A never ending story: what if you could live forever?
Immortality may be possible within our lifetime, but will it usher in the time of our life?
You get foil balloons for your 21st birthday. Someone thought it was a good idea. You take them home with you. An even better idea. At home, they come to rest, scraping the ceiling of your bedroom, resisting gravity’s downward force.
Everyday, you come home and they’re buoyed lower and lower down the windowsill, as you always knew they’d end up. Much like the balloons, you find yourself feeling a little, well, deflated.
One day, they are flat against the carpet. You did not expect to feel sad at the passing of your shiny companions. Dramatic as this may seem, death, ever a source of background angst, has now come sharply into view, along with its corollaries: change, aging, and a search for exponentially lost time.
As you put the formless plastic corpse in the bin you think it a cosmic injustice that, in a universe so vast in time and space you, and the people you, love have such a small window with which to experience it.
What if, instead, you lived forever?
Immortality is a literary trope, imbuing those creatures that possess it with envious qualities. Tolkien’s elves age until 100, though their physical appearance remains static from 25, and their health does not deteriorate unless under stress. In one Black Mirror episode, ‘San Junipero’, the protagonists live happily ever after as their consciousnesses are uploaded into a simulation. The talking heads of Futurama float in portable aquariums and bob about for fish flakes.
There are many models of immortality, and each appeals to different people in accordance with their preferences. We need to consider how we want to age, who has access to immortality, how our appearance and health morphs over time, whether injury will still affect us the same way, and whether we can still have children.
Imagine the following model: immortality, when it arrives, will combine technology that halts aging with medical breakthroughs that provides relief for people with ailments. This may involve surgery, potent potions, genetic modification or advanced preventative and restorative healthcare. It’s probable that most people will choose to age until their physical peak, whenever that may be. Interventions like genetic modification will necessarily have to be made by parents before birth. But even those without genetic modification will likely be able to live just as long, with other opt-in mechanisms available to people at any age. We will retain the immune system and appearance we have at that point, although this immune system would be susceptible to illness. Of course, the body still faces serious threats from the outside—even Elves can be slain in battle, so no one would be truly incapable of death.
As such, euthanasia will still remain a possibility for those hoping to shuffle off their mortal coil. It would also seem less ethically contentious. Euthanasia currently raises the possibility that people who don’t really want to die might be pressured to do so; but immortals, gifted a large range of life experiences, seem well-placed to decide to end their life. This is especially so if people’s unique biological circumstances are well-respected and aided.
We expect people will have less children, especially because they have less need for support in old age. Broader problems with overpopulation, should they arise, might be solved by separate technological developments and space exploration.
This model is brief, and skims the practical challenges of immortality. We have not, for example, considered the lives of animals, especially those species whose intelligence (from an anthropic perspective) rivals that of young children’s. We have also not defined the social structure of an immortal society: the fact of immortality may itself radically reshape our society.
In an effort to stave off death, 70-year-old Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google and author of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, is reported to take 150 vitamin supplements a day. Should he not live forever, he will have wasted a large part of his life trying to do so. Fortunately for him, he believes that improvements in life extension technology will outpace aging within 15 years, making all the pill popping worth it.
There are many companies racing to achieve immortality, including Google’s parent company Alphabet. Much of the research so far has focused on finding ways to maintain telomeres, which cap off the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten during cell division, a process that ends once telomeres get too short. When cells can no longer divide, they have no way to regenerate, and the body breaks down as more and more cells die. In other words: aging. One path to immortality is counteracting this process and extending cell reproduction indefinitely.
Another area of interest is cryogenic freezing. This process draws a distinction between two types of death: clinical death, where the heart has stopped, and information death, where the brain has degenerated beyond salvageability. Someone who is clinically dead, but not yet informationally dead, can be legally frozen and stored for reanimation at some point in the future—once technology has advanced far enough to bring them back to life. Gruesomely, patients can choose whether they want to be frozen as a whole body or as simply a head (more palatably called “neurosuspension patients”). There are already companies in Australia offering the service: the Cryonics association of Australia, based in Victoria, has a membership fee of only $1000 (though payment for transport, treatment, and indefinite storing may substantially add to that). That said, for cryogenics to deliver endless life, people in the future will need medical sciences to deliver.
