Mr. Stolyarov explains why homeschooling is an excellent educational approach for freethinkers, as it facilitates the development of an individual learner’s faculties, rather than teaching to the average student or to the lowest common denominator. In this brief video, Mr. Stolyarov refutes common fallacies about homeschooling and discusses the extensive options available to parents who homeschool their children.
After the publication of my review of Nassim Taleb’s latest book Antifragile, numerous comments were made by Taleb’s followers – many of them derisive – on Taleb’s Facebook page. (You can see a screenshot of these comments here.) While I will only delve into a few of the specific comments in this article, I consider it important to distill the common misconceptions that motivate them. Transhumanism is often misunderstood and maligned by who are ignorant of it – or those who were exposed solely to detractors such as John Gray, Leon Kass, and Taleb himself. This essay will serve to correct these misconceptions in a concise fashion. Those who still wish to criticize transhumanism should at least understand what they are criticizing and present arguments against the real ideas, rather than straw men constructed by the opponents of radical technological progress.
Misconception #1: Transhumanism is a religion.
Transhumanism does not posit the existence of any deity or other supernatural entity (though some transhumanists are religious independently of their transhumanism), nor does transhumanism hold a faith (belief without evidence) in any phenomenon, event, or outcome. Transhumanists certainly hope that technology will advance to radically improve human opportunities, abilities, and longevity – but this is a hope founded in the historical evidence of technological progress to date, and the logical extrapolation of such progress. Moreover, this is a contingent hope. Insofar as the future is unknowable, the exact trajectory of progress is difficult to predict, to say the least. Furthermore, the speed of progress depends on the skill, devotion, and liberty of the people involved in bringing it about. Some societal and political climates are more conducive to progress than others. Transhumanism does not rely on prophecy or mystical fiat. It merely posits a feasible and desirable future of radical technological progress and exhorts us to help achieve it. Some may claim that transhumanism is a religion that worships man – but that would distort the term “religion” so far from its original meaning as to render it vacuous and merely a pejorative used to label whatever system of thinking one dislikes. Besides, those who make that allegation would probably perceive a mere semantic quibble between seeking man’s advancement and worshipping him. But, irrespective of semantics, the facts do not support the view that transhumanism is a religion. After all, transhumanists do not spend their Sunday mornings singing songs and chanting praises to the Glory of Man.
Misconception #2: Transhumanism is a cult.
A cult, unlike a broader philosophy or religion, is characterized by extreme insularity and dependence on a closely controlling hierarchy of leaders. Transhumanism has neither element. Transhumanists are not urged to disassociate themselves from the wider world; indeed, they are frequently involved in advanced research, cutting-edge invention, and prominent activism. Furthermore, transhumanism does not have a hierarchy or leaders who demand obedience. Cosmopolitanism is a common trait among transhumanists. Respected thinkers, such as Ray Kurzweil, Max More, and Aubrey de Grey, are open to discussion and debate and have had interesting differences in their own views of the future. A still highly relevant conversation from 2002, “Max More and Ray Kurzweil on the Singularity“, highlights the sophisticated and tolerant way in which respected transhumanists compare and contrast their individual outlooks and attempt to make progress in their understanding. Any transhumanist is free to criticize any other transhumanist and to adopt some of another transhumanist’s ideas while rejecting others. Because transhumanism characterizes a loose network of thinkers and ideas, there is plenty of room for heterogeneity and intellectual evolution. As Max More put it in the “Principles of Extropy, v. 3.11”, “the world does not need another totalistic dogma.” Transhumanism does not supplant all other aspects of an individual’s life and can coexist with numerous other interests, persuasions, personal relationships, and occupations.
Misconception #3: Transhumanists want to destroy humanity. Why else would they use terms such as “posthuman” and “postbiological”?
Transhumanists do not wish to destroy any human. In fact, we want to prolong the lives of as many people as possible, for as long as possible! The terms “transhuman” and “posthuman” refer to overcoming the historical limitations and failure modes of human beings – the precise vulnerabilities that have rendered life, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “nasty, brutish, and short” for most of our species’ past. A species that transcends biology will continue to have biological elements. Indeed, my personal preference in such a future would be to retain all of my existing healthy biological capacities, but also to supplement them with other biological and non-biological enhancements that would greatly extend the length and quality of my life. No transhumanist wants human beings to die out and be replaced by intelligent machines, and every transhumanist wants today’s humans to survive to benefit from future technologies. Transhumanists who advocate the development of powerful artificial intelligence (AI) support either (i) integration of human beings with AI components or (ii) the harmonious coexistence of enhanced humans and autonomous AI entities. Even those transhumanists who advocate “mind backups” or “mind uploading” in an electronic medium (I am not one of them, as I explain here) do not wish for their biological existences to be intentionally destroyed. They conceive of mind uploads as contingency plans in case their biological bodies perish.
Even the “artilect war” anticipated by more pessimistic transhumanists such as Hugo de Garis is greatly misunderstood. Such a war, if it arises, would not come from advanced technology, but rather from reactionaries attempting to forcibly suppress technological advances and persecute their advocates. Most transhumanists do not consider this scenario to be likely in any event. More probable are lower-level protracted cultural disputes and clashes over particular technological developments.
Misconception #4: “A global theocracy envisioned by Moonies or the Taliban would be preferable to the kind of future these traitors to the human species have their hearts set on, because even the most joyless existence is preferable to oblivion.”
