_ (translated by Anthony M. Esolen)

("What would Xena do?")

Alcor Life Extension Foundation
American Atheists
Society for Venturism

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