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Home > Articles > Are Transhumanists “Thanatophobic”? No - What’s True is - Deathists are “Vitaphobic”

Are Transhumanists “Thanatophobic”? No - What’s True is - Deathists are “Vitaphobic”

Posted: Sun, February 17, 2013 | By: Hank Pellissier

I was hanging out at a North Beach cafe yesterday with two non-transhumanist friends. Actually, they’re the “Dads” of my 8-year-old daughter’s pals.

“How’s your website doing, Hank?” asked Igor. “What’s it about, anyway?”

I started to explain TNet’s agenda but Chuck jumped in…

“His website is for people who’re terrified of death,” he explained. “‘Transhumanists.”

“Oh,” Igor blinked.

“Wait a minute!” I frowned. “That’s backwards! What’s true, Igor, is this - Transhumanists are the people who aren’t afraid to Live Forever.”

“Oh.” Igor blinked again.

A debate never got started because our daughters began whining about homework. “62?” asked my daughter Zenobia. “7 x 6 is 62, right?”

Hours later I was still fuming about Chuck’s definition of transhumanism. “They’re the People who are Terrified of Death”, he said, Transhumanists Are Terrified of Death, Transhumanists Are Terrified of Death.

F**K that S**T, I thought. I’ll write about it. To get even.

Truth is, I already have. Two weeks ago I posted an essay titled “People Who Don’t Want To Live Forever Are Just ‘Suicidal’.”  In the essay I assert that anti-immortalists are “suicidal” because that’s how we define people who want to end their life.

I didn’t expect Deathists to enjoy my opinion, but Transhumanists? Immortalists?  I assumed they’d just love it…  All of them…

But no!

A Canadian Life Extension leader got grumpy about it. Under one of my Facebook postings, perhaps at the Immortality page, he inserted his brief opinion:

“Disturbingly Divisive”


I appreciate alliteration, but his message…  he says I’m…“Disturbing”? “Divisive”?.... hmmm…


Are transhumanists too timid now to piss off sneering Deathists? Why be polite? Deathists are often insulting, they think transhumanists are just Phobic about Dying - and we’re supposed to grin amiably, like Stepin Fetchit?

I’m not going to apologize for being aggressive. 

Divisive? Disturbing? I hope so - I’m trying my best. I’ll regard the Canadian’s comments as a compliment, because “Disturbingly Divisive” might be exactly what transhumanism needs.

Hear me out.

Name the two biggest success stories in the last 20 years of minority groups fighting for acceptance in the mainstream.

You got it.

Homosexuals and Atheists.

Twenty years ago, gays and lesbians had almost nothing, marginalized with miniscule political clout and negligible visibility. Today, 2013, feels like a miracle. They can now get married in Mexico City! South Africa! Argentina! Numerous European nations and US states! The world is rocking with rainbow flags!

How’d this happen? Two slogans -


Gays and lesbians also obtained a word to use as a weapon. After eons of derision as “faggots” “poofters” and other slurs, homosexuals acquired four-syllables of their own to throw back. A liberation tool to decimate enemies. The word is:


Atheists… where were they, just 20 years ago? Nowhere. But now, notes an article yesterday by Greta Christina:

Atheists are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Atheists are gaining clout. Atheists are becoming a powerful ally when we’re inspired to take action — and a powerful opponent when we get treated like dirt.

Like gays and lesbians, atheists increased their power by upping their visibility. Plus, they added a new element - SCORN, RIDICULE.  They sneer gleefully as they attack Religious Opponents. 

Look at the best-selling atheist book titles: The God DelusionGod Is Not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything, The End of Faith - Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Look at Atheist Memes, chockfull of hysterical mockery of Religion.

Did atheists try to rein in Christopher Hitchens? Did anyone say, “Whoa!  You’re being “Disturbingly Divisive”?

Ridiculing religionists, atheists realized, was great fun. Plus, their numbers boomed because… RIDICULE WORKS AS A STRATEGY.

My point is… Transhumanists should play hardball. Get Rude. Because it works.

There are life-extensionists who won’t publicly define themselves as transhumanists because they’re afraid of outsider reaction. HumanityPlus abandoned its original name - World Transhumanist Association (WTA) - because it was anxious about public opinion. 

