Over the last decade, a small, marginalized, and often discredited assembly of groups that has had as its goal the elimination of biological death by technoscientific means has grown to gain major influence in Silicon Valley and become accepted as a bona fide part of the world of biotechnology and scientific research more generally. From motel room meetings, DIY operating rooms, and garage labs a decade ago, technoscientific immortality projects have found their way into major initiatives at companies like Google and highly capitalized ventures such as Life Biosciences; research on the possibilities of rejuvenation has found its way into important research labs all over the country, such as that of George Church at Harvard University; and the front pages of important popular and scientific publications and media outlets now lend fame, rather than infamy, to the early advocates of technoscientific immortality—people such as Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and Martine Rothblatt.
Even though the movement is composed of a diverse range of groups, with different approaches, practices, and agendas, and while in the new limelight they almost all shy away from the word “immortality,” they all nevertheless have a common goal: extending personal identity beyond its current biological limitations, beyond what is seen as its current and contingent instantiation in a defective biological platform that leads to death. Many turn to bioengineering or informatic strategies, considering, for example, artificial intelligence (AI) as a potential method of capturing and extending personal identity through mind uploading. Not all immortalists want to jettison the cellular carapace that is our human body, the wetware of our being, and reconstitute themselves as machine or as code. But even those who don’t want to be transubstantiated as computer algorithms nevertheless want to get past biology’s betrayal of the body, its degenerative descent into death; that is, even the more biocentric of the immortalists favor at least a hybrid body, subjected to computational interventions or nanotechnological reconstructions of biological mechanisms. In a sense, then, they all want to extend being beyond life.
I use the term “immortalism” to denote the movement as a whole, since the core groups have been tightly interconnected, with members and main actors supporting and advocating for each other regardless of their particular focus, appearing on each other’s boards and conference panels and audiences, advocating for transhumanism, Singularitarianism, space colonization, and a range of other futurist visions. Members are mostly atheist, white, male, and often libertarian futurists who may be scientists, venture capitalists, organizers, writers, computer engineers, or scientifically oriented laypeople fascinated by the prospect of defeating death and advancing technological futures more generally. Some groups and members advocate rejuvenation therapies through molecular biology and engineering, others through the translation of identity to artificial neural networks, while others place their bets on cryonic preservation and innovations in nanotechnology that could lead to reanimation or bodily repair on an atomic scale. Cryonics, which requires the preservation of body and brain in liquid nitrogen upon the legal declaration of death, is the oldest of the immortalist strategies, but today, for many, it has become the backup option, not the preferred one. If in the next few decades molecular biologists don’t solve the problem of aging, or if neuroscientists and AI researchers do not manage to create conscious-enough digital replicas, then at least cryonics will allow dying people to be suspended until such time as science will have advanced far enough to do all those things.
Two common premises underlie the strategies. First, they do not hold a necro-ontological view: death is not an inevitable fact about the way existence is constituted in the universe. Since it is only a biological fact, a contingency of evolution’s, and not an ontological necessity (Marcuse 1959), it may be defeated. Second, and less predictably, immortalists hold not only a neurocentric but also an informatic view of human persons (and often of the universe); in immortalism, the precise pattern of atoms in the brain (the information) essentially constitutes the self, including its memories and abilities. The Brains “R” Us proposition was mapped out in the nineteenth century by materialists who did not abide any notion of a transcendental soul as the locus of personhood, and thus sought qualities of the person such as consciousness, intentionality, and identity in matter itself. The matter at hand was the brain, and its mapping has been literal at least ever since Paul Broca in France and other atheist anthropologists and phrenologists began to cut open the skull and plot the brain’s regions onto capacities and behaviors, beginning what, in her well-known study of the Society of Mutual Autopsy, Jennifer Hecht (2003, 254) has called their “deconsecrating projects.” Poking around in the skull, they were happy to declare that there was no soul found in there; instead, they found a clear link between aspects of personality, such as memory or language, and particular structures and regions of the brain. As a basic ontology along with a set of strategies, neurological correlation and causality continue today in neuroscience, in forms such as neurochemical reductionism and brain mapping, flattening out the “space between person and organ” (N. Rose 2007, 198).
That we are our brains entails that if the structures and functions of the brain were known or preserved or replicated at a detailed enough scale, then the self could also be theoretically known or preserved or replicated. For technoscientific immortality projects, this has deep consequences: theoretically, if those patterns—the exact connections and states of your dendrites, axons, nerve endings, and other features of neurons and their synaptic connections and functions—are known or preserved somewhere somehow, then they can in some theoretical future be rebuilt or reanimated again on a biological or nonbiological substrate. This notion of death is what is known in those circles as information-theoretic death.
Its original formulation came from Georgia Tech computer scientist Ralph Merkle, who worked with Dr. Robert Freitas, a nanotechnologist who in turn worked closely with the Foresight Institute, an organization set up by Christine Peterson (see Preface) and Eric Drexler. As chapter 2 will describe in more detail, nanotechnology was all about thinking mechanically at the smallest scale, thinking of the very building blocks of life and mind as bots of some sort. It was in that context, then, that death was turned into an information-theoretic matter, where a new kind of potential person emerges whose personhood depends on the development of future technologies and on a notion of a mind–matter continuum conceived through an informatic vision of being. At the nanoscale everything could be code plus function; the person’s fleshiness becomes secondary, part of a contingent carbon substrate. Indeed, Merkle’s (1992) definition of death carries no biological terminology whatsoever:
A person is dead according to the information theoretic criterion if their memories, personality, hopes, dreams, etc. have been destroyed in the information theoretic sense. If the structures in the brain that encode memory and personality have been so disrupted that it is no longer possible in principle to recover them, then the person is dead. If they are sufficiently intact that inference of the state of memory and personality are feasible in principle, and therefore restoration to an appropriate functional state is likewise feasible in principle, then the person is not dead. (1992, 9)
It was a definition that took hold in the futuristic context fusing nanotechnology and cryonics and computation. It was the only definition of absolute death that seemed plausible for cryonics and for technoscientific immortality more generally. In this information-theoretic scenario, function and biology no longer provide sufficient criteria for the evaluation of death, so death becomes largely an information recovery and engineering problem. The implications of such a view affect not only death and dying but the rest of existence too, for it is as “information-beings,” or informatic selves (Farman 2014a), that bodies and minds are to be cultivated, preserved, extended, or even edited. Biological life and death would be transformed unrecognizably, and to be immortal you would first have to be nonlife, assume a posthuman form.
Immortality in the information age, then, is a very particular manifestation of not dying, requiring particular assumptions about life and mind and personhood, engendering particular technological desires and futures, constructing particular nonbiological notions of human and posthuman. Many immortalist and transhumanist projects (the memberships overlap but are not identical), such as those run by the trans transhumanist Martine Rothblatt, are geared toward having your “mind” or your “information” uploaded on to a digital platform, becoming an avatar, a robot, or some other nonbiological form of superintelligence that would still be functionally you. The ubiquitous transhumanist Elon Musk, the founder of the private space venture Space X, has been promoting chip implants in the brain that could interface seamlessly with vast computational networks, merging human minds with AI to make the species superhuman and help it survive. In the immortalist and transhumanist communities, all this is cause for rejoicing. For humanists like Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, this spells doom for humans and humanity. Writing in response to Musk’s plans,1 Greenblatt argued that humanity is in part defined by biology and especially “biological flaws,” without which “we lose an essential part of who we are.”2
Immortalists I worked with always expressed surprise at how little traction immortality, or life-extension research, had gained among the wider populace. After all, avoiding death and striving for healthy longevity seemed to them an uncontroversial human desire. Was it not clear to everyone that death was a bad thing, something people already tried to avoid on a daily basis, that humans had been striving to overcome death forever? Now, after millennia of cooking up illusory techniques like mummification and concepts like the soul or the afterlife, here was a real scientific possibility of conquering death, and no one was coming on board?! They often pegged the blame on the ongoing influence of religious doctrines. Even those who weren’t churchgoers were still under the sway of fake news about death and the afterlife. At the same time, I myself was struck by the extent to which secularists, scientists, and humanists such as Greenblatt, rather than religious folks, were the most vocal critics of the prospect of technoscientific immortality. Physicians, hospice workers, physicists, cryobiologists, lawyers, philosophers, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, my social science colleagues, and atheist friends consistently berated immortalists and transhumanists, viscerally reacting against their ideas and, in turn, calling the immortalists religious, often in public debates, often in secular and scientific publications.
That tension points to the core problematic of this book. What happens when a category like immortality goes from being a project given over to religion to a project adopted by technoscience? What can that tell us about secular assumptions? How are death and not dying related to secular notions and ways of being human and of moving beyond the human?
Addressing these questions entails tracing the ways in which technoscientific immortality constructed a posthuman vision of being, a whole cosmology even, in order to advance its immortalist agenda, thereby roiling those who have adopted a hard-fought secular ideal of what human is, what history is, and how the future must progress. That is so because part of what the secular humanist ideal has entailed has been a specific orientation toward death, the acceptance of its inevitability, its finality, and its meaningfulness in human life and civilization. The goal of this book is to examine contemporary “immortality” not just as a set of technoscientific techniques that are building a posthuman future but as a historical, rather than universal, concept within the West, infused with assumptions, problems, fears, tensions, and concerns that arose as the secularization process took hold of the minds of men [sic] and the institutions of law, medicine, and science.