The above was an actual comment on the Taleb Facebook thread. It is astonishing that anyone would consider theocratic oppression preferable to radical life extension, universal abundance, ever-expanding knowledge of macroscopic and microscopic realms, exploration of the universe, and the liberation of individuals from historical chains of oppression and parasitism. This misconception is fueled by the strange notion that transhumanists (or technological progress in general) will destroy us all – as exemplified by the “Terminator” scenario of hostile AI or the “gray goo” scenario of nanotechnology run amok. Yet all of the apocalyptic scenarios involving future technology lack the safeguards that elementary common sense would introduce. Furthermore, they lack the recognition that incentives generated by market forces, as well as the sheer numerical and intellectual superiority of the careful scientists over the rogues, would always tip the scales greatly in favor of the defenses against existential risk. As I explain in “Technology as the Solution to Existential Risk” and “Non-Apocalypse, Existential Risk, and Why Humanity Will Prevail”, the greatest existential risks have either always been with us (e.g., the risk of an asteroid impact with Earth) or are in humanity’s past (e.g., the risk of a nuclear holocaust annihilating civilization). Technology is the solution to such existential risks. Indeed, the greatest existential risk is fear of technology, which can retard or outright thwart the solutions to the perils that may, in the status quo, doom us as a species. As an example, Mark Waser has written an excellent commentary on the “inconvenient fact that not developing AI (in a timely fashion) to help mitigate other existential risks is itself likely to lead to a substantially increased existential risk”.
Misconception #5: Transhumanists want to turn people into the Borg from Star Trek.
The Borg are the epitome of a collectivistic society, where each individual is a cog in the giant species machine. Most transhumanists are ethical individualists, and even those who have communitarian leanings still greatly respect individual differences and promote individual flourishing and opportunity. Whatever their positions on the proper role of government in society might be, all transhumanists agree that individuals should not be destroyed or absorbed into a collective where they lose their personality and unique intellectual attributes. Even those transhumanists who wish for direct sharing of perceptions and information among individual minds do not advocate the elimination of individuality. Rather, their view might better be thought of as multiple puzzle pieces being joined but remaining capable of full separation and autonomous, unimpaired function.
My own attraction to transhumanism is precisely due to its possibilities for preserving individuals qua individuals and avoiding the loss of the precious internal universe of each person. As I expressed in Part 1 of my “Eliminating Death” video series, death is a horrendous waste of irreplaceable human talents, ideas, memories, skills, and direct experiences of the world. Just as transhumanists would recoil at the absorption of humankind into the Borg, so they rightly denounce the dissolution of individuality that presently occurs with the oblivion known as death.
Misconception #6: Transhumanists usually portray themselves “like robotic, anime-like characters”.
That depends on the transhumanist in question. Personally, I portray myself as me, wearing a suit and tie (which Taleb and his followers dislike just as much – but that is their loss). Furthermore, I see nothing robotic or anime-like about the public personas of Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, or Max More, either.
Misconception #7: “Transhumanism is attracting devotees of a frighteningly high scientific caliber, morally retarded geniuses who just might be able to develop the humanity-obliterating technology they now merely fantasize about. It’s a lot like a Heaven’s Gate cult, but with prestigious degrees in physics and engineering, many millions more in financial backing, a growing foothold in mainstream culture, a long view of implementing their plan, and a death wish that extends to the whole human race not just themselves.”
This is another statement on the Taleb Facebook thread. Ironically, the commenter is asserting that the transhumanists, who support the indefinite lengthening of human life, have a “death wish” and are “morally retarded”, while he – who opposes the technological progress needed to preserve us from the abyss of oblivion – apparently considers himself a champion of morality and a supporter of life. If ever there was an inversion of characterizations, this is it. At least the commenter acknowledges the strong technical skills of many transhumanists – but calling them “morally retarded” presupposes a counter-morality of death that should rightly be overcome and challenged, lest it sentence each of us to death. The Orwellian mindset that “evil is good” and “death is life” should be called out for the destructive and dangerous morass of contradictions that it is. Moreover, the commenter provides no evidence that any transhumanist wants to develop “humanity-obliterating technologies” or that the obliteration of humanity is even a remote risk from the technologies that transhumanists do advocate.
Misconception #8: Transhumanism is wrong because life would have no meaning without death.
Asserting that only death can give life meaning is another bizarre contradiction, and, moreover, a claim that life can have no intrinsic value or meaning qua life. It is sad indeed to think that some people do not see how they could enjoy life, pursue goals, and accumulate values in the absence of the imminent threat of their own oblivion. Clearly, this is a sign of a lack of creativity and appreciation for the wonderful fact that we are alive. I delve into this matter extensively in my “Eliminating Death” video series. Part 3 discusses how indefinite life extension leaves no room for boredom because the possibilities for action and entertainment increase in an accelerating manner. Parts 8 and 9 refute the premise that death gives motivation and a “sense of urgency” and make the opposite case – that indefinite longevity spurs people to action by making it possible to attain vast benefits over longer timeframes. Indefinite life extension would enable people to consider the longer-term consequences of their actions. On the other hand, in the status quo, death serves as the great de-motivator of meaningful human endeavors.
Misconception #9: Removing death is like removing volatility, which “fragilizes the system”.
This sentiment was an extrapolation by a commenter on Taleb’s ideas in Antifragile. It is subject to fundamentally collectivistic premises – that the “volatility” of individual death can be justified if it somehow supports a “greater whole”. (Who is advocating the sacrifice of the individual to the collective now?) The fallacy here is to presuppose that the “greater whole” has value in and of itself, apart from the individuals comprising it. An individualist view of ethics and of society holds the opposite – that societies are formed for the mutual benefit of participating individuals, and the moment a society turns away from that purpose and starts to damage its participants instead of benefiting them, it ceases to be desirable. Furthermore, Taleb’s premise that suppression of volatility is a cause of fragility is itself dubious in many instances. It may work to a point with an individual organism whose immune system and muscles use volatility to build adaptive responses to external threats. However, the possibility of such an adaptive response requires very specific structures that do not exist in all systems. In the case of human death, there is no way in which the destruction of a non-violent and fundamentally decent individual can provide external benefits of any kind worth having. How would the death of your grandparents fortify the mythic “society” against anything?
Misconception #10: Immortality is “a bit like staying awake 24/7”.
