For as long as humans have wandered the earth, our mortality has been front and center in our long list of woes. In every culture, in every age, many people have attempted to cheat death, one of the most famous examples of which includes Qin Shi Huang, king of the Chinese state of Qin in the third century BCE. Obsessed with living forever, he ordered his alchemists and physicians to concoct an elixir of life. They obliged and presented him with what they believed might grant him eternal life. Unfortunately for Qin Shi Huang, what they gave him was a handful of mercury pills, and he died upon consuming them.
We’ve come a long way since Qin’s day, so much so that immortality — or at least unprecedented longevity — appears increasingly plausible sometime this century. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil seems so sure of it that he allegedly takes upwards of 200 dietary supplements a day to forge a “bridge to a bridge” when long life is the norm. The May 2013 issue of National Geographic, in fact, features this very topic.
For now, however, they say we die twice: once when we take our last breath, and again when our name is uttered for the last time.
Our greatest literature, both ancient and modern, seems to confirm this attitude. Countless examples suggest that as much as we strive to achieve everlasting life, death is our inescapable fate. To seek a loophole is folly and smacks of the worst kind of hubris. The earliest such tale, over twelve thousand years old, relates the ancient Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh’s quest for everlasting life following the death of his friend Enkidu. Although Gilgamesh ultimately fails in his undertaking, he achieves a sort of immortality in the minds of his people as a result of his heroic exploits. The same arrogance is seen in the character of Greek demigod Achilles, who was said to be impervious to harm in all parts of his body except his ankle, which his mother Thetis failed to immerse in the river Styx. Near the end of the Trojan War, he is slain by the lethal accuracy of Paris’s arrow, but Achilles’s courageous feats guarantee that his name lives on into perpetuity.
For those of us who lack the godlike strength and derring-do of Gilgamesh, Achilles, Heracles and other ancient and Classical heroes, the only hope we have at gaining immortality is through emerging age-reversing technology and research into the human brain. Our two leading options appear to be an indefinite halt to the aging process or a sort of digital resurrection — uploading our minds into vast computer servers. But are either of these options desirable?
The former option, the perpetuation of our corporal bodies, seems at this point to be more scientifically plausible but far less satisfactory. Many stories warn of the dangers of unnaturally extending the shelf-life of our flesh and bones. The legend of the Wandering Jew, for instance, convinces us that everlasting life is a curse, a waking nightmare that results only in unfathomable despair and desperation. According to the legend, the old man scours the world seeking someone who will exchange his mortality for his cursed immortality. For two centuries now, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus has terrified readers with the personal, societal and religious implications of reanimating dead tissue. Alphaville’s 1980s anthem of youth “Forever Young” rejects the notion of immortality for its own sake:
It’s so hard to get old without a cause
I don’t want to perish like a fading horse
Youth’s like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever
Forever young, I want to be forever young
Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?
What’s the use of everlasting life, Alphaville argues, if we can’t maintain a youthful spirit? Better to die with a hopeful eye on the future than to trudge meaninglessly though eternity.
Poets routinely insist that the only fulfilling way for us to achieve immortality is through our art and innovations. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” the speaker promises a youth or possible lover that “thy eternal summer shall not fade, / … Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade.” Because he has composed the sonnet in her honor, her memory will last for as long as the poem exists: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Of course, there are just as many counterarguments to the idea that art leads to eternal life. Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” tells of a wanderer who comes across a “lifeless,” eroded statue in the desert, whose pedestal reads:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Despite the once-grandness of the statue, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Even this mysterious king’s exploits and fame – whatever they might have been – couldn’t save his memory from the ravishes of time. Not only has he died the first time but, as evidenced by the wasteland of his forgotten realm, the second time as well. American filmmaker Woody Allen echoes this sentiment: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
But the question remains — is not dying desirable?