Promise and Prohibition
Mortality and immortality tend to lend themselves to universal narratives, to sweeping claims about humanity and civilization and the metaphysics of being and not being. Often, these grand narratives go something like this: Members of Homo sapiens sapiens, the doubly knowing species, are said to be aware of their impending demise, of the possibility of their own ending, and that makes of humans a strange and poetic species in the universe, for we humans know not only that we exist but that we will also cease to exist; we are aware not only of being but of the cessation of being. Indeed, this “death awareness” is said to define us as a species. What’s more, it is said that it’s precisely this relationship to death that lends meaning to life; it is through mortality that humans find purpose in life; it is the deepest font of motivation and creativity. Humans are moved—dare we say animated—by death. Without death, the narratives say, we would not be human.
Because of our awareness of death, and because death is at the same time the negation of awareness, we humans are said to be also afraid of death; and so we are the species that consciously seeks a way out of dying. Unlike other species, we have tried a wide range of inventions to transcend this biological limit, to defeat it, deny it. Out of the prospect of mortality, humans have imagined the possibility of immortality, conjuring up futures in which we might continue to exist despite the reality of death. Refusing this mechanical inevitability, this biological condition, is also what makes us human, if tragically so, as the humanist philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1972) pointed out. From the first ritualized burials where we laid out some food and left our dead their goods to take with them to the other world, through the mummies and monuments of big civilizations to art forms and quests for the fountain of youth and backroom deals with gods and devils to today’s biotechtopian ventures, humans have pursued immortality in all sorts of tragic, ironic, comic, absurd, and very human ways. When archaeologists identify a formal burial site, they immediately know it is human because, the story goes, only humans have attended to their dead, have created rituals around their dead, memorialized them and continued their existence in this way (T. Taylor 2004). To die is human. To not die is also human (or at least to die trying not to die). One is biology, the other is culture. One is given, inevitable; the other is an overcoming and a fantasy at the same time. The human condition, in this narrative, is the classic interplay of nature and culture, of biological mortality and symbolic immortality.
That interplay is imagined as an underlying force in the motivations of human beings—captured by E. M. Forster’s well-known statement that “death destroys a man but the idea of it saves him”—and the telos of human history. Many, like Sigmund Freud ( 1962) and Ernest Becker (1973), have gone as far as to suggest that without this quest to overcome death not only would our lives feel meaningless but also we would have no religion and no great civilizations. The psychologist Robert Lifton also proposed as much: “Much of history can be understood as a struggle to achieve, maintain and reaffirm a collective sense of immortality” (1987, 283). A recent, popular iteration of this narrative puts it this way: “A will to immortality is the underlying driver of civilization” (Cave 2012, 14; also see Gollner 2013). This is a story that not only seems intuitively correct but is widely accepted given the supposed historical evidence, those monuments connected to large empires and priestly cults, erected to satiate the human yearning to last beyond the limits of physical finitude.
Far from being a clear idea, desire, or category through which a history of humanity may be neatly organized and teleologically narrated, immortality has been a contested and shifting category, changing meaning and carrying different charges in different domains at different times in history. Those presumptuous stories about immortality and history, about the human relation to death and not dying, do not describe an actual history of human development; rather, they are describing Western secular humanism’s entanglements with these issues. The secular as a social formation (Asad 2003)—as a set of epistemological rules, metaphysical premises, scientific practices, political laws, cultural assumptions, and colonial histories—was shaped from its beginnings and in important respects through the emphatic stance secularists assumed in relation to death and death’s finality, projecting finite limits and definitive endings not just for individuals but for species, civilizations, the planet, even the cosmos. Immortality was said to belong to the realm of religious delusions, and so it has been one of the markers through which distinctions between key categories of the secular and the religious, the modern and nonmodern, person and nonperson, life and nonlife, human and nonhuman, were constructed and managed, though not very cleanly, since immortality overspills the boundaries of those secular binaries, in law as much as in medicine and public life.
“Secular” and “immortality”—two key words in the subtitle of this book—sit together tensely. If immortality is said to belong to the realm of religious delusions, which the secular tries to keep at bay, the promise of immortality today is nevertheless coming through science, one of the pillars of secular authority. That has been immortality’s history in the modern era, where on the one hand it has been pitched as an illusion by secular humanists (e.g., Lamont  1990), who associate it with some kind of soul that survives the materiality of the body, and on the other, it has also been a real category within scientific inquiry, where its fate ranges from viable research concept to bona fide goal to anathema (e.g., Hayflick 2000). As a figure, then, the secular immortal is suspended between tense polarities—immortality is illusion, immortality is possible; accept death, extend life; life is all there is, death is all there is; the future is open, the future is finite; life has meaning, the universe is meaningless.
Using research on immortalism, this book is more broadly about those tensions and how they shape each of the concepts (secular, immortal), how they are carried forth and reproduced in relation to death and continuity, mortality and immortality, and materiality and the immaterial through institutions of science, law, and medicine. The tensions I refer to arose through a historical process of secularization in the West, which I have grouped in three domains, each taking on the problem of continuity from a different angle: the elimination of the soul and hence the mind–body problem (dualism), the elimination of the afterlife and hence the problem of time and finitude, and the elimination of a cosmological order and hence the problem of telos and purpose. Each process of secularization has produced a set of gaps or discontinuities around which grow zones of indeterminacy (Kaufman and Morgan 2005) where science, medicine, and law have at best offered answers that have been controversial and at worst have declared that no proper answer can be furnished.
First, the rise of materialism and the elimination of the soul, among the key processes of secularization (Aries 1975; Lacquer 2015; Makari 2015; R. Martin and Barresi 2004; N. Rose 1996; Sloane 1991), produced important new practices and dispositions, emphasizing the materialist determination and self-understanding of the human animal as body and biology—for example, as gene, as brain, as code, as cell or organism, as evolutionarily hardwired, and so on.
Equally and alongside this came the elimination of the afterlife, which ushered in a sense of the finality of death and the nothingness that follows it, a feeling that, in the words of Unamuno, was “more terrifying than hell” (1972, 48). Whatever the affective reactions, the scientific elimination of the soul and the afterlife led to a particular view of the finitude of life. This second shift in the secular frame occurred, then, when certain temporal orders were rendered illegitimate (Kosselleck 2002; C. Taylor 2007) and secular scientific worldviews discarded such “illusions” as eternity, resurrection, and cyclical time (Leach 1961), instead generating their own secular eschatologies.
The third is the convoluted and tense secular scientific relationship to the cosmos and to telos, according to which cultural, physical, and biological evolution are nondirectional and without a predefined purpose, even though a strong notion of progress animates all secular social and scientific projects. Many immortalists, in the meantime, seem quite happy positing a kind of purpose, based on their notions of information and a “waking universe” (e.g., Kurzweil 2007; Tegmark 2017). According to theories about the technological Singularity, once the accelerating pace of technological developments leads to an intelligence explosion in computation and machines become conscious enough to reproduce themselves and have an interest in doing so, the future will no longer be predictable. Thus the Singularity suggests the collapse of the mind–matter divide. Indeed, as I will argue further, immortalism frequently challenges the consensus views around all three zones, pushing the boundaries of secular norms from within.
Aspects of these problems may also exist in some version in other cultures and ages. In some sense, dualism, for example, seems to be common cross-culturally (Porath 2007), and the thought that something like the soul (or many souls) and body were separate predates Descartes in what is commonly called the Western tradition. Equally, it is wrong to think that the Western materialist tradition is the only one to truly think of individual death as final. Certain hunter-gatherer groups such as the Hazda regard death in ways that would strike a materialist as perfectly reasonable (Woodburn 1982). Death is considered the end of the individual, and that’s simply that. They don’t even conduct any elaborate ceremonies. Plus materialiste que les materialistes!
But these questions get raised and tackled in the Western secular and scientific context in particular ways. The tension that charges dualism in the modern Western context, for example, is a tension between two historical strains claimed by secular thought, the materialist and the rationalist, which maps roughly onto the body and the mind (also see Jonas  2001). Rationalism (or idealism) and materialism, “which in the seventeenth century had been sitting peacefully side by side” (Collingwood 1960, 12), turned into rivals in the eighteenth as a result of secularization. One might say that once Descartes’s God was removed from the equation there was nothing left to mediate the relationship between mind and body, rationalism and materialism. This internal secular “rivalry” changed the nature of dualism such that “mind–body” went from describing a relationship, a continuum, to describing a problem, a discontinuity. Ongoing contemporary struggles over the determinations of life and death in the biopolitical sphere are refractions of these dualist problems: as chapter 4 will explore, for the establishment, continuity, or end of personhood, secular courts and medical institutions require physical correlates for concepts and categories such as intentionality, autonomy, and consciousness that are social, metaphysical (rational), or undetermined.
Sometimes these gaps and tensions serve to reproduce the secular–religious binary by drawing strong lines of demarcation, as though there were somehow two stable (and preexisting) realms—as when a secular judge is trying to adjudicate whether to grant a religious exception for a practice and must somehow determine what counts as religion or religious, and why (see Agrama 2010 and W. Sullivan 2007 on the arbitrariness of this). At other times the tensions may be internal, as between materialism and rationalism (Tambiah  2000).