Presumably, those who make this comparison think that indefinite life would be too monotonous for their tastes. But, in fact, humans who live indefinitely can still choose to sleep (or take vacations) if they wish. Death, on the other hand, is irreversible. Once you die, you are dead 24/7 – and you are not even given the opportunity to change your mind. Besides, why would it be tedious or monotonous to live a life full of possibilities, where an individual can have complete discretion over his pursuits and can discover as much about existence as his unlimited lifespan allows? To claim that living indefinitely would be monotonous is to misunderstand life itself, with all of its variety and heterogeneity.
Misconception #11: Transhumanism is unacceptable because of the drain on natural resources that comes from living longer.
This argument presupposes that resources are finite and incapable of being augmented by human technology and creativity. In fact, one era’s waste is another era’s treasure (as occurred with oil since the mid-19th century). As Julian Simon recognized, the ultimate resource is the human mind and its ability to discover new ways to harness natural laws to human benefit. We have more resources known and accessible to us now – both in terms of food and the inanimate bounties of the Earth – than ever before in recorded history. This has occurred in spite – and perhaps because of – dramatic population growth, which has also introduced many new brilliant minds into the human species. In Part 4 of my “Eliminating Death” video series, I explain that doomsday fears of overpopulation do not hold, either historically or prospectively. Indeed, the progress of technology is precisely what helps us overcome strains on natural resources.
The opposition to transhumanism is generally limited to espousing some variations of the common fallacies I identified above (with perhaps a few others thrown in). To make real intellectual progress, it is necessary to move beyond these fallacies, which serve as mental roadblocks to further exploration of the subject – a justification for people to consider transhumanism too weird, too unrealistic, or too repugnant to even take seriously. Detractors of transhumanism appear to recycle these same hackneyed remarks as a way to avoid seriously delving into the actual and genuinely interesting philosophical questions raised by emerging technological innovations. These are questions on which many transhumanists themselves hold sincere differences of understanding and opinion. Fundamentally, though, my aim here is not to “convert” the detractors – many of whose opposition is beyond the reach of reason, for it is not motivated by reason. Rather, it is to speak to laypeople who are not yet swayed one way or the other, but who might not have otherwise learned of transhumanism except through the filter of those who distort and grossly misunderstand it. Even an elementary explication of what transhumanism actually stands for will reveal that we do, in fact, strongly advocate individual human life and flourishing, as well as technological progress that will uplift every person’s quality of life and range of opportunities. Those who disagree with any transhumanist about specific means for achieving these goals are welcome to engage in a conversation or debate about the merits of any given pathway. But an indispensable starting point for such interaction involves accepting that transhumanists are serious thinkers, friends of human life, and sincere advocates of improving the human condition.
In this second installment of my short series on land and property rights (see my first installment here), I begin to respond to “We Can Have It All: The Beauty of Value Capture” by Edward Miller. In particular, I focus on the idea of the single tax on the value of land, as originated by Henry George. Mr. Miller, a contemporary representative of the Georgist position, states that “We can eliminate taxes and debt, poverty and special privilege. Contrary to the dour pronouncements from the curators of the dismal science, we can have it all.” Mr. Miller advocates doing this by advocating the elimination of “no-strings-attached sovereignty” over land and replacing it with what he calls “Value Capture” and which many others would call a land-value tax. Mr. Miller states that this “is a tax only in the sense that Pigovian ‘Taxes’ are. It is not a tax on production, and thus there is nothing objectionable about it from the perspective of classical liberalism. Indeed, I’d argue that without it, classical liberalism is a cruel joke. Value capture is simply a reconceptualization of who owns the value of the access rights over the Earth.” In this installment, I will focus on the Pigovian/Georgist land-value tax idea in particular. In subsequent installments, I will address what I consider to be a more desirable approach to land in a free-market, classically liberal manner that seeks to facilitate economic growth and the continual improvement of living standards.
I am not a supporter of a land-value tax (however it may be termed) or of Pigovian taxation in general. The idea of a Pigovian tax (however called) seems to me rather contrived, in that it assumes a perfect knowledge on the part of the taxing authority of not just which activities create negative externalities, but also the precise extent to which a particular instance of such activities creates those externalities – and, correspondingly, the precise extent of taxation needed to take the “social cost” of these activities into account. The economic distortions of taxation, relative to a tax-free free-market situation, cannot be avoided in practice, no matter what form the tax takes – though, admittedly, it can be said that some types of taxes produce greater distortions or different kinds of distortions than others. Furthermore, the idea of a Pigovian tax is unworkable in practice, because political incentives and the influence of special-interest pressure groups would surely distort the incidence of the tax to benefit those with lobbying clout. In other words, even if the exact “social cost” of every activity could be calculated, the influence of lobbyists on elected officials would result in the incidence of the tax departing from a proper reflection of that “social cost.”
The elimination of all other possible taxes would be a definite advantage of the Georgist system, though – in practice – attempts to introduce a new type of tax have seldom supplanted existing taxes but have merely resulted in yet another kind of tax alongside all others. In fact, in the United States today, we might consider the current system of property taxation to be a partially Georgist system – but the property taxes are paid alongside income, sales, excise, gift, estate, fuel, and numerous other taxes – not to mention a myriad of fees to fund specific government services.
However, let us assume that it is politically feasible to enact a single land-value tax that supplants all other taxes. Perhaps an added advantage of this simplified approach would be the reduction in the overall cost of administering tax determination and collection – which the most benevolent conceivable government would entirely pass on to the people in the form of a lower tax rate. Even in this ideal situation, why might a land-value tax still be less favorable than other possible taxes?
