I’ve given a new talk at BIL2014, about Brain Preservation (video at bottom of this article), and written an essay on it for Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon‘s forthcoming book, World Transformed: The Abridged Edition, a spinoff of their excellent World Transformed podcast and blog. An excerpt from the essay is below.
This talk explores the “Why Bother?” or Zen of Mortality perspective, which I think is the main reason that most folks, and even most secular-agnostic folks (who are at most 20% of the world’s population at present), don’t yet find brain preservation a desirable idea for themselves or their loved ones. While I acknowledge the validity and great value of the Zen of Mortality perspective, and I used to hold it myself, I think there’s an even more exciting and valuable perspective, the Zen of Life, waiting patiently for all of us who are ready to embrace it. Read on, or watch the talk, and let me know if you agree or disagree.
People who know how redundant the majority of their own memes are in culture, including most of the aspects of their individual self, are often very Zen (accepting, calm, serene) about dying. It’s a lovely place to get to, this Zen of Mortality. Even more than religion, in my opinion, this realization about the smartness and redundancy of the natural world removes a lot of the trauma of thinking about death. Most of us implicitly know that most of what is unique in our own lives gets “backed up” quite well in our culture before we die. What’s more, as psychologist Susan Blackmore notes in her Toward a Science of Consciousness 2014 talk, we are “Dying All The Time”. We mentally forget vast amounts of information as we learn and grow throughout life, and in the current human brain we lose more and gain less the older and more differentiated our brains become. This is not true of our information technologies, which gain better and better memories every year, but most of us don’t yet consider our “temes” (the physical and informational algorithms of technology, which replicate throughout our civilization, the technological version of “memes“), to be extensions of our individual mental selves.
Today, in surveys done by David Ewing Duncan (When I’m 164, 2012) only 1% of people in the United States, or roughly 3 million of us, are interested in living beyond our biological death. Duncan thinks this percentage is similar in other industrial democracies (perhaps a bit larger in a few more secular and democratic European countries, such as the Nordic countries, but not by much), and it is likely even smaller in the developing world. I think the main reason this percentage is so uniformly small today, irrespective of each country’s unique religious and cultural beliefs, is this strong Zen of Mortality, in almost all of us who think about this issue. Most of us know, in our gut, that our individual lives really don’t “need” to be preserved, and are quite similar to those others around us who will live on. So why bother?
We already leave our best ideas to the world, in the minds of our children and friends, in our behaviors and works, and soon, we’ll leave them behind in our lifelogs and software avatars, or “twins.” A new company, Eterni.me, will even build a custom avatar for you from your email, social networks, and other writings, that friends and children can use to interface with you and your writings after you’re dead. These won’t be very useful for the next few years, but as the conversational interface emerges in the next decade, our twins will get progressively smarter and more helpful to us, even while we are alive. And after we’re dead, they’ll not only use our lifelogs, but they’ll continue to interact with surviving friends and family, if we let them, to make an ever-better approximation of us. The emergence of lifelogs, twins, and other digital aids will allow us all to get even more Zen about biological death. So again, why bother with brain preservation, when our global IT environment gets better and better at preserving all that’s unique about our culture and self?
Let me now propose another Zen state, emerging now in a few places in our society, that is even more productive and enlightening than being comfortable with death. Let’s call it the Zen of Life. There’s something unique about Life as a process, that causes it to continually grow, learn, progress, and even accelerate at the leading edge of change. As a system, Life does everything it can to exceed its current limitations, and its coming jump to a postbiological substrate should be the most successful by far of all the improvement strategies it has tried to date. As Jeff Goldblum famously said, Life (always) finds a way—to break free, grow, progress, and most curiously, to accelerate.
Transhumanists tend to focus on this latter process of accelerating change, and of transcending our prior limits, of continually being able to rejuvenate, grow, and learn. We know biological animals that can return their bodies and brains to a juvenile state after adulthood, a process called neoteny, and we’d love to gain this capacity ourselves. Understanding and imitating Life, in our thinking and practice, is even more interesting and rewarding for us than understanding and imitating Mortality. We can accept the Zen of Mortality, if that’s the hand we’re dealt. But if we are industrious, and lucky, and we get inexpensive brain preservation available as an option for anyone who might want it when they die, we and many of our loved ones and friends may elect to stick around, and remain continually improving and renewing systems as well. If technology allows it, we can choose the Zen of Life.