While materialism searches explicitly to eliminate or overcome the boundary, rationalism since Immanuel Kant has issued a waiver,3 saying that certain matters are not in the domain of empirical and scientific determination. Since determining ultimate meaning, value, and purpose are generally said to be outside the finite purview of scientific knowledge, some secularists make room for religiosity in the provision of values and accounts of ultimate meaning. Secularists such as Clifford Geertz, Jürgen Habermas, and many others say religion has served the function of assuaging existential anxieties, providing comfort regarding the unanswerable metaphysical and cosmological questions about human origin and purpose. Materialism, in the meantime, moves forward with its totalizing project, abiding no gaps, a stance exemplified, for example, by the quest in physics for “a theory of everything,” or sociobiology’s bid to explain values, morality, and consciousness, or the quest in neuroscience to materialize the mind, to close the gap between mind and matter. Materialist or rationalist or both, a secular subject might well think there must be a larger meaning to existence, but she knows that it’s not something she can assert in a secularly viable way; or rather, that asserting it would mean that secular norms would categorize her as religious, spiritual, primitive, deluded, schizophrenic, or worse, what one interlocutor called “whackadoo.”
Once it produced a void in answer to the question “Is there nothing after this?” the secular spawned its own temporalities of anticipation, its own eschatological dispositions, and fears of finitude. In chapter 3, I will argue that the final ending of the individual stands in contrast to the ongoing evolution of the world and especially to progress, in which the future is always supposed to get better. So it may be that in other cultures there is an obvious sense in which you end and the world goes on without you; but time does not go on in the same way if your notion of continuity is eternal return, or reincarnation; time does not go on in the same way if you assume there is a better continuity elsewhere in the land of ancestors or in God’s heaven. What’s more, shifts in the eschatological horizon brought about by the elimination of the afterlife along with the development of scientific knowledge about evolution have produced a particular relationship not just to individual death but to other kinds of larger endings and continuities such as extinction, obsolescence, survival, and succession.
The secularizing West may not have been the first to ask these questions, of course, but, at least from Blaise Pascal onward it may have been the first to be terrified by its own particular answers. What seems to mark the secular is not only the finality of individual death, the expiration of individual consciousness, but the further claim that there is no purpose whatsoever in existence, that since matter itself is not meaning making (no mind in matter), then there is a discontinuity between this absurdly meaning-seeking animal called human and the meaningless unfolding of the universe. Indeed, positing a purpose for the meaningless processes of the universe, as many religious and nonmodern cosmologies do, would be to commit a fallacy. Thus, the dogma has held that meaningful and teleological cosmologies are not to be considered in any valid theory. The secular human is cosmically alienated.
Stitching these ideas together, I would say that the mind–body problem is part of the problem of cosmic alienation or secular disenchantment, and throughout the book I approach the secular as a set of tensions around these larger dualities, including the relationship of mind to the universe, how the former (the mind and its intentions) can or cannot be a part of the latter (the universe of purposeless matter). Part of the reason the mind–matter relationship is so salient is because it is a key problem for science, and science is one of the pillars of secular authority, through which the boundaries of religion get established. The psychologist Steven Pinker, for example, has grandly declared the hard divide between matter and consciousness to be the only real chasm left in science. For the liberal secular humanist George Kateb, the mind–matter problem is a fundamental issue, and the secular becomes the exclusive frame for the investigation of its unresolved problem. “Secular investigation,” he wrote, “must begin with the postulate that mind developed out of matter” but that there is yet no proper scientific account of it and neither can there be a religious one: “This is a mystery that religion does nothing to penetrate, and that only scientific reason could ever dissolve, provided it did not replace religious presumptuousness with its own” (2009, 1015).
Technoscientific immortality projects become an exemplary site of these anxious demarcations if only because they work on the continuity of mind and person beyond death and across matter. After all, what is one to make of figures such as “the patient” in cryonic suspension, who is considered legally dead by secular institutions of medicine and law but potentially alive by cryonics criteria because his or her brain information is intact? Or digital avatars of persons whose informatic selves are recognized as partial agents and beamed out by satellite into the universe? Or the Singularitarian claim that the cognitive, computational purpose of the universe is equally the purpose of humans and so we must develop computational superintelligence? What I saw and heard in immortalist circles required a nondualistic vision of the world, but it was not the nondualism of the New Age nor exactly the reductive materialism of science; for example, in immortalist views the person or the self or the mind could be disembodied and separated from the original biological body, but it was not, at the same time, posited as a soul or spirit or some other unaccounted-for substance.
So much about immortality seems to turn on the mind (or consciousness) and its relationship to matter, to the body, at least as these have been conceived and understood in the West for the last few centuries: the way the mind or consciousness seems to exceed matter and yet has always also to be contained by it; the way the universe has been cut up between the two, matter being inanimate and purposeless, mind being the opposite. Reductive materialism has prescribed a kind of monism in which the two were not conceivable independently, not without betraying materialism and bringing that thing called religion (or rationalism!) into the mix, as Cartesians or transcendentalists or spiritualists had done, by invoking a god or a nonmaterial world of spirits or Platonic ideals or a universal consciousness. That is why some philosophers, like Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland, fight hard to depict consciousness as irrelevant, a temporary illusion that neuroscience and AI will eventually dispel, just as spirits, demons, and homunculi were dispatched in a previous era. If you are a materialist, what can you do with consciousness but dismiss it or materialize it? Or else you end up a dualist and get charged with being at best a mysterian, at worst a closet mystic, and maybe if you are lucky a rationalist, a metaphysician.
No surprise, then, that immortalist forays become part of the contested metaphysics of the secular–religious divide. What was more surprising was the extent to which immortalists embraced, played with, and altered spirituality, religion, and religious-like tropes. Rather than managing that boundary as per traditional secular institutions, immortalists and their epistemic and material entities were bringing out the tension and contributing to the blurring and dissolving of that boundary—even as they also kept pulling back in order to maintain some distance from the religious, supernatural, and whackadoo. A good example of this appears in a recent publication by a transhumanist philosopher who argues that digital entities carrying your information also carry forward some aspect of you, which he calls a ghost: “Any possible future digital ghost carries information about your life. Since it carries that information, you remain, after death, in your ghost.” But he is very quick to point out that “of course, digital ghosts are not like the ghosts described by spiritualists or occultists. Digital ghosts are entirely physical patterns of energy in material computing machines. They are not supernatural” (Steinhart 2014, 2). Immortalism depends both on the establishment of the boundary between science and religion (to remain legitimate) and on its breach (to reach its destination). Secular and scientific immortality projects need to distinguish themselves from religious ones, yet they themselves are often designated as a religiously inflected pseudoscience precisely because they pursue immortality. After all, to claim nonsymbolic immortality, to deny the finality of endings like death, is to enter the zone of the supernatural, the whackadoo. At the same time, immortality is the very promise embedded in modern secular futures, not only because the biopolitical or life-saving logic of modern medicine slips down that slope with its promise to stave off death and debility, but because immortality is the redemptive end of progress and technoscientific advance. In this way, in the secular, immortality is forbidden but promised. To be secular is to emphasize endings and their finality in order to assert one’s own nonreligiousness, but the secular also needs to transcend endings in order to make sense of its own order, its own triumph, to redeem immanence beyond the absurdity of transient finalities. A salvation from the absurdity of materialist death and other final endings, immortality figures at the end point of the secular promise of the good life, for how can the good life be good in any nonabsurd sense with death looming as the absurd end of everything, of me, you, the universe?
Limits of Humanism and Emerging Cosmologies
I hope that in exploring these zones of tension and indeterminacy I will be able to say something more general about a secular subject whose life is embroiled in a double coil of hope and anxiety, of endless possibility and absolute limits, the futures of progress and of an absurd death that ends everything always prematurely. I am also hoping to explore ways in which those dualities and tensions are shifting as secular humanism gives way to forms of posthumanism, including transhumanism,4 and as secular scientific imaginaries struggle with their cosmologies, trying to imagine existence beyond the contingency of a random birth, beyond the splendid isolation or alienation of the conscious figure of modern humanism embedded in an unconscious cosmic context.
Before I continue, it is worth saying a few more words about the concepts of secularism and the secular, which have benefited from a recent abundance of analysis. Secularism—the more familiar designation—is a doctrine about political and institutional arrangements, insisting on the separation of religious authority from political or governmental authority. Such a separation is also about the contest over epistemic authority, about what knowledge from which institutions counts as valid for the conduct of projects mainly in law, medicine, science, and education. The arrangement called separation, then, is organized around less visible background concepts, foundational assumptions, validity rules, and dispositions that define a proper relationship to reality and may together be called the secular. As a general condition for the emergence, legitimation, and management of secularism, secular formations (Asad 2003) may be considered to be underlying secularism’s normative politics. What’s at stake, then, is not just the shallow and supposedly neutral separation of institutions but “the unceasing material and moral transformation” of citizens (their bodies, affective dispositions, and minds) “regardless of their diverse ‘religious’ allegiances” (Asad 2003, 191).
