You all know that I’m not a religious believer. But you might ask: What fills the God-shaped hole? Something has to, right?
It’s a fair question, but my answer is pretty weird. I don’t expect anyone to follow it.
I believe that life is very, very short. Most people would agree.
I also believe that when we die, that’s it. We are a brilliant flash of light – and then we are nothing.
I do not believe in life after death, resurrection, or reincarnation. There is neither Heaven, nor Hell, nor astral plane. No Valhalla, no union with the great One, no anything. After we die, we are as inert as a rock or a lump of clay.
The afterlife is a pleasant idea, but great claims require great evidence, no matter how much we may like them. The evidence for the afterlife is pathetic. People believe it only because the alternative — what I believe — is extraordinarily depressing.
I assure you that I wish the afterlifers were right. I wish that any one sect of them were right. I’d even take an eternity of cherubs, harps, and sermons over pure fucking nothingness. But reality doesn’t offer me that choice. With every day, my own nothingness draws closer.
I think of this on awakening. I think of this as I fall asleep. With every day, I am closer to being annihilated. So are you. So is everyone: The abyss is always thirsty; the water clock runs out.
This fact is the single most obscene thing of which I am aware. If a god had put us in this position, I would hate that god with every particle of my being.
Eliezer Yudkowsky writes of a test among the religions: Which one most closely matches the world of science? The winner, he concludes, is Azathoth, H. P. Lovecraft’s “blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.” Evolved life is indifferently cruel and fecund, insane and purposeless. Infinite and always dying.
I believe that this is basically correct.
Were it not for the presence of life, the universe would appear to have no meaning at all. Add to it creatures capable of feeling pain and of hurting each other, and the universe becomes a near-eternal conveyor belt of squandered anguish. It’s punctuated only occasionally by sleep, eating, and mating (and sometimes mating’s no fun either).
Depressing, like I said.
But why not pretend to believe in an afterlife, even knowing full well that it is pretend? Why not pretend in earnest, until the pretending becomes second nature – until, finally, the pretending becomes a sincere belief?
As many of you realize, this is a very common way of acquiring (or losing) a religion. A deep belief often begins in the conscious effort to fake a deep belief. And, as Pascal noted, even if there isn’t any Great Reward, I won’t be around to notice. If I lose the wager, I won’t feel so much as a flicker of disappointment. I won’t feel anything.
So why not pretend?
The first answer, a partial one, is that I find something ignoble about consciously deluding oneself. The deaths of people who have performed this trick upon themselves may not be a disappointment to them, but they are a betrayal of reason and courage. It would be preferable, I think, to look Azathoth squarely in his many-faceted, utterly uncaring eyes.
I have so far named two metaphysically relevant considerations: pain and meaninglessness. If these were the all and the everything, stoicism would carry the day, or possibly some form of Buddhism. Both have much to commend in them.
But I think that there is something else to live for. Something grand and wonderful.
Besides meaninglessness and pain, there is another relevant factor — the human mind. And that’s pretty damn awesome. How awesome is it? The mind is the beginning of all joy and wonder. It is the source of all things holy. It is the single spark of meaning in the dreary empire of Azathoth.
It’s also getting brighter all the time.
I strongly suspect that up until this moment, we don’t even know the tiniest fraction of it. The mind is capable of self-improvement, and so far, the mind’s self-improvement does not seem to face any serious limitations. No, really, it doesn’t. All around you are tools that help extend the mind. The computer is only the most recent; before that came the printing press, language, philosophy, money, and all sorts of other inventions. Shortly in our future is the wearable computer — probably this year, even — and from there, things only get better.
In due course, we will also conquer death itself. It might not be long until we will discover the thing that causes human beings to grow old. And we’ll get rid of it. Someone will do so regardless of your feelings about the matter. You may then have to choose, but I’ve already made my choice. When it becomes available, I’m doing it.
Humanity won’t just stare down Azathoth. We will kill him, bury him, and dance on the world’s last grave.
The convergence between medicine and information technology is the key. Every day we get closer to the ultimate goal — indefinite life extension. You and I may live to see it, although probably not. My daughter stands a better chance. And her daughter? An immortal, almost certainly. It fills me with awe and wonder to think of these things.
Every age believes that it stands on the cusp of history. I know it sounds foolish to repeat the same old error — but this time, I think we really do.
Either we are the immortals, or we are their progenitors. We should live accordingly.
I ask myself: How will the immortals judge us? What will they think of us? Will they admire the times when we were like them, and when we didn’t seem to notice the everyday horror? Will they marvel at how we said “The show must go on”? Or will they admire it more when we rage against the dying of the light?
Or — yeah, this one bugs me a bit — maybe they will prefer not to think of us at all. Too painful and too remote, like thinking about all the millions of people who died senselessly of smallpox before we exterminated it. (A portent, by the way, of Azathoth’s demise. I hope he’s self-aware enough to tremble, but I sort of doubt it.)
It transforms all of one’s opinions and dispositions to consider them in light of these developments. Many of them emerge as shameful. Others take on new nobility. So yeah, it’s like being born again.
What is the good? That which speeds the day. What is the evil? That which sets it back, and dooms so many more to the grave.
Living and dying become worthwhile.
In brief: Azathoth rules, and Azathoth must die. But there are always odds and ends.
What do I call myself? Extropian is a fair word for it, although I haven’t read much self-described extropian literature. I think I’m a bit more fatalistic than the extropians, because I don’t have very much hope for personal immortality.
Bob and some others may recognize a kinship to gnosticism, which I would admit. Grudgingly.
Just how weird are you, anyway? In everyday life, my opinions aren’t terribly different from most people’s. It’s only when we dig really deep — when we look for the foundations — that I end up someplace very different. So usually I can keep quiet about it.
Won’t people still die? Surely, yes. Aging we may be rid of rather soon, but some maladies could still last for centuries, picking people off here and there. There may be new ones that only strike after the first two or three hundred years. Accidents will always happen. More and more, though, death will be an option, a deliberate and perhaps a deeply aesthetic act. If so, we will have to think about the meaning of death in an entirely new way. I don’t pretend to know what that way might be, but whatever it is, I’m sure it beats our current one: “inevitable and undignified, so just get used to it already.”
Won’t the sun eventually eat the earth? Won’t the universe eventually end? Of course. But if someone gave you a pill that let you live twenty more years, you’d still take it. And you’d face your next problems in the order that they arose.
Will it be legal? I doubt it. I rather suspect that the first people to take a genuine anti-aging drug will do so in violation of numerous laws against it. This says much more about the state of our government than it does about the morality of conquering death. Without an inevitable end, government will be rocked to its foundations. I have no idea what it will look like or even whether it will survive.
I’d be lying, too, if I said these oddball views don’t spill over into my politics. They do. Immortality is close at hand. I may live to see it. I may not. But one thing is for certain: Every war, every recession, every slowdown in our economic and technological advancement delays it by just that much.
These are far from the most convincing reasons behind my politics, of course. Tyranny, war, and poverty are awful all by themselves, and they always have been. Lately, though, these evils have started to look more and more like a part of the one great obscenity.
How did you get here? Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years is a key source. Also Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, which I read as an undergrad. I am very taken by Aldous Huxley’s Island, and by the Bhagavad-Gita, particularly in how both advise looking death squarely in the eye. Lovecraft and Baudelaire are obviously influences. Charles Fourier and Ayn Rand are less obvious, but they’re in there too.
Yes, this is all very weird. It is. It would be unreasonable to ask you to agree with me. I don’t ask it.