Intellectual stoicism and smart technology
Nowadays, entrepreneurs and billionaires around the world are investing millions of dollars in the latest technological projects to deceive death. Peter Thiel, a billionaire technology investor and, in due time, Trump’s adviser, spent millions of dollars to fund life-prolonging research. As he admits, he is “very, very interested” in parabiosis, the treatment of aging, which includes plasma transfusions from young people. He also works as a medical consultant, whose task is to explore new discoveries in the field of medicine and report on them. Definitely not wanting to die, Thiel‘s good friend and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, said he hopes to cheat death by loading his mind on a supercomputer. Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, paid the company, which promises to euthanize him before his natural death and embalm his brain. Inventor Raymond Kurzweil also struggles with death, taking 70-80 pills to delay his aging for 27 years. He believes that during this time, supercomputer computers will appear that will give us eternal life. The example of Kurzweil is followed by his superiors, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who founded Calico, which will deal with the problems of people’s health and well-being and explore the possibilities of life extension. Mark Zuckerberg launched an initiative to cure all diseases in this century. Oracle founder Larry Ellison funded research on aging. There are a lot of such examples. In Silicon Valley, attempts to deceive death already surprise no one, but there is something else in all of this: The philosophy of Stoicism, which regards the natural rhythms of the life cycle – namely, death – as a key fact of being.
Stoicism originated in about 300 BC, in the works of the philosopher Zeno of Kitia. This movement owes its current popularity to the “king of philosophy of Silicon Valley, Tim Ferris, who recommended Ryan Holliday’s book, “How Strongmen Solve Problems” to everyone. Since then, the fashion has gained its own life. Recode‘s editor, Kara Swisher helped to popularise the WeCroak application, which sends reminders to users that we will all die soon. These neo-Stoics are the same people who believe that life expectancy is just another obstacle that needs to be overcome, which is a bit strange, since true Stoics hold the view that death should not be avoided. It should be accepted and even welcomed. According to the doctrine, a wise man seeks only to be virtuous because virtue does not require health, wealth or something that depends on luck and circumstances. “As the number of bitcoins that can be mined is limited to mathematics, so the finiteness of life is what makes it so valuable. If you have an infinite amount of something, you will waste it. If you say that there is life after death and, therefore, immortality, the stoic will even suspect this”, says Bill Irwin, professor of philosophy at Wright State University.
Stoicism is a strategy for seeking satisfaction and the meaning of life by distinguishing between things that cause suffering, which we cannot change, and suffering itself, often the product of expectations or ego. Irwin assumes that the whole thing is about the love of hacking. Compared to Buddhism, for example, the basic principles of Stoicism are relatively simple to learn and the potential advantage (less suffering) seems like something worth the effort. “You can try this some weekend and find out if it suits you. If you are a very practical, rational person who is looking for a solution that works now and not after 20 years, Stoicism is a great option”, he said. This is how Jeffrey Wu, the founder of HVMN, an additives company whose goal is to improve mental and physical abilities, sees this. He is an influential figure in the San Francisco bio-hackers community. In the Stoic death teachings, individuals, such as Marcus Aurelius, call to “live every day as if it is the last.” Wu sees a parallel with the often quoted speech of Steve Jobs in 2005, when the co-founder of Apple was already ill with pancreatic cancer. He said that death is “the best invention of life” and urged the audience to take everything from life. “Your time is limited. Do not waste it on living the life of someone else.” Such a view of life helps to “make the right decisions”, Wu believes, likening Jobs‘s philosophy to Jeff Bezos’s system of “minimising regrets so that we can focus on short-term results, have a clear understanding of what we want now and gain more time. Maybe when people think that they have little time left, they try not to do anything big,” he said. In the cult of productivity of Silicon Valley, various spiritual practices, such as meditation and fasting, are aimed at doing everything at work.
Dave Esprit, the founder of the company for the production of food additives, Bulletproof, is a supporter of Stoicism, which hacked back. In order to overcome his feelings about death, instead of meditating for four months, he attached electrodes to his skull and closed himself in a neurofeedback chamber, where he systematically removed his instinctive reactions to thoughts of death. “I dismantled all my fears and programmatically eliminated them…and I think it works because I write a new book every year, run a big company, lead a podcast and raise children, and I don’t worry at all”, he said. Esprit suggests that his colleagues, striving for immortality, could benefit from his exercise – not on the spiritual plane, but on the physical, because stress accelerates aging. Esprit also believes in gratitude and argues that extra time on Earth is necessary, not only for productivity, but also to help society. “I try to live long because I have a lot of important things that I consider to be significant…and they are not for me, but for others”, he shared. “If you set altruism, Stoicism and life extension as your survival goal, you can live together because virtue is important to the Stoics. So long as you engage in acts of virtue, you can link the extension of your life with Stoicism. If you consider life as a means for future achievements, you will override many of the advantages of Stoicism”, says Hans Bergvoll, the creator of WeCroak (the app that sends reminders to users that we will all die soon, which is not done to make people be more productive and get to work faster). To create the application, Bergvoll was inspired by his father-entrepreneur. He worked day and night and, after 15 years, he decided to sell the company. A year after that, his wife died. “He wanted to travel with her. He had great plans to spend time together. He never got anything. If he could turn back time, he would have chosen a more balanced life”, said Bergvoll. The desire for immortality, he believes, is pure folly. However, with the assumption of the death of Bergvoll, many can argue. Some scientists talk about the development of new drugs that will slow down aging and life expectancy will begin to grow every year. Indeed, it can be assumed that the Stoic teachings will be more important if we manage to slow down aging. There are few reasons to believe that our relationship with mortality will change for the better if we live for 200, 500 or 1000 years. Maybe we will be paralyzed by existential fear and we will be afraid to get out of bed or, even more so, to take altruistic or brave actions because of a possible programmatic error of an unmanned vehicle. Perhaps our personalities will wear out from centuries of change and we will be bored or we will simply drown in apathy.