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Jason Silva Discusses ‘The Death Problem’

In the video below, ‘awe pundit’ Jason Silva discusses the ‘problem of death’, and how humans have approached solving that problem throughout the ages. He extols the virtues of our creative power and development of technology as the way forward, to “transcend our limitations”.

The human condition is characterised uniquely by our awareness of our mortality; in other words, we are the only species who are aware that we are mortal beings. This causes a tremendous amount of anxiety.

We have this capacity to ponder the infinite, we’re seemingly capable of anything; we can mainline the whole of time through the optic nerve with our astronomy and with our space telescopes…and yet we’re housed in these heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying bodies. So to be godly, and yet ‘creaturely’, is just impossibly cruel.

The belief that death can be conquered by technology is a common one in the Transhumanism and Singularity communities. But is it just another form of naive Utopianism that has previously characterised religious thoughts on the life eternal? Can we ever truly escape the threat of death, given that no matter how far we ‘scale up’ our imperviousness to existential threats, we will likely never be able to make ourselves truly safe from danger (for example, cataclysms can occur on galactic levels)?

Furthermore, is there an argument that our mortality, and our changeability, are what make life so precious in the first place? Though I have written about the possibility of the survival of consciousness after the physical death of our body – thus opening myself up to similar acccusations of wishful thinking about my mortality – I also was keen to tell readers that this possibility should not be the focus of our lives. In the final chapter of the book (titled ‘Memento Mori’), I wrote that regardless of our belief, we are united by the common thread “that this life is very likely the only time that you – at least, as ‘you’ – will experience this Earth and the singular joys it brings… We should therefore cherish every day alive on Earth as a gift”.

Scientists tell us that we are all “made of star dust”, while Christian funeral liturgies exhort us to remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. Both statements are worth contemplating: our bodies are a miraculous assembly of molecules born from dying suns, infused with the mystery of life and consciousness for the blink of an eye in the cosmic scale of things, before disssipating back into the universe once more. Regardless of our model of reality we should all recognize, and embrace, how truly magical our conscious existence is.

Returning to the question of whether an eternal life might somehow decrease our valuation of conscious existence, I am reminded of a quote from the movie Troy that I opened that particular chapter with. “I’ll tell you a secret, something they don’t teach you in your temple,” Achilles says. “The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier that you are now. We will never be here again.”

What do you think? Is death simply a human ‘illness’ that we should invest heavily in ‘curing’? Or is it one of the things that make us human and allow us to appreciate the beauty of our existence?

  1. I agree that we should
    I agree that we should cherish every day we’re alive, but I’ve never felt that awareness of impermanence makes life better. When I read people arguing that death gives life meaning and life would be meaningless without it, I think of the last panel of this SMBC comic:

    “When they realized they were in the desert, they built a religion to worship thirstiness.”

    It seems to me that when people say, “death gives life meaning,” it’s not because it’s true, but because it’s a way of accepting death (worshipping thirstiness because there’s no escape). So I disagree with Achilles. But that’s just my personal experience of things.

    1. If the anecdotes are to be
      If the anecdotes are to be believed there are ET races that live to be many hundreds and even thousands of years old. I never have heard any reports of these sorts philosophizing about what that means to them, but it seems to be accommodated without much complaint. Books like “Stop Worrying” imply that there really isn’t any death in the first place – that what we call out physical expiration is not the end of us therefore we are all immortal or nearly so.

    2. I don’t think acceptance of
      I don’t think acceptance of death is in any way comparable to praising thirstiness because of a hopeless situation. Because the continuous flow and transformation of energy which is expressed by the constant decay of matter, and perhaps other things, is a universal process, this is how the universe operates. It is this process that made the human race possible0 We owe our very existence to death, if stars didn’t explode and “die” billions of years ago, we wouldn’t be here today. So why is death considered the problem and not our inability to accept it?

      1. “So why is death considered
        “So why is death considered the problem and not our inability to accept it?”

        That’s my point though, ways of accepting death. I don’t feel that people and events and moments in life are made meaningful by going away. I personally in my reality tunnel think “death makes life meaningful” is a way of accepting death, not something that’s true (like how believing in heaven would be a way of accepting death even if there isn’t an afterlife). So praising thirstiness is comparable. But that’s relative to my nervous system. 🙂

        However, if emlong is correct, then we can reach the state of the characters in the last panel in which death doesn’t exist, and claims of it giving life meaning won’t be relevant.

  2. I think it is silly to
    I think it is silly to proclaim that we are the only species aware of our own mortality. We know that animals experience and fear and grief, and that even plants can communicate impending danger to one another! Almost all of what we can quantify in the known universe reaches some end (and ultimate rebirth). Every living thing on Earth dies. This very anthropocentric view of death seems almost embarrassing at this point. I hate to be such a Debbie-downer; I love your book and research into consciousness and after-life, but the idea that those things have to be unique to humans is preposterous (sorry!). If they exist at all, wouldn’t they be universal, at least to some extent? Maybe I’ve just taken “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” to much to heart 😉

  3. I completely agree with the
    I completely agree with the above commenter that’s it is anthrocentric to the extreme to claim that only humans are conscious of death; it’s a documented fact elephants weep over their fallen and will even lovingly take their bones away to somewhere safe. They are very much aware of sorrow and suffering, you can see the tears trickling down their faces.

    Back on topic, I am unimpressed by this fellow’s mooning for immortality. Would the majority of people living on this planet really want to keep on living forever, trapped in poverty and drudgery, condemned to physical labor? The motivation for many is the promise of a better future for their children with a retirement or at least an end of labor for themselves. They are sacrificing the now for a higher purpose. To expect them to labor on forever in the suburban, Wal-Mart haunted wastelands or the high-tech sweatshops of Shanghai is foul nonsense.