On current trajectories, though, medical technology is advancing: as nanotechnology, personalised medicine, and stem cells cross our horizons, life expectancy will only increase.
But are these immortalists too hasty in their pursuit of eternal life?
Our model addresses some people’s concerns with immortality. The fear that you might end up lonely and without family or friends won’t be realised if everyone else has the option to share eternity. Equally, avoiding aging will allow people to avoid the physical decline that might otherwise make continued existence intolerable.
But there may be real issues when it comes to the distribution of the technology. It’s easy to envision a world where a few actors control the technology behind immortality, and so could exclude others from using it by setting a price on access. The powerful could manipulate access in a way that would entrench hierarchical social structures. Without a radical change to existing patterns of ownership, such iniquitous control over life extension is likely. It doesn’t augur well that leading research in the field is already being undertaken by for-profit companies run by and catering to the world’s mega rich.
A society stratified into the immortal rich and the mortal poor would be nothing short of dystopic, recalling Justin Timberlake’s struggles in In Time. We would prefer no immortality at all to such a world. Therefore, it’s important that research into such technology be scrutinised and distributed by democratically-organised collectives, who could ensure equal access to all. We can only hope that a society scientifically enlightened enough to achieve immortality would be morally enlightened enough to share its benefits. And, ultimately, such problems are not inherent to immortality anyway; they are a reflection of the society that enjoys it.
It’s likely that the inhabitants of a post-immortality world would have a higher regard for the future of the planet, as they themselves will need to occupy it. In a similar vein, one might also question whether there can be space for new cultural zeitgeists and political attitudes in a world where older generations stick around ad infinitum. But while the pace of change may slow, new generations will continue to be born. Moreover, immortality should mean people experience change differently—often due to factors outside direct human control, like environmental change—and so reconcile with it more.
The strongest challenge to the prospect of immortality comes from those who think death itself is valuable. For many religious people, death is an important and even desirable event. This is not only true of those who already believe an eternal life awaits them after physical death, but also for religions that believe in reincarnation. Even euthanasia might be problematic for some of these people, where their religion forbids it and doing so would jeopardise their post-life outcomes.
But it’s important to remember that our model of immortality will be opt-in—humans won’t suddenly be born free of our natural limitations. Those who identify strongly with a religion won’t genetically alter their spawn to guarantee immortality, though their children will still have the ability to prolong their life through other technologies should they take an atheistic turn. In any case, many of the more substantial life-prolonging tools will require individuals to consent to surgery at some point. Of course, in a world where the majority live for a while, people could well feel coerced to do the same. But those who value death so much that immortality threatens their sense of meaning will not be required to succumb to such pressures.
It’s not just religious people that might have cause to worry about immortality though. More broadly, life could become utterly meaningless without death. Death, for all of human existence, has been a certainty. Death is natural—anything that lives seems to die. Around this certainty, we have built normative ethical frameworks on how to live A Good Life, How to Be Happy, and Find Our Passions.
Immortalists push back against this account of death’s existential significance by framing it as a status quo bias. Death is bad. Our friends and family die, and we feel sad. We fear it for ourselves. But because it is certain, and because it is bad, and because humans are looking for ways to escape pain that is meaningless, we have sanctified death—constructing meaning around it where in fact there is none. In other words, life can be understood just as richly without the threat of its end.
