Towards a Philosophy of Immortality

Marc Geddes
Issue XXIV - July 22, 2004
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Do you want to live forever? Why? What is the reason for your belief? What is the meaning? These are questions of philosophy, and whether you know it or not, your answer is based on your philosophy of life and death.

When some people hear the word 'philosophy', what they think of is a rather obscure branch of academia, of little relevance to the real world. But academic philosophy is only one narrow aspect of 'philosophy'. In the broadest sense of the term, everyone who can think is doing philosophy. Like all animals, human drives are in part a product of evolution. Evolutionary psychology is the branch of science that investigates the underlying biological aspects of human urges. We have physical and emotional needs: we need food, water, air, shelter and sleep, and we may have inbuilt cravings for things like sex, money, power and fame. Yet unlike all other animals, we humans are capable of abstract thought - of reasoning. And reason seems to give us the power to over-ride our other animalistic cravings. Once our biological needs are taken care of, the rest of our actions can only be fully explained by reference to our high level thoughts. In the realm of the intellect, the ideas and beliefs that we hold will govern how we behave. These ideas and beliefs in sum form our philosophy of life. We may be conscious of our philosophy or we may not. But everyone without exception has a philosophy.

If the formation of ideas and beliefs is philosophy then philosophy is all around us. We read the newspapers and come across a hard-hitting editorial - philosophy. We turn on the T.V and hear political commentary - philosophy. We see a Christian preacher on the street corner giving us the gospel of Christ - philosophy. Often we simply don't recognize many basic ideals as philosophy, because we take them so much for granted. Consider many basic principles held by those living in modern nations - democracy, science, and the idea of progress, the rule of law, religion, the very concept of a 'nation'. All of those things had their roots in philosophical ideas. 'Democracy' was a radical concept developed by philosophers in ancient Greece. Branches of modern science such as chemistry and astronomy matured from philosophical doctrines like alchemy and astrology. The modern idea of progress was a philosophical idea, which first took root during the Renaissance period of the Middle Ages. Philosophical ideas gave rise to religions like Islam, which spawned the great Persian Empire of the Middle East. In the West, the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas helped shaped Europe for a millennium. It is clear from the historical record that philosophy has been a major driving force shaping human society. That is not to say it's the only force of course. Aside from biology, human behavior is also partially driven by things such as class struggle, and the physical environment. But it is clear that if we wish to understand why people behave the way they do, we must engage in philosophy.

Most people alive today do not regard physical immortality as a sensible proposition. In fact, many people would be opposed to radical life extension. An exploration of the prevalent philosophies in today's cultures helps provide an explanation. We can identity three key modes of thought that prevent the idea of immortality from being taken seriously: (1) Cartesian dualism, (2) Fatalism, and (3) Static views of human nature

Let's examine these 3 common viewpoints. The first is the idea named after philosopher Rene Descartes. Cartesian dualism holds that there is a supernatural component to human consciousness, which has an existence independent of the human body. This idea that we have 'souls' which survive physical death is obviously a central tenet of many of the world's religions, both Eastern and Western. Those who believe that they will survive physical death may not see the point of radical life extension, and at the least, belief in souls must reduce the motivation for believers to try to extend physical life.

The second common reason why people don't take life extension seriously is fatalism. People simply don't believe that physical immortality is something that is possible. Therefore they see little point in making aggressive efforts to combat aging.

The third general reason for doubting immortality is the idea that human nature is necessarily limited. Even if people realize that they will not survive physical death, and they are prepared to admit that death might not be inevitable, they may still doubt the wisdom of life extension. They fear that radical life extension would somehow cause change to cease, so that nothing new under the sun could take place. Common worries along these lines are that long life would be boring or pointless, or that society would become ossified, or that evolution would stop, or that no one could have any children.

In order for a significant social acceptance of immortality to occur, each of these 3 common philosophic viewpoints will need to be addressed. It's important for both skeptics and immortalists to stick to specific issues when arguing their views. The specific issues are: Do we have souls that can survive physical death? Is it likely that science can one day find a way to give us physical immortality? And: would physical immortality be worthwhile or is there a good reason why human lifespan should be finite?