Cluck, cluck, cluck.

Transhumanists need to be “Disturbingly Divisive.” We need to be OUT, LOUD, AND PROUD. 

We also need word-weapons. I like the usual pair: LUDDITE   +  DEATHIST

But I want another word that means Afraid of Life, to describe people who don’t want indefinite life extension.


Yes, it  looks weird now, but perhaps it’ll catch on like a virus… “Homophobic” swept into mainstream vocabulary after it was invented in 1969… 

With luck, VITAPHOBIC can mirror its success, and we’ll all Live Happily Ever After.


I prefer “Biophobic.”

Contrary to popular belief, mixing Latin and Greek word elements is not wrong, but when Greek has a productive and well-known word element like “bio-”, it’s preferable.  But if one insists on using a Latin word element, “vita” would preferably appear as “viti-” or “vito-” in this case.

By Ian Andreas Miller on Feb 17, 2013 at 5:24am

Yes, “biophobic” is linguistically more symmetrical with thanatophobic and avoid the latin+greek neologism mix.

To be fair, however, what Luddites hate is not the fact of having a long life per se - they usually are against suicide even for an individual who would find herself genetically endowed with a much longer than normal lifespan - but the fact of having the issue in their hands. Or rather: the fact that anybody may.

So, the real issue remains pro-choice vs anti-choice, not pro-life vs pro-death.

As much as I may like being alive rather than not, I am no more into persuading people that they must unconditionally live longer than I am into persuading them that they should have more children.

I think I am on a much firmer ground when I tell them that *they should be offered a say on their life’s duration* - or at least let me have mine.

By Stefano Vaj on Feb 17, 2013 at 5:39am

I dislike the Deathist label, since it is pouring scorn on what is actually a perfectly reasonable stance: Namely that immortality is not possible. One could argue that scientific theories are never final and that some loophole might exist that enables us to beat entropy, but so long as the laws of physics as we currently understand them remain in place, we can discount eternal life just as we discount perpetual motion machines. If some people were to advocate the research and development of perpetual-motion machines would good would it do, really, for them to invent some derogatory label for opponents who just dismiss the very idea as ludicrous? It will not advance their goal, since the application of this label hardly overturns the fundamental problem, which is the physical impossibility of what PMers seek. Similarly pointless would be an argument along the lines of ‘if you do no support the creation of perpetual motion machines, you must want us to run out of usable energy right now’, an equivilent argument to ‘if you do not think you can live forever you are suicidal’.

I do not believe in perpetual motion machines, but I do believe that we should pursue the most sustainable, renewable forms of energy permissable by the laws of physics, whatever that may be. I do not believe in immortality but that does not mean to say I reject efforts to remain fit and well for as long as is physically possible. Lifespans measured not in decades but rather centuries or millenia or..what is the term for timespans of a million years, or a billion..? definitely look to be possible in principle (perhaps not for biological lifeforms but this can be transcended) but immortality (which, perhaps we need reminding, is NOT living a very, very long time but not dying EVER) is just not possible. Acknowledging this fact (and, again, we should not be dogmatic about the laws of physics as currently understood, but open to the possibility of a rewriting of such laws) does not make me suicidal.

Most people take reasonable steps to avoid their own demise. I know of nobody who does not bother to follow basic rules of road safety on the basis that ‘death is inevitable so what is the point in looking out for oncoming traffic?’. Most people, I think, would support R+D that has a reasonable chance of extending ways and means of avoiding death. I know of nobody who thinks charities funding research in ways of battling cancer are a waste of time since even if cancer patients were cured something else would surely do them in eventually. But, in this regard, what is ‘reasonable’? The way I see it, transhumanists have a much less narrow POV regarding what is ‘reasonable’. Whereas some would say ‘we cannot live for a million years’ we say ‘we do not know how…yet’.

Oh, I am rambling. Basically I am saying there is a middle ground between what I consider to be two extremist views, that the current lifespan of a few decades is ‘natural’ and therefore right, and the view that damn it we are going to live forever, which is just as absurd but for different reasons. Our policies need to target the realms of extreme possibility, and anything beyond that is pointless wishful thinking. Lets not be extremists lobbing verbal insults at those at the opposite end of the extremist spectrum.

