Transhumanism and Suicide Pods ... What's the Connection? - Personal Thoughts from Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed"
Transhumanism and Suicide Pods ... What's the Connection?
Maybe you saw recently that in Switzerland a model for a 3D printed "suicide pod" was released within the last few months. "Dr. Death," Philip Nitschke is the designer and has offered to release the printable plans for free on the internet. One of his explicit goals has been to "de-medicalize" death, or to take the decision out of a medical setting (even where physician assisted euthanasia is legal) and simply put it into the hands of people, where no criteria have to be met except their own desires. Someone would sit inside the pod, press a button and the oxygen would be replaced with nitrogen gas, causing the person to go unconscious and die within ten minutes. While this is still being fought over in Swiss law, the inevitability of this technology seems unquestioned given the rapid progression of beginning and end of life technologies in general. 1 If you are surprised by this claim, you may also be surprised to hear about another movement that has been bubbling under the surface for some decades now, the "Transhumanist" movement.
The Transhumanism Movement
Transhumanism is a movement of citizens, doctors, and scientists who believe that the next stage in human evolution is the augmenting of human beings through integrated technologies. While there is a vast plethora of manifestations this can take, the goal is basically the same... What if humans never have to die? What if we master mother nature so thoroughly that even if the human body gives out, one's consciousness can be saved and continue living in other ways? (Is this even possible? I express my doubts briefly at the end of this post) They have coined the term of becoming "posthuman." Basically, to become a posthuman is to transcend every limitation that humans find frustrating their happiness right now, from their intellectual capabilities, to diseases, to organ failure. "...to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to posthumanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills, and intelligence."
They claim that this transition from human to posthuman can happen by either having one's consciousness take on another form of embodiment, i.e. some type of synthetic reality in a machine or computer, or by augmenting the biological human body in varied ways which would radically upgrade it. "Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads ... or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques."
If you are not floored yet by such a radically new vision of the future, consider this next quote: "Some posthumans may find it advantageous to jettison their bodies altogether and live as information patterns on vast super-fast computer networks. Their minds may be not only more powerful than ours but may also employ different cognitive architectures or include new sensory modalities that enable greater participation in their virtual reality settings. Posthuman minds might be able to share memories and experiences directly, greatly increasing the efficiency, quality, and modes in which posthumans could communicate with each other. The boundaries between posthuman minds may not be as sharply defined as those between humans."
Before we can reach the stage of posthumanity, we must first make intermediate progress. This is where we would be considered a "transhuman," as we are crossing the threshold between the old human and the new man. Maybe one could even consider such a crossing as a type of death and rebirth. We would have died to an old world where there were so many limitations and have been reborn into a world that seemingly has no limitations. For now, being a transhumanist is simply to embody a philosophy about the evolution of humanity and the future. But a point will come in the future where a qualitatively meaningful transition will occur between a normal biological human and an augmented one. That will be the first step into the transition of humanity towards posthumanity. 2
Dostoyevsky's Prophetic Vision of the "New Man" and "New Society"
What has continually bothered me, though, about this is that if humans could potentially live forever, in their theories, then why would the same type of people promote the free killing of oneself, as with the suicide pods? Shouldn't they be against something like that? I could not understand how these two beliefs were compatible. Surely they share a commonality in that they both desire to take control of human life and death. But why kill yourself now if you could be frozen and resurrected in the future to some utopian reality? Finally, the answer came to me through a Russian novel written back in 1871. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, The Possessed, I found what seemed to me to be the answer to this question.
The Possessed is Dostoyevsky's attempt to express the rising tide of nihilism and Socialist ideas which were quietly spreading across Russia during the latter part of the 19th Century. Certainly there was a wave of liberalism from Western Europe which was enticing to many in a country who had so recently taken their first step out of the structures of the Middle Ages, but the second and third steps followed rapidly upon the first. These further steps were one's expressing a radical move towards Communist utopia and the overthrowal of all that represented the past. A new man and a new society. In the novel, Dostoyevsky portrays this spread of ideas through a small town in Russia through a set of bad actors who were sent by radical groups in Switzerland (of all places given the opening article here) to try to sow discord and social unrest such that Communism could more easily supplant those structures of the past. One of the true believers who comes to this town is a man named Kirilov. He brings with him his continued research into the social factors of suicide, notably, the reason that prevents men from just killing themselves. What holds them back? In fact, Kirilov is so bold in his beliefs that he has made a commitment to the secret society to further their aims. He has agreed to kill himself at the command of the secret society so that they can use him as a scapegoat in case one of their other members in caught in their crimes. Why would someone agree to such a thing? If he was an atheist who didn't believe in the afterlife then why would he choose to give up his life early? Isn't he giving up everything he has of value if he does that? To understand what's going on here we need to look at three revealing speeches that Kirilov makes about his beliefs in the novel.