We also know that there are unique ideas, ways of thinking, and consciousness inside our own brains, and that at least some of these unique features do not get backed up by culture when we die. One of the ways Life improves itself is by improving its ability to remember unique information, whether it be by culture, language, computers, or soon, preserved individual minds. See Michael Malone’s The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory, 2013 for more on all the ways better cultural memory has improved civilization. If inexpensive brain preservation soon comes to pass, as we think it will, a “human experienceome” will one day emerge, allowing us all a much better understanding of what humanity has been historically, what it is today, and what it is becoming. This should lead to better thoughts, behaviors, laws, institutions, models, and prospects for our future selves.Thus we can predict that gaining the ability to preserve our unique individual minds and ways of thinking, for as long as they might be useful to future society, and choosing to live in ways where we continually grow, learn, and become usefully unique to our families and society (the Zen of Life), will each be major advances for human civilization.
Want to read something courageous? See Ezekiel Emanuel’s article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” The Atlantic, 9.17.2014. Emanuel, a medical ethicist, has a truly clear-eyed understanding of normal aging. He knows that colonoscopies and cancer screening after 65, and even visiting a doctor after 75, will be unlikely to prolong the quality of his life. He won’t be getting, or letting his family give him, cardiac stress tests, pacemakers, or anything other than palliative care after the age of 75. His advance directive indicates no ventilators, dialysis, surgery, antibiotics, or any other medication after that age. He may change this number later, if he turns out to be a “health outlier”, but he knows how unlikely that outcome will be. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t aggressively fund longevity research, but rather to realize how very little vital life extension is reasonable to expect over the next few decades. As biological beings, we all fall apart from the genes on out at an accelerating rate after reaching puberty, and nothing is likely to change that anytime soon. Imagine how many more of us would have the courage to follow Emanuel’s example, determining for ourselves when “heroic measures” in health care should end, if a low cost and validated brain preservation option existed. Millions more of us might be willing to face the real facts of aging, and decide for ourselves when our end of life medical care should become palliative. The more of us grow to see aging truths, rather than fantasies, the better off our families and society will be, in countless ways.
Let me now propose a vision. I believe having the option of affordable brain preservation at death, even if far less than 1% of us exercise this option at first, will nevertheless powerfully shift all societies where the option exists in the direction of what we can call “Preservation Values.” What are those values? Such societies will become substantially more Science-, Future-, Progress-, Preservation-, Sustainability-, Truth and Justice-, and Community-oriented as their citizens increasingly understand and have access to the brain preservation option, even if they choose not to exercise it for themselves. Our spending and our policies with respect to these values will undergo significant changes as a result. I won’t try to justify this strong claim here. Read the link above if you want the argument. We can imagine that these major positive social changes would happen at the moment social adoption reaches a significant minority (say, 100,000 preserved), regardless of when or how much mental information is eventually uploaded from preserved brains into computers in the future. Everyone would begin to know someone who had made the brain preservation choice. Conversations and values would start to shift now, as a result.
As the apparent social contract starts to change due to this option emerging in coming years, and as a scientific version of the afterlife story grows alongside our faith-based versions, some will become less dogmatic in their particular religious, political, or philosophical views of the future. Many will increasingly see that collective efforts in science and technology could lead us to a more amazing and life-affirming future than we’ve believed to date. We’ll recognize that humanity’s future might be very different from what we’ve long been told, and that our personal and loved one’s futures are much more in our control than we previously realized. A childlike sense of optimism, curiosity, and personal agency should come back to many who have lost those traits as they have aged under current cultural assumptions about the future, as will a realization that each of our lives is potentially a never ending story that we can continually improve, if we choose.
It doesn’t matter all that much if any one of us decides to choose brain preservation at death. Each of us can be quite Zen about choosing Mortality or the opportunity for continued Life. But once a number of us have chosen Life, it does start to matter. People start living differently now, today. That is a very exciting advance.
What can each of us do now to help realize this vision sooner rather than later? Here are a few suggestions:
Read BrainPreservation.org, and share these ideas with others who might be interested.
Subscribe to our Connections newsletter to stay informed of brain preservation science and tech.
Donate annually to BPF or any other neuroscience charity, to advance this work.
Volunteer with BPF on one of our online teams. There’s plenty to do if you’d like to help.
Respect other people’s end-of-life choices. Don’t belittle them or argue over them.
Help others to live unique and valuable lives, and to improve both their biological and digital selves.
And if our Prize is won, and brain preservation science is validated in the next few years…
Demand a legal, accessible, and affordable brain preservation option, for all who might want it.
Here’s the video version:
Feedback? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks.