A case for immortality in a finite universe
by Danielle Fong
Some futurists and bioethicists, argue that, on a planet with finite resources, prudence dictates that immortality is not to be aspired to — that the resources used by a life lives by the old might only displace the possibility of a life lived by the young. I think that this is a pessimistic view; one that does not allow for the grandest of possibilities.
The 2012 Hubble eXtreme Deep Field
An immortal race is one that can dream of spreading throughout the stars. There are 5 billion billion planets in the goldilocks zone, potentially capable of life, more than the total number of cells on Earth.
Any of these could serve as a lifeboat, were a catastrophe to occur in our other homes. The story of civilization, and the only light of consciousness that we know exists in the universe would continue to live, would flower and spread and thrive.
An immortal race is one for whom planetary constraints are personal constraints. The choices you make echo throughout eternity — and you see it. Would an immortal person retire to a soon-to-be underwater Florida and carry on with their planet warming ways? In just the same way that declining child mortality rates and other markers of wealth reduce the urge to rapidly reproduce in early adulthood, would an immortal race also give more thought and tender care for their lives, environment, community? One would have the time.
An immortal race would be wiser. Not all of them, surely; but those who throughout the centuries have guided us well, towards health, safety and greatness, will naturally form networks and communities and be respected in their life and judgment and rule. That which can only be learned through experience will be deep in their bones; the boon of their wisdom would be available for all around them, not subject to decline, embrittlement, and decay. The old founders and masters of organizations and disciplines would stay with us, providing not only the old precepts, but the old questions, the old intents, and the new views in response to a new world.
How different would the republic be, were Plato to have stayed with us?
The change of society with respect to critical technological changes is always underestimated. Look at how strongly fertility rates decline as life expectancy rises!
(correlation does not equal causation, but surely something *is* going on here. Were I in a traditional society, at 13 I might have already been pressured to bear children. I am currently twice that age, and do not even yet feel pressured to make a family. I feel that I have the time to build the world I want to bring children into)
From another perspective, suppose the default was immortality. Faced with resource constraints, would we *choose* to let some members of the population get sick and die just to apprehend their resources? Wouldn’t to do so seem barbaric? Necessary — possibly — but only considerable as a very last resort!
Finally, an unaging race is not invincible. We are still at risk crossing the road.
“It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die – and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy – and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.”
Imagine a world full of people with 18th century opinions. Then, imagine those people (and therefore, most of their 18th century opinions) sticking around indefinitely. Imagine those people working their way into positions of power, and never relinquishing them.
I’m glad I live in a world that has moved on, culturally. And mortality plays a significant role in facilitating those cultural changes. Each new generation represents a chance for humanity to finally get it right. Or get a bit closer, anyway.
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” –Max Planck
It’s an interesting premise for sure and I really love your optimism. Your faith in humanity and hope for the future is infectious and that’s a good thing.
From a social engineering perspective it is quite an interesting puzzle with lots of fun conclusions one could jump to.
If humans live indefinitely and spread among the stars, we might spread farther than the need or ability to communicate with our past lives. Human culture could change in crazy new ways but we might risk forgetting where we came from and what brought us there. Would these people even be human anymore?
If we could get ahead of it, it might be possible to prevent what I think would be a likely outcome at the beginning of immortality which would be financial classes gaining immortality significantly earlier than the rest of the population. We might end up with weird nearly-unending monarchy-corprotocracy kind of governing structures.
Also, if you never die of disease or old age, then everyone ends up dying in a horrible accident, or something like that.
I wonder which is more barbaric though, letting people die, who have short but precious lives, for their resources or to produce resources for others or to do the same for people who may have lived for hundreds of years. Depends on how you measure I suppose.
The moral questions are myriad (and fun to think about I must admit).
What triggered this little essay?
Your enthusiasm is so nicely formulated that it is tempting to follow it blind. And I also appreciate that it is easier to make a critic than to write a convincing theory.
