“In Order to be Go(o)d, We Can’t Die!” Says Kant
Dead Immortalist Sequence – #1: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Kant is often misconstrued as advocating radical conformity amongst people, a common misconception drawn from his Categorical Imperative, which states that each should act as though the rules underlying his actions can be made a universal moral maxim. The extent of this universality, however, stops at the notion that each man should act as though the aspiration towards morality were a universal maxim. All Kant meant, I argue, was that each man should act as though the aspiration toward greater morality were able to be willed as a universal moral maxim.
This common misconception serves to illustrate another common and illegitimate portrayal of the Enlightenment tradition. Too often is the Enlightenment libeled for its failure to realize the ideal society. Too often is it characterized most essentially by its glorification of strict rationality, which engenders invalid connotations of stagnant, statuesque perfection – a connotation perhaps aided by the Enlightenment’s valorization of the scientific method, and its connotations of stringent and unvarying procedure and methodology in turn. This takes the prized heart of the Enlightenment tradition and flips it on its capsized ass. This conception of the Enlightenment tradition is not only wrong, but antithetical to the true organizing gestalt and prime impetus underlying the Age of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment wasn’t about realizing the perfect society but rather about idealizing the perfect society – the striving towards an ever-inactualized ideal which, once realized, would cease to be ideal for that very reason. The Enlightenment was about unending progress towards that ideal state – for both Man as society and man as singular splinter – of an infinite forward march towards perfection, which, upon definitively reaching perfection, will have failed to achieve its first-sought prize. The virtue of the Enlightenment lies in the virtual, and its perfection in the infinite perfectibility inherent in imperfection.
This truer, though admittedly less normative, interpretation of the Enlightenment tradition, taking into account its underlying motivations and projected utilities – rather than simply taking flittered glints from the fallacious surface and holding them up for solid, tangible truth – also serves to show the parallels between the Enlightenment gestalt and Transhumanism. James Hughes, for one, characterizes Transhumanism as a child of the Enlightenment Tradition .
One can see with intuitive lucidity that characterizing the Enlightenment’s valorization of rationality goes against the very underlying driver of that valorization. Rationality was exalted during the Age of Enlightenment for its potential to aid in skepticism toward tradition. Leave the chiseled and unmoving, petty perfection of the statue for the religious traditions the Enlightenment was rebelling against – the inviolable God with preordained plan, perfect for his completion and wielding total authority over the static substance of Man; give the Enlightenment rather the starmolten fire-afury and undulate aspiration toward ever-forth-becoming highers that it sprang from in the first place. The very aspects which cause us to characterize the enlightenment as limiting, rigid, and unmolten are those very ideals that, if never realized definitively – if instead made to form an ongoing indefinite infinity – would thereby characterize the Enlightenment tradition as a righteous roiling rebellion against limitation and rigour – as a flighty dive into the molten maelstrom of continuing mentation toward better and truer versions of ourselves and society that was its real underlying impetus from the beginning.
This truer gestalt of the Enlightenment impinges fittingly upon the present study. Kant is often considered one of the fathers of the Enlightenment. In a short essay entitled “What is the Enlightenment?” , Kant characterizes the essential archetype of Man (as seen through the lens of the Enlightenment) in a way wholly in opposition to the illegitimate conceptions of the Enlightenment described above – and in vehement agreement with the less-normative interpretation of the Enlightenment that followed. It is often assumed, much in line with such misconceptions, that the archetype of Man during the Age of the Enlightenment was characterized by rational rigour and scientific stringency. However, this archetype of the mindless, mechanical automaton was the antithesis of Man’s then-contemporary archetype; the automaton was considered rather the archetype of animality – which can be seen as antithetical to the Enlightenment’s take on Man’s essence, with its heady rationality and lofty grasping towards higher ideals. In his essay, Kant characterizes the Enlightenment’s archetype of Man as the rebellious schoolboy who cannot and shall not be disciplined into sordid subservience by his schoolmasters. Here Kant concurs gravely from beyond the grave that Man’s sole central and incessant essence is his ongoing self-dissent, his eschewing of perverse obligation, his disleashing the weathered tethers of limitation, and his ongoing battle with himself for his own self-creation.
It is this very notion of infinite progress towards endlessly perfectable states of projected perfection that, too, underlies his ties to Immortalism. Indeed, his claim that to retain morality we must have comprehensively unending lives – that is, we must never ever die – rests crucially on this premise.