By Extropia DaSilva on Feb 17, 2013 at 6:40am

Anyway, don’t worry about Canadians, I learned from reading pastor Alex’s writings they tend to be sombre IMO- noticed that in Scandinavia as well; could be the long winters. Best thing is to ignore what others think and concentrate on ‘bots—I do not think people can get along until they cease being people.

By Alan Brooks on Feb 17, 2013 at 6:50am

agree 100%

By max on Feb 17, 2013 at 8:36am

“Forever” is a big commitment. Pretty sure I’d like an extra ten thousand to two billion years, though.

I notice a lot of fiction about immortals shows them going out of their way to blend in; assuming different identities, sometimes faking their deaths…

By Thomas Watts on Feb 17, 2013 at 10:08am

“sometimes faking their deaths…”

Intriguing. How about arranging to fake their lives after they’ve died?: 
that’s been done in SF, for sure.

By Alan Brooks on Feb 17, 2013 at 3:18pm

It is not worship of death to acknowledge that dying so that others can live and live free is an honorable and good way to die.

By Damian Poirier on Feb 17, 2013 at 5:03pm

I more think “these people” are afraid to think about strange things. The idea that living decidedly longer is strange, and they are afraid - not of the idea itself, but of thinking about such a strange idea.

Try this experiment - come up with a dozen very strange conceptions and you will find they don’t like thinking about the strangeness itself, and reject it off-hand. Stuff like technological unemployment (strange!), basic income (strange!), nanotechnology (strange!), nootropics (strange!), space colonies (strange!) ... each time ‘these people’ will curl up in their Nautilus shell and play the reject game.

By Khannea on Feb 18, 2013 at 2:16am

I have to agree that too many transhumanists are transhumanists solely because they are thanatophobic.  The current huge drive for cryonics over regenerative medicine is a blindingly obvious symptom of this.  The *only* reason to favor cryonics is because we think that regenerative medicine may not happen in time *for us* (which may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Before criticizing “deathists”, cryonicists need to note that they really are no different from those keeping Karen Ann Quinlan on a respirator.

(Note:  I would selfishly love cryonics for myself if regenerative medicine did not pan out in time.  I have enough moral integrity to declare that I hereby refuse it.  Would anyone else like to make the same statements?  It’s really no different than not destroying the ecosystem for our children—AND it gives us a better shot at regenerative medicine being developed in time.)

By Mark Waser on Feb 18, 2013 at 6:43am

I think Khannea is spot on about people’s reluctance to consider strange ideas. I come across this kind of reaction all the time. Dismissing transhumanists as being ‘thanatophobic’ is just a coping strategy…we shouldn’t get so upset about it.

The analogy with the gay rights and new atheist movements is potentially informative, but we have to be careful about the conclusions we are drawing. To ridicule people who don’t want to live for ever as ‘vitaphobic’ isn’t equvalent to gays denouncing homophobia. It’s equivalent to gays ridiculing heterosexuals for being straight.

Another danger is that in our trumped up outrage we blind ourselves to the legitimate reasons why people might be squeamish about radical life extension.

At the individual level, we should be lobbying for the right to die, as well as for the right to live, rather than insulting people with depression, or simply (for whatever reason) prefer not to carry on living by citing them as a way of ridiculing those who are merely sceptical.

At the societal level, I hear time and time again that ‘overpopulation is a myth’, or claims that individual stability (non-ageing) leads to societal stability, yet equally well we all no what happens when one of our cells forgets to die.

Personally, I DO want to live for ever, and I would love it if we can make this compatible with the common good (a concept that some decry, but which I see as essential). But I am too conscious of the risk that in or efforts we bring about catastrophe to support the ridiculing of those whose concerns have led them to oppose the effort. All I really ask for is a open and honest dialogue, progress on the fundamental science, and (especially) research - not wishful thinking - on how this can be made to work in a socially equitable and sustainable way.

By Peter Wicks on Feb 19, 2013 at 5:46am

@Peter Wicks:

I do not how you can be so sure (forever is a looong time), but even if you currently are, why would you object to keep your options open?

