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Immortality, an ancient fantasy revived by transhumanism

Stéphane Charpier
Stéphane Charpier
Professor of Neuroscience at Sorbonne University and Research Director at Institut du cerveau de Paris
Cécilia Calheiros
Cécilia Calheiros
PhD in sociology, specialist in transhumanism
Key takeaways
  • Transhumanism is a school of thought that promotes the idea of surpassing the human condition.
  • With life expectancy rising steadily over the last few decades, advances in neuroscience are bringing the ideological aspects of this school of thought to light.
  • Over the centuries, the definition of death has evolved considerably, but today it is considered to be the absence of brain activity.
  • Researchers have identified distinctive signals associated with death and resuscitation, making the definition of death more complex from a neurophysiological point of view.
  • Now, some transhumanist movements are no longer aiming for immortality, but amortality, i.e. a considerably prolonged life in good health.
  • Immortality is a long-standing human goal, but what is new is the techno-scientific justification for this ambition.

From being “brain dead” to the “mind down­load” envis­aged by tran­shu­man­ists, the bound­ary between life and death con­tin­ues to be shroud­ed in mys­tery. But in the face of the hopes of immor­tal­i­ty that they raise, the lim­its of sci­en­tif­ic real­i­ty and the human con­di­tion must be faced. Recent advances in neu­ro­science have led to a rejec­tion of this desire to “kill death”, which has more to do with ide­ol­o­gy than with a seri­ous tech­no-sci­en­tif­ic project.

Thanks to advances in sci­ence and med­i­cine, human­i­ty has nev­er ceased to delay its own demise. While a con­tem­po­rary of Charle­magne was born with a life expectan­cy of bare­ly 30 years, INED pre­dicts that a cit­i­zen of the Euro­pean Union born in 2022 will live an aver­age of just over eight decades. But some peo­ple imag­ine going even fur­ther. Recent sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tions in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, genet­ics, biol­o­gy and neu­ro­science, com­bined with the emer­gence of tran­shu­man­ism (a move­ment that pro­motes the idea of tran­scend­ing the human con­di­tion), have brought the quest for immor­tal­i­ty back to cen­tre stage, or at least for a sig­nif­i­cant exten­sion of life.

But before we can under­stand how and why we delay death, we need to be able to define it. And the ques­tion is not so sim­ple: “As a sci­en­tist, I don’t know what death is”, admits Stéphane Charpi­er, pro­fes­sor of neu­ro­science at Sor­bonne Uni­ver­si­ty and direc­tor of the Brain Neu­ro­science team at Inserm. For him, it is a “pri­ma­ry con­cept” that only takes on mean­ing in oppo­si­tion (“in the neg­a­tive”) to life. This is why his work involves “study­ing death by try­ing to under­stand what is hap­pen­ng in a brain that is still alive”.

A case of brain death described by P. Mol­laret and M. Goulon in 1959, in the Revue Neu­rologique. The authors go on to point out that “the sur­vival of such a patient auto­mat­i­cal­ly ceas­es as soon as res­pi­ra­to­ry or cir­cu­la­to­ry con­trol is stopped”

The corpse with the beating heart

The idea that a human being with a beat­ing heart is nec­es­sar­i­ly alive is still wide­ly held. How­ev­er, when Pierre Mol­laret and Mau­rice Goulon dis­cov­ered brain death1 in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry, they dis­proved this prin­ci­ple and “engen­dered,” accord­ing to Stéphane Charpi­er, “a new sta­tus of human exis­tence”, by describ­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of hav­ing a corpse with a beat­ing heart, but whose brain has been destroyed. The two resus­ci­ta­tors were in fact the first to con­cep­tu­alise the prin­ci­ple of brain death. They defined this sta­tus as a “coma in which, in addi­tion to the total abo­li­tion of the func­tions of rela­tion­al life (editor’s note: absence of mus­cu­lar and ner­vous reac­tiv­i­ty), there is not only dis­tur­bance, but also total abo­li­tion of veg­e­ta­tive life (editor’s note: absence of spon­ta­neous respiration)”.

In this way, the car­dio­cen­tric vision of exis­tence is no longer rel­e­vant and, from a med­ical point of view, what makes a human being not dead is no longer his beat­ing heart, but his liv­ing brain.

