In the debate, “Should Technology Treat Death as the Enemy?”, Peter Thiel argues that death may be curable - and that our lack of progress in conquering it is largely because the researchers are in a culturally-induced stagnation. Incredibly, he goes further: broad acceptance of the premise that death is inevitable is somewhat of a moral failing.
Such a radically optimistic position is, in fact, so far outside of the societal norms, that it’s worthy of hearing verbatim. Therefore, I’ve include two 60s clips from the debate, with transcript, below. I also provide my own analysis of the two passages, which, admittedly, is colored by my recent breakup with my boyfriend of 3 years. See below:
The kinds of counterpoints that (my opponent) Dr. Hurlbut will make will be some version of, “(researchers’ failure to destroy death)’s not about culture, it’s about nature.”
And you can have nature in two forms: nature as a limit, or Nature as a standard; That there are limits that nature has set and we shouldn’t overstep them, or it’s sort of a standard that tells us what’s right, in some sense or other.
I often think this argument was (in some ways) summarized by Shakespeare, when he said that “All that lives must die”, which is a statement about a description of the world (this is just nature), and it’s also a normative description (it’s right that it’s this way, and that’s the way things should be). But if you look at the original Shakespeare - of course, Shakespeare never said anything in his own name; it was always through characters - and the character who said that in Shakespeare was Gertrude in Hamlet, who was the Evil mother. And it was an Evil thing to say, because she was trying to get Hamlet not to pay attention to how his dad had died under mysterious circumstances, how she was indifferent to it. And so when we say, “All that lives must die” - we have to always ask, is this a statement about Nature, or natural limits, or is it a rationalization of the rottenness that is Denmark, or the rottenness that is the University academic research system in 2019?
And so I think - coming back to this culture question - the worry I have is that it’s an alibi for what’s gone wrong. It’s like, people would like to rationalize things, and the scientists that have not made progress on cancer would like to say, “We didn’t get enough money”. No, they got plenty of money. The next line of defense is, “Nobody could have done better; it’s just too hard a problem.” And I think we should be skeptical of these alibis and rationalizations - and that’s fundamentally the way these things work in our society.
While Thiel’s arguments here are aimed at cancer/longevity/biotech research, they generalize to leave other “deaths by attitude”, or “deaths by culture”, quivering by association. Upon executing a post-mortem of a death by attitude (such as relationship break-ups, lost friends, or cancelled work projects), the killer-turned-pathologist may succomb to a pernicious desire to cast his shortcomings into either natural limits: “if only"s, “nobody could have done better"s; or worse, into a testament to Nature’s inevitable standard: “it happens.” To a usual person in broad agreement with societal consensus around death, these Natural excuses sound perfectly reasonable. However, the extent to which one uncovers the direct damage wrought from these deaths of attitude - from the crimes underneath the alibi - is the extent to which one reveals the very unreasonableness in the cover story itself. In some sense, then, one sees these alibies as more of an opiate of the masses. For what could addict humans faster, than a quick claim to an unearned, undeserved innocence from one’s own crimes and shortcomings; and, in innocence, an associated, blissful ignorance of the harm inflicted on nearby souls?
Thiel closes with a powerful contrast to the fatalistic resignation of “All That Lives Must Die”:
Let me end with a theological point - I know both Bill (my opponent) and I are Christian. There’s always sort of this question about how this set of ideas intersects with Christianity in various ways. The understanding that I would give is that in Orthodox Christianity:
Christ is a healer. He heals the blind; the deaf; the lame. He doesn’t follow all the Pharisaical rules of doing so - he does it on the Sabbath. And he will do it in all these ways that are very uncomfortable healing - the communities are used to people being sick, and they want them to stay sick. That was the cultural context. And Christ does not care about the cultural context.
And there’s no limit to it: It includes resurrecting Lazarus, or it includes the story of Enoch and Elijah (in the old testament) where you do not die at all - so there is no limit. The greatest good is eternal life, and there is no limit at all.
I think that Christ is not some kind of Epicurean philosopher where you sort of think through your death, rationalize your death. And is not interested in this sort of rationalization, is not interested in explaining away the evil; philosophizing, rationalizing evil. The interest of the Bibilical God of Christ is in destroying evil; destroying death. And I think we should work really hard to do the same.
The antidote to the alibies, then, is not to accept them in a cultural context of death, but to face one’s own rottenness bravely and boldly, and ultimately, to destroy it and transcend. Transcendance, perhaps, is achieved best: through love, as a wellspring for growth; through action, to realize the love; and through reality and truth, to guide the action towards intentional nourishment of eternal life, not cancerous growth ending in death.
Fortunately, unlike the narrow rebuttal against literal death, there is bright spot in this generalized argument against giving in to the natural limits and Natural standard: a single “death of attitude” is not fatal. Provided one can reflect, reorient, re-adjust - one can also renew.