Charles Taylor, with a different agenda from Asad’s, trains his lens on “experience” in a secular age, or rather how the secular age has produced “the possibility or impossibility of certain kinds of experience” (2007, 11). For Taylor, an envelope of secular assumptions covers the majority of people’s experiences and actions in today’s West in general5—even for people who are “religious.” In other words, religious or nonreligious, a person in the West lives in a context in which the existence of God is not taken for granted, in which the world is largely made sense of in terms of this-worldly causality, and in which the tension between belief and unbelief becomes in itself constitutive of experience on a wide scale. It is interesting to note, however, that Taylor’s massive tome scarcely mentions the topic of immortality, even though its main thrust is to describe the cultural setting, or the conditions of possibility, that enabled the rise and spread of a largely secular point of view, what he calls the “immanent frame.” Yet, surely, the elimination, or rather the reconfiguration, of immortality or an afterlife constitutes one of the key experiential conditions of modern secular living—and dying.
A common position in recent years has been to note the extent to which secularism is imbued with a repressed and hidden religiosity, specifically a set of cloaked Christian and, more specifically, Protestant concepts and dispositions whose past is veiled and which get posited as universal secular positions. I rather lean toward Hans Blumenberg’s position (1983), which suggests that at some point modernity and reason must be understood as having attained their own analytic concepts and social forms rather than be taken as recastings of religious pasts. This is not to legitimate secular concepts and dispositions as those that allow for the best purchase on the real (the story secularists tell). Rather, my point is to assert that the secular has its own logic and tradition by now, that there are rules that try to define and redefine proper secular attitudes and logics—these are related to atheism, materialism, modernity, medicine, and liberal ideas of a self. If secularism as a form of governmentality has separated certain domains as real and illusory, the secular is what suggests what should be permitted in which, what attitude is appropriate where, what hopes and fears are valid, where the boundaries lie: the conviction that humans not spirits will make the world better; that entropy, not Christian Armageddon, is to be feared; that anxiety about the nothingness at the end of life is the right affect, not terror at the punishment meted out by the Lord. A secular subject might believe in God or wild spirits privately but also know that in a secular court of law she cannot say “The green fairy made me do it” in order to justify an action, unless she wants to claim incompetence to stand trial; she knows that in a science paper she cannot say “I know my eyes can see because God made sure my retina had ganglion cells” or even that in a multiverse there is “an eternal time beyond this one” or “I know what is right because my ancestor spirit told me.” If any of these is accorded in a secular court of law or a university classroom it is either through insanity pleas or religious exceptions (even if secular worlds such as medicine are full of uncanny but mainly repressed presences [see Whitmarsh and Roberts 2016]).
But, as I have argued, there are indeterminacies in fundamental parts of the apparent norms and consensus, and thus the secular carries with it its own distinct conflicts in zones of indeterminacy. “Indeterminacy” is also a term used by Hussein Agrama (2010) to describe the ways in which secularism, or the secular state, maintains its full sovereignty through the courts by constantly blurring the public–private boundary on which secularism depends. For to designate a realm as religious and thus subject to religious authority is to cede a chunk of sovereignty. Agrama shows how in the law and in family court cases in Egypt, the family is at once associated with religion while at the same time placed at the foundation of public order, defined explicitly as a secular concept. Secularism in general folds religious freedom and privacy into invocations of public order, a cunning strategy (Fernando 2014b) that allows the secular state dominion over what it itself designates as a religious domain. I am influenced by Agrama’s notion of indeterminacy, especially in relation to the legal relationship to corpses (chapter 4). However, I am not convinced that the blurring is part of a managed attempt at sovereignty; rather it betrays deep-seated problems in secular conceptualizations of the world—what I call the gaps. Thus, the public–private distinction of secularism is less salient here compared to the existential issues, which secularism also deploys to draw the secular–religious boundary. Rather than seeing indeterminacy as a deliberate exercise of power in secularism, I understand those indeterminacies and their ensuing tensions as constituting the secular and forming secular subjects. In my rendering, the secular is less secure and more anxious.
I am not proposing the secular as some homogeneous formation to be found everywhere secularization has taken hold; the same disclaimer holds for the domain I keep calling science. But I do see commonalities across the differences. One of the conventional ways to think about differences in secularism has been to suggest that in Europe, secularism took an explicitly anticlerical form that instituted a rigid separation between religion and the state, while in the United States the impulse was more about accommodating pluralism, which gave shape to the First Amendment (e.g., Casanova 1994; for a more detailed account of shifts and negotiations in this history see Feldman 2002). This may be true in part for the legal structure, but it is hardly the whole story. Outside the courts, American secularists and freethinkers were quite outward and firm in their rejection of religious tenets, authority, faith, and forms of knowledge. As Noah Feldman (2005) and Susan Jacoby (2004) recount, early American scientists and writers were “strong secularists” adamant about replacing religion with reason. In nineteenth-century creeds by the likes of John William Draper (1876), separation was understood not only as institutional neutrality but as an opposition between reason and traditional authority, otherwise framed as a conflict between science and religion. The same was true for psychologists, who replaced the “science of the soul” with the science of the mind (see chapters 1 and 4). Today the secularist position is reflected not only in the very vocal declamations of the new atheists (who have ardent fans in immortalist circles) but also in middle-of-the-road secular humanists like Kateb, whom I mentioned above.
Even as we can acknowledge that science, the secular, and secularism arise and function differently in, say, Turkey or France than they do in China or the United States, it seems to me that both have the capacity to cross geographic and national boundaries in cultural networks of their own. Thus, for example, a scientific paper on immortal jellyfish in Japan or on planaria worms in Germany and related claims about immortality in nature will echo loudly in biological circles—not to mention public media—in many separate locations globally. So despite the differences, many of the secular conceptions that animate the particularities of the American secular approach to immortality are shared across secular scientific and Western cultures and institutions. When I invoke secular science I am not referring to specific practices or methods. In part, science as a social project is secular insofar as it maintains that the transcendent or supernatural can add nothing to proper explanations of reality, that the afterlife is illusory, that the universe has no goal or meaning, and that there are no spirits in things, or mind in nature. Science becomes a clear part of secularism in those instances when, by virtue of these secular negations, it is enrolled in enforcing the secular–religious divide. But I am also referring to something more specific: the secular in science denotes an aspect of the scientific project that is caught between its Kantian/rationalist abnegation on matters of meaning, mind, and value as concerns beyond the purview of science proper, and its convictions that the explanation of everything, including matters of meaning, mind, and value, are to be found in a naturalist or materialist model.
In the case of death in the United States, whether you are a Buddhist or Christian or a neopagan, your dying and later dead body will be processed through secular institutions of medicine and law, according to rules that adhere to materialist determinations of the body’s condition (rather than an assessment of the state of the soul), using specific material technologies, and applying the authority of secular legal institutions (the state medical examiner, state laws regulating the determination of death). Even if most people in the United States believe in the soul and its survival after death,6 most people must face this secular regime and its assessments. If for some reason or other one were to object to some part of this series of procedures—say, to autopsy—then usually if there is any accommodation it is only granted when there are religious reasons for the objection. It is granted as a “religious exception,” thereby only confirming the secular grounds of the regime as a whole. And yet, consistently, facts of the matter about personhood, consciousness, and the line between life and death get unsettled by science and technology themselves. Thus, political conflicts in American secularism have not just been about whether this particular activity, say education, is religious or not; they have been over epistemic and metaphysical content. They have been about questions like What is a person? What is consciousness? When does a person begin or end? How do we know?
I call the set of rules, institutions, and authorities that legitimize the cultural changes of status entailed in the passage from life to what follows life an “immortality regime.” As I’ll describe in more detail in chapter 4, the role of secular immortality regimes is to try and maintain stability in the face of indeterminacy when it comes to these and other existential issues. In doing so, they also point to zones that lie beyond epistemic legitimacy, zones in which science and secular knowledge have not fixed the facts of the matter, and where these cannot be authoritatively fixed either, which is why the regime is concerned with their stabilization. These gaps are produced by secular modes of knowledge—that is, they are gaps because, while remaining important concerns within secular society and central to secular accounts of the world, the relevant modes of knowledge seem unable to establish any truth of the matter regarding them. In those gaps, key categories like life and death, animate and inanimate, secular and religious, may collapse or merge; and in those gaps immortality thrives.
The secular indeterminacies regarding animation, deanimation, and reanimation are most familiar in disputes at the extremes of life, where contests over the authority to define and manage life and death are rendered more spectacular because they pitch religious groups against science on such matters as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, or end-of-life decision making. Anthropologically, I am interested in how these tensions and unresolved domains are understood, negotiated, managed, and occupied within the secular albeit by people with different claims and interests; I am interested in the new, possibly postsecular forms that are generated by technoscientific projects like immortalism and its visions of continuity.
