Lets face it, all SciFi boils down to the eternal question of “what if”. What if we could ascend to the stars, what if we had unlimited energy, what if our ability to shape our environment was only limited by our imagination? What if we were immortal?

We all recognize these themes from countless SciFi novels and movies, they make us dream of the possibilities that would open up if when the starting conditions change.  The starting conditions being our current existence, of course.  That’s what makes gives it the “Fi”.  However, as a formally trained scientist, I always ask the “Sci” when I watch a movie or read a novel.  “How” can we beat this pesky “FTL” issue. How can we harness unlimited energy to benefit us all?

Over time, I came to a rather sobering realization, namely that there is one constant in these thoughts: immortality.  Yes, eternal life, a literal fountain of youth.  This is the ultimate goal of all human endeavor but it isn’t limited to humans, we are just the only ones who are self aware of it (as far as we know).  The quest for immortality is the literal essence of life, sustaining its own self while striving for propagation which is nothing but copying of self with improvements where possible.

Alright, pause.  All of the above has been percolating in my head for a while and recently found itself in some ungainly 140 character bursts to @Feiryred who – as an exobiologist – does for a living what us terrestrial biologists dream about – imaging life so radically different from ours but yet consistent within the laws of physics.  And get away with in presentations…

As an an old(fashioned) biologist, I learned that the definition of life is – while somewhat nebulous – somewhere along the lines that life of being an energetic upstream event, separated from its environment and seeking reproduction.  Check the interwebs for better definitions; the best ones from the smartest people are likely the shortest.

Lets postulate that “life” will always strive for more “life”.  Similar to “fire” which will burn surrounding fuel, “life” has an inherent drive (oh please, let me not slip into some New Age nonsense) to extend itself and make (preferably improved) more of itself.  With this, we humans are in all of our activities united with the lowest parasite.  All medical research is geared toward extending a meaningful and non-suffering life. And its working. Diseases that were deemed incurable are knocked down slowly but steadily.  One horror of the past after an other has fallen or at least cornered, the bubonic plague, HIV/AIDS, Hep-C and many more.  Cancer is next and given the complexity of this “emperor of all maladies” it may take us a few more generations but its end is inevitable.  Ageing, the slow decay of our bodies, the ancient, great equalizer is being challenged.

Curving back to SciFi, extending our own, born body’s life is only one of several methods by which we could achieve immortality.  There are more but curiously, its a pretty short list.  Lets look at it, considering that I firmly believe that one or more of them is – quite literally – inevitable:

  • Extension of the original body, essentially stopping the ageing process while defeating all disease.  Humans will age to maturity (say mid-20s) and simply “stop” getting older.  Neuronal process and learning need to be accommodated within the same body of course and its arguable whether the hardware (brain etc) can sustain the information load that we would experience over thousands, tens of thousands of years.  Yes, @Feiryred, storage lacunas and other cybernetic augmentations may well be a solution.  Its an intriguing possibility because it fuses our obsession with “youth” with the practical worth of “experience”.  Society would be a parade of perfect bodies with ancient minds.
  • Exchange of bodies.  Effectively, if we can’t maintain our original body and accept that the flesh is weak, we transfer our consciousness into a new one (“sleeve“) as we wish.  This is similar to EVE’s clone jumping of course but where EVE invents arbitrary restrictions on how many “selves” are allowed (1) in reality, we would face the possibility of artificially creating “mind twins” that diverge as separate experience shape new memories. Also, who says its a human body?  Why not transfer the “self” into an elephant, whale or …
  • …transfer oneself into a computer.  Yes, Tron,  inward migration, all of that.  More SciFi books are written about AI becoming self aware than humans becoming effectively the “I”.  Upload yourself into the limitless ether of information would be stupendous – if only if one counted the possibilities of multiplicity and limitless interaction with other “selves”.  But hey, while there, who said that the uploaded “self” stays in one contiguous bloc?  My moral self may well go one way from my immoral.  “I” as an entity will cease but “I” as an informational imprint will multiply.  Which leads to the whole concept of …
  • … “ascension”. Forgive my terrible shorthand using “ascension” as a summative term for all events reaching to a state of consciousness that is truly disconnected from the physical reality we know.  Use “enlightenment” if that works better.  A true, albeit artificially conceived melange of all of our selves is likely the hardest to imagine for us simply because our definition of “self” has a separation to “other” at its core.  Without that separation, we would be quite literally everything and nothing.

Let me restate, I firmly, absolutely believe that humankind will reach true, unambiguous immortality. It is our ultimate goal, our objective and our only reason of being alive.  Whether we are researchers publishing papers, parents having children, entrepreneurs amassing fortunes, authors writing books or nobodies spewing pseudo-philosophical blog nonsense, all of our activity is geared toward preserving parts of us for the future.   So, I have no qualms stating as a fact that humans will conquer death and we will have to face the societal impact of just that.  How will justice work?  What is murder, what does marriage mean, how will we feed all of us?  Until it will be ubiquity, eternal life will be given to a chosen few, who are they?  The rich?  The smart? The worthy?  The fortunate? What challenges will they experience?  As humans we will have quite a bit of work to do to accept this.

If there is one certainty in my life, it is that this will happen. If there is one regret, it is that I will not be there to see it.


PS.  Read Peter F. Hamilon @PeterFHamilton1.  More or less everything above was borrowed from his work. He is -in my opinion-  the most amazing SciFi writer living.


