Friday, 4 September 2009

On Immortality

The concept of human immortality has always had huge appeal. Somehow, we never seem to accept the fact that it is necessary for us to die. This is perhaps most marked in our modern society, in which medical science has done so much to counter the causes of premature death. As a result, death has become something of a taboo subject, which most people are reluctant to face up to. This is well illustrated in the UK by the current confusion and controversy over the "right to die" of the terminally ill.

Lacking the ability to prolong physical life, some people have sought immortality symbolically, in making their mark on history through building territorial or business empires or producing works of art, literature or architecture. Most people probably see their children as providing some stake in the future, some continuity of their genes if not themselves. But it's immortality of the physical self which is seen as the holy grail; as Woody Allen put it:

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying.

Medical science is doing its best to oblige, with vast sums being spent on research into the causes of ageing; there's an entire scientific community devoted to finding ways to prolong life. Few people seem to question whether this is a sensible activity, although there are plenty of warnings in SF about the consequences should they succeed. The world's population is currently around 6.4 billion and is rising steadily; projections of future growth take the total to around 9 billion by the middle of this century, at which point the estimates more or less level off, with the population in the 22nd century being within the 8 to 10 billion band. In comparison, estimates of the maximum supportable population of this planet, taking into account all of the natural resources available and assuming a minimum standard of living (adequate food, housing, fresh water etc), put the sustainable capacity as between 2 and 4 billion. This is without taking into account the possible long-term consequences of climate change, which on current projections seem likely to reduce the area of productive agricultural land due to a combination of continental drought and the flooding of coastal areas. This is not a favourable scenario in which to come up with a method of prolonging individual life.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that these problems are overcome in some way and we end up with a sustainable population. This doesn't remove the difficulties cause by a major extension of life expectancy. If the population is to remain sustainable it needs to be constant – which means that babies can be born only at the rate at which people die. The more successful medical science is in preventing ageing, the fewer children can be born. There will be an awful lot of frustrated parents out there. The whole shape of society would change, with children becoming a rare and precious commodity. Perhaps as a result the anti-ageing treatments would be reserved for the fortunate few – the rich, or those in political power – which would create a different set of tensions.

Even for those who might benefit from an indefinitely extended life, the consequences are not all rosy. For a start, the concept of retirement would disappear – most people would have to work for as long as they lived. Current pension arrangements are failing to keep up with the gradual increase in lifespan as it is; they would collapse completely if this were extended significantly, let alone indefinitely. People would only be able to retire if they accumulated so many savings that, when invested, they earned enough interest to keep up with inflation plus provide a liveable income on top. If future economies are anything like those of our current society, only a small percentage of the population would be likely to achieve that, and it would take most of them a very long time.

Clearly, indefinite life would have major implications for employment. Not only would the new immortals be faced with an eternity of work; they would become "job blockers", preventing younger people from gaining promotions or even from obtaining jobs at all. Sheer tedium seems likely to become the normal state of living.

When people discuss the benefits of extended life, they often talk enthusiastically about how they would at last have the time to learn skills they've always wanted to have: playing a musical instrument, learning a foreign language or becoming an artist. Frankly, I believe this is wishful thinking. Our lives are already long enough for people to do all of those things if they really want to. If they don't, it's because they're not sufficiently interested to put in the effort required, and that's not likely to change with a longer life. In fact, such abilities are best learned young, while the brain is still flexible enough to pick up new skills easily. For instance, if you want to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent, you normally have to do it before the age of twelve. As we get older and our personalities develop, out brains gradually get used to running in certain ruts; opinions become formed, skill-sets determined, creativity tends to diminish. As the saying goes, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks".

This particular consequence of ageing has been the subject of many epigrams. Here's a couple I like:

I used to dread getting older because I thought I would not be able to do all the things I wanted to do, but now that I am older I find out I don't want to do them. (Nancy Astor)

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea. (Pearl S. Buck)

This mental fossilisation was well imagined in Larry Niven's short story "The Ethics of Madness", in which a man who has received immortality treatment is pursued in his spaceship for centuries by an automated weapon:

He was totally a man of habits now. He had not had an original thought in centuries. The ship's clock governed his life in every detail, taking him to the autodoc or the kitchen or the gym or the steam room or the bedroom or the bathroom. You'd have thought that he was an ancient robot following a circular tape, no longer able to respond to outside stimuli.

A way of avoiding the practical problems of physical immortality is to achieve a form of virtual survival. One version of this remains a strong selling point of religions; they have adopted the concept of the "soul" (or similar) which can survive after death. Even better, they try to tie their followers to them by promising a wonderful afterlife only to those who obey their laws (and therefore their religious leaders). This has proved compellingly attractive (for the religious leaders as well as their followers). The fact that there are many religions competing for customers, all offering different versions of religious law and blissful afterlife (of which only one, at the most, could be valid), doesn't seem to dampen enthusiasm.

More recently, futurologists and SF authors have explored the possibility of a different form of virtual survival – by having one's personality uploaded into a computer. This would be no simple matter as the human brain is vastly more complex than any computer yet devised or on the horizon, but let's assume that it becomes possible to create such a computer and to find a way of exactly duplicating all of the neural connections and electrochemical conditions which make up an individual's personality. What would result? Only a copy of ourselves, a kind of twin sibling, whose personality would immediately begin to diverge from our own. For ourselves to be "uploaded" would require the identification of a unique and fundamental aspect of our mind which was our true self, separate from the brain and capable of being transferred from one brain to another but not capable of being copied (otherwise it wouldn't be unique). In other words, a "soul". There is no evidence that this exists, and this notion puts such virtual immortality into the same camp as religious afterlife.

