Our coming immortality

Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to live on in my films. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Humanity has always battled nature’s limitations — including bodily frailty. For most of our history lifespans averaged around thirty. Now in the developed world they’re above eighty. This reflects elimination of many causes of premature death, especially rampant child deaths. Modern medicine enables many more of us to realize the biological natural maximum lifespan (around 100+ years).

But raising that natural limit is next. That too is a medical problem, and there’s no law of nature barring its solution. Indeed, the same is true of death itself.

telomeres (in red)

You probably won’t turn on the radio and hear, “Scientists today announced a cure for death.” Though lifelong shortening of telomeres (a part of our chromosomes) seems somehow critical — when you’re out of telomeres, you’re out. And there actually is a pill to halt their shortening. Unfortunately it gives you cancer. But maybe, if that can be solved . . . .

But conquering death will likely be more gradual. And not all medical. We fret about intelligent machines supplanting us, but as suggested in my seminal 2013 Humanist magazine essay, “The Human Future — Upgrade or Replacement?I foresee instead a convergence between biological humans and artificial systems. Humanity version 2.0 will benefit from a host of technological advancements and improvements. Anyhow, one way or another, we’ll stop dying.

And nothing could more dramatically change the human condition. Knowledge of mortality has always shaped how we live our lives, so integral to our psychology it’s actually hard to imagine its absence.

Take risk. In many of our activities, risk of death is not zero. While it’s not as though we don’t highly value our lives, knowing we’ll die in the end makes such risks psychologically tolerable. Lack of a clear “term limit” will surely change that. Will people cocoon themselves in fetishing safety?

But immortality may not be for everyone — actually unaffordable to many. Talk about inequality! I recall one of those dystopian-future sci-fi flicks where the monetary unit (registered and transferrable on personal devices) is time — time left to live, that is. The rich of course have plenty and keep getting more. The poor struggle just to “make ends meet” — i.e., not to meet their ends.

Remember Methuselah living 969 years? His kids and grandkids lived to similar ages. The Bible doesn’t mention this, but all those generations would have been hanging around together (at least until finally wiped out by the flood). What will our families be like when you have hundreds of living forebears and descendants? (Maybe invest in Hallmark stock.) Or perhaps — able to achieve immortality through other means — will we stop having children?

Meantime, people who basically don’t age or die probably wouldn’t “retire.” Their continuing economic productivity will sustain and extend global prosperity. Maybe sufficient to obviate the mentioned inequality issue.

And what about religion? Evolution seems to have somehow made our minds susceptible to mystical religious ideas. Rationality enables us to move past them, as science progressively answers the world’s mysteries. Yet still, many people fend off science (evolution for example) in order to hold onto religion’s promise of an afterlife, its “killer app.” Even while having their doubts. What people think they believe may differ from what they truly believe. Those professing belief in Heaven struggle hard to postpone going. Because the promise is inherently unbelievable (and deep down we know it).

But what if fear of death ends? When, as against religion’s dubious promise of eternal life, science offers one that’s pretty darn real? Will that finally be science’s “killer app” against religion? Will all those who’d held science at arm’s length, because it threatened religion, now discard the faith that stands against immortality-giving science?

Well — I’m 71, and immortality probably won’t come soon enough to save me. But my daughter is 25, and I tell her that if she makes it to 100 — highly likely — by then she’ll be home free.

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One Response to “Our coming immortality”

  1. Ypma Says:

    I agree, your daughter will likely make it. I am 21 myself, and our generation will be able to use regenerative medicine which actually works. Stem cell therapies, 3d printing of healthy organs, senescent cells removal. That will extend our lifespan to at least 150 years old, and probably when we reach that age (likely, way earlier) it will be possible to link our brain to the internet, and make it independent from biology. Like Ian Pearson says, it will happen in 2050, my own estimate is a bit later, but certainly within 100 years, it will happen.

    In your case, I would go for cryonics. If you can live another 20-25 years, you will see advanced cryonics, which will actually work as well. Then your daughter will be able to wake you back up, far in the future.

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