10 responses to “Immortality

  1. It’s worth asking what it is that’s becoming immortal.

    In EVE it’s a particular organization of neurons – a pattern – that gets transferred between clones. Consciousness, one presumes, emerges from that particular pattern but EVE, being science fiction, is careful to not say Capsuleer’s souls are body hopping. So there’s no single physical *thing* being immortal. This actually matches real life experience. None of us consist of the same atoms as we did at birth. While not as shocking as clone switch, it eventually comes to much the same thing.

    So it’s patterns that are immortal? Not so fast. Our patterns evolve over time too. We, all of us, are astoundingly different than we were at birth. Whatever consciousness we have emerging from today’s neuron organization is drastically different than our neuron arrangement at two years old.

    I most likely don’t share a single atom with my two year old self nor do I have a single memory of being younger than two. All that is gone.

    Whatever immortality is, it’s not conservation of identity over great periods of time. None of us are anywhere near identical to our earlier/earliest selves.

    • Hm. Where to start. I think I agree with you in principle but I am not sure.

      Firstly about what specifically it is that becomes immortal. I used “self” as a cheat, its of course much more complicated than that. Religion has far better ways to deal with that than scientists, mostly its “soul” or something similar ethereal, non-corporeal. To simplify, I think it can be described as the information set that is self aware of its own “separate” nature. If one dropped a self into a bucked and stirred, it would cease to exist as an entity.
      About change? Sure. If “self” is the definition, it changes over a lifetime, it is mutable, nothing wrong with that. And since we are talking about information (I tend to look more at genetic / epigenetic information paired with neuronal imprint, i.e. 100% physical and not tied to any higher power), the body itself can be removed from the equation.

  2. P. F. Hamilton is one of my favs… I do not have your clarity of foresight… I do not know we will achieve immortality… but I do not know that we won’t either. I just can’t imagine such a world. But I know that no matter what happens I too will not see that day. So I, as all humanity has since we first looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered what they are and why are we here… and what tomorrow will bring, I look into my children’s eyes… and I ask whatever powers that be, if any… to do what they can for my children, and for the human race.

    • Glad we have a gathering of Hamilton fans here. EVE stole massively from his books and its quite amusing to see the parallels.

      As for the foresight: I think all life has one goal – to stay alive. Where this is not physically possible in one body, life makes copies (children). Children are simply a means to assure one’s success in the future. With this comes all the love and support we give to children, to make them successful, to make them competitive, to assure a viable world to live in. And yes, thats a little bit of a mechanical view but it works for me currently…

  3. We need to somehow survive the Armageddon focused (mostly) Christians who think the end of the world means their salvation

    • True enough. We need to make sure that we are not destroying the planet we live on currently and plan to stay on for all eternity. The Armageddon focus is mostly a US-American thing, I don’t think the majority of the human population is actively looking for an end of the world….

  4. Personally I don’t understand why anybody would want immortality. There are days when I can’t believe what kind of people I have to deal with and knowing that they won’t go away at some point would drive me mad 🙂

    Regarding scenario one: I was wondering whether it might be possible to estimate how long it would take us to get to a point where we would start being able to think about giving this a try. The last 20 years have been incredible for neuroscience: optogenetics, transgenics and in vivo recording techniques have allowed us to make a lot of progress. But on a larger scale we haven’t even scratched the surface. We are currently like ancient philosophers trying to figure out how a computer works. We understand that it is doing cool things. We have the basic wiring figured out (though no clue what it means). We start to make predictions about how certain things might work and what they are good for. But that’s pretty much it.

    One of the current issues is that neuroscience is the Wild West: Everybody tries to stake their claim. The theoretical neuroscientists love modeling and are annoyed by the wetlab biologists and the need for in vivo experiments. Wet lab biologists are annoyed by theoretical neuroscientists because they keep on working on stuff which has no biological relevance. Add the chemists and physicist to that mix and you will notice that everybody hates talking to each other, mainly because there is no common language.

    So, my prediction: It will take at least 20 to 30 years until we have a generation of neuroscientists who can effortlessly transition between all the different fields involved. By then we should have recording tools which allow us to record simultaneously from (hundred)thousands of neurons in vivo during behavior in any given brain structure. once we are at that point…I would say…50 more years until we have a decent understanding on how what kind of information is processed in which way in a few areas of the brain. Add 10 to 20 more years to that mix because people publish an incredible amount of rubbish.

    Well…that turned into an incoherent rant. Sorry! (A bitter neuroscientist). 🙂

    • Interesting “rant”! Its been a decade (errg, 2) since I studied neuroscience and its intriguing that you bring up the exact same issues as the ones we debated. I lack the subject matter knowledge to assess whether you are right or not but if ageing is really limited by brain function and capacity, we may well be SOL for a few more decades.

      However – IF – that was solved, the rest of the body appears to be something we maintain for much longer than any generation before us. With good diagnostics and healthy lifestyle, we can feasibly extend a meaningful life to 120 or even more within the next generation. One of my gripes is that this is based on a total societal re-wiring of the expectations of a “healthcare” system. All countries today have “disease care systems” that do not maintain health, they try to cure disease. Good for broken legs and appendicitis but insufficient. Pay your doctor only while you are healthy! That’ll motivate them to make sure you eat well and go to the gym….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s