It is not as if this would adversely affect you in any way, as long as you do not change your mind.

By Stefano Vaj on Feb 19, 2013 at 7:06am

I don’t agree with this article.
Firstly, to quote a cartoon wolf, “Being polite shows support for the social structure, and by extension, the values it was built on. People relax when they know we’re both playing by the same set of rules”.
To clarify; being polite to someone implicitly makes them more likely to consider your arguments rationally, as opposed to automatically dismissing them in a knee-jerk defense against a perceived attack on their beliefs.
More simply, it’s the difference between a discussion and an argument.

Secondly, comparing transhumanism to homosexuality and atheism seems a bit hollow, seeing as we’re not really facing any major condemnation or aggression. If anything, we’re facing ignorance.

@ Mark Waser: How does endorsing cryonics harm the search for biological immortality?

Finally, and more generally, what’s with the focus on immortality?
Sure, it’s desirable, but it’s hardly the defining point of transhumanism, is it?

By Harry Dishman on Feb 19, 2013 at 9:56am

Hi Stefano,
I’m not sure which bit of my comment you were referring to. Are you asking me how I can be so sure I want to live forever? If so, you’re right: it was sloppily put. What I really mean is that I want to stop ageing, and…well, live happily ever after.

OK that wasn’t any more precise, but in a way that’s the point. What I’m really trying to get away from is this stultifying inevitability of ageing, decrepitude and death within a few decades.

By the way, is anyone making use of the phrase “happily ever after” as a communication tool? If not, I can’t believe we haven’t thought of it before. Nothing like quoting a stock phrase from children’s literature to emphasise that wanting to live forever (or at least a very, very long time) is an absolutely natural desire.

Re “why would you objective to keep your options open”: I don’t. Like I say, we should be lobbying for the right to die, as well as the right to live. As many of you know I am no libertarian (I believe government and regulation is essential, and will remain so for the foreseeable future), but can easily drum up some mouth-foaming outrage at the sheer illiberality of not being able to choose when to live…and when to die.

By Peter Wicks on Feb 19, 2013 at 10:14am

Hi Harry,

Two ways:
1.  We have limited research dollars and not all research dollars used on cryonics turn into knowledge usable for regenerative medicine.
2.  Commodity cryonics will rapidly lead to legislation and power structures supporting the corpsicles in maintaining their wealth through their cryostasis.  This will lead to resource sequestration even more damaging than that caused by the 1% today *and* will fairly quickly lead to corpsicle lobbying that will put the current gun lobby to shame.

By Mark Waser on Feb 19, 2013 at 12:58pm

@Mark, I expect that for the foreseeable future, there will be a statistically tiny number of people interested in and/or financially supporting cryonics.  Many more will be interested in anti-aging, even if they don’t specifically see it as a route to “eternal” life (more correctly, to removing aging-related limits to human life span).  Consequentially, I don’t see my cryonics arrangements (pretty much just my life insurance policy) as depriving someone else.

I’m not against death so much as I am against limits.  I tried looking up the Greek word for “limit”, but I couldn’t find a translator that would give me an Arabic-alphabet translation.  In any case, ZZI do think “deathist” is an apt term; many people are convinced that it’s wrong for humans to want to live much longer than they do now.

Live long and prosper,

By Kennita on Feb 20, 2013 at 12:24am

Hi Kennita,

It’s an interesting example of the tragedy of the commons.  As an individual, you should be allowed cryonics arrangements—except that, if everyone did it, it would be a tremendous problem (and I emphatically do not believe that the number will remain statistically tiny when the believed rate of successful revivification rises).  As I said, I selfishly would like to be frozen but choose not to—in part, to be honest, because I believe that regen medicine is a wiser choice for all . . . .

I disagree with limits as well.  Calling someone a “deathist” and being derogatory to them is denying/limiting their right to choose when they die.  If they prefer not to be in pain, not to strive, etc. that really is their right.  Our society outlaws suicide because in some cases it is a very good thing (when the subject subsequently changes their mind and goes on to lead a happy productive life) but it has done so in a demeaning over-regulating manner.  Others should not deny your right to live (as long as you are not a major drain) but you should not deny their right to die.

