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Some Brief Thoughts On Immortality

August 24, 2012 1 comment

It’s difficult to delve far into transhumanist discussion without hearing people talk about immortality. A recent poll on IEET showed that better than three-quarters of IEET readers “did want immortality”. Of the remaining quarter, the largest chunk was concerned about boredom and the next largest (roughly 4% of the total) were concerned about overpopulation. I think that “immortality” needs to be unpacked a bit more.

One sense in which immortality is often tossed around is as a synonym for ending aging. David Brin used it that way in a headline earlier this year, but in the article proper pointed out a couple of important points. First, ending aging does not guarantee immortality, it only prevents one significant cause of death: old age and it’s assorted maladies. Death via foul play, accident, and natural disaster are still very much on the table. Even in this limited sense, however, there are still concerns relating to the capabilities of the human brain, political implications, and unforeseen psychological effects, though it’s unclear whether these concerns can be mitigated by technology or not. I tend to think that probably they can.

Still, immortality as a synonym for ending aging is popular. Professor and author James Miller used it the same way in an article published by H+ earlier this year. Here, he attempts to spell out some ways in which government could help assist end of aging research. PBS also used immortality as a synonym for ending aging in a video just a few weeks ago. This usage is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s just inaccurate. As Ray Kurzweil points out at 1:12 in the video above, “I can never talk with you and say ‘I’ve done it, I’ve lived forever!'” Immortality is a moving target, one perpetually unreachable, and so the concept of saying that one has achieved immortality is, strictly speaking, nonsense. This is true whether or not the speaker means by immortality ending aging or any other method of prolonging life (mind uploads, robotic bodies, whatever.) Thus, however long we live, we will never know if we’re actually immortal or not.

Second, it’s highly improbable. Given a long enough time span, it is utterly ridiculous to think that one will continue to live. Even if (and this is a whopper of an if) one could live to, and subsequently past, the heat death or collapse of the universe trillions of years into the future, on a large enough timeline even the most unlikely of events becomes a certainty. Thus, almost surely whatever defenses one uses to stave off death will ultimately fail, even a massively redundant combination of defenses.

Third, talking about immortality, while attention grabbing, is a bit grandiose. I think, for a variety of reasons, most people (though not IEET readers, it seems) don’t really want to be immortal. They want to live, understandably, a long time, and healthily, and have a good life. But talking about immortality makes it sound like we’re aiming for a pipe dream; it’s an idea that people can’t really get behind. It might even be an idea, as I’ve tried to suggest, that’s ultimately stark nonsense. But an idea that people can get behind is life extension; perhaps even of the indefinite variety. If we talk about improving life and helping people to live longer, healthier lives, only true deathists will think that that’s a bad idea. It helps us gain popular support (something that, admittedly, we probably ought to cultivate since many of our ideas are just on the edge of [or a bit past] what people are prepared to accept.) That’s not to say that immortality proper is completely off the table, just that it seems to me we ought to use the word only when we really mean immortality and not when we just mean life extension.

One final thought, for when we are talking about actual immortality. For me, the very idea of living even until the end of the universe seems like it would end in immeasurable boredom. Aubrey DeGray has said “I’m not sure I want to live to 100, but I want to make that choice when I’m 99.” This is not a knock down argument; people have suggested that it is at least conceivable that one could change their goals, habits, and pursuits indefinitely and never grow bored. Maybe they can, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone trying. However, I’m reminded of a story I read in my Death & Dying class in undergrad. Julian Barnes wrote a book called The History of the World In 10 1/2 Chapters, and the last chapter of that book is called “The Dream”. More than most pieces, I think it encapsulates what most of us hope Transhumanism will produce (though there’s a good bit more mechanical augmentation and/or genetic engineering in our version, and less mysticism) yet comes to (what I thought was) a surprising conclusion.You can read it here, with all credit to the original author, for consideration. If nothing else, you ought to read it because it’s clever and entertaining.

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