Yuval Noah Harari caught in the Immortality Trap: how to frame Open Lifespan poorly

Several friends of mine, ones I respect a lot, recommended me to read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. I was told Harari writes about the potential of longevity technologies lengthening healthy lifespan. I decided to give it a go and purchased the book for GBP 6.99.

My main reference is the ‘Immortality’ section of Homo Deus called The Last Days of Death. That is and was plenty enough.

1. Immortality vs Open Lifespan

The last Days of Death chapter opens with:

In the 21st century humans are likely to make a serious bid for immortality.

Stop right there: Harari thinks the term ‘immortality’ captures the human quest of continuously lengthening biologically human, healthy lifespan.

With in opening like this Harari is conceptually instantly closing the serious discussion of this topic by falling into the Immortality Trap.[1]

Apparently Harari is an exceptionally gifted historian, but he is certainly not a philosopher who has been thinking about the philosophical problems of longevity deeply and for a long time. Luckily I fit this description so I’m in a position to quickly explain why calling Open Lifespan or open-ended longevity immortality is conceptually naive and wrong. Happens all the time, both contra and pro.[2] But contra is getting louder and louder and Harari’s book is just too loud to be left unnoticed. He has exposed a lot of unexposed people worldwide to the project of living much longer healthier lives and the narrative he is offering, that of immortality, is blatantly biased and simple and causes more confusion than clearance. Besides, he gets some details, questions right. So worth criticising, maybe one day he gives it another thought, using better chosen terms, yielding better arguments and more clarity.

Let us describe what is really at stake with this project of continuous lengthening of healthy human lifespans.[3]

The possible scenario is best captured with the term Open Lifespan. Open Lifespan is open-ended, indefinite lifespan. Also call it simply ‘Open Life’. It is the opposite of our current, closed lifespan. Open Lifespan is based on Open Healthspan a technological possibility to counteract ongoing biological aging processes in the human body, to keep age-associated functional decline and increasing mortality continuously at bay. So Open Lifespan is about reaching biomedically an open-ended (human) lifespan through Open Healthspan technologies.

All Open Lifespan can offer theoretically is continuing mortality, except with an almost non-zero chance to die from internal aging-related causes.

The point is that we (people) have a sharp mortal vs immortal binary split that forces us into simplistic thinking concerning the technological lengthening of human lives via Open Healthspan technologies. While an open-ended, indefinite life is mortal, it is not essentially finite or infinite. It is what it is: indefinite. Just because we don’t know the bounds, it does not mean it is boundless. But our mortal/immortal binary forces most of us into thinking leaving the closed lifespan behind is already achieving immortality. Wrong.

I’m using the following 2 terms to grab the 2 opposing aspects of indefinite Open Lifespan to pinpoint the source of confusion.

Indefinity’ is used to denote the feature of Open Lifespan that is shared with ‘infinity’,  it’s open-endedness, it’s being not essentially ‘finite’. Its a radical way of departing from our current experience, but it is not leaving our biomedical humanness behind. It is more like conserving it.

We are mortal nevertheless and stay mortal with achieving Open Lives so we need another term to capture this and partly justify or acknowledge human ambiguity in capturing this possibility.

Indefiniteness’ will be used to denote the feature of Open Lifespan that is shared with ‘finiteness’, it’s being still mortal when understood in the context of fragile biomedical human lives.

Indefinity-ness’ when these 2 features of Open Lifespan are highlighted at the same time. Not a paradox, not a dilemma but a simple in-betweenness, a non-binary.

Using this, hopefully deeper and clearer, terminology it is now easy to explain what might have fooled Harari to stick to the term ‘immortality’: it was indefinity, the indefinite, not essentially bounded aspect of Open Lifespan. It might have made him ignore  indefiniteness, the aspect that amplifies human uncertainty already existing in our current closed lives.

I checked all the appearances of the term ‘immortality’ in Homo Deus, Kindle showed me 46.

The most frequent language environment of ‘immortality’ was the phrase ‘immortality, bliss and divinity’ (10 matches).  These 3 correspond to the 3 main predictions put forward by Hariri forming humanity’s agenda in the 21st century: living longer, being happier and more powerful in yet unknown ways. The deal is about developing God-like properties, hence the religious terms: immortality, bliss and divinity.

And here is another, more intentional reason, why Harari sticks to ‘immortality’ even when acknowledging it is now really like that. Harari is selling a package deal, under one umbrella and so aiming for open-ended healthy longevity, or Open Lifespan gets a very unfair treatment in order to fit Harari’s/Procrustes’ bed. But indefinity-ness is not big enough for Harari’s bed so it gets stretched into ‘immortality’ to fit this ‘bed’. What kind of bed is an infinite bed, I wonder. Rather not sleep in it.

I am certainly not a god-expert but actually if we ever acquire this Open Lifespan status it’ll be just as far away from any God-like stability as our current, closed lifespan.

The next 2 points discussed are not huge issues per se. In fact they are here to show that Harari manages to phrase deeper questions about motivations behind Open Lifespan.

