Posted: Mon, May 20, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension
by Joe Bardin
As scientific advancements usher immorality into mainstream conversation, it’s clear that immortality has an image problem; we don’t know what it looks like.
The mind abhors a vacuum, tending to neutralize the unknown with variations of familiar forms, and immortality is no exception. Take the Highlander movie and television franchise, in which immortals live among humans, battling one another through the centuries, beheading rivals, raping wives, wandering the earth in an endless quest for revenge and occasionally, some measure of meaning. In other words, they act exactly like mortals, they just do it for much much longer periods of time.
Vampires, having quite a sustained moment in our culture, though often adding some flare, are hopelessly confused with their mortal counterparts as well. Who are the real bloodsuckers in our world? Who are the people that live off of the life energy of others? Everyone knows vampires in real life and they are all too mortal.
This is just the stuff of popular story telling, but comparable confusion distorts more serious contemplations of immortality. The futurist Ray Kurtzweil, among others, has proposed that the brain’s contents may be eventually “downloaded” onto some appropriate substrate that would allow us to outlive a failing body.
This perspective perceives the body as a vessel for certain contents that constitute our identity. In this case, the brain is the privileged passenger that would receive fresh transport. Not a new idea, to say the least.
In one of the original Star Trek episodes from 1966, Captain Christopher Pike, who preceded James Kirk as captain of the Enterprise, was paralyzed in a training accident and only his brain function remained in tact. He sat encased in a brainwave-operated wheelchair. Noble somehow, in his impassiveness, his only means of communicating was through a light on the chair: one flash meaning “yes” and two flashes indicating “no”.
Certainly Kurzweil would envision upgrades on the communications side, but even so, is this immortality? The cryonics organization, Alcor, which freezes corpses indefinitely in the hopes of medical resurrection, seems to think it may be. Alcor offers discrete pricing for freezing heads only.
There is a certain practicality to it; when you go on a long trip, you only want to take essentials. But what is our essence? What is the we we value enough to seek to maintain? Because how we view our immortality future-wise is inevitably founded on how we view our selves right now.
We know of course that brave, determined people have lost digits and limbs and gone on to lead admirable lives. One thinks of individuals such as former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs above the knee and his right forearm when he was just 25 years old. Also, we know that cessation of brain activity does bring about a total vegetative state.
But is our brain our essence? Is it even where we do all our thinking? Don’t hit that download button yet.
Heidegger, the philosopher who thought a lot about thinking, apparently mischievously proposed that we in fact think with our hands. Norman Mailer, in a famously chauvinistic remark, said that, “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”
These statements, however confounding, point truthfully to an experience of consciousness that extends beyond the brain as exclusive source. In his book, The Second Brain : The Scientific Basis of Gut Instinct and a Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestines, Dr. Michael D. Gershon backs it up with science. He identifies the concentration of nerve cells and neurotransmitters in the gut that signal back and forth to the brain. So that apparently even “brainy” behavior is not limited to the brain. Not to mention heart-felt passion, and beyond that, soulfulness.
That the body is primarily a vehicle for the brain, or intellect, which could live on indefinitely, is a precise analog to the religious notion of the body as vessel for the immortal soul. This concept was conceived when human beings first started longing for immortality but saw no possibility of actually realizing it. Many are still thinking from that limited mortal vantage, or as Heidegger might have put it: “The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”
What’s being missed is the qualitative shift triggered by the quantitative shift. In the absence of the single defining event in every human life, we will most certainly be redefined. Being immortal is not just a matter of having more time; it’s having no end.
In his novel, The Dying Animal, Philip Roth captures well the psychosis of mortality. The “animal” is the protagonist, a man entering late middle age, obsessed with a younger woman, yet unable to give her the intimacy she desires. It is clear that previous to becoming the dying animal of the title, he was still animal, in the sense of being entirely absorbed with his own appetites, only in his prime, and less troubled by the shortcomings of his egocentricism.
Contemporary novelists have been particularly vigorous about exposing the animal man for what he is, but resolutely offer no vision moving forward, implying that that such thinking is mere old-fashioned delusion. This is the myopia of our current evolutionary moment. We’re advanced enough to recognize how degraded we are, but too primitive yet to see what we might become.
