The Problem With Immortality

The Problem With Immortality
Photo by Matt Bennett / Unsplash
Who wants to live forever?

Freddie Mercury asked that question in 1986. Brian May penned the lamentful lyrics to Queen's popular ditty. The song formed part of a movie soundtrack. The movie was about an immortal champion who did battle with other immortal champions.

"There can only be one," they said. And that one would become all powerful and reign over the earth... as a mortal.

As you probably know the film was called Highlander and starred a half-blind Christopher Lambert.

A little before 1980s movies, Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese Emperors also dreamed of living forever. Mummification and the ingestion of toxic minerals didn't seem to work though. Maybe the high priests weren't casting the correct magic spells. Maybe mummification does work and I'm simply unable to fathom its secrets.

What if pharaohs actually did make it to the afterlife and it's so good there that they didn't want the rest of us stinking the place up?

The reason why the ancient Egyptians made mummies was pretty straightforward. They believed that death led a person to the afterlife, where he/she would lead an immortal existence. But, for this afterlife to happen, it was necessary to preserve the body of the deceased, so that the soul could identify the body that it belonged to.

I guess there's only one way for a Chinese emperor to find out if taking mercury makes you live forever...

Or maybe Qin Shi Huang could have tested it on his servants first to see if there were any detrimental short term effects before committing to the long-term plan?

In ancient China, the element mercury was believed to be an elixir of life. It is even theorized that the death of the first emperor was due to consumption of mercury in the hopes of prolonging his life.

Fast forward to the modern age and what do we have here?

Of course. What else could it be. A computer scientist (a product of our time) bringing us the latest, greatest take on the immortality shoe-shuffle as any good wizard should.

And Aubrey de grey comes fully loaded with Gandalfian druid looks and a dizzying certainty that all will be well in the future once people get on board the longevity train. Toot toot!

In a nutshell, Aubrey's shtick boils down to this...

De Grey believes that medical technology may enable human beings alive today not to die from age-related causes.

Which entails all manner of experimentation to find out which methods will actually lead to 'longevity escape velocity' as he calls it where the most successful treatments with the least amount of undesirable side effects keep death and old-age related disease at bay indefinitely for the lucky contestants.

There's just one glaring unresolved problem here. Even if any of these techniques actually worked in human subjects without too many of the aforementioned side issues (which would be an obvious deal-breaker for most and not worth the extra time gained if the penalties come thick and fast) the lucky contestants would still be considered mortal.

You see, just because you can live longer and extend your lifespan beyond the natural years granted to you by evolutionary processes doesn't mean that you can't suffer an accident and die. Solving the problem of senescence doesn't magically make you bullet proof. If anything dangerous happens to you in your daily routine you'll end up in the ground just like every living thing that ever lived.

So what do you think will happen when people live a little longer?

What happens when these test subjects live for hundreds of years in relatively good shape?

A thousand? Ten thousand? A million?

What then?

Regardless of what state of health they're in, they're going to lament (and that's the key word here) that they have to go because the timer on the clock runs out just the same as it always did and instead of being "old" and decrepit and accepting of their fate they'd be willing to do absolutely anything again and again and again every time the ride is nearing its end just to have another few years on the merry go round.

Not wanting the ride to end becomes the never-ending dilemma of the anti-aging cultists. And the longer you extend the duration of the ride, the more resources the lucky riders will dedicate to their new purpose in life. All funds will be directed towards keeping the ride going and hanging on for dear life with whatever methods get the job done.

Before you know it, the lucky contestants will be begging on their knees to the devil himself for a new body and the blood of newborns just to not have to face the uncertainty that follows physical and mental death.

Imagine living for a thousand years and then tripping and falling down some stairs. I would suggest that the longer someone lives the more careful they would have to be in everything they do.

To achieve true immortality, one would have to transition to a suitable realm where physical damage doesn't exist, in other words, the kind of heavenly environments put forth by religions where souls dwell in a state of perfection free from earthly pain and suffering.

Either that or you would have to become indestructible in this plane of existence as the process of life extension continues unabated and unchallenged by black swans and other potential forces of the unforeseen and unknowable.

The seekers of immortality that want to remain here on this planet, in this universe, well, they're going to have a challenge on their hands trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of it. At some point, they're going to come up against an even harder problem to solve and require even more resources and compute power to solve it. It may be that these soothsayers are chasing unobtainium or whatever the latest version of the Holy Grail happens to be now.

Maybe the likes of Aubrey De Grey are just hucksters, wheeling and dealing as they've always been, enticing the audience with their words and clever turns of phrase, bamboozling, conning, and raking in the government funds to pump mice full of chemicals that allegedly make them live longer but with aggression issues.

Maybe it's all just a ruse to get the punters lining up, yet again, to suck on the tit of Hopium INC. until there's barely a drop left to drink.

Who knows.

And, yet again, I have to fall back to a holding position of "I'll believe it when I see it."

And even then...

What about the long term side-effects of all these wonder treatments?

Have we learned absolutely nothing from the last debacle who's embers are still smouldering beneath the surface of everyday life ready to burst into flames again when they announce the next outbreak of deadly flying unicorns?

Is the promise of life extension, let alone immortality, just another Trojan horse, a sweet treat enticing the innocent along the path to the old witch's house in the woods?

The sweet, sweet passage of time

Things change and as we get older and wiser we tend to not pay as much attention to the changing world around us. New things can become confusing, overwhelming, and otherworldly.

Keeping up with change gets old and becomes a struggle all and of itself until older minds reject change altogether, until they long for simpler times and for things to stay the way they were.

I don't see why this would stop happening in a life extension scenario. Repetition and familiarity inevitably lead to stagnation and boredom. Imagine watching the same movie over and over again on an endless loop. The only way this could possibly work is if the lucky contestant were able to reset their brain every now and then and get to start all over again.

The passage of time can heal the deepest of wounds but nothing can replace the memory of loved ones lost. Attempting to hold on against all the odds is akin to reliving and reenacting the best of times as if, by some magic, the sensation will be like the first time all over again.


Aubrey is still giving talks about life extension twenty years later and he's looking a little worse for wear.

We're achieving robust mouse rejuvenation... allegedly. And Ray Kurzweil is dying his hair and getting facials to look youthful because obviously the enormous amount of supplements that he still takes is not really doing anything special other than give him gas.

Wisdom advises to tread carefully where soothsayers peddle their wares. Especially when the peddlers themselves don't appear to benefit at all from their own advice and continuously beg for large amounts of money to keep the dream of life extension alive.

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