In his Theory of Ethics  under “Part III: The Summum Bonum, God and Immortality” , Kant argues that his theory of ethics necessitates the immortality of the soul in order to remain valid according to the axioms it adheres to. This is nothing less than a legitimation of the desirability of personal immortality from a 1700’s-era philosophical rockstar. It is important to note that the aspects making it so crucial in concern to Kant’s ethical system have to do with immortality in general, and indeed would have been satisfied according to non-metaphysical (i.e. physical and technological) means – having more to do with the end of continued life and indefinite longevity or Superlongevity in particular, than with the particular means used to get there, which in his case is a metaphysical means. Karl Ameriks writes in reference to Kant here: “… the question of immortality is to be understood as being about a continued temporal existence of the mind. The question is not whether we belong to the realm beyond time but whether we will persist through all time…Kant also requires this state to involve personal identity.” . While Kant did make some metaphysical claims tied to immortality – namely the association of degradation and deterioration with physicality, which when combined with the association of time with physicality may have led to his characterization of the noumenal realm (being the antithesis of the phenomenal realm) as timeless and free from causal determination – these claims are beyond the purview of this essay, and will only be touched upon briefly. What is important to take away is that the metaphysical and non-metaphysical justifications are equally suitable vehicles for Kant’s destination.
Note that any italics appearing within direct quotations are not my own and are recorded as they appeared in the original. All italics external to direct quotations are my own. In the 4th Section, The immortality of the soul as a postulate of pure practical reason, of the 3rd Part of Theory of Ethics, Kant writes: “Pure practical reason postulates the immortality of the soul, for reason in the pure and practical sense aims at the perfect good (Summum Bonum), and this perfect good is only possible on the supposition of the soul’s immortality.” 
Kant is claiming here that reason (in both senses with which they are taken into account in his system – that is, as pure reason and practical reason) is aimed at perfection, which he defines as continual progress towards the perfect good – rather than the attainment of any such state of perfection, and that as finite beings we can only achieve such perfect good through an unending striving towards it.
In a later section, “The Antinomy of Practical Reason (and its Critical Solution)” , he describes the Summum Bonum as “the supreme end of a will morally determined”. In an earlier section, The Concept of the Summum Bonum , Kant distinguishes between two possible meanings for Summum; it can mean supreme in the sense of absolute (not contingent on anything outside itself), and perfect (not being part to a larger whole). I take him to claim that it means both.
He also claims personal immortality is a necessary condition for the possibility of the perfect good. In the same section he describes the Summum Bonum as the combination of two distinct features: happiness and virtue (defining virtue as worthiness of being happy, and in this section synonymizing it with morality). Both happiness and virtue are analytic and thus derivable from empirical observation.
However, their combination in the Summum Bonum does not follow from either on its own and so must be synthetic, or reliant upon a priori cognitive principles, Kant reasons. I interpret this as Kant’s claiming that the possibility of the Summum Bonum requires God and the Immortality of the Soul because this is where Kant grounds his a priori, synthetic, noumenal world – i.e. the domain where those a priori principles exist (in/as the mind of God, for Kant).
“It is the moral law which determines the will, and in this will the perfect harmony of the mind with the moral law is the supreme condition of the summum bonum… the perfect accordance of the will with the moral law is holiness, a perfection of which no rational being of the sensible world is capable at any moment of his existence. Since, nevertheless, it is required as practically necessary, it can only be found in a progress in infinitum towards that perfect accordance, and on the principles of pure practical reason is nonetheless necessary to assume such a practical progress as the real object of our will.” 
Thus not only does Kant argue for the necessitated personal immortality of the soul by virtue of the fact that perfection is unattainable while constrained by time, he argues along an alternate line of reasoning that such perfection is nonetheless necessary for our morality, happiness and virtue, and that we must thus therefore progress infinitely toward it without ever definitively reaching it if the Summum Bonum is to remain valid according to its own defining attributes and categorical-qualifiers as-such.
“Now, this endless progress is only possible on the supposition of an endless duration of existence and personality of the same rational being (which is called the immorality of the soul). The Summum Bonum, then, practically is only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul; consequently this immortality, being inseparably connected with the moral law, is a postulate of pure practical reason (by which I mean a theoretical proposition, not demonstrable as such, but which is an inseparable result of an unconditional a priori practical law). This principle of the moral destination of our nature, namely, that it is only in an endless progress that we can attain perfect accordance with the moral law… For a rational but finite being, the only thing possible is an endless progress from the lower to higher degrees of moral perfection. In Infinite Being, to whom the condition of time is nothing… is to be found in a single intellectual intuition of the whole existence of rational beings. All that can be expected of the creature in respect of the hope of this participation would be the consciousness of his tried character, by which, from the progress he has hitherto made from the worse to the morally better, and the immutability of purpose which has thus become known to him, he may hope for a further unbroken continuance of the same, however long his existence may last, even beyond this life, and thus may hope, not indeed here, nor in any imaginable point of his future existence, but only in the endlessness of his duration (which God alone can survey) to be perfectly adequate to his will.” 