Consider that certain kinds of taxes can be avoided by a property-owning individual entirely. He only needs to pay an income tax if he earns taxable income. He only needs to pay a sales tax if he purchases taxable goods. He can avoid gift taxes by not giving gifts (beyond the tax-exempt amounts). If he has enough money saved up to live on, grows/produces all of his own goods, and keeps his property largely to himself, he can avoid all such taxes in theory (even though, in practice, he would admittedly be part of a small minority of the population). The similarity among these taxes (no matter their other flaws, of which there are many) is that they do not reduce current wealth kept for personal use. Property taxes are different in that they are able to actually diminish a person’s stock of wealth without that person undertaking any positive action. As long as a person owns a house, or a commercial building, or even a stretch of land for recreational use, he cannot avoid the diminution of his wealth through taxation solely due to the passage of time. An income tax only reduces one’s potential earning opportunities. A sales tax only reduces one’s potential purchasing power if one chooses to make purchases. A property tax, however, reduces one’s existing stock of wealth, no matter what one chooses to do. Thus, with all other things (including the total tax collected) being equal, a property tax is more adverse to an individual because it compels him to engage in positive actions in order to maintain his present wealth, rather than merely discouraging the individual from undertaking certain additional activities that might be taxed to a greater extent than he might prefer.
A Georgist land-value tax is different from the current American property tax in that it taxes the land only and not the manmade improvements on that land. In this respect, the land-value tax is superior. It would probably encourage significant vertical building by landowners/occupants in order to increase the amount of improvements per unit of land. However, it would also probably result in large stretches of land being unoccupied and unused, because there would be a sub-optimal level of interest in developing that land, as the owners/occupants would be responsible for paying tax. This may make the unfortunate phenomenon of urban congestion common even in less populated areas.
Furthermore, one can conceive of a supremely sub-optimal outcome of the single land-value tax, which would be the result of a perverse incentive indeed. This is the scenario where most individuals decide that it is not worth the trouble to own land (or partially own it or “rent” it from the community – however this might be described legally). Instead, large landholding corporations would emerge and purchase most or all of the land. Their owners (probably a lot of dispersed shareholders beholden to an entrenched management and thereby subject to numerous principal-agent problems) would be willing to absorb the costs of the land-value tax in exchange for collecting rents from everyone else who lives and works on that land. Many ordinary people might think that they are getting a good deal by avoiding all legal incidence of taxation – but in reality, the amount of rent they would pay to the landholding corporations would be higher to reflect the taxes those corporations have to pay. In other words, the cost of the land-value tax would be at least partially passed on to the renters/majority of people in the community by the landholding corporations. Economically, this is identical to the scenario that the Georgist proposal seeks to avoid – the situation where (whether or not this is indeed the case) it is alleged that most of people are beholden to a minority of landowners or lienholders by means of payment of rent or repayment of expensive mortgages.
One significant downside of this scenario, relative to the status quo, is that the possibility of “free and clear” ownership of property would be more definitively off-limits to everybody – even in theory. Another even greater concern is that the landholding corporations would essentially behave like supercharged homeowners’ associations – with even more power to micromanage people’s lives and impose arbitrary restraints on the use of personal property and the improvement of land. They would be able to conduct this abuse with impunity, because there would be fewer of them in any given geographical area, compared to today’s homeowners’ associations. This would give the landholding corporations the oligopoly (and sometimes monopoly) power that enables many similar entities to disregard consumer preferences and extract large amounts of unearned money.
The reality is that the market always seeks to correct for economic distortions that are the result of confiscatory or redistributive policies. The correction is always imperfect, because real wealth is in fact appropriated through taxation. However, changing the tax structure cannot, by itself, solve the whole distortion – without addressing how much wealth is kept by private citizens and what they are legally able to do with that wealth. There may, however, be a valid argument for changing a tax structure if this inherently results in a lower total proportion of tax collected, relative to the wealth that exists among the general population. This, of course, depends on the real rates of tax selected for each alternative under consideration. For instance, I would wholeheartedly support (as an unambiguous directional improvement relative to the status quo) a single land-value tax whose entire collections would be a mere 0.5% of the Gross Domestic Product. Irrespective of any concerns about the incentive effects of the tax, those would be dwarfed by the sheer amount of wealth that individuals would be able to keep compared to today’s tax regime. In this situation, though, I would still strongly prefer that the legal concept of full ownership of land be retained and that the land-value tax be administered similarly to today’s property taxes – as opposed to treating the occupant of the land as a “tenant” who owes a “rent” to “the community.”
There may also be a valid argument for changing a tax structure if doing so results in more wealth-generating behavior and increased productivity. However, I cannot find a system that allows for the diminution of current wealth through taxation to be more encouraging of productivity than a system that merely takes a share of future active production or consumption. If one cannot be guaranteed the peaceful and total enjoyment of the wealth one has already earned, then earning more seems less attractive from a psychological (in addition to a purely economic) perspective. Productivity is simply not as enjoyable if one views it as a chore to be done in order to remain in one’s present situation and prevent a decline – rather than an ambitious endeavor of self-improvement and possible enrichment.
Next, I will address how land might properly be approached from a libertarian/classical liberal standpoint, with beneficial practical consequences to most and the avoidance of effects that might stifle economic growth or decrease individual opportunities.
In this small series on land and private property, I hope to counter the claims of Henry George and his contemporary followers, who generally support a libertarian view with respect to all property except land – which they do not consider to be legitimate property. I, on the contrary, see the ability to own property in land (based on a true Lockean understanding of “mixing one’s labor” with rightfully owned land, or legitimately acquiring it from those who did) as indispensable to the existence of other property rights – as well as, more generally, to the expression of human individuality and the improvement of the human condition.
Why is property in land essential for the exercise of all other property rights? In this first installment, I provide six arguments.
Argument 1: Use of Personal Property: If there is no property in land, one cannot be guaranteed the ability to set one’s personal property in any location for its use and enjoyment. This means, ultimately, the use and enjoyment of one’s personal property is always at the discretion – and with the permission – of whichever governing authority or collective decision-making would supplant the right of private property in land. This is not liberty; the best that it can be is a kind of benign neglect from the persons or committees who have the power to dispose of the land and what is on it.
