My friend Michael Hauskeller recently recommended a paper on academia.edu. It was by Davide Sisto and it was entitled “Moral Evil or Sculptor of the Living? Death and the Identity of the Subject”. I was intrigued. Longtime readers will know that I have, for some time now, been half in love with the philosophy of death. I am always keen to read a new perspective or take on the topic.
Unfortunately I was slightly underwhelmed by Sisto’s paper. While it does contain an interesting metaphor — namely: that we should view death as a valuable ‘sculptor’ of our identities — it presents this metaphor in a way that bothers me. It presents it as part of critique of the contemporary (transhumanist) view of death as a biological problem that can be solved with right the technological fix. Indeed, it tries to suggest that those who favour radical life extension are beholden to an absurd metaphysics of death.
Now, to the extent that certain transhumanists believe we can achieve a genuine immortality — i.e. an existence free from all prospect of death — I might be inclined to agree that there is something absurd in their views. But I’m not convinced that this fairly represents the views of anti-ageing gurus like Aubrey de Grey. I think they have a much more modest, and I would suggest sensible, view: that human life can be prolonged far beyond the current limits without thereby causing us to lose something of tremendous value to our sense of self.
The problem, as I see it, is that Sisto’s claim that death is a sculptor is entirely consistent with this more modest view. On top of that, the metaphor suffers from two further problems: the argumentative assumptions underlying it are not particularly original, and it may not be internally coherent.
I want to explain these three problems in the remainder of this blogpost. I do so by first reviewing and presenting Sisto’s view in what I take to be a charitable form. Indeed, I hope to provide a way of visualising Sisto’s sculptor metaphor that clarifies its true meaning.
1. Death as Moral Evil
Sisto’s paper is written in a strange way. Or, to be fairer to him, in a way that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s part intellectual history and part philosophical critique. It isn’t always overt or direct in its critique, preferring to mask its argumentative moves behind high-falutin’ and sometimes obscure linguistic barbs. It also isn’t a clear and simple in what it says, often taking several paragraphs to express what is a relatively simple idea. That’s not to say the material isn’t interesting, but I felt I had to do a lot of work to pare away the rhetorical flourishes and reveal the argumentative core. I’ll try my best to just present that core here.
Ostensibly, Sisto’s paper attempts to contrast two views of death. The first view of death is the one that has now started to dominate in the secular, medicalised world. It is the view of death as something that is part of the current natural order. When Christianity dominated the western world, death was viewed as a consequence of original sin. It was part of our punishment when we were banished from the Garden of Eden. We could overcome death, but only through the right kind of spiritual practice, and only after we shuffled off the mortal coils of our biological bodies.
As the Christian view slowly receded into the background, it was replaced by a biological and medical view of death. Death was a consequence of the current natural order — an unfortunate result of biological decay. Our cells slowly degrade and denature themselves. The degradation eventually reaches a critical point at which our metabolically maintained homeostasis breaks down. This results in our deaths (though the precise markers of biological death are somewhat disputed — ‘brain death’ is the currently preferred view).
This naturalised view of death is very different from the old Christian ideal. This is because contemporary naturalism is closely joined to something that the bioethicist Daniel Callahan calls ‘technological monism’. This is an interesting ontological view of the world that Callahan thinks is pervasive among technically and scientifically inclined people. It is worth pausing to offer a definition of this view (this is mind, not Callahan or Sisto’s):
Technological monism: The belief that everything in the world is, in principle if not in fact, within the reach of our technology. In other words, the view that there is no hard and fast line between the artificial and manipulable and the natural and fixed. All is capable of being technologised.
Under the old Christian ideal there were some fixed and immutable features of our existence. Death was one of them. We couldn’t stop death from happening. Only God had the power to do that. Technological monism suggests that death is not a fixed and immutable feature of our existence. It is something we can — with the right kind of intervention — prevent. We can slow down and reverse our biological ageing. We can preserve our identities for longer than we previously hoped.
This ‘technologised’ view of the world lends support to the belief that death is a moral evil:
Death as Moral Evil: Death is, in principle, within our control. It is a breakdown of our biological machinery that we can, with the right technological intervention, prevent and/or avert. Consequently, death is our responsibility. It is only through lack of effort that it continues to exist.
It is a moral evil because it is something within our power to fix. Hence we are, morally speaking, on the hook for allowing it to continue.
