[ExI] The denial of death, transhumanism, and the abolition of embodiment

natasha at natasha.cc natasha at natasha.cc
Thu Jun 9 20:39:47 UTC 2011

Charles Holland wrote:

> Hello all,

Hi Charles,

> I am writing a paper that tries to relate transhumanism   
> (posthumanism) to the ideas expressed in Ernest Becker's Denial of   
> Death. My question is how technological changes/enhancements to our   
> body might affect our 'anality' (as Becker puts it). Taking this to   
> the theoretical extreme, suppose a large part of society is uploaded  
>  and living in a virtual environment. Suppose a child is uploaded   
> immediately after birth and grows up in this virtual environment.

First let's discuss What Becker means in his book and see if it does  
relate to the transhumanist perspective, which is not necessarily what  
the "disembodiment" issue postmodernists tend to suggest. In fact, no  
matter what substrate a person exists in or on, it will be contained  
in some sort of system and that would be a new approach to embodiment,  
rather than disembodiment.

Regarding Becker, I'm not familiar with his work, but doing a quick  
scan the book Denial of Death, it seems that he is looking at persons  
as both nonmaterial and symbolic (which he strongly tethers to heroic  
notions). Since Becker wrote this book in 1974, I can understand his  
narrow focus, but his arguments would need a different or a wider lens  
for a discussion relating them to the transhumanist perspective. On  
the points of "death" and "abolition of embodiment"; transhumanism is  
more interested in *redefining* death than being in denial about death  
as Becker posits, and developing *new perspectives* on the body and  
embodiment rather than abolishing the body.

It is also important to note that coercive actions are  
counterproductive. While there may be individuals who might want to  
abolish the body, there are manyh transhumanist would like to design  
semi-biological bodies, non-biological prosthetic bodies, and other  
types of fors or platforms to exist within.

> The first thing that would be different in such a virtual world is   
> the absence of some basic bodily functions: we would no longer   
> require eating (and thus defecating). This is not to say we could   
> not still enjoy it, but it's a constraint released, and thus   
> something we no longer have to find a place for in our worldview.

I'm not sure what you mean.

> Taking a 'Second Life' approach to such a virtual world may conjure   
> up an image where people can perhaps dress a little funny and choose  
>  to have athletic bodies, but still be embodied. People would still   
> be able to walk should they want to, be able to place one foot in   
> front of the other, and feel the sensory feedback as their feet   
> touch the pavement. We would still feel as being embodied in a   
> certain location in space. This still holds if we should choose to   
> embody ourself in some more exotic forms, such as a bird or a fish   
> (be they androgynous or not). To what degree will we still   
> experience the Oedipal complex in this situation?

This is a funny conclusion to the paragraph.

> Taking a step further, living in a virtual environment may permit an  
>  unembodied existence, but this is hard to think about because none   
> of us can probably imagine such an existence. However, supposing   
> that such a form of existence will eventually be made possible, will  
>  this finally and completely abolish the dualism between our  
> symbolic  and physical selves?

Not necessarily.  Becker uses dualism for his thesis of  
material/physical and  symbolic heroism. Dualism concerns  
material/physical body and the mind/consciousness, which is not  
symbolic, but obtainable and reflective, however abstract.  (Others  
may have differeing opinions, but this is how I see it.)

> The technology that might one day allow this kind of virtual   
> existence, according to Becker, has come about precisely due to the   
> burden of our bodies, and the ensuing heroism projects. Supposing   
> that the answer to the previous question is 'yes', would this imply   
> that, because this ultimate human drive has fallen away, most if not  
>  all technological (or artistic) development will essentially come  
> to  a halt?

I agree with the body can be a burden (can as the operative world);  
BUT I find the body very enjoyable. I have fun with my body, I like my  
body, and my body is very, very useful for my brain and my  

> I would very much appreciate discussion on the points raised in the   
> previous paragraphs. Of course I don't mean to insinuate that I have  
>  the answers to any of the above questions, or even after (a   
> hopefully fruitful!) discussion on this list. However, I feel that   
> talking about these issues is quite essential to a transhuman   
> philosophy, so they warrant our attention.

Thank you Chris.  Most of these issues have been discussed at length  
numerous times.  You do present two new points of interest, to me  
anyway - and that is Becker and the Oedipal question.  I know of the  
Oedipus complex and I don't know how this fits into the discussion.  I  
suppose that an AI could be enamored by its human maker; or a section  
of code could develop sentience and have a crush on the AI that made  
it.  ...


Natasha Vita-More

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