The humanity is going to reach immortality. The more I study aging, the more I feel that it is plausible. Our cells contain the program of rejuvenation, all of them. It’s a matter of years, the time it’ll take to understand how to control it. First we will increase human longevity by 10%. Then we will increase it by another 20%, etc. Then we’ll find how to stop aging, indefinitely. Because robots are helping us. Because technologies improve faster than our imagination. Like commenter #1 said, at this point we’ll not be human anymore, like we are not Neanderthals anymore. Will we be gods?
I doubt. We grew up from being cruel barbarians to what a so-called civilized species in a few centuries. In the past, people died, it was fate. My injury gets infected, 4 days later I am dead. Today I can travel the world in a few hours, we can cure most diseases, we can even go to space. The progress is moving fast, our instincts remains. stuck in our DNA. We still feel fear and fight wars, we are still anxious and compete almost to death in our capitalist system, and we are still unable to agree on anything, not even on how to help a poor kid struggling next door.
Now let’s imagine we are immortal. Is it going to make us wiser? Will we be able to reach other planets on time considering intersidereal distances?
Let’s consider we will stay on our poor tiny and not immortal planet for a while. Is it going to make the world worst if we live forever?? Are we going to share this ultimate gift of eternal life?
But I can be wrong. After all, humanity improves, the level of violence keep decreasing. I’ve heard of promising new technologies that will produce clean and cheap energy. Democracy spread. Maybe after all, you are right. Aging is our issue. It is what create our fears, our doubts and create the greedy behaviors. I don’t mean that older people are worse, I mean that the idea of inevitable death pull us down back to our animal condition. Survival of the fittest. Immortality in equality.
Anyway, we’ll get there whatever my opinion is. So I’ll do my best to make it happen in the best way.
Danielle–Thank you so much for sharing this essay. It has made a profound effect. I too, share your optimism. Sending hugs from San Francisco.
An interesting thought sequence. It reminds me a fun book I read for a Science and Religion course in school: Frank Tippler’s book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Physics-Immortality-Cosmology-Resurrection/dp/0385467990).
It explores a very enjoyable if not perhaps a bit sensationalized thought experiment. He is a professor of Math and Physics at Tulane. From the Freeman Dyson assumption that life is immortal, Tippler makes all sorts of bold comments about the future of the universe. I think you should check it out.
I agree with you that the single greatest thing to come from immortality will be a net increase in wisdom. The single greatest expenditure of societal resources is the cyclical re-education of every new generation of people. Thank you for recognizing and writing about the need to view death through the objective lens of the medical model, rather than as an inevitable process to be revered and respected. More people need to come to this realization.
“How different would the republic be, were Plato to have stayed with us?”
I suppose that it depends on whether Max Planck was right when he said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Some transformative thinkers make an early contribution whose impact only manifests as others infuse and evolve their ideas into our lives. And while I treasure the senior thinkers I know, we all certainly know that there can be a tyranny of doctrine maintained by the enduring presence of a towering figure or a grey eminence. Perhaps if Plato stayed with us then slavery would have endured even longer. In short, we have to ensure that stale tradition, incumbent power, and mercenary instincts do not win out over innovation, egalitarianism, and the better angels of our nature, regardless of how long we live.
More than half the world believes in god, less than half the USA population believes in evolution. We have to build a society where science can progress despite the beliefs of the clueless majority; we should build a society where the penalty for backward belief is not death!
I have often wondered if this earth IS humanity’s life boat. That is to say a breeding ground of evolution that was predetermined by a formula created and put here on earth by a species like us, who faced catastrophe in their own galaxy. It would seem impossible to continue our species elsewhere, exactly as we know it. And it is clear our species evolved on this planet from the most basic cells of life. Would it not be more practical to simply distribute that original cell by the millions, to millions of planets capable of supporting organic life, ensuring ultimately sometime, somewhere in the universe, our species, or one very similar to it , evolved all over again.
Is it possible our internal desire to achieve immortality is encoded in us to ensure we evolved once again on this planet, and would continue the cycle should we meet our own catastrophe in our galaxy?