Having outlined this view of death, Sisto then briefly alludes to various suggested techniques for solving the problem of death. These include integrating human biology with machinery (the cybernetic/cyborg solution), digitally uploading our minds to computers, and preventing cellular degradation through biotechnological interventions.
2. Death as the Sculptor of Identity
There is much more in Sisto’s discussion of the ‘death as moral evil’ view, but I think the preceding summary captures the gist. The main argumentative thrust of Sisto’s paper comes from the contrast he draws between this view and his own preferred view of ‘death as a sculptor’.
The essence of this view is that death is not separable from life contrary to what the technological monists want to believe. They want to have a life without death. But this is not possible. Death is a necessary part of life as a whole. It is what gives shape, direction and, above all else, a sense of identity to life. As Sisto puts it at the start of his paper:
[Death can seen as] a “sculptor” that draws from the formless, namely the totality of possibilities, the identity profile of the individual (a symbolic reading of nature in the light of the scientific theories of apoptosis), so that subjective identity is determined by a natural limit..
As you can see from the quote, Sisto explains this symbolic idea by reference to the biological process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This is a highly regulated biological process whereby cells within an organisms body will kill themselves off when they are no longer necessary for some particular tissue. The process has been studied extensively in the past 40 years and is literally what sculpts our bodily organs and tissues into their final form. For example, the separation between your fingers and toes is the result of apoptosis — cells that grew in the gaps killed themselves off in order to create the distinctive identity of your fingers.
Sisto makes this example do a lot of work. He argues that the apoptotic process is essential to biological life; that it is what gives the organism its unique identity. He also notes how failures of apoptosis are linked to cancers and excesses of apoptosis are linked to various degenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s. He believes that this supports his contention that life and death are inseparable. Death is built into the biological process of being alive. It is, to reiterate, the necessary sculptor of life:
The theory of apoptosis lets clearly emerge the limits of the theoretical positions that believe in the possibility to redefine human nature and subjectivity in the light of a life deprived of its own death. Life is in itself mortal, its essence is mortality, to the point that a life without death is inconceivable…Dying is already present in the moment of life and unfolds by constantly weaving itself together with living, according to the rules of the inexhaustibility of this relationship and of a ceaseless repetition: death is not a deadline, it is a nuance of life.
I’m not sure I know what it means to say that ‘death is a nuance of life’; and I’m not sure that the apoptosis example can be pushed too far; but I do think that Sisto’s view of death is an interesting one. I find the image of death as something that draws from the ‘formless totality of possibilities’ the identity of the individual quite evocative and I think it can be effectively communicated by way of some diagrams. Take a look at this one first.
This is simple decision tree. Imagine your life begins at the first node of this decision tree and that you have two choices to make at this point (i.e. two ways in which you can choose to progress with your life). These two choices are represented by the branches of the tree. They lead to subsequent decision nodes, which in turn branch out into further possible choices. This process of branching out from the original starting node continues on into the future of your life. If we could map out the complete space of possible choices in your life, we could effectively illustrate the ‘totality of possibilities’ that Sisto alludes to in the above quote. We could map out all the possible lives you could live. Of course, we can’t do that. No piece of paper would be large enough to contain all those possible choices. The diagram above is just a very small slither of the space of possible lives. But it suffices to illustrate Sisto’s point, which is made by the next diagram.
This diagram shows what happens when you start making choices within this space of possible lives. You pick one branch over another and you consequently proceed down one path to the exclusion of others. This path represents your lifeline, if you will. The unique course that your life takes. Death then plays an important role in sealing off your lifeline and giving it a unique and singular identity. Once you die, your life becomes characterised by the path you took through the space of possible choices. This path contains all your accomplishments and failures, all your loves and losses, all your aspirations and fears. It effectively constitutes your identity. That’s why one of the lines is highlighted and singled out from all the others.
Without death, this lifeline would lose its unique identity. If you had infinite time to play around in, you could travel back down some other paths; take routes through life that you hadn’t taken before. Death — the end of choice-making — is what sculpts you from the void of possibilities.
3. Three problems with the 'Death as Sculptor' View
As I say, I find this metaphor to be very evocative. It really does give you an interesting perspective on the nature of death. But I don’t think it is as interesting and useful as Sisto supposes. Here I return to the three criticisms I mentioned at the start of this post. These criticisms assume a certain interpretation of Sisto’s article. They assume that he presents this ‘death as sculptor’ view in order to critique those technological monists (among whose ranks we can count transhumanist thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey) who wish to ‘conquer death’. This may or may not be a fair interpretation. Sisto, unfortunately, isn’t as clear as he might be in stating his argumentative aims. I think it a fair interpretation based on his overall tone and the way in which he ends the article:
Without death, life would become a slow-motion film and each human being would be lost in a common and conformed “perfection,” devoid of all the haphazard colours casually matched which are nothing but the outcome of the very limit that gives a sense to existence and structures human nature in the most essential way.