Argument 2: Complete Ownership: If there is no property in land, then there is never an ability – even in theory – to enjoy the use of land “free and clear” – without paying some sort of rent or “usage fee” to someone. Ignoring property taxes (whose absence is wholly conceivable and would be tremendously beneficial – even if other types of taxes are kept in place), it is possible today for people to pay off any mortgages and liens on their property and to enjoy it outright, without fear of losing the property if they do not pay a continuous stream of money to a third party. The greatest value of private property comes about precisely when the ownership of that property is absolute – not contingent upon future services or payments rendered to other people.
Argument 3: Opportunity to Choose Leisure or Work: If there is no property in land, and one must continuously and inescapably pay a stream of money to a third party in order to avoid losing the property, then this means that one must continuously earn a sizable income to support that stream of payments. The ability to lead a life of leisure (after having made adequate provision for one’s other needs) is forever closed off to most people (unless they are beneficiaries of trust funds or a fortuitous investment strategy). Whatever the relative merits of work versus leisure might be in any particular situation, a libertarian would hold that the choice to pursue either (or any combination of each) should be up to the individual. Restrictive institutions should not permanently foreclose individuals (in multiple senses of that word) from pursuing one of these alternatives or the other. My own ambition, for instance, is to pay off the mortgage on my house while I am still relatively young. I would continue to engage in paid employment (and hopefully earn decent money) for many decades thereafter, but a lot of the economic pressure would be removed by getting rid of the largest recurring expense, and the same amount of earnings could achieve a much higher standard of living in other respects.
Argument 4: Incentives for Improvement: If there is no property in land, then there is little incentive (other than sheer benevolence) for the occupant to improve the land by the addition of permanent fixtures, for someone else (or “the community at large”) would capture the values of the improvements, while the occupant would spend his personal resources on the improvements. This is the classic case of a “positive externality” not being realized – or, alternatively, a “tragedy of the commons” situation arising from the community laying claim to a resource that becomes over-exploited and insufficiently maintained. If one wishes for private residential lots to begin to resemble the public roads of a large city in appearance, then doing away with land ownership is an excellent means to that dubious goal.
Argument 5: Individuality: Only through the exercise of the right of private property can a person truly actualize his individual aspirations and distinctive esthetic. True private property enables an individual to act within his own realm as he pleases, as long as he does not infringe on the identical prerogatives of all others with their property. Only private property in land can give an individual the unfettered ability to paint a house with the colors and patterns of one’s choice, to determine the surrounding landscaping, to select the appliances and amenities therein, and to decorate it (which is a right that should not be undervalued, lest we lose it in the age of draconian busybody “homeowners’ associations”). An individual who owns land can truly turn the land and the improvements on it into reflections of himself, rather than just another barren, drab, or cookie-cutter plot (though any of those are within his prerogative as well, if he wishes to be unimaginative). True innovators are always in the minority and always unconventional. If they do not have a sphere where they can act unfettered, then many of their creations may never come to be.
Argument 6: Owned Land versus Land in the State of Nature: While I do not support arbitrary claims of ownership to undeveloped land, I do hold to the Lockean view that a person comes to own land by mixing his labor with it as the first occupant – and only to the extent that he does so. Locke himself argued that a person’s legitimate claim to land extends only to whatever land this person (or others acting on his behalf, through the voluntary exchange or offering of their services) was able to transform with his labor and put to use. Any other (undeveloped) land remains in the state of nature, free for others to claim. This is why Locke opposed arbitrary claims of the King of England to all of the prime forests of that country as the King’s “hunting grounds”. Likewise, one might question whether a Lockean view of property rights would allow national governments today to lay claim to vast undeveloped territories and to preclude development thereon (or sell “development rights” or “resource rights” to those territories). A fully libertarian system of property law would recognize the right of the first occupant and user of a property to be its owner, but only with respect to the land which is truly inextricably involved with such occupancy or use – i.e., land that has been improved and transformed. This is a consistent and universalizable standard for legitimate ownership, and it is a standard that follows directly from the desire to use and transform objects in nature for the improvement of human well-being. Such improvement and transformation are precisely what differentiates owned land from land in the state of nature. Owned land is much more usable and often dedicated to specific purposes, whereas land in the state of nature remains to be adapted to human needs. In practice, the two would look quite different and would enable natural demarcations of private land holdings.
Mr. Stolyarov, an atheist and transhumanist, critiques the video “Afterlife” – is a compilation of remarks by Seth Andrews (TheThinkingAtheist) and other famous YouTube atheists regarding the religious concept of life after death. However, the video goes beyond merely (correctly) critiquing ideas of the afterlife, and reflects an unfortunate acceptance of human mortality itself. The “Afterlife” video does present many interesting and valid insights, but it unfortunately throws the metaphorical baby — indefinite human life extension, driven by scientific discoveries and technological innovation — out with the bathwater — religious myths of an afterlife, unsubstantiated by evidence and arising out of a desire to attain comfort in the face of mortality.
Commentators to whom Mr. Stolyarov responds include DarkMatter2525, DPRJones, Evid3nc3, HealthyAddict, Laci Green, Thunderf00t, Mark Twain, and Vladimir Nabokov. He invites any of these commentators (except, of course, Twain and Nabokov) to discuss these ideas further.
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– “Afterlife” – Video by TheThinkingAtheist
– “An Atheist Transhumanist Critique of TheThinkingAtheist’s ‘Afterlife’ Video” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
– “The Movement for Indefinite Life Extension: The Next Step for Humankind” – Article by G. Stolyarov II
– Resources on Indefinite Life Extension (RILE)
– “The Real War – and Why Inter-Human Wars Are a Distraction” – Video by G. Stolyarov II
– “How Can I Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
– “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” – Wikipedia
The video “Afterlife” is a compilation of remarks by Seth Andrews (TheThinkingAtheist) and other famous YouTube atheists regarding the religious concept of life after death. However, the video goes beyond merely (correctly) critiquing ideas of the afterlife, and reflects an unfortunate acceptance of human mortality itself. As a lifelong atheist and transhumanist – a resolute foe of senescence and death and a seeker of indefinite life extension – I offer my critiques of the statements and quotations made in this video. The video does present many interesting and valid insights, but it unfortunately throws the metaphorical baby – indefinite human life extension, driven by scientific discoveries and technological innovation – out with the bathwater – religious myths of an afterlife, unsubstantiated by evidence and arising out of a desire to attain comfort in the face of mortality. As much as I respect Mr. Andrews and others quoted here, I must regretfully conclude that “Afterlife” embraces the other side of the religious coin: the premise that the only way to try to beat back the alleged inevitability of one’s eventual non-existence is through an unsubstantiated fantasy. But there is another, fully secular, fully human-centered option: the progress of our civilization and its eventual ability to conquer the age-old (and old-age) perils plaguing humankind.