Is it possible that mortality—the life and lifestyle of dying—is the source of all the degradation? This would handily explain the ubiquity of evil and its virus-like resistance to all kinds of human improvement thought to potentially eradicate it, including education, prosperity, religious faith and psychological treatment. No advancement so far can creditably be shown to stop human-on-human abuse, so it’s obviously something we haven’t tried yet.
Could it be that the person who is no longer limited by an all too brief lifespan, cursed by the inevitable loss of all those he loves, and haunted by his own ultimate disposability, might very well be able to actually fulfill the dictum “love thy neighbor as thyself”? No one else has.
It’s a lot to think about, and many would rather not. I was opening a new account at a Wells Fargo bank one Monday some months back, and while she was processing my request, the banker asked me if I had done anything interesting over the weekend. I told her, in fact yes, I had attended an event on physical immortality put on by People Unlimited. She barely looked up from her monitor and proceeded to tell me about her trip to Disney Land. It might have just been her, of course, a bland banker type, practiced in small talk.
At a happy hour cocktail hosted by an interactive company I write for in downtown Phoenix, a PR person asked me what had brought me to the area. It was a common enough question in our city where many are from somewhere else. But when I told her it was to participate in a community about physical immortality, known as People Unlimited, she blinked non-responsively, something like a PC freezing up. Her peaches and cream complexion went chalk white and she looked like she would literally swoon, which I did not think women did anymore.
In college I’d learned that when the Irish poet WB Yeats would read his popular poem Lake Isle of Inisfree, some women would respond in like manner, swooning, apparently with the underlying sensuality of the poem. It was explained that it had to do with repressed feelings being stirred up among the ladies who lunch of the Irish Revival. Can a similar repression of immortal feelings be at work today?
We tend to view immortality as the elusive object of a desperate hunt—Ponce de Leon hacking his way through the Florida Everglades in search of the Fountain of Youth. Or, in a updated version, scientists in Boston laboratories laboring to develop age-defying therapies. But is it possible that immortality is in fact pursuing us, bubbling up in our minds from some deep unconscious source?
Consciously, we long ago allotted immortality to the gods. But technology is challenging the old arrangement, eroding their domain. Air flight and then space flight have forced heaven to relocate into further and more obscure ex-burbs of the mind. In 1945, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atom bomb brought the incineration of civilization as a whole into the range of possibility. Previously, as in the biblical story of Noah and the flood, we imagined such destructive power to belong only to a god; now man had become his own God of Death.
We’ve also been forced to reconsider our place in creation. Scientists working with genome level medicine, stem cell therapies and nano technology are postulating the potential end to life-threatening disease. In the meantime, spectacular capabilities such organ transplants and advanced drugs intervening to save lives to an extent never before possible; we are becoming our own Gods of Life as well.
Having, perhaps unwittingly, unseated our own deities, who are the immortals now?
As evolving, carbon-based life forms, we cannot expect to alter our conditions to such a profound degree, without triggering some internal adaptation of equal magnitude. We are impacted by our technological advancement not just socially and politically, but biologically as well.
In the last hundred years, we’ve seen new modes of transportation collapse time and distance, from horse and covered wagon, to jet air travel. With the advent of television and now the Internet, the immediacy of information has further bent time in our favor; we hardly have to wait to know anything.
In physics, we see whole new ways of viewing our universe; in medicine, whole new avenues to health; in economics, globalization is the new marketplace; in the consumer experience, the total convergence of technologies is imminent. Each of these, as well as other factors, has transformative impact within their distinct sphere’s of influence. But what is their cumulative impact? What is our organic evolutionary response to all this change?
The narrative of every religion calls for biological immortality at some future dispensation. Priests of these traditions will be the least likely to acknowledge that their prophecies are being realized; they don’t want to see that bond mature because the payout will bankrupt them. But (perhaps because we’re so busy looking behind us for our bearings) the future has a way of sneaking up on us. Our very evolutionary nature demands a biological response to our fundamentally new external conditions. That response may very well be physical immortality. No matter what it looks like.