    As to the claims that technology will liberate everyone, that is a pretty outrageous claim given the history of oppression and inequality and exploitation and ruthless tyranny reaching back to the beginning of human history. Make no mistake, the glittering, immortal, man-machine hybrid future of Transhumanism will be offered only to a select few, the rest will be abandoned. Richard Dolan’s breakaway civilization idea isn’t really all that new, transhumans have been preaching it for years, they just differ in their timing, is all.

    Finally, the belief that death is the end of us is just that, a belief, one expressed as fact by materialists and advocates of scientism, not something proven or disproven. Without wading into a mass of spirituality, it is equally plausible to conjecture scientifically that our consciousnesses are only projections or subsets of a greater mind, singular or communal, which while going about the greater tasks of whatever a Type IV civilization normally might do, occasionally projects its consciousness into a more limited game avatar on an isolated planet for its own recreation. Among any number of other plausible ideas.

  4. There is no such thing as
    There is no such thing as immortality, either living or after life. Wether you live a hundred years, a thousand, a million, that last day will come.

    1. Allynh,
      That last day will


      That last day will come presuming time is linear as we experience it in this physical reality. If there is no soul, than yup, it is the end. If there is a soul, most NDE experiences describe the afterlife, the place where consciousness aka the mind continues to be nonlinear – where past, present and future coexist. If that is correct, then the concept of last day is meaningless…

  5. The Western shame of the Human Body
    Lately I’ve been thinking that much of the drive in the Transhumanist movement to ‘upgrade’ our physicality through technology, may possibly be yet the newest revamp in the Western feeling of shame in the human body.

    Throughout the centuries, Western civilization has had an uneasy relationship with the human body. Whereas we used to complain about it, saying that “our bodies are sinful & lascivious,” the Transhumanist complain is that “our bodies are decayable & unreliable.”

    As corny & cliched as it may sound, sometimes I feel Transhumanist are caterpillars worrying on how frail their little coccoons are, thinking of ways in which they can be kept encased inside their little abodes indefinitely.

    In any case, as an 80’s child I feel entitled to use videogames as analogy. Now that I own a game console I can play a particular title endlessly, and even when I’m frustrated the most by the fact that I couldn’t pass a level, I know full well I can try again as many times as I like.

    Yet I still fondly remember my yesteryears when I had to visit an Arcade to satisfy my gaming crave, and I only had limited amount of coins to spend. I’d put a quarter on Pac-Man, a game so simple & insanely addictive because it has such fixed rules: You start with 3 lives, and can only gain more time by playing; after you spend your lives, THAT’S IT.

    But because the more aware you became of those constrains, the more intense, frustrating & enjoyable the game became. You didn’t had a chance to ‘pause’ & go for a coke, man!

    So yeah, I think that if we somehow managed to extend our physical existence, we may lose the very core of what it is to be human.

    At the same time, I don’t want to be like those fundamental Christians who were against blood transfusions; the matter is still unresolved for me 😉

    To end, I’ll leave you with this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, that may be relevant to the present discussion:

    The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
    When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”

    1. RPJ I agree. Further
      RPJ I agree. Further something the Transhumanists are missing out on is the fact our human experience, the quality of emotion that makes us human is the complex interaction of our indocrine system, with its release of adrenalin that accelerates heart rate during times of stress and fear and anger, and endorphins during times of happiness and pleasure. All those sensations are potentially negated by the migration of consciousness from a living physical body into some other mode – cyborg, virtual, etc…

      The first recipient of the artificial heart, with its monotonous constant beat said he felt dead in side and begged to have it taken out – I’ve read. It did not respond to the site of family, friends, etc… hence he had no emotional reaction. Transferring people’s minds into stronger, more powerful, long lasting, repairable, artificial bodies ala terminators has the potential of creating non feeling, psychopathic robots devoid of the human experience. Really quite scary.

      1. Endocrine system
        Valid points.

        And yet, how do we explain the sensation of absolute love NDE experiencers report, when they confront the fabled ‘being of pure light’? Surely their disembodied consciousness wasn’t influenced by their endocrine system at that moment?

        1. Good point. It all gets very
          Good point. It all gets very complicated. Only one thing is certain – so long as man continues to survive as a species, he will forge ahead with little foresight, and in hindsight too often say…what were we thinking.

      2. If the technical hurdle of
        If the technical hurdle of recreating a brain in simulation (and it actually being conscious the way organic brains are) can be overcome, then an endocrine system and everything else that sends signals into the brain can be simulated too. So I don’t think that objection is valid if the initial premise (mind uploading) actually works.

        1. No digital simulation of a
          No digital simulation of a human brain would be complete without receivers that receive waveforms from the known spectrums and also from the as yet unknown or unmeasured part of the spectrum. That right there means that recreating a brain in toto cannot be a question of sheer “horsepower” and number of connections. The same simulation should also be able to transmit this same spectrum, and we haven’t even touched upon how the brain really interacts with these energies. If we don’t know how that works (we still don’t) then all attempts at simulation will be lame. We are not going to be accurately recreating brains until we understand everything that brain can do. Brains aren’t just calculators – they are also wireless receivers and transmitters

          1. That’s where I think the
            That’s where I think the p-zombie argument in philosophy of the mind becomes a practical issue and not just a thought experiment. We could create an electronic system or digital simulation that behaves like a human being, but have no way of determining if it’s having any kind of experience of the world the way we do.

  6. I can’t wait to get rid of my body
    I can’t wait to get rid of my body, the source of most of the misery I’ve experienced.

    And how long do they propose for these people to live? Till the sun swells and burns the earth up? Till all the protons decay?

    They should read Clifford Simak’s last novel, Highway to Eternity.

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