I would welcome an in-depth discussion with Mr. Andrews or any of the other commentators in the video regarding this alternative to the religious afterlife – an alternative that can affirm and extend the precious, only life that each of us has. I hope that more atheists can recognize that transhumanism is the logical implication of rejecting a teleological, theistic worldview and amplifying all that is best about us as humans, so that the purpose of the universe can be what we make of it.
Vladimir Nabokov: Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats at hour).
My Response: In the “prenatal abyss”, one has never been alive, so one does not know what one is missing – or that one is missing, in fact. But once one is alive, one is able to anticipate one’s own non-existence – which is the worst fate of all for an individual, worse than eternal torture or eternal boredom (neither of which is realistic in any case). Furthermore, when one is alive, one has the ability to discover the history that came before one’s time. One has no way of knowing or observing the future after one’s death.
Mark Twain: I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
My Response: Being dead presupposes having once been alive. Having never existed makes one a mere potential among trillions of possible beings. Having existed once but not anymore means that one’s entire self – a fully formed universe of memories, sensations, thoughts, and aspirations – has become snuffed out. For each of us, there was a time when we did not have all that we have now: our lives. But, now that we have it, to lose it would be intolerable. It would literally be the undoing of everything we have ever been or done or aspired toward.
DarkMatter2525: The universe would continue in its ways if humanity weren’t here to witness it.
My Response: True, but to the individual, it is the same as if the entire universe has been extinguished. Whatever goes on after one’s death, one cannot experience it or be aware of its existence – and hence the only significance it might have is in terms of one’s anticipation of how it might be. That anticipation can only take place while one is alive and is necessarily fraught with extreme uncertainty. It cannot compare to the real thing – to living in the future. I want to live a millennium from now, not merely speculate about how it might be.
HealthyAddict: The universe is absolutely massive, and we are virtually insignificant in it.
My Response: The vastness of the universe in no way diminishes the significance of the individual. What is valuable, what is important is a function of entities that can pursue values or make judgments of importance. Only living, conscious entities can actively pursue values – and the very idea of values only makes sense in the context of the survival and flourishing of such living, conscious entities. The universe is vast, but the lives of humans and possibly other sentient beings are still of the ultimate importance – since it is the human scale on which valuation occurs. Size and importance are not related.
Another sense of the term “insignificance” might simply be “powerlessness” or “vulnerability” – without a moral judgment attached. It is true that humanity is still in its infancy, and still extremely fragile. Numerous natural disasters, originating on earth or in outer space, could severely damage or destroy our species. But this should only motivate us to expand our sphere of influence through technology and its application to the colonization of space and the enhancement of our bodies. If we are weak relative to the inanimate forces of the universe, then we must become stronger – as individuals and as a species.
Evid3nc3: I see no evidence that the rest of the universe cares that we exist or is even capable of caring. But I don’t really need validation from the rest of the universe to find my own life important.
My Response: I agree. There is no teleology built into the universe. What this means is that we must do our own caring; we cannot rely on the universe as a crutch – except in that we should utilize the laws of nature as instruments to advance our well-being. It is up to us to protect ourselves and expand our sphere of influence in the universe. And we should all, like Evid3nc3, find our own lives important – which is precisely why we should make every effort to prolong our lives – which are the source of that ultimate importance for us.
Laci Green: It’s just absurd to me how many people live for dying.
My Response: I agree that it is wrong to live for dying or to anticipate that one’s individuality and vantage point into the world will persist after one’s physical body is destroyed. Rather than live for dying, one should live for living – and act to keep on living. To do so, one should support (at least morally) the emerging efforts to prolong human lifespans. One should also educate oneself about the possibility of indefinite life extension within the coming decades, as well as the developments that are occurring today to help bring this goal closer to reality.
Seth Andrews: I think fragile, fearful humans were terrified of death, and so they wrote their own ending to the story – this happy fantasy, a place where they’ll be reunited with people they’ve lost, they’ll experience constant joy, and of course they’ll never, ever die.
My Response: I think this is indeed the predominant motivation behind the origins of religion. People who could not hope to avoid death through technology sought to comfort themselves and to make everyday pursuits more tolerable by convincing themselves that their existence does not cease at death. In effect, religion is ersatz-immortality: a poor substitute for the real thing, but enough to trick many people into not realizing the grave implications of death. But in an era when technology is advancing so rapidly that there is hope for us and our contemporaries to live indefinitely – there are two main attitudinal dangers. The first danger is continuing to believe that the ersatz-immortality is good enough and that it justifies not striving hard for the real thing. The second is the other side of the same coin – unfortunately embraced by too many atheists: rejecting both the ersatz-immortality and the real thing, abandoning the most profound triumph for our species, when we are – in historical time – on the verge of achieving it. I support abandoning the fantasy, but I do not support relinquishing the reality – literally – and acquiescing to becoming food for worms.
DPRJones: The concept of an afterlife diminishes the value that we place on our lives and the here and now.
My Response: I agree that this could be the case, if the expectation of an afterlife discourages people from striving to both improve and prolong this life. As an atheist, I hold that this life is the only one there is – and it is indeed the most precious life there is and could be. Therefore, to lose this life is to lose everything, and so the foremost ethical objective should be to hold onto this life.