2.  The right to life and the right to health (care): arguing for a positive right based on a negative is … complicated

p24:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – closest thing we have to a global constitution – categorically states that ‘the right to life’ is humanity’s most fundamental value. Since death clearly violates this right, death is a crime against humanity, and we ought to wage total war against it.

Here Harari invokes and mixes 2 kinds of rights: the right to life and the right to health care. The problem is these are clearly different type of rights. I know this firsthand since a section of my philosophy MS thesis from ~15 years ago tried to derive the ‘right to more  healthy life than is biologically given’ from the ‘right to life’ and I have doubts about whether this was a successful attempt.

The most universal ‘right to life’ is a negative right, it restricts other people from killing or mortally wounding you. But what we want to achieve by developing Open Healthspan technologies is to make people’s lives longer and healthier and this requires an extra effort. In order to achieve that people need not to restraint but rather enable themselves to reach out and treat other people. This is a so called positive a right and guess what, the ‘right to health care’ is such a positive right.

Harari cuts short this distinction to derive ‘the right to immortality’ from the ‘right to life’ and when doing so he attributes agency to death by saying ‘since death clearly violates this right. Now death is usually thought of as the utter lack of agency in current philosophical thinking. This is in contrast with the medieval personification of the Grim Reaper as Harari, the historian writes and shows (Figure 5) in his ‘immortality’ section. In short, when phrasing the argument above, Harari anthropomorphises death.

Instead of anthropomorphism, let’s quickly look at anthropocentrism.

3. Strong anthropocentrism and the way of the humanist: it’s not that simple

When Harari is introducing his human rights argumentation (p24 again) for ‘immortality’ he is introducing it with

We are constantly reminded that human life is the most sacred thing in the universe.

And later it turns out that according to Harari, the historian, this kind of anthropocentrism is the central tenet of humanism, the tradition. Anthropocentrism is also known as humanocentrism, human-centeredness or human exceptionalism, but surprisingly in Harari’s book I have not found any of these terms, but I found several locations for expressing it

Page 75: For 300 years the world has been dominated by humanism, which sanctifies the life, happens and power of Homo Sapiens.

On page 108 in religious context: Non-human organism have no intrinsic value; they exist solely for our sake.

On page 114 in political context: The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo Sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe.

The last 2 expressions are phrasings of the so called strong anthropocentrism. According to the Environmental Ethics entry of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy strong anthropocentrism only assigns intrinsic value to human beings alone. So intrinsic value, whatever it would be, is captured in absolute terms and applied only to humans. In weak anthropocentrism value assignment gets relative and quantitative by human beings representing greater amount of intrinsic value than any non-human things.

I stop here by saying that ‘anthropocentrism’, certainly the strong version of it is not a basic assumption behind Open Lifespan and I started to thematise this thought earlier in my Daily effort: Open Lifespan does not rely on strong anthropocentrism and will continue doing so.

4. Exiting Homo Deus Immortalicus

Harari is not a professional philosopher, but a historian by training and heart, and even if he is using the toolset/references of philosophy at places, he distantiates himself from it eg. when he is using negative term ‘mere philosophising’ when he assures his readers on page 77 about an upcoming part of his book:

this part of the book does not consist of mere philosophising or idle future-telling.

I personally wish he had used more of the tool- and mindset of professional philosophy to approach the problem of healthy longevity in a thorough, reflective and conceptually satisfying manner. In philosophy, the slower usually has a bigger chance to frame the problem better, the philosopher tortoise can get the job done better than the over-excited hare.

With that I’m now adding Homo Deus to my Immortality Trap curated list of confusing content.

Notes

[1] Harari actually acknowledges later that the project is not about achieving god-like immortality and he backs off with a section even using the key term ‘indefinitely’, p28:

In truth they will actually be a-mortal, rather than immortal. Unlike God, future superhumans could still die in some war or accident, and nothing could bring them back from the netherworld. However, unlike us mortals, their life would have no expiry date. So long as no bombs shreds them to pieces or no trucks runs them over, they could go on living indefinitely.

But by that time he acknowledges all this he is completely off the tracks from showing us an unbiased way of thinking about the topic. Even in this sentence above he is confusing closed lifespans with ‘mortality’ and preserving human lives with being superhuman due to the package deal of ‘immortality, bliss and divinity’ he is forcing onto the readers.

[2] Happened to me as well, in the early and immature stages of my thinking on the project. But even then I have never used the term immortality itself realising something would be fundamentally off with doing so in this context. Instead I used the process term immortalisation and then only used the term ‘partial immortalisation’ to capture the result of a technological process being able to counteract aging processes and eliminate internal, aging related deaths. That was my philosophy MS thesis. Also I named my blog Partial Immortalisation and the reason I started this new one, called Open Lifespan was exactly understanding the harm in calling this biomedical and technological scenario ‘immortalisation’. So I got seriously vaccinated against using the immortality rhetoric and currently think it is one of the biggest obstacle of the proper framing of this project.

[3] I’m using here earlier posts of mine

Open or closed lifespan: that is the question, not mortality vs. immortality

and I used complete paragraphs from my previous post

Individual Open Lifespan Trajectories as hyperobjects; Temporal Undulation

 

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