Since 2012, the WHO has also adopt­ed this brain-cen­tric view­point in its def­i­n­i­tion of death: “the per­ma­nent and irre­versible dis­ap­pear­ance of the capac­i­ty for con­scious­ness and of all func­tions of the brain stem”. A human being is there­fore con­sid­ered to be alive as soon as his or her brain is capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing “elec­tri­cal back­ground noise”, as Stéphane Charpi­er points out. This phe­nom­e­non, which results from the brain’s spon­ta­neous, endoge­nous activ­i­ty, can be mea­sured using an elec­troen­cephalo­gram or micro­elec­trodes that sci­en­tists insert inside neurons.

Immortality, the permanent horizon of transhumanism

Elec­tro-neu­ronal stud­ies enable researchers to “dif­fer­en­ti­ate three phys­i­o­log­i­cal dimen­sions of exis­tence: liv­ing, awake and con­scious”, to which par­tic­u­lar elec­tri­cal sig­na­tures cor­re­spond. As Stéphane Charpi­er, author of La sci­ence de la résur­rec­tion2, explains, this trip­tych makes it pos­si­ble to under­stand that “what makes a human being not dead is no longer just his beat­ing heart, or his abil­i­ty to breathe spon­ta­neous­ly, but his capac­i­ty to pro­duce a con­scious sub­jec­tive experience.”

So, if death coin­cides with the inabil­i­ty to be con­scious, does the quest for immor­tal­i­ty cher­ished by tran­shu­man­ists amount to keep­ing our brains alive after our bod­ies have failed us? “Not exclu­sive­ly,” replies Cecil­ia Cal­heiros, a soci­ol­o­gist spe­cial­is­ing in health and reli­gion who devot­ed her doc­tor­al the­sis to the sub­ject. “Tran­shu­man­ism aims for the end of the human as it exists and the advent of a new one,” she sums up, “which will be either immor­tal or amor­tal, depend­ing on whether you’re a North Amer­i­can or French tran­shu­man­ist.” By amor­tal, we mean a human being whose lifes­pan in good health is con­sid­er­ably extend­ed, with­out being eter­nal. In short, the tran­shu­man­ist project amounts to propos­ing a soci­ety where “the human con­di­tion frees itself from its bio­log­i­cal limits”.

The wave of death is not fatal

In 2011, bored by a sci­en­tif­ic pre­sen­ta­tion at a con­fer­ence, Stéphane Charpi­er chose to read an arti­cle pub­lished in the jour­nal Plos One3, the title of which men­tions a mys­te­ri­ous “Wave of Death”. In it, the authors assess the brain activ­i­ty that occurs at the moment of death, “by study­ing what hap­pens in the brain of a rat before, dur­ing and after decap­i­ta­tion”, he explains. And, as expect­ed, “they found that this activ­i­ty died out very quick­ly, but that after a while a gigan­tic wave appeared on the elec­troen­cephalo­gram, which had flat­tened out!” This is what the Dutch researchers call the “wave of death”, sug­gest­ing that it is the last sig­nal a brain pro­duces before it final­ly shuts down.

Noth­ing less was need­ed to arouse the neuroscientist’s curios­i­ty, and to get his Inserm team at the Insti­tut du Cerveau (Pitié Salpetrière Hos­pi­tal in Paris) involved in a project to study this phe­nom­e­non in greater detail. “We aban­doned the prin­ci­ple of decap­i­ta­tion and set up a pro­to­col enabling us to switch off the brain, then rean­i­mate it after­wards, while study­ing brain activ­i­ty using micro­elec­trodes insert­ed into the neu­rons of our test sub­ject,” sums up the researcher.

Elec­tro-cor­tico­graph­ic (EcoG) mea­sure­ments in rats, after induced Anox­ia onset and a resus­ci­ta­tion attempt. In fig­ure A, the upper trac­ings show suc­cess­ful resus­ci­ta­tion and the onset of the resus­ci­ta­tion wave (WoR). (Mod­i­fied from Schramm et al., 2020). Source: Charpi­er S (2023)4.

After con­firm­ing the neu­ronal phe­nom­e­non of the wave of death, when the test sub­jects were rean­i­mat­ed, the researchers wit­nessed the appear­ance of “a sec­ond wave! […] An elec­tri­cal sign of the brain’s return to life”, which they named the “rean­i­ma­tion wave”. The sci­en­tists have thus char­ac­terised two neu­ronal mark­ers that help deci­pher the bound­ary between life and death. Para­me­ters are still lack­ing to define death pre­cise­ly from a neu­ro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal point of view, but their work makes it pos­si­ble to attribute a sig­na­ture to two dis­tinct states: “I may be dying” and “I may be com­ing back”.