Mainstream thought in the worlds major religions hold that we do have supernatural souls that can survive physical death. However it is important to realize that all major religions have a variety of differing theological viewpoints, and some of these alternative viewpoints have wholly naturalistic conceptions of things like God and souls. One does not have to become an atheist in order to agree that there is nothing supernatural about human consciousness. Pantheists equate God with the natural Universe. Pantheism holds that there is no clear division between mind and matter, and that human consciousness is a natural phenomenon arising from sufficiently complex arrangements of matter. This is in keeping with the scientific world-view that human consciousness is totally dependant on the human brain, and the death of the body will result in the death of the mind. There are also scientific theologies such as the Omega Point theory, which postulates an evolutionary God equivalent to the universe at the end of time. Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, who wanted to reconcile science and Christianity, first put the idea of an Omega point forward. It's clear that science and religion need not conflict. But acceptable of the scientific world-view requires that we concede that our soul is not supernatural. An entertaining and convincing over-view of the evidence that there is nothing supernatural about consciousness can be found in the book 'Consciousness Explained', by philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Our consciousness depends on our body. If we value life, we should try to cherish and preserve it. Therefore, we should try to cherish and preserve our body for us long as we value life. Since aging and disease harm our bodies, a reverence for life requires that we fight aging and disease. And a continued reverence for life requires an on-going battle against death... or the quest for physical immortality! A reverence for life is, in fact, a central tenant of most major religions. And this expresses itself in a yearning for spiritual immortality. So we see that the scientific and the religious conceptions of immortality are both motivated by the same reverence for life. The scientific insight is that spiritual (mental) immortality requires physical immortality.

Here we run into the next major hurdle preventing people from supporting the quest for physical immortality. Fatalism. The 'common-sense' view is that physical death is inevitable and it is useless to fight it. So the skeptics will simply dismiss physical immortality as a hopeless dream. In order to realize that physical immortality, may not, in fact, be a hopeless dream, research the marvelous scientific advances in areas such as stem cell research and cloning, proving that new tissues and organs can be grown as replacements for aging ones. There are documented animal studies conclusively proving that life span can be extended through caloric restriction, and studies conclusively proving that life span can be extended through genetic manipulation. It is important to focus on proven results rather than on long-term futuristic possibilities. You may be skeptical of pipe dreams, but proven results cannot be denied, and they demonstrate that physical life extension is possible. Damien Broderick's 'The Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter Our Lives in the 21st Century' is an excellent over-view of life extension research up to the year 1999.

Developing personal exercise, diet and supplementation programs, which produce immediate improvements in health, can combat fatalistic feelings that immortality is a hopeless dream. Keep yourself informed about scientific advances related to aging and try applying these advances in your own life. Seek out people and media promoting life extension and carefully sit down and examine the facts. Upon reviewing the facts, even hard-core pessimists must admit that immortality is not a hopeless dream, and that there is at the very least a small possibility of radical extensions of human span at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Given that immortality might just be possible, the skeptic will still question why we should want it. Perhaps the problems which extended life may cause make the goal unworthy? A negative view of what immortality may be like is a world where nothing ever changes, where people just run out of things to do, a nightmare of hellish boredom. The mistake here is to imagine that human nature is fixed and that the world contains limited resources and possibilities. But there is strong evidence to suggest that neither of these assumptions is true.

The Renaissance ideal was that humans could take charge of their own destiny and improve upon their basic nature through such things as good government, proper education and applied reason. Although human history is punctuated with barbarism, it is clear that life in the year 2003 for the average human is generally better than it was in the Middle ages, just as life in the Middle ages was generally better than it was in the Stone ages. It is better not just in the material sense, but in the social sense also. Democracy and universal human rights were radical ideas of the Middle Ages, but today they have been widely applied throughout the world. The 20th century saw the horrors of things such as Nazism, but it also saw the wide acceptance of rights for oppressed people such as woman, gays and blacks. Human nature can be improved, albeit slowly.

It is important to understand that the vitality of a society is not a function of the length of time that people live, but a function of the political and social structures. Things such as democracy and free markets were designed in order to weed out stagnation. Under democracy, people can prevent elites from accumulating too much power and bad leaders can get thrown out. Under free market capitalism, competition and the profit motive encourage constant innovation, because businesses selling bad products go bankrupt and businesses selling better products get rewarded. There is no reason why a society of extremely long lived people should stagnate, provided the right political and social structures are in place.

