What’s Wrong with Immortality?

Do you ever think about aging? Of course you do. We all do. It’s one of the inescapable aspects of being alive. In fact, many philosophers have pondered the implications of the fact that humans are the only creatures that know they will die. Some have speculated that this is the single biggest reason that humans developed religion. I would go so far as to say that our desire to avoid death is the single biggest driving force behind everything humans have done throughout history.

Over the course of human history our life expectancy has dramatically increased. Mostly as a simple result of better public health. Now suppose that if we continue to have longer life spans. If science continues to discover ways to keep us healthy and fit over the years, it’s not inconceivable that we could see a dramatic increase in our life expediency.

Suppose I’m not satisfied with that, suppose I want to live forever. I want to be immortal.

I’ve always been rather fascinated with the concept of immortality and the ways that humans have imagined it. For instance, I’m always curious to how immortality is portrayed in popular fiction. Vampires, Elves, futuristic aliens, Doctor Who…

“I’m going to be young and good looking forever…my life sucks.”

Just imagine if you were immortal. You would never age; never grow old and weak and tired (assuming you started being immortal as a young person). Since we can’t predict what the far future will hold in terms of human endeavour, let’s pretend you became immortal in the past.

So if you were 25 years old when you became immortal, and that was 50 years ago, you would normally be 75 years old today. But since you’re immortal you remain in your youthful 25 year old self. You would have already seen the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the computer revolution. Pretty impressive.

If you had become immortal 100 years ago, in 1885, you would have seen the birth of several modern countries like Canada and Germany, the predominance of the British Empire, the invention of several amazing scientific discoveries like the vaccine for rabies, and the eventual outbreak of the First World War.

I think that sounds pretty neat. Especially when you start to think about what if you became immortal 500 years ago, or even 1000. If you were “old” enough you could have watched the pyramids being built. This makes me wonder why people seem so down on immortality. During my “research” of watching and reading popular culture that features immortals, they are often portrayed as moody depressed people who view their agelessness with melancholy at best.

Sometimes Time Lords live too long…or maybe not.

One of the common excuses for why immortality is bad is the notion that life would get boring after a while. What I think that misses is that in order to have boredom, you need to be conscious. And to alleviate boredom, you need to be conscious. For example if you’re playing cards and decide you’re bored of playing cards you stop and switch to a different activity. You can’t really do that with living.

Let’s talk about the perceptions of seeking immortality in our culture. A good example might be the fountain of youth. But there is a rather negative connotation with the fountain of youth. Perhaps because stories often revolve around an intrepid explorer searching far and wide for the fountain only to come up short. Sort of a cautionary tale, a fool’s errand of some sort.

I think it might even go further than that. Many people have a knee-jerk reaction to certain scientific endeavours as just plain wrong. Explaining why they are “wrong” usually results in some sort of nebulous explanation that humankind was never meant to discover such things, to which I reply “how do you know, if we haven’t discovered them yet”?

To be fair, there are a lot of crank ideas out there about life expectancy and I don’t want to give the impression I support them. I’m not really talking about any particular scientific or technological theory or prospect but just the idea itself.

One potential crank idea is calorie restriction, a new idea that suggests by limiting your intake of calories you can enjoy a life span extension of 40%. However the science is only based on animal studies so far, not humans. That hasn’t stopped people from embracing this new fad and trying to reduce their daily caloric intake by about 30 – 40 percent. Preliminary evidence does seem to suggest that calorie restriction might actually have some interesting effects. The big question, of course: is the lifestyle trade-off worth potentially a few more years to your life?

I think one of the big reasons people have a strong reaction to life span longevity research is that we’ve become tolerant of aging. We have after all, been aging for our entire history, and every animal on this planet ages with us. It’s natural. Its tradition. But as I’ve explained in the past, tradition is no reason to accept something.

A good example might be stem cell research, or human cloning. Both, fields of science that some deem “crossing boundaries humans were not meant to cross”. The problem is that no one has crossed those boundaries yet, except in science fiction and the imaginations of philosophers. But the dangers, problems, or ethical dilemmas will only exist in hypothetical realms until we actually start the process of investigation into these fields with experiments and study. It could very well turn out that human cloning will reach a dead end long before there are any ethical concerns. Maybe there will be limits placed by our lack of technology that inspire us to explore new possibilities, and thus, circumvent any such problems. We won’t know until we try.

Science is going to progress and there really isn’t a reason to assume that our life spans won’t get longer. One obstacle that skeptics will have to face is convincing a population that scientific progress is a good thing, especially with a — for lack of a better word — taboo subject as living longer. Much longer.

Many of the hurdles we will face in the future will be difficult not simply because of the scientific knowledge they require, or the technological tools they need, but because to a previous generation, the hurdle was unthinkable. The idea of becoming immortal is pretty much unthinkable nowadays. Currently it belongs in science fiction and vampire movies. Will that always be the case?

Hopefully we, as skeptics, lay the foundations, the seeds of imagination and the love of discovery to confront these hurdles. I don’t want our descendants moralizing over the potential creations of science. Let the advancements come and deal with the consequences once they exist, not when they are potentialities.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.