Would You Want to Live Forever?
Reflections on the immortality paradox and downsides of living forever...
"The longest life may fade and perish," wrote Theodore Powys, "but one moment can live and become immortal." It's an arresting thought, and never more so than today when so many people are doing whatever they can to live longer. There's nothing new in the quest for longevity. Ancient Chinese and early modern European alchemists dreamt of an elixir that would give perpetual life. In Mary Shelley's novel, Dr Frankenstein pursues the dream by reanimating bodily parts of the dead. But it is only in recent times that the dream has captured masses of people, with millions following diets and exercise regimes in the hope that they can put off dying for as long as possible. We're living longer than any previous human generation, and there's no obvious limit to this process.
A more interesting question is why anyone would want to live forever. Wanting more years of healthy longevity is natural enough - which of us, if offered a pill that would ensure 30 more such years, wouldn't take it? Wanting to live forever is different. In trying to escape death, we are attempting to transcend the natural world. Long before using technology to overcome mortality became scientifically conceivable, most of the world's religions promised some kind of afterlife to their followers. But this only pushes the question one step further back. Why do so many religious people want so fervently to believe that death isn't the end? Theologians and mystics distinguish between eternal life and everlasting existence. Human immortality, they say, doesn't mean going on and on in perpetuity - it means leaving time behind, and joining "God" in eternity.
What these religious thinkers have never explained is how humans can exit from time without becoming unrecognisably different from all that they have ever been. The immortal soul that supposedly survives death isn't the quirky, fleshly human being that we have been in life. A faded image of what we once were, it's a kind of ghost. The same is true of the uploaded minds envisioned by those who seek an escape from death in cyberspace. A computer-generated phantom floating in the ether isn't a human being, just a high-tech shadow. The shade might persist forever, but the human individual would be dead and gone. only creatures that live in passing time can know moments of undying value. There are no such moments in a life that can never end. In such a life, there's nothing to treasure, nothing that has value because it cannot come again.
Our lives have meaning because they are bounded by death. The paradox is that it's only because we die that we can know what it truly means to be immortal.
Kemo D. 7