What about the concern that resources and possibilities are finite? It might seem to be 'common sense' that there is only a finite amount of living space for instance. But an understanding of economics and science suggests that common sense is wrong. Economists are increasingly coming to realize the extent to which wealth is created by human knowledge. It is human knowledge which defines what a 'resource' actually is. For instance, take oil, which might seem on the surface to be a pretty clear-cut example of a finite physical resource. But prior to an understanding of how oil could be used, oil was simply worthless black goo. It acquired a value only after humans worked out how to use it. Advances in science and technology resulted in more oil being discovered and improved extraction techniques allowed more of it to be accessed. In addition, we leant to utilize it more efficiently. Surprisingly, the world oil reserves have been increasing, in contradiction to the claims of doomsayers who warn that resources are running out. The key point is that resources are not fixed, but can be increased through greater knowledge of how of the universe works. Not even living space is fixed. For instance, space travel has the potential to open up many new worlds beyond the Earth upon which human descendants could conceivably live. Immortality does not mean that no new people can be born or that there will be will be insufficient resources to sustain them. Wharton Business School graduate Paul Pilzer has developed what he calls the theory of economic alchemy, which is explained in his book 'Unlimited Wealth'. The reason resources are not fixed is because knowledge enables people to take something that has very little value and convert it into something of significantly greater value. Since there is no known limit to the things that can discovered, there is no limit to the amount of resources that exist either. Economist Julian Simon was once asked what he thought 'the carrying capacity' of the Earth was. How many people can planet Earth sustainably support? He didn't hesitate to give an astounding answer: 'It's infinite'.

In order to understand why the possibilities of existence are not finite, a firm grasp of the potential of science and technology is required. Technologies such as Nano-technology (the ability to precisely manipulate matter on the molecular scale), Bio-technology (the ability to engage in genetic modifications), and Information technology (methods of communication and computation) may enable humans to take control of the process of evolution itself, by gaining the ability to radically improve their minds and bodies. The philosophy of Transhumanism is a philosophy celebrating and exploring the ways in which science and human creativity could be used to improve upon human nature and open new possibilities. Far from being boring, an immortal existence may be filled with a never-ending variety of new and exciting things for us to explore. An entertaining sense of the remarkable potential of science and technology may be obtained by reading Damien Broderick's book 'The Spike'.

Some will no doubt find all this talk of radically changing human nature to be outrageous or scary. It may be feared that we are doing something against the natural order, against God's will, that should we try to change human nature too much we will create monsters or lose our humanity together. But it is important to understand that the pioneering spirit is itself a key part of human nature. Indeed, it is the pioneering spirit that may define who we truly are. Attempts to alter human nature do of course hold dangers, but the solution is not to reject such attempts, but to work to find intelligent ways to manage the dangers. If it turns out that there is some design or intelligence behind the universe, such as God, why should he not want us to fulfill our potential? The Aristotelian concept of 'Eudemonia' or 'Self-fulfillment' holds virtue to be acting to fulfill our highest potential.

In order to bring about the dream of radical life extension, scientific research is required, followed by technological developments that apply that research to create products such as anti-aging drugs. Finally, government policies need to be in place that ensures that the fruits of such research are potentially available to all. None of these things can happen in a society, without the support of a significant number of people. In order for the relevant scientific research to take place, motivated and qualified researchers are needed, along with sufficient funding. In order for breakthroughs to be converted into products that people can use, there must exist a relatively free market, which gives entrepreneurs the freedoms and incentives to develop and market these health products. In order for things like anti-aging drugs to be potentially available to everyone, government policy needs to ensure universal access to health-care, whilst at the same time keeping health-care free from restrictive regulations and excessive bureaucracy.

Those people living in Western industrialized nations are already living in societies where a significant number of people respect science, reason, progress and free markets. But few yet give credence to something as radical sounding as immortality. And many will be uneasy about attempts to radically change human nature. Religious and environmental groups, those who doubt capitalism, and those who are uneasy about technology all have concerns that will be need to addressed.

We have looked at the three main reasons as to why people may doubt the wisdom of life extension. These were: (1) Cartesian Dualism: The belief that we have souls that can survive physical death (2) Fatalism: The belief that physical death is inevitable and it is foolish to fight it and (3) Static views of human nature: The belief that human nature is fixed, the world has limits and attempting to over-step these limits would be evil. A sketch of the refutations to these ideas was given. A person who supports life extension generally believes that: (1) There is no division between mind and matter: the mind depends on the body and will not survive physical death. (2) Science can radically extend human life and may even one day allow physical immortality, and (3) neither human nature nor the universe is limited. Instead human potential is infinite, and it is good that we should reach for this potential.

In order to accurately assess the wisdom of radical life extension, there needs to be extensive debate over each of these main philosophic areas. Budding immortalists would need to embark on a philosophic crusade in order to create the social conditions for success in the quest to become immortal. People might embrace the idea of physical immortality when there is a widely understood philosophy of immortality. Poet William Blake said: ‘To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.' And Ralph Waldo Emerson said: 'To the dull mind nature is leaden. To the illuminated mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.' If we all could learn to see the world like that, who wouldn't want to live forever?

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.