Recently I posted an item here,Â containingÂ a high-levelÂ analysisÂ of the technological SingularityÂ predicted byÂ some futurists, and an examination ofÂ the likelihood that the event will actually occur.
To refresh your memory, the technological Singularity isÂ basically theÂ “event horizon” in technological development beyond which humans will cease to be driving technological progress. The technology itself will take over that task.
And as part of that predicted progress, some transhumanistsÂ thinkÂ exaggerated advances in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer science, and neuroscience willÂ initiate a radical transformation ofÂ human minds and bodies.Â Among the more ardent transhumanists, it’s not unusual to hearÂ topics such asÂ the advent of cyborgs, digitized psyches, the downloading of human consciousness onto machines, radically extended lifespans, and even immortality thrown about as though they are foregone conclusions.Â
Well, in the few weeks since the Singularity Summit , which I attended, I’ve been thinkingÂ more about the subject. Don’t worry. This will probably be my last postÂ aboutÂ transhumanism for a while. I’ve got some cool straight science stories to relate after this. But since the summit, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind; particularly the ideasÂ regarding human improvement, the philosophical implicationsÂ surrounding them, and what the world (and humankind) might be like if extremely long livesÂ become the norm.
And where there are volumes to consider inÂ this line of inquiry, perhaps it’s best to simplify and start withÂ a basicÂ question: Assuming the advances in technology are sufficient to achieve it at some point, do we really want extremely long lives? Do we want to live forever?
Now, atÂ first glance, the question seems easy. Of course we want really long lives. No one wants to die. Dying marks the end of everything; at least as far as own awareness is concerned. The game clock flips to all zeros. The party is over. Death = Not fun.
Being alive, on the other hand,Â is oh so muchÂ sweeter. As intelligentÂ creatures,Â weÂ derive great pleasure from a whole host of amazing things in life. Not only that, but we transcend a meaningless existenceÂ by creating and sharingÂ such things with others.
WeÂ have the capacity to experience a wonderful spectrum of emotions,Â both to our joyÂ and our consternation. We can love. We can hate. We can laugh. We can cry. We can be moved by works of art, or by a scenic vista, or powerfully by the introduction of a new little one of usÂ into the fold. We can be rendered sappy andÂ weak in the kneesÂ simply by looking into theÂ eyes ofÂ a womanÂ we consider beautiful, and we can be made to feel demure and protectedÂ in the arms of a man we see as strong. We can do horrible things to each other as we try to deal with our inherent violent tendencies, but we can be caring and loving and kind with no less stunning regularity.
We are also possessed of a capacity for intellect. Our natural curiosity about the world around us drives us to great discovery, which further triggersÂ our curiosity, inciting a grand dance that hasÂ put us at a place of understanding no creatures we currently know of have yet reached. WeÂ have overcome the elements that only a few generations ago found us trembling in the darkness with only a contrived set of myths to soothe our fears, and we can question whence those fears came, the processes at work behind them, and where weÂ might be if we become a species without fear. We develop machines and gadgets that allow us to manipulate the material world to our benefit. We have a grasp of the natural forces that control the universe, and we are constantlyÂ uncovering the slots into which each of its cosmic puzzle pieces fit. And we can examine with humility what it means to be human, and with awe theÂ things that influence the remarkable condition that defines our existence.
AndÂ being made of flesh that is highlyÂ vulnerable to physical trauma, microorganisms, and slow but sure deterioration, it seems obvious that if there was a way to eliminate theÂ shortcomings of the human body,Â we would beÂ foolish not toÂ favor implementing it in order to be aroundÂ to experienceÂ theÂ beauty of livingÂ for as long as possible.
But . . .
You knew it wouldn’t be that easy, didn’t you?
Living foreverÂ is a very profound idea; one that presents a lot of possibilities and a lot of potential problems. So let’s look a little deeper into the question.
Suppose we do indeed find a way to avoid theÂ big sleep. It’s clear that in our current cultural and societal state, long life or immortality is not the desire of the global collective. The religious man will tell you the great reward is waiting for him beyond death, and presumably his fervency for that belief is such that it would make living forever actually undesirable; something for which he should absolutely not strive. So it’s not difficult to imagine a rift forming between thoseÂ favoringÂ long lifeÂ and those in societies and cultures who don’t place as muchÂ importance onÂ what they mightÂ term the “mortal realm”.
Now, one might suggest that those who believe the reward awaits them beyond death can be shown the error of their ways.Â But after centuries of it happening throughout history, do we still not recognize the injustice ofÂ forcing a philosophy on a culture that does not seek it?
One might also suggest that once people are living for hundreds of years, the idea of long life will become attractive to everyone. And that may very well be the case, but suppose theÂ desire forÂ long life infiltrates the entire human race. How will the distribution of the processes to make us immortal work? WillÂ the advancesÂ be available to everyone, no matter their station in life?
