Sci-Fi Distopias, Transhumanism, & Death Denial
by Jasun Horsley. Images by Lucinda Horan: http://lucindahoran.blog.com/
[This piece first appeared at Omni Reboot, but was later removed for unexplained reasons. ]
None of what follows is intended to persuade the reader to adopt any particular point of view, only to question theirs.
Science fiction and “futurism” pretty much go hand in hand.
Science fiction futures are almost always linked to technology in some way.
These two observations might seem too obvious to need making, but that may be the point. It’s always worth questioning the things that are “given.”
There’s one thing we know for sure about our future and that is that we are going to die. Ray Kurtzweil and the Transhumanist Crew may disagree, but for those of us still hooked into a biological perspective, the future no one wants to think about is the future that ends with old age, sickness, and death.
This isn’t just true of you and me individual organisms. It’s also true of our current culture, social arrangements, and species. The Earth will die, and a little while after that the Sun will die too. We can migrate to other star systems, maybe, but those too will pass. Everything that is, is on its way to not being anymore.
The funny thing about statements like these is that they tend to come out sounding philosophical, even spiritual, when they are only statements of fact. I suspect this is evidence of how little we talk about them.
It’s no mystery why we don’t. I already feel like I am in danger of offending my hosts.
Science means knowledge, so science fiction means fictional knowledge, also known as fantasy, delusion, or denial. Things we pretend to know. In this sense, all science is fiction to one degree or another, because everything we think we know depends on denial of the existence of other stuff which we don’t.
Science fiction comes clean and turns science into fantasy, which makes it good for seeing things about ourselves that ordinary science (and ordinary fantasy, if there is such a thing) doesn’t let us see.
We all imagine fantasy scenarios for our future. We even make real plans based on such fantasies, such as space colonization or transhumanism, the Singularity, etc. All of these grand visions are scientistic versions of “the Afterlife.” They act as buffers for the potentially crippling awareness of our impending doom. Imagining future utopias and dystopias, for example, helps us feel better about the present—either by reassuring us that we are on our way to something better, or by helping us to enjoy what we have, because it’s going to get a lot worse.
Actually the future is like the aliens or the Second Coming: it never arrives, because the point was always to have something up ahead to imagine and make the present more bearable.
The future remains a fantasy; its relation to any present reality it creates is on a par with that between a child’s fantasy of growing up to be a Super-Hero, and being an adult.
Transhumanism is the religion of the future, i.e., the future fantasy of the present. It’s the most persuasive escapist fantasy available to technologically spoiled, religion-sated humanity. While it hasn’t “taken off” yet, it has already taken hold of us through the technology of fantasy, and the fantasy of technology. We are all aspiring transhumanists whether we know it or not.
Sheldon Solomon and the Ernest Becker foundation have provided lots of compelling evidence for the idea that culture is primarily the means by which humans deny death. Humans create culture as a way to distance themselves from the potentially paralyzing awareness that death can, does, and will happen at any time. Culture also serves as a means to create a powerful illusion of immortality, via the manufacturing of extensions of the self and the body, extensions which last significantly longer than we do (e.g., the pyramids, which lots of alternative researchers see as a form of ancient technology). Human values are probably the most resilient or enduring extensions of self-ness, and the artifacts we create, whether books, IPods, or space ships, are carriers of those cultural values.
Most of the stuff we have today will outlive us if given the chance, potentially by hundreds of years. Ironically, a lot of it is also disposable, and will be discarded and replaced by the latest model in a year or two. That says something about the sort of values which such stuff “carries.”
Science fiction projections about the future are mostly to do with technological advances, i.e. stuff that will (supposedly) improve our lives, either that or enslave us (and sometimes both). It’s probably not coincidental that this technology will also outlive us, as organic beings at least, even as it turns into useless junk cluttering up the (organic) environment.
This is another example of the way the futures we fantasize of escaping into turn into present realities we are trapped inside—leading to an ever-increasing feedback loop of utopian fantasy/dystopian reality.
A visiting alien observing the path of human progress could be forgiven for concluding that, the more sophisticated the solutions humans come up with for their problems, the bigger and more terrifying the problems they end up facing. The desire of utopia is what creates dystopia; the road to hell, etc., etc.