By Mark Waser on Feb 20, 2013 at 7:27am

@Mark Waser.

I think I understand what you’re getting at, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.

1. The fact that some portion of cryogenics research is useful for regenerative medicine means that supporting cryogenics furthers both fields, arguably giving more bang for your buck.
I’d also argue that the amount of “useful” research increases over time, as the challenges of safely freezing people give way to the challenges of safely thawing them. (It’s also worth noting at this juncture that cryogenics has the advantage of being useful in emergency situations; for example, someone “fatally” injured in a car accident could be flash-frozen until treatment is available, assuming the technology has progressed sufficiently).
It is perhaps worse from the viewpoint of longevity, but conceivably better at saving lives.

2. It really depends on the method of sequestration. If the cryoprotected choose to simply freeze their funds, then they that wealth is effectively removed from circulation, increasing the effective wealth of everyone else (“burning money”). If the money is entrusted to a third party, in an effort to increase it, I can’t see a meaningful difference between that and them using their wealth normally.
In any case, it’s worth remembering that legislation is created by those who “aren’t” cryopreserved, who have little reason to protect the interests of the preserved in preference to themselves.

By Harry Dishman on Feb 20, 2013 at 9:14am

Note that for several months every year, generally between october and march, I am thoroughly Deathist myself. My faith in existence collapses like a handful of overcooked spaghetti. I seriously wouldn’t mind not having to suffer existence, preferably suddenly. I get awful in winters and I absolutely do not see a way out. I tried spending a month in a tropical environment - don’t make a hoot of difference, I possibly felt even worse there, a complete and overwhelmingly horrible feeling of alienation and being alone.

If my sensations in this are an indication, a large percentage of humanity don’t like life at all. I suppose that makes them death-ist; they just don’t like most of what they have experienced and they only stick around out of courtesy to other people. Once those people themselves are gone, they’d rather not be themselves.

Transhumanists tend to be a little pedantic about this. Most transhumanists have a fairly highly educated, genetically optimist, above middle class lifestyle. That makes the typical transhumanist insufferably arrogant and conceited to lower-income lifestyles; most of them just don’t have a friggin clue how miserable life on this planet can be.

I have met transhumanists (generally those with a high income) I’d want to punch in the face over this. It’s almost as if they don’t want to give a fuck.

By Khannea on Feb 20, 2013 at 9:29am

I just had a new thought about this: it’s not that people who oppose (voluntary) radical life extension are afraid of life, nor is it ONLY what Khannea said earlier about fear of the strange. It’s also that so many of us (myself included) have worked so hard at managing our fear of death, and then someone comes along and says, “Actually, you might live for ever.” Suddenly one’s fragile peace of mind is threatened, and one grasps for whatever arguments one can find to dismiss the possibility. I bet this is what was going on with Hank’s friend Chuck. He’s probably thanatophobic himself. Or perhaps more accurately, he’s thanatophobiaphobic. He’s scared of considering the prospect of immortality, and having to deal with his fear of dying all over again. (After all, it does raise the stakes somewhat.)

By the way I was quite touched by Khannea’s latest. Those who are blessed with a sunny disposition (whatever their income bracket) need from time to time to consider what it must be like for those who aren’t.

By Peter Wicks on Feb 20, 2013 at 11:55am


1.  As I said somewhere above, cryogenics research dollars do not translate one-to-one to regen med.  If you do not consider cryogenics valuable, that is a loss of dollars.

2.  Burning money does NOT make everyone richer *unless* that burning in known and taken into account (after which, it can NEVER come back).  You also clearly do not understand all the implications of trusts—not to mention the fact that the trust would NOT use the money normally but would use it as a corpsicle (i.e. spend it on revivification research, ways to improve the individuals station in life when they come back—which is different from current because people can only do so much of that before they die, etc)

By Mark Waser on Feb 20, 2013 at 12:04pm

Khannea - Try Zoloft.  It’s a miracle for many of us.

By Mark Waser on Feb 20, 2013 at 12:10pm

No. I started with seroxat in 1997. Side effects. I proceeded with prozac in 1998. Side effects, and I lost half my friends. Then I leveled up to effexor in 2002, and I lost nearly everyone else and wrecked my marriage. I ... turned in to something I don’t want awakened in me.