Again, history tells us that we generally don’t operate that way. Generally, the most attractive endeavors are initially the playground of the financial, cultural, and intellectual elite. And there is precedent that those living inÂ privation of a thing can be highly mistreated at worst, and overlooked at best. Or they can become so desperate as to revolt.
What would a war between those who have become better than mortal through technology and those still at the mercy of nature be like? Well, what do our own experiences tell us about the outcome of a struggle between any strong force and a weak force? It’s not a stretch to imagine it would be horrible no matter how we look at it.
Now, some say those types of extremes are far-fetched. And they very well may be. (Though on a personal note, it seems to me people have an impossible time recognizing arrogance. Just saying.) But suppose we never come close to any of those dystopian scenarios. Suppose instead that technological advancements are such that everyone can be made to live very long lives, and everyone gets along like the best of chums. If fewer and fewer people are dying, it doesn’t take a lot of difficult math to see that the world’s population would grow to a point to present another set of problems.
Right off the bat, the availability of resources becomes a huge concern. Do we outlaw all new births to combat the shortages? How can a planet the size of the Earth sustain 100 billion people?Â 500 billion people? A trillion people? Even if the advances in technology preclude the need for food as we currently know it; even if the need for agrarian land becomes obsolete, the amount of space for everyone is limited and becomes an issue.
Of course, if we speculate even deeper about the technological possibilities, and say that living human beingsÂ (consciousnesses)Â will simply be sets of digital informationÂ loaded onto a drive or other mediumÂ somewhere, we still have to contend with the problems of energyÂ those technologies —Â the infrastructure —Â would need to maintain us; assuming such advanced technologies saw the need to maintain us at all, which raises a whole new set of questions and possibilities.
And so the cycle continues.
But what if we forgo all the speculation about how long life will be implemented and how it will affect us as a culture, and take a look at whether we should even really want to live forever. Given all the wonders that make life worth living that we mentioned before, is death nevertheless an essential part of a meaningful life?
IfÂ weÂ examine life honestly, we see that yes, there is great beauty. And that beauty can sustain and drive us for a long time. ButÂ we also see that there isÂ misery and there is suffering and there isÂ sorrow.Â A wiseÂ person recognizes thatÂ antithetical players define the value of their opposites. Without pain, we do not know the value of Â pleasure. Without boredom, we do not know the value of excitement. Without sadness, we do not know the value of happiness.
If we slowly removeÂ the fear of dying, theÂ pang ofÂ regret, the melancholy of longing, the worry of imminent cessation of breath, and the grief of loss,Â what value will anything we can experience while living for hundreds of years have? Will it have any value?
AssumingÂ he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, the rational man in his worldview may take the religious man’s view of a “great reward” and reverse it, to where he sees life itself as the great reward. And that is a perfectly sane way to look at it. But it’s daunting to think that we are, for all intents and purposes, dead for billions of years before we are granted an eye blink, aÂ nanosecond of cosmic time as our reward, before we slip away never to know awareness again.
But doesn’t the brevity of the reward, the infinitesimally small amount of time we have to enjoy the gift, make its value immeasurable?
And if not, perhaps there’s a more profound question: What gifts do we receive that we don’t eventually tire of anyway?
We have allÂ known, or at least heard of, an elderlyÂ person whose healthÂ has deteriorated —Â not through disease, but simply through living a conventionally long life —Â lying lucidly on his or her deathbed, waiting for his or herÂ loved onesÂ to gather so that he or she can say good-bye. And then once that final task is done, he or she slips away without fear, without regret, with nothing but an air of preparedness.
Can we say with any measure of confidence that without physical trauma, without disease, without anything that cuts the cycle short, we all wouldn’t reach the point where we value highly the beauty of the life we’ve lived, but where we are ready to be done with it nonetheless?
Now, I suppose I should apologize for asking so many open-ended questions in this post, but I think with this subject, open-ended questions are the best we’re going to get right now. Part of the problem with some things that are yet to come is that we have no reason to expect either the worst or the best, because we just don’t know for sure how the pendulum will swing. But I do think keeping our eyes open and speculating about the future, the tendencies of the human animal, and analyzing all the possibilities is a good idea. We may still beÂ quite a stupid intelligent species at this point in our evolution, but complacency will never serve to remedy that. We should always wonder!
In the meantime, I’ll tell you that where I don’t know if I personally would want to live forever, I do check every couple of months to see if they are able to grow new knees and shoulders and elbows and other bones that they can put into my body to replace the ones I’ve worn out with all my physical activities over the years.
And maybe that’s the key. Maybe we just want to live as long as our quality of life remains at our own desired levels. And maybe when it’s not at that desired level, and becomes apparent it never will be, is when we get ourselves ready to check out.
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Sure would be nice to squat down without hearing all the crunching and popping though.
*This is a late addition to the post, but I remembered after the fact this vlog ofÂ Dr. Neil deGrass Tyson ruminating on the subject of longevity.