A secular problematic, continuity has had to be constantly reimagined and reinscribed in other terms, requiring, in the words of Benedict Anderson ( 2003), “a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning.” For Anderson, the idea of the nation was one vehicle for this: “If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future” ( 2003, 11).7 Today, as collective futures are undermined and as biotechnology gains power beyond the boundaries of nations, a particular chronobiopolitics (Freeman 2007) of progress and infinitude is emerging. The immortalist imaginary’s8 extended future, a form of continuity writ large, stands against the projected future of destruction and demise, of climate collapse, nuclear holocaust, bioterror; it would have to be the redemption of modernity’s failed teleologies, of empires that need to continue their dominion, of technologies and forms of knowledge and rationality that had promised to fix everything, especially the apparent human inability to make good rational decisions, which the correct Bayesian algorithm run on the proper supercomputer promises to resolve. If the immortalist imaginary has gained traction in the secular technoscientific culture at large, it is in part because it takes on not only individual death but also collective endings and the humanist absurd.
This book is driven by the conviction that social imaginaries and philosophical discourse and many of the conundrums they address play a role in determining the texture, the shape, the experiences of the secular (or any) lifeworld. I don’t consider this an idealist approach, and I don’t lean on beliefs as such (accusations that Wendy Brown [2007, 2010] has leveled against Charles Taylor’s Hegelian approach to secularism). Concepts and conceptual issues cannot be written off as removed epistemological matters or merely the ideological superstructure of material and institutional processes of power, especially in the speculatively driven world of futurisms. Concepts are what Michel Foucault called “dispositifs”;9 they are constitutive aspects of knowledge structures, legal apparatuses, institutional networks, and administrative mechanisms deployed in the exercise and perpetuation of power. Concepts also have dispositional and affective states associated with them, particularly in secular contests where identities turn on concepts with epistemological content (e.g., atheist, believer) and where technoscientific projects unsettle our existential securities.
The immortalist project today is part of a wider technoscientific shift from biopolitics and a culture of life to a cosmology of mind and information (appearing often under the label of convergence) that is increasingly favoring nonlife, or parsing biology in terms of the nonbiological or digital. In part, this shift is a reflection of the ubiquity of computation and the growing functionalities of AI; in part it’s about a growing awareness of the inadequacy of secular views on mind and matter. Among the more critical accounts is the book Mind and Cosmos (2012) by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, in which he explicitly argues against the “secular consensus” on matters regarding teleology, meaning, and the presence of mind or subjectivity in the universe. In doing so he does not fall back on religion but rather takes note of the dogmatic rules or limits of the secular. He states bluntly that “almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science” (2012, 7). Nagel’s sober goal is to seek “an alternative secular conception . . . that acknowledge[s] mind and all that it implies, not as the expression of divine intention but as a fundamental principle of nature along with physical law” (21). It is not clear to me that such a conception would continue to be a secular one, but it does jibe with the visions of some emerging—I would say postsecular—cosmologies that are seeking to put (or imagine) mind back into matter. How that might be possible is, of course, “the hard problem.”
What the philosopher David Chalmers (2002b) made famous as the “hard problem” of consciousness holds that neuroscience’s increasing understanding of the brain is functional and mechanical and that, while it can explain many complex cognitive phenomena, including the integration of vast sensory data into unified percepts, it falls short of providing any basis for the range of first-person experiences and feelings that fall under the rubric of consciousness or mind. The third-person, objective mechanics and lawfulness of materialism seem to be insufficient to explain first-person subjectivity—in brief, the problem of the dualistic gap. To bridge the gap, Chalmers took the audacious step of suggesting a new physics. Consciousness, he proposed, should be considered one of the irreducible fundaments of physics, such that alongside physical laws we would develop psychophysical laws. Absent any data on what constitutes a psychophysical substance, it is not clear what might be meant by psychophysical at all, though Chalmers tries to get around this via the vague notion of information as a way to bridge the physical and psychological. It is not coincidental that Chalmers has become involved with transhumanist groups and conferences, as his proposal folds well with immortalists and transhumanists who, before him, had adopted an informatic view of life, death, and the universe.
The notion of “information,” as I will explain, is key to immortalist conceptions of personal identity and continuity. It has also become the basis of a cosmology, for the possibilities of immortality in a purposeful universe are constructed through ideas about information as the very stuff that both people and the universe are made of, that constitutes humans and their minds, and that will constitute posthuman intelligent forms. It is in this respect that I consider the immortalist project part of a broader trend in the Western secular imaginary that is trying to occupy what I have called the secular gaps, to eke out new conceptions of the universe and our place in it, not through spiritualism or appeals to transcendence (although that also happens) but through variations on secular scientific positions and disciplines that try to reintegrate mind and purpose into their accounts, recalibrating the mind–matter and human–cosmos relationships. In Reinventing the Sacred (2008), for instance, the biologist Stuart Kauffman speaks exuberantly of “a new, emerging scientific worldview” that could bring it all together, while others have echoed the same scientistic optimism, declaring the “emergence of a novel scientific worldview that places life and intelligence at the center of the vast, seemingly impersonal physical processes of the cosmos” (Gardner 2010, 379).
Existential Technology and the Question of Continuity
So far I have proposed (a) the secular as the site of persistent tensions—epistemic, metaphysical, and political. In other words, my notion of the secular is not that which, like reductive materialism, essentially takes the side of matter over mind, or chooses the side of the machine by eliminating the ghost from the machine; rather, I see the secular as the site of a face-off between the ghost and the machine, finitude and infinitude, soul and cell, mind and matter, materialism and rationalism. These discontinuities require each other as well as the boundary that separates them, a boundary that is also part of the very boundary that is invoked by secular institutions to distinguish, however sloppily, the secular from the religious (i.e., secularism). I have also suggested (b) that immortality is one of the key terrains on which these tensions are played out, because immortality is just where the boundary of discontinuities gets blurred and some version of continuity between life and death, mind and matter, meaning and the cosmos is demanded. By pushing and unsettling the normative discourses, language games, and practices of secular and scientific consensus around these boundaries, technoscientific immortality exposes these tensions though it is also caught up in them. And so, I also argued that (c) by mobilizing the concept of information to bridge those gaps (or discontinuities), immortalism calls for the convergence of the ghost and the machine, of mind and matter, of life and cosmos, and yet constantly reproduces their history, their difference, and their distance.
These ideas and arguments came largely out of the field as I found myself surprised to hear the range of reasons immortalists themselves proffered for wanting to extend their lives into the distant future. Early in my fieldwork I noted that immortalist motives didn’t necessarily have to do with individual survival. It’s not much reported on, but one of the strongest activists in the immortalist firmament, Aubrey de Grey, frequently has said (and not just to me) that he is not interested in his personal survival—which may explain why he hasn’t cut back on his famous and prodigious beer intake. Others may not be beer guzzlers, but even among the health-conscious I did hear many say things like “It’s not death as such . . .” or “I’m not interested in my personal survival . . .” Something more seemed to be at stake.
Yes, there was talk about calorie restriction, rabbit kidney preservation at liquid nitrogen temperatures, developments in neuroscience, or the most recent biotech innovation to treat macular degeneration, and even moral talk of saving lives, but one of the recurring topics is what in one of our conversations Ian Marks called “all the unanswered questions.”10 Marks, well-versed in Buddhism, had recently dropped out of his university program in molecular biology, with a year left to finish, in order to join a number of other white, male dropout biologists in a project they thought would accelerate genetic studies of disease and aging. They were one of a few DIY biology ventures, set up garage-style in the environs of Phoenix, Arizona. They were looking for funding. And funding would soon come, because on the other side, venture capital was looking to build biocapital. They would first move their whole team farther out into a large suburban house where they lived and researched and worked and also partied collectively, then eventually on to Silicon Valley, like almost everyone else I got to know back then in Phoenix. The company would finally fold because of several missteps, and Marks would get caught up in the fall. But right then he was shuttling between places, without living quarters of his own, often sleeping on other people’s couches and for a period in a tent in a friend’s backyard.
He wanted to focus on “the big choices,” he said, which meant “not focusing on a CV” but rather “dropping out of school to do what I think is right.” What is right is a future in which medicine will have developed “the potential to save almost everyone’s life or at least extend everyone’s life on the planet” and we will have “learn[ed] enough about biology so that we can truly defeat all diseases.”
As it turned out, his own relationship to the logic that “more life is better” ended up being both shakier but also more ample than the first rhetorical layer. When I inquired about his motivations, he struggled between his convictions and his ambivalences:
IM: Living is good. Being alive is good. So more of it is good.
AF: What’s good about it?
IM: Love. [Laughs] Yeah love, that’s it. [Pause] Well, maybe life is not good. Maybe that’s what the Buddha was trying to say. Maybe I should just stop right now and go to a Zen Buddhist retreat and try to extinguish myself without suicide.
AF: Well, logically one would have to say that life is not good, which is why we are trying to improve it.
IM: Yeah, yeah life absolutely sucks. No disagreement with that. Life sucks. But as long as there’s tomorrow, tomorrow has the potential to be better than today, and even if life got suckier and continued to suck for a long long long time, as long as I thought there was light at the end of the tunnel, I’d want to keep going. But if there was ever a point where I thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel, and things are just going to keep sucking and get worse and worse, then would I still be an immortalist? Maybe, I don’t know.
Later, he described his motivation for seeking extended life: “Curiosity. About everything. How the universe really works. All the unanswered questions. . . . Why are we here? I guess I could find out by dying if there’s anything to me besides this. I’m not betting on it.”