Antidepressants ... are not an option for me, period.

I am not suffering from depressions. It is something else. Probably a post traumatic stress disorder.

The thing is, some people endure states of misery where death easily seems a better alternative. Try doing the work half the people have to do to survive. Soul-killing nightmarish work. Or just as bad NO work at all, plus scorn and soul killing poverty. So most people not existing makes a WHOLE lot of sense.

By Khannea on Feb 20, 2013 at 1:10pm

As atheists started to combat the pervasive religious attitude of most people with satire and ridicule, we need to do the same with deathism.

By Giovanni Santostasi on Feb 20, 2013 at 5:29pm

Some memes to ridicule deathism:

By Giovanni Santostasi on Feb 20, 2013 at 5:36pm

Be an immortalist it is not for me just about extending human life, at the cultural and philosophical level it is about changing how humanity see itself, what its destiny and role in the universe is. At the personal level, it is a question of embracing with pride a joyful rebellion against what I consider an enslaving and limiting position: accepting death as unavoidable and even a good thing.

By Giovanni Santostasi on Feb 20, 2013 at 6:37pm

@ Peter Wicks -
You say “we blind ourselves to the legitimate reasons why people might be squeamish about radical life extension.”

What are these “legitimate reasons”?

By Damian Poirier on Feb 20, 2013 at 7:11pm

@Damian Poirier
I think there are at least legitimate reasons to be cautious. Firstly I am not convinced that overpopulation IS a myth. Secondly, as with all technologies anti-ageing technology will be unevenly distributed, and therefore has the potential to be HUGELY disruptive and divisive. At least we might consider that channelling resources into fighting ageing might be diverting them from issues that are more important at societal level, such as screwing for asteroids, combating the risk of bioterrorism, etc, etc.

Note that I’ve been asking myself these questions in part because I have started to get more actively involved in the fight against ageing, and I want to be sure I am doing the right thing.

By Peter Wicks on Feb 21, 2013 at 4:37am

Argh!  Giovanni Santosi, didn’t your mother ever teach you to be nice?  We do NOT need to ridicule “deathists” (and the new atheists are simply a$$h0le$ as far as I am concerned—and no, I do not believe in God)

Damian Poirier - one legitimate (although fixable) reason is over-population.  The human race currently is NOT mature enough to be able to regulate our behavior so that everyone living longer wouldn’t be a problem.  Another legitimate reason is that longer lives are likely to slow down our cultural and economic evolution and extend the reign of the 1%.  The fact that you don’t recognize that there are legitimate reasons for the other side is half the reason why they fight you as fanatically as they do.

Sheesh!  Everyone needs to learn to get along and NOT mock others who believe differently into corners that they WILL *fight* their way out of.  It’s no wonder that we are encountering the ridiculous level of resistance that we see.  This behavior is complicit in generating it . . . .

By Mark Waser on Feb 21, 2013 at 4:47am

Khannea - I’m sorry to hear that.  Prozac had such bad side effects for me, except when I was deepest in my winter depression, that I eventually gave up on it and just dealt.  It was only when August panic attacks (seasonal bi-polar much?) slowed my reflexes enough that I was starting to become concerned about driving (I can function through any mental state—but apparently not fast enough to handle high-speed visual stimuli.  I was always able to drive but mountain biking became too problematical at times when I just couldn’t “see fast enough”) that I was willing to try another SSRI.  I would *guess* that what you have is still depression.  My depression *never* involves sadness.  It is entirely an inertia thing—but you can never imagine how bad inertia can get until after you’ve experienced it (because, fortunately for me, when I’m in the middle of it, I’m mostly unaware of it).  My life is *so much better* with the Zoloft that it isn’t even funny—but I can also understand your decision not to risk huge side effects if you don’t have to (i.e. just keep these comments in mind if you ever feel that you need a way out).

By Mark Waser on Feb 21, 2013 at 5:07am

Note - It is *your* attitude problem when I agree with your positions/facts but still want to punch you in the face.  You may think that it is my problem . . . . but given the effect that it has on *your* life, that thought is pretty ineffective and foolish.

By Mark Waser on Feb 21, 2013 at 5:13am

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