This suggests a strong commitment to the view that death is essential to life; and that those who seek to conquer it are wrong-headed in their views. They have an imperfect axiology and metaphysics of death.
Assuming this interpretation is correct, the three criticisms can be voiced. The first is not really a criticism so much as it is an observation, but it may have some critical bite. It is that there is nothing particularly novel in Sisto’s claim that death is valuable to life because it sculpts identity out of the space of possibilities. This is a view that is pervasive in the literature on the ‘tedium of immortality’. It is a view that one finds expressed in Bernard Williams’s classic article on the Makropulos case, and can also be traced through the work of Martha Nussbaum and Aaron Smuts (all of which has been covered on the blog before). It can also be found in Borges short story ‘The Immortal’ which describes the problem with immortality in effectively the same terms as Sisto:
Taught by centuries of living, the republic of immortal men had achieved a perfection of tolerance, almost of disdain. They knew that over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men. As reward for his past and future virtues, every man merited every kindness—yet also every betrayal as reward for his past and future iniquities…
I know of men who have done evil in order that good may come of it in future centuries, or may already have come of it in centuries past…
Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey; given infinite time, with infinite circumstances and changes, it is impossible that the Odyssey should not be composed at least once. No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosophy, demon and world — which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not.
(Borges, The Immortal - Hurley Translation)
There is nothing wrong with mimicking arguments from others — and Sisto does give the argument a nice new metaphorical gloss — but there is a potential criticism embedded in this observation insofar as many of these other figures have presented the argument in more persuasive and rigorous terms (Smuts in particular). And there is also a rich literature critiquing their views which should presumably be engaged with.
This brings me to the second criticism. Evocative as the metaphor is, I’m not sure that it can really form the basis of an effective critique of immortality. The suggestion is that mortality is needed for uniqueness of identity. I’m actually sympathetic to that view (I’ve discussed it before) but I think the notion that death helps to do this by selecting a unique lifeline out of the vast space of possibilities is flawed. Go back to the diagrams above for a moment. Note the role of time in them. Time is a unidirectional dimension in which the possible lives are lived. You cannot go back in time to a previous decision node and make a choice again. This is true even if you live forever. More time to live means that you can choose to do things you would have to forget or pass over in the course of a normal lifespan, but time will still be a constraint on how you live your life (unless we also invent time travel). Say, you choose to become a doctor rather than a lawyer. With an infinite amount of time you could give up being a doctor and go back and train as a lawyer. But that ‘going back’ only occurs in the future. You don’t literally get to revisit your choice at the original moment in time. This has one important repercussion for the claim about death and identity. It means that even if you live forever there is still going to be one unique lifeline through the space of possible choices that defines your life. You may get to do everything, but you get to do it in a unique order and sequence.
I’m not suggesting that this is a terribly persuasive criticism. There may still be ways in which we lose our sense of self and identity over the course of eternity. But I would submit that this loss of identity does not arise because our lifeline is not unique. It arises for other reasons, e.g. because we grow tired with ourselves or we lose all sense of accomplishment and achievement and everything starts to blur into an endless sequence of unimportant events. These are ideas developed at length by the likes of Smuts and Williams.
Finally, the third and in many ways most important critique of the ‘death as sculptor view’, is that one can adopt that view and still think that technologically-assisted life extension is a good thing. In other words, the ‘death as sculptor’ view doesn’t really highlight the absurdity of the life extensionist position. The ‘death as sculptor’ view only really highlights the need for limits in life (death being the obvious and ultimate limit). But I don’t know of anyone who favours life extension that believes in genuine immortality or a life without limits. Most just want to prolong life by as much as possible. And even those who think we could ultimately slow down and stop the biological precursors of death, don’t think we will thereby remove death and other sources of limitation from our world. We will still die due to accidents or violence. We will still have the option of dying. And we will still be constrained by other physical and natural forces. Control of our biology does not mean total control of our universe. Maybe we will ultimately get to that — but that’s a long way from the dream of extending lifespan beyond its current limits.