A flat elec­troen­cephalo­gram doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that every­thing is over, which is why Stéphane Charpi­er says that “death is an asymp­tote”. A curve whose point of con­ver­gence with the end line is a more than inde­ci­sive horizon.

An illusion of eternity

Accord­ing to those who claim to be part of this move­ment, immor­tal­i­ty is only a “speck on the hori­zon” for the time being. To achieve it, some tran­shu­man­ists advo­cate a bio­log­i­cal approach to counter-aging (or “‘longevi­ty”), with the aim of halt­ing or even revers­ing the aging process. Oth­ers believe that “true free­dom con­sists in detach­ing one­self from one’s phys­i­cal body”, says the researcher. In this case, the essence of exis­tence lies in the brain, whose mem­o­ries and func­tion­ing should be pre­served “to make it imper­ish­able” by cryo­gen­ics, as pro­posed by the Alcor Life Exten­sion Foun­da­tion in the USA, or by mind upload­ing process­es. While these meth­ods fail to approach the realm of the pos­si­ble, they do have the advan­tage of fuel­ing the imag­i­na­tions of many artists and sci­ence-fic­tion writers.

Boris Karloff in the role of the mon­ster (pub­lic­i­ty pho­to for the film Bride of Franken­stein, 1935).

Illu­so­ry, then? “With­out a doubt,” says Stéphane Charpi­er. In his view, “the tran­shu­man­ist project is a meta­phys­i­cal fable. We can increase our life expectan­cy, cor­rect defects and com­pen­sate for cer­tain weak­ness­es, but increas­ing the human being as an enti­ty, or cryo­geni­cal­ly stor­ing their brain, is quite sim­ply a pipe dream.” The neu­ro­sci­en­tist acknowl­edges that humans are capa­ble of pro­duc­ing arti­fi­cial neur­al net­works, of “tin­ker­ing with brains”, but con­sid­ers it unimag­in­able that a machine could pro­duce, or even repli­cate, the neur­al process­es under­ly­ing subjectivity.

The means justify the end

Ulti­mate­ly, the inno­v­a­tive char­ac­ter of tran­shu­man­ism does not lie in the quest for eter­nal life. “What is new is the asser­tion that immor­tal­i­ty is plau­si­ble, thanks to a dis­course based on tech­no-sci­en­tif­ic advances. Tran­shu­man­ist objec­tives are thus con­vinc­ing play­ers in key spheres of our soci­eties: indus­try, research, health, etc.”, points out Cecil­ia Cal­heiros. As a result, tran­shu­man­ism is, in her view, “the most exac­er­bat­ed expres­sion of neolib­er­al soci­ety, which urges every­one to be the best ver­sion of them­selves and to con­stant­ly improve their skills.” The soci­ol­o­gist sees this move­ment “above all as an ide­ol­o­gy, which rein­forces a pow­er that is already present.”

In the tran­shu­man­ist con­text, the max­im that the end jus­ti­fies the means no longer holds true, since this end (death) is des­tined to dis­ap­pear. The tran­shu­man­ist myth is based on a reverse move­ment in which the means (techno­sciences) jus­ti­fy a new end (immortality/amortality). The ambi­tion is “infi­nite mas­tery of the world” and of the bio­log­i­cal con­di­tions of exis­tence, which brings tran­shu­man­ists back to the myth of Franken­stein, accord­ing to Stéphane Charpi­er. In his view, “with this nov­el, Mary Shel­ley wrote the first tran­shu­man­ist text. She imag­ines a body made of frag­ments of corpses that lives and ful­fills the dream of tran­shu­man­ists: to deprive human beings of death.”

The quest for immor­tal­i­ty and longevi­ty has punc­tu­at­ed the his­to­ry of mankind since its ear­li­est begin­nings. It is embod­ied in count­less myths about mor­tals who dared to aspire to the immor­tal­i­ty of the gods and were con­demned to tor­ment in return (Prometheus, Icarus, etc.). The rise of tran­shu­man­ism is a mod­ern update of this ambi­tion. Unfin­ished, this move­ment comes up against the wall of objec­tiv­i­ty and the sci­en­tif­ic approach. “Can we be con­scious with­out a body? Can a machine real­ly pro­duce sub­jec­tiv­i­ty?” asks Stéphane Charpi­er rhetor­i­cal­ly, by way of conclusion.

As long as tran­shu­man­ists can’t pro­vide an objec­tive demon­stra­tion or proof that it’s pos­si­ble, death will remain the shared hori­zon for each and every one of us.

Samuel Belaud
4Between life and death: the brain twi­light zones. Front. Neu­rosci. 17:1156368

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