If most of us one day have the opportunity to extend our lives indefinitely, how will that change the dynamics of society and culture? A typical person living to 80 years of age goes through several dramatic changes in his lifetime: his opinions and attitudes change, his interests, his friends, his career, sometimes even how he remembers the past. Imagine how much change would take place in a thousand years of life! You wouldn’t be a shadow of the person you once were. Some workers put in 30 or 40 years’ worth of service at a single company or organization, or work in a single industry for as many years, but how dull it would be to continue beyond that. We celebrate when couples reach fifty years of marriage, but could any of them reach 100 years? Two hundred? A thousand? A little over half of marriages end in divorce already. Would couples, knowing that they are going to live for hundreds of years, wed with the firm understanding that they will eventually split? How would immortality affect patriotism?
Let’s pretend for a moment that the Wandering Jew really exists. For close to two thousand years, he has shuffled down countless roads, cane in hand, trying to find some fool to take his place. He clearly cannot be the same person now as he was during the time of the Romans. He’s seen far too much and met far too many people to hold on to whatever prejudices he once had. What “science” he might have believed as a young man has since been obliterated. The language he spoke for centuries, Aramaic, will soon die out. His ancient brand of Jewish is no longer. He claims no country as his own. Having lived to be two thousand years old, he has seen the rise and fall of dozens of nations and empires. He has come to realize the arbitrariness and fragility of borders as well as tribal and national pride.
Leaving aside the unpleasantness of experiencing eternity as a decrepit old man and being charged with the impossible task of giving away your decripitude, what is it about immortality that attracts people so? As Caesar declares in Shakespeare’s play:
The second option to immortality involves uploading our minds onto computer servers, a solution advocated by thinkers such as Kurzweil and Dmitry Itskov. Doing so would immediately eliminate many of the problems outlined above. You need not age in a digital landscape, for one thing. And since you’re whole existence amounts to lines of computer code, you could conceivably “program” yourself to avoid feeling depression, sadness, doubt and other negative emotions.
But there are other problems in this scenario.
If we upload our minds onto computers, we can “live” for as long as we wish, or as long as the data remains properly archived and resistant to fragmentation, viruses and hacking. After all, the official Space Jam website hasn’t aged a day since it launched back in 1996. But even if every last facet of our memories, temperament, interests, dislikes and habits carry over into the merry old land of ones and zeros, are the digital copies really “us” — the essential us — or simply clever simulations? What’s lost, if anything, in the transfer from a carbon-based world to a silicon world? Perhaps the earliest available opportunities to experience immortality will be faulty and disastrous, resulting in regretfully botched versions of our psyches.
Let’s say you upload your mind today. Now there are two “yous,” the analog you and the digital you. After your analog self dies, your digital self “lives” on. It will no doubt continue to assert that it is just as “real” as you ever were because it has the same memories, the same personality, the same tics and religious beliefs and tastes in women (or men, or both). Otherwise, how can it claim to be you? One of the problems here, if indeed there is one, is that you — the meat sack version — won’t survive to enjoy the immortality you’ve passed on to this immaterial copy of yourself.
Is “good enough” simply not good enough?
We place such a high premium on authenticity. Even if the digital copy of yourself is identical in every possible way, it’s still not the “you” that emerged from your mother’s womb. The same argument can be made with regard to art forgeries, some of the best of which are sold at auction as the real deal. Shaun Greenhalgh, possibly history’s most successful art forger, was so good, he managed to dupe both casual and expert art enthusiasts for years and make close to a million pounds before being caught. Anyone who has one of his remarkably convincing pieces sitting in their house — one of his Rodin knockoffs, for instance — is reasonably entitled to tell visitors that they do indeed have a Rodin. There’s nothing about the piece that gives away its deception, other than the abstract notion of its inauthentic origin. But for most people, that’s enough. No matter what the piece looks like, either Rodin sculpted it with his own hands or he didn’t. Similarly, no matter how convincingly “real” a digital life might be, there are those who would refuse such a life because it lacks the nebulous idea of authenticity.
Of course, like Greenhalgh’s Rodin piece, and as we’ve already discussed, there’s no certifiable way to disprove that what you think is reality is actually a fraud. How do you know you’re not already living in a sophisticated computer simulation right now?
Gilgamesh and Qin Shi Huang’s quest for everlasting life might come to a close sometime this century. Before that happens, however, we must discuss the implications and consequences of a world in which death is no longer certain. Emily Dickinson, abandoning the desire to live forever, muses: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Since immortality will surely become a reality, we must reassess the sweetness in life.