DarkMatter2525: An unlimited supply of anything, including life, means that its existence cannot be appreciated.
My Response: For all practical purposes, the air on Earth is inexhaustible by humans. Does that mean that we do not appreciate the ability to breathe and sustain our lives in that way? Does this mean that air is not essential to us or any less important to our lungs than if we had to ration it or purchase canisters of oxygen to carry around? Certainly not. While scarcity of a resource is a key determinant of its monetary price, the idea that scarcity is somehow necessary for mental appreciation is highly flawed. Use-value (utility) and monetary “value” (price) are not the same. We should – and can – appreciate a thing or a condition for its own qualities qua thing or condition – and the benefit those qualities confer upon us. How many of those things or conditions exist or are going to exist does not matter.
Furthermore, the fact is, we still live one moment at a time. We do not have all of eternity at our disposal at any given moment, no matter how long we live. We only have the given moment, and a limited range of possibilities for what we can do right then. Thus, a kind of temporal scarcity will always exist – in the sense that some activities and satisfactions will always be more remote in time than others, and we will have to wait and strive for the ones that are more remote.
DarkMatter2525: If life is eternal, then there should be no sense of urgency.
My Response: Value is not derived from urgency, but from improvement of the human condition and, subsequently, from enjoyment of the fruits of that improvement. A work of art or music is not any more beautiful because of the urgency with which we experience it; it is beautiful because of its intrinsic constituent characteristics – the brushstrokes and notes that comprise it. Indeed, urgency detracts from value by inducing a stressed, rushed, crazed, and hectic experience where we miss important aspects of life because we worry that we will not have the time to do whatever we consider to be higher on the priority list. With less urgency, we could partake of more of the good things in life and have a longer-term perspective – planning for the future and treating ourselves and others with more respect and consideration. We could be more frugal, since we would enjoy the fruits of saving directly. We could take better care of our living spaces – both locally in our homes and on the scale of planets. We could still fulfill all of our highest priorities – and more of them, too, since we would have more time. But longevity itself would reshape our priorities and enable us to gain a more balanced, deliberate, and sophisticated perspective on our lives.
For me, the greatest happiness comes from those serene moments where I do not have to rush anywhere and do not have to worry about falling behind. It comes from having accomplished and from having done something good that could later – with purpose and deliberation – be the stepping stone for something even better. In the midst of intense work, happiness is that plateau of leisure between the past and the future, the reaffirmation that life can be good when it amounts to a progress that never hits a permanent wall. Urgency detracts from happiness by preventing one from truly enjoying life in a leisurely fashion – as opposed to trying to cram in as much as possible now, now, now – expecting (fearing, perhaps) that there might not be much time left.
Thunderf00t: I do not fear being dead, but the concept of the alternatives offered by the religious do trouble me. [Regarding Heaven], there does appear to be one constant: It will last for eternity. Imagine that. Imagine eternity. […] The first hundred years may be possible; the first thousand – more painful; the first ten thousand – insufferable. But this is just the start. An eternity in heaven would be hell for me.
My Response: I agree that Heaven as imagined by the religious would probably be a somewhat uninteresting place, since one would spend all of one’s time in it “glorifying God”. But this problem has nothing to do with experiencing an indefinite existence. It is a great poverty of imagination to be unable to think of what one could do with ten thousand years, or a much longer timeframe. Think: could you even consume all of the literature, music, art, and culture that humankind has created up to the present if you had ten thousand years? Indefinite longevity would bring about unprecedented richness, depth, and breadth of experience – as well as the immensity of individual learning and refinement, and the possibility to pursue multiple careers and many more hobbies than one currently can.
Furthermore, if Thunderf00t dislikes the prospect of an eternal existence, why would an eternal non-existence be any better or more preferable? Once you are dead, you are dead forever – and cannot choose to go back to not being dead. On the other hand, if you are alive indefinitely, and you feel tired, you could choose to take a nice long non-lethal nap or vacation and resume your activities when you are refreshed and in a better mood. Those who feel tedium or boredom now might later feel more like finding something meaningful and interesting to do in this vast universe. To die is to deny oneself this ability for an improvement in one’s outlook and enthusiasm.
The great and all-too-common error made by Thunderf00t is to see all of an individual’s life as a simultaneous totality rather than the way it is actually experienced: one moment at a time. While Thunderf00t might be unable to conceive of what he would do with ten thousand years, he probably knows what he would like to do the next minute, or the next day, or the next week. If he could live and work in this way – experiencing one day at a time – while remaining at his physical and intellectual prime – would there ever be a day when he would consciously decide that he would rather die tomorrow? Only a person in tremendous suffering could conceivably make such a choice. With technological and moral progress taking away ever more of that suffering, the desire to keep on living should become strengthened until no sane, rational person would ever want to die.
DarkMatter2525: Given eternity, anything that can be accomplished, will be accomplished. Beyond all achievements, there would only be limitless, pointless existence.
My Response: Considering that over a thousand new books get produced every day, doing or accomplishing “everything” would be impossible – since our minds’ conception of the possibilities will always outpace our ability to actualize those possibilities. DarkMatter2525 is assuming a finite, static set of possible accomplishments. In reality, the scope of possible accomplishments and activities grows every day at much faster rate than any given human has the ability to pursue those accomplishments and activities. One cannot experience today all that has been created even today by the billions of people now alive. The longer we live, the smaller will be the fraction of available pursuits in which we will be able to engage at any given time. Even if humans are able to enhance their minds radically in order to process and memorize as much text as a computer can – the human creative faculty would be able to generate proportionally more text as well, so that the volume of available output would still accelerate away from the ability of any human to process all of it. And books are just one subset of human activity – which will become increasingly diverse and multifaceted as our civilization advances. And think of all those billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, that we have yet to explore and colonize!
Laci Green: When I think about my own death, I used to feel scared, but I don’t think I do anymore.