So, again, he is researching suicide and what holds people back from killing themselves. "But I only seek the causes why men dare not kill themselves; that's all." He has come up with two answers. The first is of less importance, and that is that suicide is painful. While some pay no attention to pain and get it over quickly, others take a long time in thinking about it, and thus it holds them back. The real answer why people don't kill themselves, though, is because of the second reason, "superstition" and fear. "If it were not for superstition there would be more, very many, all." Kirilov makes the case that people are afraid of death, even though they know suicide will be quick, because of the fear of God's judgment in the afterlife. He makes the analogy of a stone as big as a mountain, millions of pounds, which hangs over your head. If it drops you will die instantly and not feel a thing. You know that it won't be painful, but yet you are still afraid of the stone because of its threatening appearance. Life is therefore, in its essence, a terror and painful because of this looming threat. There is not freedom for man because of this threat. He has been taught that he must love this pain and submit to its demands. "'Imagine a stone as big as a great house; it hangs and you are under it; if it falls on you, on your head, will it hurt you?' ... 'A stone as big as a mountain, weighing millions of tons? O course it wouldn't hurt.'" The most learned man, the greatest doctor, all, all will be very much frightened."
A time will come when man will willingly choose to let the stone fall upon him and crush him as a symbol that the stone isn't actually real. In killing himself, he shows that God doesn't exist and that there's nothing to be afraid of. He will take God's place and a new man will be born. History will be divided again by this event and mankind will be changed. He teaches all that God exists only insofar as the superstition and fear exists in our minds, but it's not real. This is when man reclaims his absolute freedom back. People have to choose to kill themselves to remove the fear that hangs over humanity from God. Others, seeing how willingly the new man kills himself, will then begin not to be afraid anymore. "Now man is not yet what he will be. There will be a new man, happy and proud. For whom it will be the same to live or not to live, he will be the new man. He who will conquer pain and terror will himself be a god. ... He who will conquer pain and terror will become himself a god. Then there will be a new life, a new man; everything will be new ... then they will divide history into two parts: from the gorilla to the annihilation of God, and from the annihilation of God to... the transformation of the earth, and of man physically. Man will be God, and will be transformed physically, and the world will be transformed and things will be transformed and thoughts and all feelings." 3
Once people are no longer afraid of God and the judgment of the afterlife, they will also realize that there are no such things as values, good or bad, as that would have depended on God. There is only what exists, and thus everything that exists is just simply good. What we call bad now will just be good then. And when humanity perfects its happiness by realizing this and undergoing its transformation into the new man, then all time shall cease because being perfectly happy then man needs no time for anything. Time is a construction of the mind which strives, but will be extinguished when there is no more striving. Earth will become eternal life. "'Life exists, but death doesn't at all.' 'You've begun to believe in a future eternal life?' 'No, not in a future eternal life, but in eternal life here. There are moments, you reach moments, and time suddenly stands still, and it will become eternal. ... When all mankind attains happiness then there will be no more time, for there'll be no need of it, a very true thought.' 'Where will they put it?' 'Nowhere. Time's not an object but an idea. It will be extinguished in the mind.'" Again, the first man who heralds this new conception of life is man's savior, not the "god-man," but the "man-god" because God has not become man, like in Christianity, but man has become god. This will likewise be the perfection and end of the world, as the utopia can come into being. Heaven comes to earth. 4
Kirilov, in being the first to come to many of these conclusions, and the one who will arbitrarily kill himself to show God doesn't exist, implies that he himself is to be this savior, the man-god. Likewise, Kirilov sees that a new history has been invented. Now that God has been shown to be false, that changes the whole of history past and how it's understood. He is the lynchpin of history which will split it in two. "'I am bound to show my unbelief,' said Kirilov, walking about the room. 'I have no higher idea than disbelief in God. I have all the history of mankind on my side. Man as done nothing but invent God so as to go on living, and not kill himself; that's the whole of universal history up till now. I am the first one in the whole history of mankind who would not invent God. Let them know it once for all.'" It was Christ who brought meaning and salvation to the planet and to history previously. But now that this has been shown to be a lie, then salvation has a new meaning. Salvation is becoming enlightened that God doesn't exist. And once man has total freedom accorded to his will, he can reign on earth as his own kingdom. "If you recognise it you are sovereign, and then you won't kill yourself but will live in the greatest glory. But one, the first, must kill himself, for else who will begin and prove it? So I must certainly kill myself, to begin and prove it."
