Death: Is the final frontier surmountable?

Text Susanne Gold, Illustration: Cocreation between Susanne Gold and the artificial Intelligence „Dream“ and „Dall-e“

Our world is changing rapidly. Boundaries are decaying and becoming blurred. When we ask what “will change everything”, we are actually asking the question in the wrong tense. It should be “what is changing everything right now?”

Our idea of what it means to be human is undergoing profound change, and our idea of death is also changing as a result

We are struggling today to redefine our existence and this will certainly have far-reaching effects on our future. The new understanding of our existence began in the 19th century, when Charles Darwin revealed to us the truth about the history of mankind and with this knowledge a new man appeared in the mirror: Since that time we are no longer the product of divine planning, but the ancestors of worms – no more than the result of a string of coincidences and selection.

We can hardly let go of our former divine special position: We still prefer to think of ourselves as the end product of evolution, the crowning achievement of selection. If not divine, then at least the crowning glory

But, if we look more closely at our origins – how likely is it that we represent the pinnacle of evolution? We struggle to find a new view of ourselves, homo-sapiens, and remain as unknown to ourselves as the universe that surrounds us. Despite all progress, there are many assumptions and hardly any certainties about where we come from, where we are going and who we actually are.

To understand ourselves as a part of the whole and not as its crowning glory holds great possibilities

If we consistently embrace the evolutionary view, it will enable us to recognize the value of other biological species and to better appreciate our place in the overall scheme of things. We might come closer to the crowning glory of evolution, and thus to the gods, if we began to see our environment as our home and no longer exclusively as our resource, and the other life forms in it no longer as our slaves.

The only certainty we have so far is the death of us all

But we do not want to accept this. Our finiteness should no longer be a limit for us. With the help of developmental biology, researchers today are trying to reprogram human tissue and find new possibilities for repair and general regeneration. Tools are to be created, which can form our outer form. Damaged organisms should no longer be a reason to end our lives. Developmental biology shall free us completely from the limitations of our fixed form. True to our industrial growth thinking, we also want to optimize our bodies. Today, when we talk about “growing old gracefully,” we usually mean looking as young as possible while doing so. Too seldom do we honestly ask ourselves what dignified being and dignified aging actually is.

Our mind is also optimized

Our mind is obviously a product of our brain. Or perhaps it is not? Possibly the feelings that influence our thoughts originate in our gut? We don’t know exactly. Also, how our material body is able to produce an immaterial soul is still a complete mystery to us. The old conception of our soul, does not fit so well into our new world: This must be fathomed.

Research in the field of neuroscience has been given a whole new meaning by the advent of big mountains of data and an artificial intelligence that is becoming smarter and smarter as a result. After all, how can we make our artificial intelligence equal to our mind if we do not understand it ourselves? The origin of our consciousness is still as unknown to us as the universe that surrounds us.

Until today it is uncertain what constitutes our consciousness and how it comes to the thoughts and feelings that give us an identity. Simply, the variables that make us become the very person we are

At the same time, the former ideas about the time after death and an afterlife are apparently a human constant. For an existence after death, which is intertwined with our identity, is part of every human culture – even historically. At every time and in every culture there have been ideas about an afterlife. It may be that we merely cannot bear our finiteness. But it may also be that we have a divine presentiment. We will not be able to clarify it for sure – at least not in this world. In life, every person’s only gateway to the hereafter is his imagination, nourished by hopes and fears, which often manifests itself as unshakable faith.

Digitialisation brings forth further concepts for overcoming death

Recently, an AI enabled a dead woman to speak to people who attended her funeral. Marina Smith, an 87-year-old woman who died in June, was able to address mourners at her own funeral with the help of artificial intelligence.

The woman was able to surprise the guests at the funeral with a “holographic video conversation,” which was developed by a StartUp storyFile. This startup’s efforts can be understood as representative of Silicon Valley’s push to bring the dead back into society with the power of machine learning. Earlier this year, for example, tech giant Amazon showed off a new feature of its Alexa smart speaker that lets the voice of a deceased grandmother read a story to a child.

Of course, these are only ever simulations of people who have died. Even the best technology today is not able to overcome death.

I seriously wonder how such simulations will affect the survivors’ farewells and stages of grief. On the understanding of our finitude? And thus inevitably on the understanding of our existence.

It is probably certain that we do not seem to be the crowning glory of our overall system and that evolution will continue – possibly without us. In many areas of research, in addition to natural evolution, work is being done to advance it technologically at a rapid rate. Transhumanists dream of using technology to grow beyond all limits. What our bodies and minds will look like in the future remains to be seen. My wish is that we do not forget the context in which we find ourselves in all optimization attempts. We are a part of the whole. Without reference we are nothing.

Clearly, today we have to search for and redefine our new place in the universe

For this we need, on one hand, a new view of ourselves, unencumbered by false assertion or simplistic myths. On the other hand, a new understanding of the life forms that surround us and how we deal with them.

This is the biggest challenge for us: changing our universal context and other life forms: A consensus on how we want to conceive of and manage our existence and the way we conceive of ourselves, our environment and our mortality.

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