This, in fact, ended up being a common refrain among immortalists I spoke to. A prominent transhumanist, cryonicist, and molecular biologist, who also moved from Phoenix to the Bay Area to get his own start-up off the ground, stated it to me in these terms:
I am interested in cryonics primarily out of a sense of curiosity and adventure, not because I think this ensures my sense of survival. I don’t have a particular problem with the issue of death, because when I die, I simply cease to exist. It’s not like I go to hell and spend eternity suffering. If I cease to exist it is a totally neutral state for the universe, for me. . . . To start off there’s a great sense of adventure in terms of “the greatest mystery is the future.” There are all these decisions that I make and society makes where we have no idea how it’s going to end up in the future. From the perspective of all the things that are going on today, it would be fulfilling to be able to personally witness at some point in the future the consequences of all the things we’re trying to do. So I consider cryonics worth the effort if I could regain consciousness, even for a twenty-four-hour period, one hundred years from now, just to satisfy the curiosity that surrounds the future.
The motivations vary across the field, but these more existential or cosmic narratives caught my ethnographic attention. The recurrence of these themes in immortalist zones echoed a larger secular scientific promise: having gotten rid of religion and emptied the universe of (enchanted) meaning, it had promised its own total explanation of it, which was yet to come. Perpetually yet to come. Thus suspension, the key temporality of cryonics, is in fact a central technoscientific temporality. Despite the powerful local achievements of science and technology, the “big picture” has remained obscure; yet it has always been part of the promise of science, suspended above the horizon, held dangling beyond the limits of death.
Not only do these larger questions seem inseparable from the quest for immortality, they also shape it. Another immortalist told me, “There’s the daily things: going out, seeing friends, having a drink. But there’s bigger things there: Why are things the way they are? And the only way I’m going to understand the universe is if I live long enough, be able to explore and expand my own intelligence.” The quest for extended life, extended intelligence, and extended time seem to take shape in these zones of metaphysical indeterminacy, what one transhumanist has called the “long-term perennial existential questions: Why do we exist? Why do we exist here and in this way? What are we? Where does everything come from? Where is everything going?” (Van Nedervelde 2008)
I will open this up further through a conference I attended at Lincoln Center in New York in June 2013. The organizer of “Global Future 2045,” Dmitry Itskov, is a young multimillionnaire who made his fortune in the internet business in Russia but has now left his company to pursue all matters regarding immortality (for more on Itskov see Bernstein 2015, 2019). Although Itskov’s main focus is on robotics, AI, and mind uploading, his goal for the conference was to bring the so-called spiritual and technological together in that same zone of indeterminacy, to show their compatibility rather than their contradictions, their continuity over their discontinuity. In an interview with the New York Times prior to the conference, Itskov said, “We need to show that we’re actually here to save lives. . . . To help the disabled, to cure diseases, to create technology that will allow us in the future to answer some existential questions. Like what is the brain, what is life, what is consciousness and, finally, what is the universe?”11
The quick shift from technology that saves lives and cures disease to technology that will answer questions about the nature of the universe used to strike me as a quantum leap between two unrelated states. But it began to make more sense when I realized that this attempt to address aging, disease, and death technically has taken shape as a reaction to those secular tensions and indeterminacies that have a specific relationship not just to the problem of individual death but of endings, purpose, and continuities in general. I am not suggesting that, say, the gene-therapy technique of delivering telomerase through a viral vector is a secular technique or is the direct result of trying to resolve the mind–body problem or meaninglessness in the cosmos—though certainly, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters, some of these questions influence directly some immortalist techniques and practices, from brain imaging to beaming mindfiles by satellite into outer space. But if immortality is about breaking from or going beyond the limits of existence as these are felt and understood at any given moment, then surely what matters is to explore what those limits are conceived to be, what those confinements and those bounds are felt to be, and how they are experienced, rationalized, and naturalized.
Future Making and Pasts
Another part of my argument should by now be obvious: immortality in general, and immortalism in particular, should be analyzed as social and historical projects of future making, and not as natural or timeless bids for individual survival or preservation. Secular relations to death and the dead are commemorative; they are about preserving the past, because there is no after-life time. In contrast, immortality in general and immortalism in particular are future-oriented. Immortality is a category under which particular people at particular times organize the continuities that matter to them in particular ways. Thus, to analyze immortality is to grasp the kinds of futures as well as the kinds of endings that are at stake and to consider what lives, what minds, what units of survival matter to a given social and cultural moment. As a form of future making, and as with many other technoscience futures, technoscientific immortality collapses prediction and promise; therein lies its power. The prediction holds that immortality will come because the pace of scientific breakthroughs is unstoppable, because animal lives have been extended, because molecular biology can extend telomere length, because neural nets are working, IBM’s Watson beat the best carbon-based intelligence in Jeopardy!, and Google’s AI just beat a Go master; the promise says it will come and it will be a good thing, a monumental achievement, it will cure everything, it will come and fulfill an ancient human desire: to not be subject to arbitrary death. If immortality is a form of future making rather than the perpetuation of a past, if what is proposed in immortalist projects is not just extended lives but particular futures, I ask, What future is being imagined or promised when technoscientific immortality is being imagined or promised? What future forms of life are immortal life-forms embedded in? Who is saving whom and from what kind of finitude? What futures are being displaced in the process?
The secular has strongly conditioned technoscientific imaginaries of possible futures, of limits and endings today. The elimination of the soul and of the afterlife, the invalidation of cyclical views of time and being, as resources for imagining forms of identity and creating practices of continuity, produce and prohibit specific experiences, affects, and challenges in relation to the mind–body problem (what is to survive?) as well as to temporality (to survive what? for how long?) and purpose (why survive?). What is it that is going to be continued? Life? The organism? The individual? Which is to beg the question, What is life? What exactly is the individual? Is it the biological body? Mind? The legal or social person? Online avatar? Mental algorithms? Mere organism? Or is what is to be continued a collective entity, the social group? The ethnic or religious group? The population? The ancestors? The culture or a specific tradition or practice? A civilization? In all of this, is the individual, if anything, a contributor to or the key unit of continuity? Or are all of these—individuals and groups—social and psychological epiphenomena of an evolutionary process, vessels for the perpetuation of genes or bits or life itself through time? Or unwitting agents in the development of other forms of complexity or intelligence? Or local transient manifestations of a wider unfolding of consciousness, of the noosphere, or of the Hegelian universe coming into self-awareness? The specificities of the problem of continuity in the secular and scientific world—the ways in which that extension is imagined, prohibited, discussed, pursued for individuals or larger formations and forces—are inseparable from the ways the secular, imbricated with its colonial history, inflects the three gaps, namely, the problems of mind–body dualism and personal identity, the temporality of finitude, and the cosmological problem of meaning and the teleology of progress.
Immortalist futures are overdetermined by the technological landscape in the United States, by the tools and ideas emerging out of the centers of tech, and by the social structures and informatic premises that undergird that landscape. It should come as no surprise, then, that immortalism is a white and largely male movement. This is not a random formation but part of a specific and repeating history. As chapter 1 will describe, scientific research into immortality has consistently been tied to eugenics. While many liberal immortalists and transhumanists today disavow the racist eugenics of the past and espouse a democratizing immortalism—no death for all!—the immortalist and transhumanist movements have often given room and voice to those (such as Michael Anissimov and Peter Thiel) who espouse illiberal, right-wing views on such matters as disability and genetic, cultural, and mental inferiority.
There is a colonial history underlying the secular modern episteme more generally. Relying on views about matter and mind, the division between modernism and animism was one of the key sites of colonial politics, where some humans called “primitives” and “savages” would be sorted from the secular moderns, those with the realist view of death, personhood, and matter. To be secular and modern was to face up to the reality that there was nothing after death, that the person was only the body (as there was no soul), and, crucially, that matter was not infused with spirit (or soul or mind). These imperatives sanctioned and monitored the separation between, on the one hand, “religious” believers or “primitives” (deluded and enchanted) and, on the other, those “moderns” with a proper grasp of reality (not deluded but disenchanted). Even more so, the anti-animist divide between subject and object also helped sort the world into the two legal categories of person and property—those with reason and consciousness falling into the former category, the others falling into the latter. As is well known, and historically enshrined in the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, black people in the United States were desouled and given over to the category of property, that is, legally owned and enslaved. That division, then, was part of the racialized trajectory of secular modernity, as it was part of the development of colonialism: desouling matter and disenchanting the universe were and are a means of asserting a secular modern identity (Flanagan 2002; Keane 2013; also see Casanova 2011), of feeling secular and modern, where the epistemic stance also becomes the affective disposition; they were also part of modernity’s secular and colonial imperatives, the premise for brutal exercises of power. These sorts of epistemic designations and affects, through which identities were established, were and continue to be designations crucial to colonialism and empire, justifying and enabling forms of governmentality (Fernando 2014; Mahmood 2016), allowing a certain formation of power to impose its dominion on parts of the world and suppress what it presented as other—irrational, delusional—social formations. Colonial regimes always outlawed animist practices and claims. These are crucial aspects of the ideological conditions of possibility of what Wendy Brown (2007) calls “secularism as an instrument of empire”; equally, they are the grounds from which the secular immortal rises toward its transhuman horizon.