My Response: I hypothesize (though I cannot be sure) that Ms. Green only sees death in the abstract for now. She is young and healthy, and it is easy to rationalize away the significance of death when it is remote. This is a coping mechanism that many people have, and it works particularly well when everyday life is reasonably good. But how many people can have this equanimity when death approaches – when it is too late to do anything about it? If Ms. Green does not wish to experience fear regarding the prospect of her eventual death – fine. I have no problem with people choosing to focus on other matters in an everyday context. However, I sincerely wish that she and others who do not feel scared would nonetheless have an intellectual awareness of the great destruction wrought by senescence, decay, and death. Then they could – calmly or cheerfully, as they please – support research and advance moral arguments that assist humankind in beating back this menace. I advocate not fear, but action.
AronRa: I’m not afraid of being dead. After we die, we will not know the truth at that point. We will not know, wish, think, remember, dream anything.
My Response: Precisely, and that is the worst possible fate. Our very being, our “I-ness” – that which makes all other experiences possible – will be extinguished, and not even the memory of our once having existed will remain with us.
Seth Andrews: I don‘t really find this sad or tragic either. I don’t really welcome death, but I don’t live in fear of the end. And I’ve come to see it as just another part of the natural world.
My Response: Not all that is “natural” is good – and, indeed, nature offers ways out of the problem of senescence by showing us numerous species that do not experience the ravages of biological aging or experience them at a much slower rate than we do. Since, in its truest sense, the word “natural” is just an expression for “what is” – Mr. Andrews is committing the Panglossian fallacy – the view that “whatever is, is right.” Cancer is natural, and it is brutal. Also natural is the fact that 99.9% of all the species that ever existed are now extinct. Just because this is natural, does not mean that we should accept it for ourselves. We can remake the outcomes of nature by studying the laws of nature and harnessing them for our own benefit. Once we have secured our continuing existence, we can work to eventually create a more humane, less predatory environment for all life forms that deserve it. We already do this to some extent with domestic pets and certain other useful animals – though, arguably, not to the extent that a more morally developed and resource-rich society might accommodate.
Thunderf00t: In some respects, we never die. Our lives are entangled with those who come after us, just as our lives are entangled with those who came before us. [Faraday, Newton, and Pasteur affect everyone’s lives today.] Death is not the end. We are intertwined with both lesser and greater things.
My Response: It is true that our lives have an impact on others, and that impact can extend beyond the lifespan of the individual. It is also true that we sometimes do not even perceive all the ways in which we impact others and others impact us. However, while our influence on the rest of the world might be a source of pride or reassurance to us in life, in death it means nothing – because we would not be aware of it even as a general concept without any particular details. Others who remain alive might still hazily and incompletely remember the dead individual, of course – but that memory is an asset to them, not to the dead. I benefit from the existence of Faraday, Newton, and Pasteur – good for me. But they are oblivious to this at present.
Laci Green: Just because there is no grand scheme it plays into does not mean there is not something beautiful about what is going on here.
My Response: I agree that the universe, or existence, has no grand scheme. But it is not clear to what “beautiful” phenomena Ms. Green is referring. There is true beauty in existence, but there are also true nastiness and cruelty and injustice. It is important to recognize the beautiful and good elements of the world, while struggling to eradicate or reform the bad. The real war we must fight is against the forces of ruin, and we should not lapse into the Panglossian fallacy of accepting absolutely anything that occurs on a regular basis as somehow “beautiful” or even remotely palatable.
ZOMGitsCriss: Ironically, the only part of me that is immortal is my material body. […] Every atom of me will be recycled back into the universe.
My Response: A long time ago (when I was fourteen), I tried to find consolation in that idea as well. It worked for about two hours. But then I realized that what matters is the arrangement of those atoms and the temporal continuity of that arrangement. I gain and lose atoms all the time, but each individual atom is not what makes me who I am. The essence of who I am, rather, is the manner in which those atoms interact with one another within the overall structure of my body – including my mind. When that is gone, I am gone.
DarkMatter2525: Even though a cell might not last forever, the role it plays in the larger organism is important, and that is how I see myself – as a part of something bigger.
My Response: But that “something bigger” does not care about DarkMatter2525, by his own earlier admission! So why should he care about it enough to be willing to be a mere cog in it? And if, as Laci Green says, there is no grand scheme to it all, then what exactly is he a part of? In terms of purpose, the only alternative to a teleological worldview, where purpose is “built into” the universe, is a humanistic worldview where purpose originates from the self – based on the biological requirements of one’s own survival, which, once sustained at a certain level, enable the individual to use his will to shape the universe to give it purpose. But in order to confer purpose upon an initially purposeless cosmos, one has to exist and to keep existing. Once existence stops, the purpose-giving process also stops, and so the “something bigger” is also no more.
ZOMGitsCriss: Knowing that this life is the only one I have makes me a lot more conscious of my actions, makes me want to do something with this short life I have.
My Response: I agree that knowing that this is the only life we have should make this life the greatest value to us – to be treated with the utmost seriousness and respect. We should seek to do great things with our time – but we should also seek to prolong our time, which is in itself a monumental and glorious undertaking.
Seth Andrews : There’s too much to learn, too much to see, too much to know, too much to experience. I’m not just going to exist. I’m going to live.
My Response: Certainly, some conditions of existence are better than others, and mere survival is not all there is to life. Flourishing can occur when life is lived in a way that fulfills an increasingly sophisticated series of human needs – ranging on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from basic material sustenance to self-actualization. But pursuing the higher needs by no means undercuts or conflicts with the more basic needs. Indeed, the higher needs are largely unattainable unless one already lives in a prosperous, peaceful civilization where the basic needs are so easily fulfilled that one almost takes them for granted.
All too many people perceive survival as somehow antithetical to enjoying life – but in fact enjoyment of life is not possible without being alive. Therefore, if one wishes to do more of the things that make life enjoyable, one should strive to live as long as possible – far beyond the paltry eighty or so years that comprise the current average life expectancy in the Western world.