But how exactly will Kirilov transform man in a physical way with his sacrificial death? Well, God has become so engrained in man's psyche that man, in his present nature, aches for God and can't get along without him. But when Kirilov purposefully kills himself, it will trigger a chain reaction that will end up ridding man of his desire and fear for God. Man will be changed in his very being. "I will begin and will make an end of it and open the door, and will save. That's the only thing that will save mankind and will re-create the next generation physically; for with his present physical nature man can't get on without his former God, I believe." 5
So What's the Connection Between Transhumanism and Euthanasia?
Having explored the mind of Kirilov, one can now see the connection between Transhumanism and suicide pods. Transhumanism is the transcending of every natural barrier and restriction placed on man through the use of his own will, through technology. But maybe we will be afraid to do this! Maybe we will be afraid to destroy every moral teaching, every cultural norm, go against every guilt and moral urge within us? These would hold us back from developing technology in every possible way. These would hold us back from creating Heaven here on earth by fulfilling man's every desire for pleasure and his every need, to enter into that eternal bliss when we want for nothing. And so there must be some type of savior to split history in two and bring about this transition, this journey into a-morality.
It's a given premise of Transhumanism that God doesn't exist, and thus neither does an afterlife. (Like Transhumanism, Kirilov doesn't give arguments against God's existence, he simply assumes God's non existence through an act of the will. I have written more about this topic here.) But, as Kirilov argues, the threat and fear that God might exist still looms over us. We've been psychologically captive for so long that it have physically manifest itself in us. Someone has to break the cycle by not showing fear and committing the most rebellious act against God, to kill themselves for no other reason than to deny his existence. And here is where the role of the suicide pod comes in, and where euthanasia fits into this movement. There is going to have to be a generation of "saviors" in their mind who make the sacrificial offering of themselves so that humanity can transcend morality and achieve Posthumanity. And so for a while between now and when we reach that Posthumanity stage, Transhumanism must also push euthanasia. Their theory is that if enough people willingly kill themselves and embody a radical type of self-autonomy that morality can be wiped from the human person. Once God has sufficiently been wiped from man's memory, then the rest of humanity can have life everlasting here on earth. In fact, if those who kill themselves now are cryogenically frozen, maybe they will be resurrected in the new future that they helped usher in. That is the connection ... and what a monstrous connection it is.
New Technologies On the Way
Forever, human life has been characterized by a struggle and striving against the natural laws and limitations that reality presents us in this human experience. Biology, itself, gives us a set of rules and boundaries as guidance for how we are to live our lives. What would it mean to be powerful enough to transcend every limitation, even death? In so many words, this would be something akin to Kirilov's point about man usurping God's place. In the 1990's, Pope John Paul II has a prescient notion of what how new technologies would not only help man, but provide a seductive temptation to him as well. He described this temptation invoking the story of Prometheus, the one who stole the power of fire from the gods to give to humanity. Here's a small excerpt from his document The Gospel of Life, or Evangelium Vitae.
"On a more general level, there exists in contemporary culture a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands. What really happens in this case is that the individual is overcome and crushed by a death deprived of any prospect of meaning or hope. We see a tragic expression of all this in the spread of euthanasia-disguised and surreptitious, or practised openly and even legally. As well as for reasons of a misguided pity at the sight of the patient's suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill. Nor can we remain silent in the face of other more furtive, but no less serious and real, forms of euthanasia. These could occur for example when, in order to increase the availability of organs for transplants, organs are removed without respecting objective and adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor." 6
At this point you may be thinking that this connection being made is too radical, that this movement isn't really happening, that this is something of Sci-Fi novels. Well, with a little searching one can see the new technologies that are already being developed in order to transcend physical and biological boundaries that have always existed. Just search up the words "gene editing," or "artificial wombs" and you can see the beginning stages taking place. With gene editing, eventually we will know enough where we can modify the human genome of someone in order to augment any of their traits or abilities, certainly remove genetic diseases. 7 There are also developments in creating human-animal hybrids which can provide supplemental organs, 8 or maybe be used as an underclass of servants. There is an effort underway to create a baby from only sperm, without a mother, by turning a regular cell from a man into an egg cell which could fertilize with the same man's sperm. 9 What happens when artificial wombs become so successful that through In-Vitro fertilization we can not only create a human life but grow it to birth in a laboratory setting? 10 There would be no guarantee that they'd every know their parents. What if this was done on a mass scale by a government which does not value anything above its own success? What happens when virtual reality becomes so captivating that people value what's in the VR realm more than real life. What if virtual worlds become more real than this reality? This is by no means a comprehensive search or explanation of the technologies that are being developed, but simply a set of examples that might make it clear that Transhumanism is on its way, and it is going to change everything about everything.
