In fact, the difference between what Aristotle and our modern-day advocates have in mind by “being immortal” is instructive. For Aristotle, the philosopher aspires to immortality through thinking the eternal verities that make the world, otherwise a world of flux, what it is. For the transhumanist, the scientist and the engineer are asked to extend our ability to experience flux, to become for ever longer intervals, and to become what we have never before been. For Aristotle, the human being who uses his reason to “be immortal” in his sense is employing to the greatest possible extent the special ability that makes him human. For the transhumanist, reason makes us immortal by abandonment of our humanity.
I’m a little surprised that in their big-tent quest for legitimacy, transhumanists have not claimed Aristotle as one of their own. Towards the end of his Nichomachean Ethics he writes (in Joe Sachs’s translation): “But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view to living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself.” Take that, anthropocentric Futurisms bloggers!
Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer [Wikimedia Commons]
What these otherwise contrary visions of immortality share is that in both of them, the I that so desperately does not wish to die is lost, but I rather think that in Aristotle there is less bait and switch on this point. Ur-transhumanist Hans Moravec acknowledged long ago that, contrary to the appearance of uploading a mind into some more durable instantiation, the consequent ability to upgrade would mean that the original I would not persist with machine immortality, except perhaps as some long-irrelevant backup copy. Since Moravec first made that argument, this near necessity has been turned into a virtue — so that transhumanism, as my previous post suggested, promises a succession of new me’s endlessly riding new waves of technological possibility. The Aristotelian lover of wisdom, on the other hand, is successful to the extent that he can overcome the din of just such passionate and restless desires, so the quest for such immortality as we can have and the taming of the ego go hand in hand.
To put the difference another way, I associate Aristotelian immortality with an attempt to achieve a life of coherent and rational meaning, whereas transhumanism is looking to extend indefinitely the ability to have whatever experiences are desired. Perhaps that quest helps explain the growing fascination among our techno-elite (by no means all transhumanists) with finding ways to record and preserve the minutiae of everyday life. These are mere details if one sees life as having a meaningful pattern, direction or purpose. Without this perception, the transitory is all there is, and immortality is enshrinement of one damn thing after another.