Immortality in-the-world and of-the-flesh: Death in Platonism and Transhumanism

I’ve been thinking about the famous passage in Plato’s Phaedo where Socrates explains to his Pythagorean interlocutors Simmias and Cebes that a philosopher must be willing to die and follow the dying. This willingness to follow the dying does not come without qualifications: the philosopher ought not, for example, commit suicide.

Cebes asks Socrates why “a man ought not to take his own life, but that the philosopher will be ready to follow the dying?” This is a good question: why should it matter how the philosopher is willing to die?

Socrates begins his answer to Cebes: “I admit the appearance of inconsistency…but there may not be any real inconsistency after all in this.” In order to resolve this inconsistency, he tells Cebes about a secret doctrine: “In the [secret] language of the mysteries …we men are in a kind of prison, and …one must not try to free oneself or run away.” Socrates adds that “this seems to me an impressive doctrine and one not easy to understand fully”.

I find myself returning, over and over again to these lines about “not trying to free oneself or run away”– despite the incessant 21st century call to liberate ourselves from both the tragic limitations of our human fate and the authority of our masters. By contrast, the ancient mysteries recounted by Socrates insist that “the gods are our guardians [i.e. our good masters] and that men are one of their possessions”.

Of course, Socrates still has not resolved Cebes’ question. Cebes wonders why, under any circumstances (sucide or otherwise) men should desire to leave their good, Godly, masters? “It is not logical that the wisest of men should not resent leaving this service in which they are governed by the best of masters, the gods, for a wise man cannot believe he will look after himself better when he is free. A foolish man might easily think so, that he must escape from his master; he would not reflect that one must not escape from a good master but stay with him as long as possible, because it would be foolish to escape. But the sensible man would want always to remain with the one better than himself. So, Socrates… [it is]…the wise who would resent dying, whereas the foolish would rejoice at it.” In other words, why would the philosopher rejoice in death, that is, in no longer being governed by the best masters (the gods) and escaping into the wilderness of the universe? Simmias turns to Socrates and exclaims: “Cebes has a point now. Why should the truly wise man want to avoid the service of masters better than themselves, and leave them easily?”

Socrates’ defends his position by asserting that death is not an escape from one’s masters, but a journey toward better masters: “I should be wrong not to resent dying if I did not believe that I should go first to other wise and good gods, and then to men who have died and are better than men who are here. Be assured that, as it is, I expect to join the company of good men. I insist…that I shall come to gods who are very good masters…” In other words, upon leaving his initial prison and masters, Socrates will enter a new, better, kind of prison, with new, better, masters.

What is striking about these passages is that, in contrast to our contemporary ‘revolutionary’ mode of thinking, the importance of being ruled by good masters is of central concern. (i.e. ‘revolutionary’ mode of thinking: whether we are advocates or critics of the ‘free market’, capitalists or communists, we concern ourselves today with clearing the way of some kind of masters’ impediment). In contrast to our Modern obsession with man losing his shackles (whatever those shackles may be) or the human freedom engendered by the so-called ‘death of God’, Socrates and the Pythagoreans hold no illusions over whether man’s shackles and obedience to his master are good. Whereas we today equate goodness with freedom from our physical or metaphysical masters, Socrates and the Pythagoreans remind each other that goodness consists in being ruled or governed by good masters. Today we need to think carefully about this ancient hesitation to free oneself and run away from their masters, which Socrates called “an impressive doctrine and one not easy to understand fully”.

Today we have no care for the Platonic doctrine to follow the dying willingly toward better masters. Instead, we obsess over transforming ourselves and leaving our prisons. The most radical contemporary fetishists for liberation prattle on endlessly about man leaving the prison of his humanity or else extending the length of time that our technologized “bodies” (eventually our bodiless intelligences) can live out their days. We do this for ourselves, for our own human will, not for the sake of a master. This transformation and liberation of the self is what passes for wisdom nowadays. In a section of The Singularity is Near titled “The transformation to Non-Biological Existence” (p.323-326) transhumanist Ray Kurzweil explains that one day our brains will be reinstated in a more powerful computational substrate: “As we move toward non-biological existence, we will gain the means of ‘backing ourselves up’ (storing the key patterns underlying our knowledge, skills, and personality), thereby eliminating most causes of death as we know it.”

Socrates’ would have had a lot to say if this passage were presented to him. (I think it is a misreading to regard the transhumanists as Platonists. I admit to doing this in the past and am now backtracking…) Death, for Socrates, is a pilgrimage the inhuman soul undertakes toward masters who closer to the forms of Truth, Beauty, Justice etc…that were hitherto obscured by the body’s imperfect sensory organs. In death, one is – ideally – ‘released’ into the chains of better masters, not transformed or freed into the nothingness of the cosmos.

For the transhumanists, humans will become “morphable projections of our intelligence” [and we will be potentially immortal by being] “able to create and recreate different bodies at will” (Kurzweil). This is – very clearly – a different kind of immortality from the one Plato via Socrates has in mind. The transhumanist project – from a Platonic standpoint – is about remaining in our prisons as long as possible, or else radically transforming our prisons. Either way, the ‘for the sake of which’, the master, is nowhere to be found. Man exists for himself. Kurzweil dreams not of a pilgrimage elsewhere, or a journey to a better master or a release into a better prison, but of an amplification, extension or transformation of man: man-plus, symbolized by the transhumanist symbol H+ (Human+).

The transhumanist’s dreams include “software based humans … living out on the Web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality, holographically projected bodies, foglet-projected bodies, and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms and other forms of nanotechnology” (Kurzweil). I used to believe this dream was ancient, but now I suspect it is Modern through and through. There’s nothing about masters, about proximity to ideas of Justice, Beauty and Truth. Rather, what one finds here is the will to human power, what is in question is the immortality of the human subject, not the soul. For this reason, death becomes a release into the Singularity that will emerge out of our quickly evolving information technologies and artificial intelligences.

So why is it that Socrates does not advocate committing suicide? Because the philosopher’s death is a “pilgrimage” not a liberation, a journey to a new prison not a dispersal of the soul into the nothingness of the universe. In other words, one dies for the sake of, and to enter the company of, better masters. The philosopher – for Socrates – dies willingly for the sake of something divine; he does not destroy himself to extinguish his own subjective anxieties, nor does he cling to his life out of his own subjective fear of death. Consider the very term Suicde as the killing (-cide) of one’s self by one’s self (sui).

The sui-cidal individual is comforted by Aristotle’s observation that “human powers stop at the gates of death”. Likewise the trans-humanist, hopes to amplify his humanity, to re-inforce (or transform) the walls of his prison, in order to defer his death and find consolation in a technological immortality in-the-world and of-the-flesh.


~ by dccohen on April 10, 2011.

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