The Age-Old Quest for Immortality

– by Conor Ebbs The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker regarded human civilization as ‘an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of mortality’. To prevent the spectre of death from haunting life, we have two choices: acceptance or denial. The dream of immortality has surfaced in many diverse cultures and remains a fundamental belief in […]

– by Conor Ebbs

The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker regarded human civilization as ‘an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of mortality’. To prevent the spectre of death from haunting life, we have two choices: acceptance or denial.

The dream of immortality has surfaced in many diverse cultures and remains a fundamental belief in many religions. From Dracula to Beetlejuice, Indiana Jones to the Twilight series, immortality is also a pervasive idea in Western popular culture.

More recently, the quest for immortality has been seized by scientists and Silicon Valley titans who regard death as a problem to be solved by emerging technology and medicine.

Innovating for Immortality

The gerontologist Aubrey De Grey believes that ageing is a disease to be cured. The human body accumulates damage over time which changes its structures. While we cannot reverse the damage, we can apply fixes and patches, replace non-working parts and extend our lifespans. The 3D-printing of vital organs may be one way to achieve this.

The billionaire co-founder of Paypal, Peter Thiel, aims to live to 120. He regards life as a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. It is a demotivating outcome, and he vows to to fight it, rather than accept its inevitability.

Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, set up project Calico with the goal of solving death. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison regards accepting death as “incomprehensible. Huge amounts of money are being invested in these efforts, with collaboration from pharmaceutical companies.

A-mortality, Acceptance, and Apeirophobia

In his excellent book, Homo Deushistorian Yuval Harari challenges the idea of achieving immortality through scientific interventions. An indefinite lengthening of your lifespan would make you ‘a-mortal’ rather than immortal. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus and killed.

The political philosopher John Gray regards the quest for immortality as fantasy, a delusion born of denial of our nature and an inability to accept the limits of scientific advancement. He challenges the champions of cryogenics, who wish to freeze themselves in the hope of future revival: ‘Freezing our bodies…will not deliver us from ourselves. Wars and revolutions will disturb our frozen remains…. Science enlarges what humans can do. It cannot reprieve them from being what they are.

In a refreshing TED talk, author Lesley Hazleton asks what is wrong with dying, claiming immortality would be a curse which would strip life of its meaning: ‘without death, life would become a flat, featureless expanse, just one thing after another literally ad infinitum…It would leave us with that sense of tedium and pointlessness that is the hallmark of chronic depression’.

For some, the thought of an everlasting life is true terror. Apeirophobia, the fear of eternity, may be rooted in a fear of death. One person’s dream is another’s nightmare.

Who Wants to Live Forever?

If the tech titans achieve their goal of indefinitely extending our lifespans, how would our societies cope?

Would amortality create a society of chronically anxious individuals, terrified to leave their homes for fear of accidental death?

How would social institutions deal with a life expectancy of 120 or 150? How would the state fulfill its social obligations to older people?

If life extension were restricted to only those who could afford the medical interventions, would we create never before seen inequality?

If upgrades and fixes were available for all manner of maladies, would ongoing investment in personal health and lifestyle be considered worthwhile?

How would organised religions practice their core beliefs without appeals to an afterlife?

Would the universal human need for meaning be diluted or destroyed?

Dreamless Sleep or Sleepless Dreams?

Historically restricted to the realm of fiction, the quest for immortality is now a serious scientific project, with billionaire tech titans investing huge amounts in the project. Skeptics challenge this pursuit as a utopian dream which underestimates the limits of science and undervalues the role of mortality in giving meaning to life.

Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University, believes this project distracts us from paying attention to how we treat older people now. Instead of focusing on extending life, we should ‘keep people healthier longer and increase the amount of time that they get to appreciate and enjoy life. In youth-obsessed cultures, old age can feel like a cloak of invisibility. Adding life to years is more important than adding years to life.

Emerging medical technologies for extending life should be greeted with caution. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Cosmetic surgery, first applied to disfigurements and later to war wounds, is now a thriving industry where surgeons are “instruments of shifting whims about what is attractive.

Raging against the dying of the light might seem heroic to some, but accepting our mortality with humility may be essential to valuing the time we have. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said: ‘Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.’

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