Immortality – a fate worse than death?

The flamboyant Aubrey de Grey

To desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake. Arthur Schopenhauer

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. . . . I want to achieve it through not dying. Woody Allen

Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Susan Ertz


We are probably the only animal that is conscious of its mortality. However we live in a world in which death has become increasingly marginalised. In previous centuries paintings with hourglasses and skulls would remind us of the ephemeral nature of human life. People in previous epochs were surrounded by death.  With improving sanitation and a certain decline in belief about the afterlife, many are looking for science to provide the keys to eternal life. If that is not possible we want at least the possibility of living longer. In the last 200 years life expectancy has doubled. This has been particularly noticeable at the beginning of life. What has proved more controversial is extending it at the end of life.

The theme of immortality is by no means new. It featured in the story of Adam and Eve – the Bible seems to imply that humans were going to be immortal until Eve committed the original sin. We also have the idea of the Fountain of Youth, which is a recurring theme in many cultures throughout the world. A curious variation on this theme is found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In The World State everyone lives in perfect health and youthfulness until they reach 60 and then they are killed off.

Once we are past our peak reproductive years, evolution doesn’t really care about us. So it’s all downhill from there on. But because something is natural doesn’t mean that we have to accept it; the very nature of medicine is a challenge to the tyranny of nature. Scientists are now looking into the process of aging and what can be done to reverse it.  There seem to be two strands to this research. There are the mainstream investigators who are looking to make incremental progress, maybe extending life by a dozen years. These are the scientists in a field called gerontology. This branch of biology, which should not be confused with geriatrics, is the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging. But there also some colourful characters working on the fringe. The most famous of these is Aubrey de Grey, who is far more ambitious and is prone to make what appear to be extravagant claims. The eccentric De Grey, whose extravagant beard gives him the air of a modern day Methuselah, believes that regenerative medicine can stop the ageing process. His “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence” (SENS), are designed to repair tissues rejuvenating the human body and allowing us an indefinite lifespan. Another approach is that of cryonics. This involves the freezing of a human body so that with medical breakthroughs healing and resuscitation may be possible at some date in the future. It does not come cheap; the most expensive plan by the Cryonics Institute for whole body cryopreservation costs around $150,000. (Trivia note –Despite rumours to the contrary, Walt Disney has not been frozen. After his death from cancer in 1966, he was cremated at Forest Lawn Cemetery and Crematory, where incidentally Humphrey Bogart and Michael Jackson are also buried and Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman.)

The ultimate strategy must surely be mind uploading (aka whole brain emulation), which would involve scanning and mapping a biological brain in detail and copying its state into a computer system. This brain could, according to its proponents behave in essentially the same way as the original brain. It could then be placed in a humanoid robot or even a different biological body. Of course many philosophers have debated whether an emulated brain can be considered a human mind.

But imagine it all these developments were possible. Would it be desirable? I can think of lots of objections – two obvious ones relate to marriage and work. In terms of work what happens with retirement? One wag I heard on the radio put it nicely: As long as I can still retire at 65, go for it. I don’t see that happening. Our working lives would have to be greatly extended. The positive aspect would be that you could try multiple careers. And what about marriage?  What would happen to till death do us part? In my post about sex and technology, I pointed out the difficulty of maintaining monogamous relationships. Immortality would tale this to a whole new plane. The dinner table conversations would be quite something after 200 years of being married.

It could also create population pressures in an already overcrowded world. I know that that humans are seen as cursed because of our mortality but maybe immortality would be an even greater curse. It could have very negative effects on our drive and ambition. With unlimited time what would be the point of urgency? There is something intriguing about being around to see the next millennium but I just see too many complications. Who wants to live forever? This was the question that the prestigious philosopher Farrokh Bulsara posed in 1986. I feel compelled to answer: not me.


One Response to Immortality – a fate worse than death?

  1. Alberto says:

    Although the song was written for the film Highlander, Mr. Mercury could very possibly have been talking about himself.

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