"Won’t it be boring to live forever in a perfect world? Why not try it and see?" 11 Fundamentally this whole movement is a logical extension of the rejection of the Theistic and Christian worldview that was happening in Dostoyevsky's time, we are just more technologically advanced. The question is, would this new world really become Heaven on earth, or would it rather resemble Hell? Just as the many questions of Transhumanism take for granted that all that exists is the material world, its axioms and foundations, likewise, have already assumed this.
This whole Materialistic worldview assumes that human beings are nothing but biological creatures who respond to value in terms of physical pleasure and pain. Even more "complex" values they still claim they can be reduced to brain functions, again, physical pleasure and pain. It also assumes that God doesn't exist and that the Afterlife doesn't exist, without providing any argument against it. Could it not be the case that this is simply wrong, that death is actually birth into true eternal life? Likewise, what makes everyone think that there would be utopia on earth in which suffering will cease to exist? If we had an advanced machine, or virtual reality, in which all suffering was removed and all we experienced was increasing levels of pleasure, this too would become torture. It would be its own suffering because human beings need suffering to appreciate what is good. Riding people of struggle, drive, and suffering would at the same time bring an even worse suffering upon them ... pure nihilism, as physical pleasure has no ultimate meaning.
The human person must be considered in light of the philosophical tradition of the past. The Aristotelian and Scholastic view is that we are a composite of form and matter, soul and body, immaterial and physical. Therefore, there are values that physical pleasure cannot provide us, that we cannot simulate with technology, that are too complex to run through a mathematical algorithm. Just hooking everyone up to pleasure machines will not solve the human condition. Pleasure satiates and becomes boring for a creature that is meant, not just for pleasure, but for deep personal meaning, relationship! Thus, even if we had a perfect utopia where bodily suffering was eliminated, wouldn't we just break the whole system out of boredom, as Jordan Peterson has said many a time reflecting on Dostoyevsky's Note from the Underground? Not only this, but Aristotle and St. Thomas (and even more so Plato) clearly show that the nature of knowledge and human consciousness is of a qualitatively different nature than the physical world. While AI may get very advanced, and I have no doubt that it will, it is impossible for a computer program to synthesize or create an immaterial reality that operates on the level of abstract universal and immaterial ideas.
Now within the limits of space in this post, I cannot do these philosophical arguments justice, but I simply wanted to bring to light what is coming for our society if we abandon God and Christianity at the same time we are rapidly advancing with technology. Maybe you're not too worried because you're concluding this post saying to yourself, "I don't have to worry, I'll be dead by then." That might be true, but take a moment and think... if we let this happen, for those alive, the question won't be "When am I going to die?", the question could become, "What if they don't let me die?".
1 - Wakefield, Jane. Maker of Suicide Pod Plans to Launch in Switzerland. BBC, Dec 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-59577162
2 - Humanity+. What is Transhumanism?. https://whatistranshumanism.org/#what-is-a-posthuman
3 - Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed. Kindle edition. Pg. 116, 119.
4 - Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed. Kindle edition. Pg. 253.
5 - Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed. Kindle edition. Pg. 677.
6 - Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae/. Papal Encyclical (1995). Paragraph 15. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
7 - Vyas, Kashyap. Designer Babies: Gene-Editing and the Controversial Use of CRISPR. Interesting Engineering Magazine. 2019. https://interestingengineering.com/designer-babies-gene-editing-and-the-controversial-use-of-crispr
8 - Stein, Rob. Scientists Create Early Embryos That Are Part Human, Part Monkey. National Public Radio. 2021. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/04/15/987164563/scientists-create-early-embryos-that-are-part-human-part-monkey
9 - The Telegraph. All sperm, no eggs: Motherless babies on the way, say scientists. National Post. 2016. https://nationalpost.com/news/world/all-sperm-no-eggs-motherless-babies-on-the-way-say-scientists#:~:text=of%20two%20men.-,All%20sperm%2C%20no%20eggs%3A%20Motherless%20babies%20on%20the%20way%2C,say%20scientists%20Back%20to%20video&text=Scientists%20have%20shown%20embryos%20could,be%20fertilized%20by%20a%20sperm.
10 - Kleeman, Jenny. 'Parents can look at their foetus in real time': are artificial wombs the future?. The Guardian. 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jun/27/parents-can-look-foetus-real-time-artificial-wombs-future
11 - Humanity+. What is Transhumanism?. https://whatistranshumanism.org/#what-is-a-posthuman