“People say, oh, I don’t want to live past 100,” Kurzweil begins. “And I say, OK, I would like to hear you say that when you’re 100.” To reject this belief is a paradigm-shifting perspective, one that some say trivialises death. But we funnel billions of dollars into medical research in an attempt to combat cancer—the cure for cancer is regarded as a medical miracle—and yet we have not tried to fix the origins of that problem, which is harmful cell mutation over time as we age. This is like injecting anesthesia to numb a bone fracture, without ever setting it, while rationalising the bone fracture as an existential blessing.
Immortality might not just call into question the value of death, but also combat some of the thoughts that make life seem rationally depressing. Though it is not the only factor, a sense of purposelessness and depression often arises because of death. Nothing makes people feel more insignificant than the prospect that they might fade into complete nothingness, condemned to be forgotten by an indifferent universe. Immortality allays this fear.
But perhaps it is the fear of death, that the rocket above our heads might explode at any instant, that gives us the impetus to do anything at all. Life is short. Carpe diem. You Only Live Once, we hear, so make hay while the sun shines.
This cuts both ways: angst can just as easily stultify as energise. Remember how long you procrastinated in the face of an upcoming assignment? Removing the 80-year deadline most of us have would alleviate much of the existential dread accompanying the certainty of our own demise, and perhaps open our lives up to more fulfilling paths. Many now feel pressured to stay in unfulfilling relationships because it seems ‘too late’ to change, forced to settle with people they don’t love on pain of dying alone. Life under late capitalism is riddled with risk-averse anxiety, as people stay the course in jobs they hate to accumulate enough wealth to fund fulfilling activities, only to find themselves so ridden with ill-health upon retirement that they can’t enjoy the spoils. Immortality will give people the room for more comprehensive trial and error in all facets of their life (perhaps at some cost to monogamy). People aren’t likely to feel regret at having made imprudent choices, and will be free from the sort of counterfactual indulgences we often ask as we grow older. In place of “what if” people will ask “what now?”
For Bernard Williams, a 20th century English philosopher, however, infinite time may in fact threaten our identity. Immortality would mean that we either complete or grow bored with the very projects that give our lives meaning. Want to shape the world around you by making art? You did that when you were 150! Want to find ‘the one’ and raise children? Recall your 400s! And don’t even think about finding answers to the deeper questions—you did that only last century, if indeed any still linger without death.
To this, we say: fucking amateur. Williams need only wrack his imagination to think up some pretty compelling ways to live out the end of days.
You call an Über, it picks you up from your 21st birthday party. Screw the balloons. It drives you to the airport. You board a plane, you fly anywhere in the world. You traipse through museums, the countryside, along the coast. You eat lunch with a new person every day. Years pass.
You learn to paint, first mastering realism then moving to impressionism. You see culture and counterculture evolve, new art forms spring into existence, new modes of thought and criticism. You learn Arabic and Mandarin, you read books from thousands of years before and the endless books that have emerged since. You sit, devouring new shows and media, new movies, and learn to make your own. You write essays and treatises, diary entries, blog posts. You almost finish In Search of Lost Time.
You see holograms in shop display windows. You walk imagined worlds in virtual reality, you relive the Trojan war, you follow Moses through the Red Sea, you explore Hogwarts.
You cross country borders, you cross continents. You walk. You take the train, you sail, you fly. You take a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana trench, and see glowing sea creatures in the dark. You witness the rise and fall of political kingdoms, you witness revolutions.
You embark on a shining, sleek, silver capsule that shoots through the atmosphere of the Earth, you see the Moon arc beneath its windows, you sift the red sands of Mars through your gloved fingers. You fly past the rings of Jupiter. On a space station, you sip cocktails and watch the orbits of binary stars in Alpha Centauri.
You come home. It’s different. Sheets of ice cover your house, your favourite cafe is submerged in water. You sit on the edge of a continent, and watch as the shore of another continent across the sea drifts closer and closer; you watch the edges of the land kiss.
You see the Sun engulf a small ball of blue. You hover at the edge of the event horizon of a black hole, and stare into the singularity. Entropy marches forward, until eventually, it stops.