So, Kant first argues that the existence of the Summum Bonum requires the immorality of the soul both a.) because finite beings conditioned by time by definition cannot achieve the absolute perfection of the Summum Bonum, and can only embody it through perpetual progress towards it, and b.) because the components of the Summum Bonum (both of which must be co-present for it to qualify as such) are unitable only synthetically through a priori cognitive principals, which he has argued elsewhere must exist in a domain unconditioned by time (which is synonymous with his conception of the noumenal realm) and which must thus be perpetual for such an extraphysical realm to be considered unconditioned by time and thus noumenal. The first would correspond to Kant’s strict immortalist underpinnings, and the second to the alternate (though not necessarily contradictory) metaphysical justification alluded to earlier.
Once arguing that the possibility of the Summum Bonum requires personal immortality, he argues that our freedom/autonomy, which he locates as the will (and further locates the will as being determined by the moral law) also necessitates the Summum Bonum. This would correspond to his more embryonically Transhumanist inclinations. In the first section (“The Concept of Summum Bonum”) he writes, “It is a priori (morally) necessary to produce the summum bonum by freedom of will…” I interpret this statement in the following manner. He sees morality as a priori and synthetic, and the determining principle which allows us to cause in the world without being caused by it – i.e., for Kant our freedom (i.e., the quality of not being externally determined) requires the noumenal realm because otherwise we are trapped in the freedom-determinism paradox. Thus the Summum Bonum also vicariously necessitates the existence of God, because this is necessary for the existence of a noumenal realm unaffected by physical causation (note that Kant calls physicality ‘the sensible world’). Such a God could be (and indeed has been described by Kant in terms which would favor this interpretation) synonymous with the entire noumenal realm, with every mind forming but an atom as it were in the larger metaorganismal mind of a sort of meta-pantheistic, quasi-Spinozian conception of God – in other words, one quite dissimilar to the anthropomorphic connotations usually invoked by the word.
Others have drawn similar conclusions and made similar interpretations. Karl Ameriks summarizes Kant’s reasoning here thusly:
“All other discussions of immortality in the critical period are dominated by the moral argument that Kant sets out in the second critique. The argument is that morality obligates us to seek holiness (perfect virtue), which therefore must be possible, and can only be so if God grants us an endless afterlife in which we can continually progress… As a finite creature man is incapable of ever achieving holiness, but on – and only in – an endless time could we supposedly approximate to it (in the eyes of God) as fully as could be expected… Kant is saying not that real holiness is ever a human objective, but rather that complete striving for it can be, and this could constitute for man a state of ‘perfect virtue’…” 
The emphasis on indefinity is also present in the secondary literature; Ameriks remarks that Kant ”…makes clear that the ‘continual progress’ he speaks of can ultimately have a ‘non-temporal’ nature in that it is neither momentary nor of definitive duration nor actually endless”. Only through never quite reaching our perfected state can we retain the perfection of lawless flawedness.
Paul Guyer corroborates my claim that the determining factor is not the claim that mind is an extramaterial entity or substance, but because if morality requires infinite good and if we are finite beings, then we must be finite beings along an infinite stretch of time in order to satisfy the categorical requirements of possessing such an infinity. He writes that ”..the possibility of the perfection of our virtuous disposition requires our actual immortality…”  and that ”…God and immortality are conditions specifically of the possibility of the ultimate object of virtue, the highest good – immortality is the condition for the perfection of virtue and God that for the realization of happiness…
In summary, it doesn’t matter that Kant’s platform was metaphysical rather than technological, because the salient point and determining factors were not the specific operation or underlying principles (or the “means”) used to achieve immortality, but rather the very ends themselves. Being able to both live and progress in(de)finitely was the loophole that provided, for Kant, both our freedom and our morality. Kant said we can’t die if we want to be moral, that we can’t die if we want to gain virtue, and that we can’t die if we want to remain free.
Franco Cortese is an editor for Transhumanity.net, as well as one of its most frequent contributors. He has also published articles and essays on Immortal Life and The Rational Argumentator. He contributed 4 essays and 7 debate responses to the digital anthology Human Destiny is to Eliminate Death: Essays, Rants and Arguments About Immortality.
 Hughes, J. J. (2001). The Future of Death: Cryonics and the Telos of Liberal Individualism. Journal of Evolution & Technology, 6 .
 Kant, I. (1996). In M.J. Gregor Practical Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.
 Kant, I. (1957). In T. M. Greene Kant selections, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
 Ibid,. p. 350.
 Ameriks, K. (2000). Kant’s Theory of Mind: An Analysis of the Paralogisms of Pure Reason: Oxford University Press.
 Ibid., p. 352.
 Ibid., p. 350.
 Ibid,. p. 358.
 Ibid,. p. 359.
 Ameriks, K. (2000). Kant’s Theory of Mind: An Analysis of the Paralogisms of Pure Reason: Oxford University Press.
 Freydberg, B. (2005). Imagination of Kant’s critique of practical reason: Indiana University Press.
 Guyer, P. (2000). Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness: Cambridge University Press.
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