There’s no reason to think this progression won’t continue and even accelerate, especially since there’s a good reason for it (the progression), one which rarely gets addressed. (This is more likely to be the Singularity promised by Kurtzweil.)
The reason utopian dreams only create dystopian realities is simple: unconsciousness. Because we are unconscious of whatever it is in us that caused the problems to begin with, and equally unconscious of what’s driving us to solve those problems, we are making things worse the more we try and improve them.
Science fiction is both the problem and, in a small sense at least, the solution. Being sourced in fantasy, it allows us to see where we are headed without going there (good); but at the same time it spreads the seeds of fantasy further afield, and eventually some of those seeds take root. Would we have the kind of cell phones we do if it weren’t for Star Trek? Would we care half as much about space colonization? (There’s no reason to think there’s anything out there except rocks and freezing cold empty space, right?)
It’s been said that there’s no way to talk about our current times without citing Goethe’s Faust as a blueprint or metaphor. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein may be a more suitable example for now, being a work of early science fiction which very clearly describes how death anxiety fuels the scientific drive to innovate and “play God.” Dr. Frankenstein literally builds a human out of the discarded body parts of dead ones.
Which brings us, at long last, to Transhumanism.
Transhumanism is a scientistic movement based on the belief that who and what we are can be divorced from biology, or at least be more or less untouched by any modifications or rearrangements done to it.
In the more extreme camps (Ray Kurtzweil et al.), Transhumanism divorces human existence from the psyche by suggesting that:
- At least some of the elements of consciousness can be converted to digital information (they probably can).
- This data will be self-aware (who knows, maybe it will?).
- It will be a continuation of the biologically-based awareness which it copied.
Umm. Hello? Ground control to Major Ray?
It may be possible some day to create a replicant of Ray Kurtzweil’s father that believes it is Ray Kurtzweil’s father. Ray may even believe it too, bless him. But it’s a quantum leap into a whole other Universe to state that such a replicant actually is Ray Kurtzweil’s father.
It’s only possible to entertain (or pursue) such a strange belief via a complete ignorance, or simply denial, of the unconscious. “Who we are” is not a mind-body system but a psyche-body system. We aren’t meat vessels with an internal stream of mental data running through them and animating them. The vast majority of our total “psychosoma” system functions at an unconscious level.
For example, someone who is susceptible to hypnosis can enter into trance and recollect minute details of their past, things they were unaware of noticing at the time, much less thinking about after. Even our everyday experience is of things being forgotten, sometimes resurfacing weeks or years later out of “nowhere.” Tech-heads can refute the existence of the unconscious all they want, but refusing to go to China doesn’t prove it’s not there.
To create a replica-self out of our conscious thoughts and memories is like taking a single word out of the collected works of Shakespeare, turning it into a Broadway show, and expecting a standing ovation.
Or like stitching together a bunch of disinterred body parts and hoping to get Mozart.
Future-fantasies of technological immortality and star quests are about accumulating knowledge to increase power—whatever it takes to fend off the awareness of death, including the fantasy of fending off death indefinitely. We are born powerless, and the will to power is the endless struggle to prevent ever feeling that way again. Unfortunately we’re destined to end exactly as we began: powerless.
Time is supposed to bestow wisdom on human beings. But can there be wisdom without acceptance of death? There can be culture, and endlessly elaborate fantasies that strive to become reality, but there will always be a fundamental disconnect between our minds and bodies, between self and reality.
Most sci-fi and scientistic fantasies about the future tend to focus on external, technological and social changes, but very few (Philip K. Dick a noted exception) contemplate future changes in human consciousness. How would both our fantasies and our culture be transformed if, instead of conquering death, we learned to accept it? I’m not sure any sci-fi writer has ever imagined such a future; I’m not sure anyone can imagine it.
If death anxiety fuels human progress, maybe accepting death would not only be the end of fantasy, but the end of the fantasy called “history”?
What it would be the beginning of is anybody’s guess.
Jasun Horsley is an author of several books on popular culture, psychology, and high strangeness. He is a transmedia storyteller, independent scholar, and existential detective. He lives and works in Canada.