Importantly, immortalism and transhumanism have embraced a libertarian ethos that enshrines the individual and serves to hide the structural reproduction of the past in the future under the banner of technological and biopolitical universalism. As I will argue in chapter 6, this means that matters of race, ethnicity, class, and to some extent gender are ignored as important shapers of the culture of immortalism and of the futures it claims. Even more, under that universalism what is deemed important to move toward in the future is the specific telos of Western civilization, whose progress is indexed to technological innovation and the eventual emergence of transhumanism. Technoteleology erases the structural history of inequality and power that has shaped and sustained those “civilizations” and of the racialized, colonial, and geopolitical legacies of the ideology of progress. As Afrofuturists (A. Nelson 2002) have pointed out, the future, as progress or as science fiction, was always a domain claimed by whiteness, for its own perpetuation, with the exclusion of those whose lives were deemed to be stuck in the past or not worthy of continuation, forms of life unfit for futurity.
A critique of immortality and immortalist discourses and practices exposes core problems and tensions not in order that Western epistemology and power should resolve them—to produce a better secularism! Rather, the tensions and problems are important to point out because they are veiled or erased aspects of what Nagel (2012) has called a secular consensus. That consensus is not simply epistemological, as per Nagel’s arguments, but also has political consequences. Designations such as “primitive” and “animist” may not be Nagel’s concerns, but they are part of the social and historical picture regarding the relationship between mind and matter as they designate what Westerners assumed other people believed (cf. E. B. Tylor) regarding the relationship between mind and matter, and how Westerners assumed other people knew what they thought they knew. To say that the body is all there is, to assert the finality of death, and to deny that nature may have purpose was to assert one’s secularity, one’s modernity, one’s enlightened Western self. As Michael Taussig (1986) has been at pains to point out over the last few decades, the “primitive” or “animist” is invented as a figure, a figment, the ghost of an eliminated form of life at the nexus of a violent epistemic and imperial encounter that in fact comes back over and over to haunt not the so-called primitive but the colonizer—or in my terms, the modern secular subject.12 I would say that “the primitive” as a figure provided the “ghosts and souls” that, having been abandoned in secular modern reality, kept haunting that reality, and thus had to be displaced elsewhere. The reason why they keep returning, rather than remaining buried, is because the range of replacements have not been fully compelling: mind, self, person, psyche, consciousness can be in themselves enspirited and ghostly, their relation to matter fraught, emphasizing the discontinuity between humans and their universe.
Current intellectual movements such as new materialism, the ontological turn, perspectivism, and the new animism have arisen in their own way as a challenge to some of the consequences of subject–object duality. Importantly, given the backdrop of the Anthropocene, much of that literature has taken the division between life and nonlife as the key separation to address. What has been at stake has mostly been agency—what might be considered an agent, what can produce an effect, what has the power to interact and respond independently? However, animism is not only a view about life and agency—rather, it is a view about mind or soul, and about what can count as consciousness. Exemplified by E. B. Tylor’s nineteenth-century account (1871), the original conundrum of animism for the modern episteme was about what kinds of entities can be attributed qualities that are mind-like—thought, feeling, subjectivity, intentionality, purpose, meaning. That, rather than what counts as “life” or “agency,” continues to be the key division. The separation of mind from matter, the evacuation of mind from the universe in the disenchanted order, is a constitutive part of law and politics, of orders of visibility and legibility (who/what is allowed to speak? to be heard?) that form structures of power and governance.
Even as the return of new animism and panpsychism and ontological turns signals the rethinking of the desouling project in certain academic quarters, for most theorists the attribution of mind to nonhuman matter is one step too far.13 The haunting of secular modernity is now taking place not through the specter of animism, the return of Christian souls, or primitivism, but through their opposite, the horror of imagining modern humans as nothing but emptied shells, code-filled bodies, algorithmically generated beings, zombies who have fooled themselves into thinking they have selves at all, that something special like a mind animates them into unique conscious beings. The horror of the machine is the horror of discovering that humans are nothing but machines. Having desouled the rest of the world, the secular modern West finds itself facing its own materialist vision of finitude. If many everyday humanists and materialists express horror at the extremes of the secular immortal, at its incessant production of nonhuman forms of humanity, of frozen corpses and algorithmic avatars, it is because desouling or deanimation haunts the secular modern today.
I see the secular immortal as the limit figure at the outer boundaries of the secular human, sitting at the border of machinic or zombie existence, always at risk of falling over to one side or the other. Although it constantly aims to transcend the limits of finitude, often despite itself, the secular immortal relies on a reductive materialist version of human life and mind; the secular immortal must transcend biology but also constitute itself through reductive materialist processes, that is to say, representable, replicable, predictable material processes (that nevertheless may be emergent as opposed to strictly mechanical) focused on the unified self of the modern individual. Caught in the ping-pong between animism and deanimation, the secular immortal is a figure shot through with secular tensions and colonial histories.
The -ism in Immortalism
Today, most immortalists don’t want to be labeled by what many call the “I” word, because, they will tell you, it is not accurate. The strict definition of an immortal is a being not subject to death at all, as per Merriam-Webster’s concise and apt wording: “exempt from death.” By some cosmic oversight, we were dropped from the list of the exempted! And the search for immortality is an attempt to gain or regain the state of exemption. Immortalists say what they are after is to stave off death and extend healthy life indefinitely. Oh, yes, and also transubstantiate onto digital platforms. But not, they say, to gain Zeus- or Jesus-like immortality or an afterlife in heaven. In actuality, why and how the term was dropped shows a much more complicated set of reasons (a history discussed in chapter 2), having to do with the term’s proximity to religion, which discredited their efforts in the eyes of mainstream science and investors.
I choose to use the terms “immortalism” and “immortalist” to denote the movement and its adherents for several reasons. First, it is the adoption of an earlier emic appellation. The first two founding texts of cryonics use the term in their title: Evan Cooper’s Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now and Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality, both dating back to 1962. Aside from the fact that some have continued to hold on to it—“joyful immortality” is the term Martine Rothblatt happily uses to describe the mission of her group, Terasem—the term “immortality” is generally understandable and capacious enough to be a working label. In common usage the term carries a somewhat broader meaning that does not entail an absolute exemption from death. Indeed, death is often a necessary precondition of immortality modalities. The survival of a name or reputation across generations (Wordsworth has achieved immortality), principally for good deeds or achievements, is counted as a sort of immortality, especially in secular contexts. In another vein, Karen Armstrong conceptualizes immortality in ways that echo contemporary immortalist concepts: a “liberation from the constraints of time and space, and from the limitations of our narrow horizons” (2006). Here immortality becomes a relationship between finitude and infinitude, limits and limitlessness, endings and their absolute horizons.
Hannah Arendt ( 1998, 20) points out that the condition of transcendent deathlessness should actually be glossed by the term “eternal” rather than “immortality,” which at least in Greek discourse referred to earthly existence. The earthly included the Greek gods, who were not transcendent figures like the Judeo-Christian god but were of a similar nature to the human. Eternity, being temporally and spatially removed, “has no correspondence with and cannot be transformed into any activity whatsoever”; by contrast, immortality refers to an action or deed that lasts, and it has an origin and a consequence within the world, in earthly time. Arendt’s is itself a secular rendition of history, presenting the only viable survival as a survival through “deeds,” the very basic unit of action in the public realm, to do and make such things that would seem permanent. Similarly, in Hindu cosmologies, there are eight immortal figures, very long-lived (literally called that) deities who manage to maintain their powers over time. Unlike Arendt’s heroic view, the Hindu example points to immortality as a form of power and the perpetuation of an order of existence—a view I espouse and will discuss in a different vein in the final chapter.
In a weaker sense, any significant extension of the life span is also loosely interpreted to fit the category: from the point of view of our eighty-year life expectancy, a five-hundred-year human life is tantamount to immortality. When you have immortalists predicting thousand-year-long lives in the foreseeable future, immortality does not appear as such an inappropriate term. Aubrey de Grey once used figures like a thousand or five hundred years as achievable estimates of life span; he also is one of those who advocates against the use of the term “immortality” because it seems unscientific. In fact, scientists have used it and continue to do so, if in specific ways. Since the German evolutionary biologist August Weismann (1891) began to speak of biological immortality, it has denoted not “death exemption” but the “contingency of death” in the natural world, its nonnecessity. Often it relates to cells or organisms that do not seem to have an internally organized or mandated trajectory toward senescence and eventually death. These days, death is no longer considered an inevitable part of biology, and more specifically of “natural” human life. Indeed, lives in various species have been extended radically, talk of immortal cells is common, and some species have been observed to not have a “natural” process of senescence and death (the Japanese biologist Shin Kubota’s now famous immortal jellyfish, for example [Kubota 2011]). The biological contingency of death is a well-accepted possibility in science and the broader culture informed by science. And frequently, cells or organisms that do not die but may be killed have been called immortal.
In sum, “immortality” is one of a cluster of related terms whose meanings and conditions of signification vary. We use “immortality” in many ways, some of which actually imply death and others which simply denote an unimaginably long life, irrespective of the potential for death. James Frazer wrote, more than a century ago, that “faith in the survival of personality after death may for the sake of brevity be called a faith in immortality” (1913, 25). If what is at stake in many transhumanist and immortalist projects is the survival of personality beyond biological death but on a different substrate, then why hesitate to call this immortality?