However, let's assume that such a personality transfer is possible. What would it be like? The idea of living a virtual life for ever has a certain appeal (especially if one is coming to the end of one's physical life) but all would not necessarily be rosy. Apart from concerns about the consequences of software bugs and viruses, what would it be like to be divorced from physical reality, to know that you didn't actually exist outside of an electronic box? I suspect that there would be a strong tendency for people cut loose from their roots, from their lifelong perspective of who they were, from any concept of purpose or reason, to slide gradually into insanity. After all, they'd have forever to think about it…

All in all, this hankering after eternal life looks like a worse idea the more I consider it. Our physical and mental development is constructed around the idea of seasons in life – of passing through stages from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, maturity and old age, before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Apart from the practical problems I've discussed, a major extension to the length of our lives may do nothing to improve the overall quality of our existence; and immortality of any kind (physical or virtual) would, I suspect, eventually turn out to be appalling.


Fred said...

Interesting essay on a fascinating topic. I've often thought there are a number of dissertation topics considering the changing perception/treatment of immortality or longevity in SF itself.

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree. The technologies and consequences of longevity/immortality form a constant theme in Larry Niven's "Known Space" series.

Fred said...

My memory probably serves me poorly, but it seems to me that there were two main plot lines regarding immortality or longevity way back when. One was the situation where it was controlled by the few and the masses either didn't know about it or were excluded. Therefore, the problems of overpopulation were avoided.

The second was the lone individual who was immortal, either because of a mutation or a long-lived alien race or some accident, usually involving radiation. Two of these I can think of are Wilson Tucker's _The Time Masters_ and van Vogt's "Weapon Shop" series.

If immortality was the result of research, it usually came from a pill or injection, sort of an inoculation against aging. Today, it's seen as considerably more complex and involved, such as depicted in Kim Stanley Robinson's _RGB Mars_ trilogy, in which longevity becomes significant. It's much more realistic than earlier portrayals also in that problems of memories and the aging brain are recognized.

Robinson also brings in the overpopulation problem, especially on an already overcrowded earth.

Anthony G Williams said...

Niven's route to immortality was a drug, 'boosterspice' (IIRC) which seemed to be generally available. Cordwainer Smith had 'stroon' (?). The issue of control over such drug distribution is obviously a powerful one, which would have a major effect on society.

I only read the first volume of KSR's 'Mars' trilogy. I found it very hard work, with unengaging characters and a plot clogged with excessive detail; more of a text on terraforming wrapped up in fictional form.

Fred said...

The longevity treatment shows up in the second and third volumes KSR's _RGB Mars_. It takes several weeks for the process and is rather complex and expensive.

I found the traveling parts in the novels to be the most interesting parts in the series--very heavy opn the areology. And, terraforming is the major issue throughout the series.

If I remember correctly, the "Reds" are those who want to keep Mars the way it is. The "Greens" want to change Mars so that humans can live there without the need of cities under shells and can go about without the need of protective suits.

Johnny said...

Your essay makes some good points but it's rather inconsistent. Positing technology for mind duplication implies a far higher technological level than we currently have. Which, in turn, means that considerations of technological limitations re population limits must be adjusted (and we live in a post-industrial society where most paid labour is mostly pointless in any case).

In principle, the resources of the solar system are extremely large and the Earth alone could, given effectively applied science and engineering, sustain a vastly higher population than today.

Likewise, the mind-machine interactions via more direct interfacing would undoubtedly qualitatively change the mind in manners we cannot predict. Indeed, we likely wouldn't be human any more if we were immortal. Whether that is a good or bad thing would have to seen... and would, I imagine, depend on the individual.

And that's the problem I have with immortality - it doesn't banish death, for your humanity must inevitably perish for you to become immortal. I think that's what your essay was driving at but what I think you miss, or fail to make explicit, is that's not a problem of practicality - of mechanism - but of the intrinsic nature of what it is to be human.

We can only exist in the eternal now. Even if we find creative ways to postpone the eternal sleep of non-being, nothing is forever - not even immortality.

Vijay Kumar said...

More on how to become Immortal... can physical immortality be gained in human form... how dominating kundalini shakti and practicing celibacy human beings finally reached stage of enlightenment (kaivalya jnana)... became immortal... gained omniscience for all practical purposes!

Who becomes immortal? One who after intense meditation is able to live longer compared to a normal human being or one, who does not have to manifest a body again and again and rests in peace in kingdom of god (termed Baikuntha in Hinduism)... not kingdom of heaven! Negating karma forever is reaching stage of immortality in human form!

Damian Damianopoulos said...

Although at the beginning it was a bit confusing and slowmoving, from the second part of the book the pace picked up and I relished the turn of the story. It seems that Shaw has considered the idea of the planet's collective intelligence. That is, he plays withs the idea that there is a collective intelligence of the planet on a higher level and individual humans or whatever are hosts of parts of that higher immortal intelligence, which is supposed to be indestructible and immortal. That idea was fascinating.

Anthony G Williams said...

Damain, I think you're referring to Shaw's novel featuring a form of immortaility: The Palace of Eternity. I have reviewed that on this blog (see the list of book reviews in the left column).