The main way I use the term is sociological, insofar as the term names a social project, a movement under which I gather related and overlapping groups. For some such groups, the term “radical life extension,” aside from being cumbersome, would be even less accurate, the whole point of their endeavor being to get out of the defective carbon-based substrate out of which this thing called life has emerged and back into which it keeps crumbling.
Finally, immortalism helps mark a distinction with the more general health obsession and longevity concerns in the United States, an $88 billion business of Botox injections, hormone replacement therapies, extracts, and supplements (Weintraub 2010). Of course, there are continuities and entanglements between health obsessions and immortalism. Some immortalists do use cosmetic alterations, creams, vitamins, supplements, and fitness regimens that tend to make up the bulk of the youth and health culture. More important, the two founders and directors of the supplement company Life Extension Foundation are ardent, veteran cryonicists, contributing large sums of money to organizations like Alcor and Suspended Animation, with the latter founded and highly influenced by them. On another level, some basic health and longevity practices such as calorie restriction may be seen as almost self-sufficient interventions into the evolution of aging mechanisms (the theory is that calorie restriction works to extend healthy life because it triggers an evolutionarily developed crisis mechanism that tells the body to wait a while longer before it enters full-on aging mode). Immortalists have a range of views and practices regarding these less radical interventions; when they use strategies that seem broadly to fit these categories—for example, dietary regimens and supplements—they are mainly considered to be backup strategies until such a time as science and technology might finally break through with the long-awaited innovations. The continuities and contradictions were there when at cryonics gatherings I would see one calorie restrictionist carefully weighing his avocado slices and counting every unit of protein and calorie entering his body, while slabs of ribs and Idaho potatoes were sizzling away on the barbecue outside; or when a couple on a calorie-restricted diet were running marathons while at the same time spending their time and money improving algorithms that could lead to real AI and mind uploads so that they could leave their bodies behind.
While one could posit a continuum of life-extension practices,14 it is important to mark the point where the practices shift categorically. Most health-obsessed people—including botox users as well as most mainstream neuroscientists or computational biologists, who even might think of the world theoretically in terms of information—don’t consider themselves information-beings, and so don’t see the point of having their heads stored in liquid nitrogen or their “mindfiles” beamed by satellite into outer space in order that some future superintelligence might reconstitute their person; they do not store their medical, personal, or official data, such as genetic information or DVDs of family photographs, in highly secure vaults hundreds of feet under the salty desert of Utah; they do not attempt brain-optimization techniques or drive their cars with helmets on in order to protect their brains in case of an accident. But these are just the sorts of things that immortalists do and the rest of society, as they see it, sneers at.
Another difference may be captured in the distinction between life expectancy and life span. Life expectancy, being a matter of averages, is a social matter, a matter of general health, of biopolitics; it rises when the general health of a specific population, defined by class, nation, geography, and so forth, rises (Marmot 2004). In principle, one can break the limits of a species’ life span in an individual of that species without greatly affecting a population’s life expectancy. Life span, on the other hand, is considered to be biologically limited. It is the genetic hand dealt to the species, or perhaps the evolutionarily optimal developmental trajectory for an organism (given its mass and structure) in the service of the perpetuation of the species form. Immortalists are interested in the kind of work it takes to change inherited life spans, to upend phylogeny, more than they are interested in changing life expectancy or even extending life by a few years. Although immortalists frame extended life as a natural desire, they are interested in changing nature’s ways more than our own—or rather to change nature’s way in order, they say, to change our own.
A volunteer who worked with one of the immortalist projects put the dilemma in stark terms when she told me about her outreach strategy: “The way I pitch it is: ‘Learn about health and wellness.’ If I call and say I want to freeze your head, that’d be whackadoo to some people.” So, yes, crossing over into the realm of “whackadoo”—the whackadoo barrier—is what is required, though it is also an acknowledgment that whackadoo is nevertheless part of the continuum, that what separates immortalism and American health obsessions is a semipermeable barrier, or people would be neither convinced nor anxious. Most of this book, like most of immortalism, will require moving back and forth across that barrier.
A conversation I had with Ian Marks, whom I introduced earlier, underscores the point:
AF: What’s an immortalist?
IM: Someone who wants to live as long as they want to.
AF: Do you identify as an immortalist?
IM: Maybe I wouldn’t do that publicly. Maybe that word has to die.
AF: Seems to have stuck.
IM: Yeah. Yeah. If you ask Tim he’ll give you the definition of a “strong immortalist”: someone who is doing everything they possibly can to achieve that.
AF: As opposed to just taking a couple of supplements?
IM: Yeah. That’s sort of a weaker immortalist: someone who doesn’t take responsibility for making the future happen. People who figure someone else is going to cure aging, someone else is going to make cryonics work, I don’t have to be responsible for it. It’s how much responsibility you take to bring about that outcome.
“Immortalism” as a commitment to certain views and practices oriented toward making a certain “future happen” entails a categorical shift in the understanding of the future, of what it is to be human, of what science is destined to achieve, and what is culturally permissible or desirable.
Suspension, Deanimation, Convergence
It may be a promise for the future, but in important ways, technoscientific immortality is already here: it is spread all over popular media; the scientific interest has grown; there are practices and labs; very powerful players in Silicon Valley have started their own versions of the project; many of the projects and ideas also overlap with American state power, in places like the United States Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA, and the military. In the next two chapters I will describe the many ways in which technoscientific immortality is here and some of the history of how it got here, starting with a selective genealogy of the term “immortality” as it winds its way through scientific discourse and practice (chapter 1), followed by a history of the main projects of immortalism (chapter 2). After that come three more ethnographically focused chapters, organized through three terms taken from the immortalist vocabulary—“suspension,” “deanimation,” and “convergence”—each also corresponding to one of the gaps mentioned above.
The first, suspension, tackled in chapter 3, deals with the temporality of endings. My argument is that suspension—a state of being made possible through cryogenic technologies—is the space of translation between biological and chronological time; in suspension, the frozen body emerges as meaningful through the broader historical and cultural relation to finitude and infinitude, to secular eschatologies that on the one hand confined time to the body and on the other expanded the time of the world in which the body finds itself thrown. The secular immortality regime culturally eliminates the possibility of an afterlife, thereby rendering final the end of the person at a certain point in the trajectory of the body. Yet secular time continues, and more important, it continues not as repetition or the eternal return of the same but via the secular notion of progress, a future ever changing, ever filled with promise of better things. Suspension is the secular space in which the promise of the unfolding future can assume material embodiment and in scientific garb negate the absurdities of individual death.
The second term, deanimation, taken on in chapter 4, deals with the general problem of dualism, especially in terms of its consequences regarding the legal, epistemological, and practical indeterminacies of death and personhood. The question here is, When the body ends, what continues to persist in, for, and around the person? And how is that persistence or continuity managed and understood technologically, legally, and socially? For cryonicists, the brain frozen contains the potential for future personhood and should be protected as such, whereas for the state’s immortality regime there is no person there. So cryonics brings out the ontological insecurities underlying the secular, suggesting that secular personhood, forged in the dualistic gap, is itself shaky and ambiguous.
Convergence, the subject of chapter 5, deals with cosmology, or the “cosmic question” (Nagel 2010, 135) in the sense of the human relation to the cosmos, especially the question of purpose in a universe secularly emptied of purpose. Humans, in the secular frame, are made discontinuous with matter (if not with life) because they are and have minds that stand out, or stand outside, while taking everything in. Immortalists imagine continuity through the notion of “information,” outlining an evolutionary unfolding in which human intelligence (mind) and matter not only converge in machinery and computational processing but also set out to infuse all the matter in the universe with intelligence, producing a vision of an integrated universe. Indeed, that is posited not as a merely human project but as the very telos of the cosmos of which the human is but a phase, a position rather opposed to secular scientific eschatologies in which not only is there no telos but everything in the universe comes to an end in what might be called the entropic cosmology. The cosmic grandeur of the informatic cosmology belies the sense of cosmic insignificance, among the central and most anxious components of secular subjectivity.
In the final chapter I will return to think about the assumptions of biopolitics and the reemergence of a strong civilizational discourse. Why should life be extended? Whose life will be extended? Is extending life and defeating death a matter of universal human or even humanitarian concern, as many immortalists argue, or is it a matter of power and a new configuration of biopolitics, of racial and geopolitical reconsolidation via technological rather than social arrangements? How are biopolitics and secularity related in their focus on immanence and the body? And how does progress, as a secular temporality and a civilizational vision, relate biopolitics to the future and to technological futures more specifically? I present immortalists as among the new mythmakers of secular progress, themselves necessary to the wider view of civilizational progress that upholds Silicon Valley as a whole. On the one hand, immortalism and transhumanism seem to me to break down the liberal fictions of the unified self and the modern Western figure of the human in interesting and potentially powerful ways; on the other, they reproduce continuity as a Western, mostly American, and mostly white project of extreme individuation, where immortalism and transhumanism become the form whiteness takes as it makes new claims on the future.