Some Problems with Immortalism

by Ben Best

                In the Land of Oden,
                There Stands a Mountain,
                A Thousand Miles in the Air.

                Once every Million Years,
                A Little Bird comes Winging,
                To Sharpen its Beak on that Mountain.

                And when that Mountain,
                Is just a Valley,
                This to Eternity shall be...

                One Single Day.

I heard this English translation of an Austrian folksong during my second year of university, and it still strikes a deep emotional resonance within me. I have had a craving to live for eons since I was a small child, and evocations of the expanses of time draw me with a hypnotic power. Long before I heard of cryonics I had a rich fantasy life, and I would imagine myself happily surviving alone after the rest of Mankind had passed from the scene, and the planet Earth had been turned to volcanos&fire. (To see more about what the elimination of aging & death would mean to me personally, read my essay  Why Life Extension?)

Although I place no limits upon how long I want to live, I believe that there are good reasons for believing that immortalism is an unrealistic goal — and even a self-defeating goal. "Forever" is not just a long time, it is eternity and therefore beyond realistic conception. Robert Ettinger said so himself, as can be seen on page 88 of the on-line version of his book THE PROSPECT OF IMMORTALITY: "...permanent death will surely come some day, however long deferred; science can give us indefinite life, but not literal immortality, not mathematical eternity.".

There are mathematical models which can be used for calculating valuations in infinite time. Using the value of money as an analogy for the value of life provides a rough model for analyzing the discounting of future life. I would rather be given $1 today than $1 in one year's time. Similarly, the value of being alive for the next year is more important for me than the value of being alive the following year, and much more important than the value of being alive one year 100 years in the future. The present value of money can be compared with the future value of money in a choice of present money or future money — a mutually exclusive choice. But a mutually exclusive choice cannot be made with life because being alive in the future requires being alive in the present — all the more reason for placing greater value on life in the present. Discounting of future value (life) does nonetheless occur.

Let's say that being alive in 2011 is 98 % as important to me as being alive in 2010. Then I can calculate the value of immortality for me as sum of N from zero to infinity for (0.98)N=1÷(1-0.98)=50. That is, I value immortality 50 times as much as I value being alive for another year. If this seems unreasonable, then ask yourself: "Is being alive for one year at the age of 100 really as important to me as being alive for one year at the age of one thousand or one million? It must be that events far in the future, even being alive, must be of less personal significance or urgency than events in the present.

Some "immortalists" claim to not discount the future value of life. An argument can be made that death at age 1,000 is more tragic than death at age one because of the loss of experience and wisdom. But if you knew for a certainty that you were going to be obliterated without hope of further life at the age of ten million years, would that be exactly ten times more tragic than death at an age of one million?

For those who are not convinced, take an even more extreme example. A googol is 10^100 and a googolplex is 10^googol. I am skeptical that an "immortalist" really finds the prospect of living a googolplex number of years nearly a googol order of magnitude greater significance than the prospect of living a googol number of years. And a lifespan of a googolplex number of years is a drop in the ocean of Eternity. I don't believe that the prospect of living Eternally is on the same order of significance to anyone as an ocean is to a drop of water when compared to the prospect of living a googolplex number of years. But this is what the failure to discount future value would require.

Imagine the following goals:

Possible Lifespan Goals
(A)live until next year
(B)live to age 200
(C)live to age 1,000
(D)live to age one million
(E)live to age one googol

(A) may not be difficult. Going from (A) to (B) will entail a monumental breakthrough in the history of mankind. Without getting from (A) to (B) there is no hope of getting from (C) to (D) — which enormously discounts the value of putting effort into trying to figure-out how to avoid being destroyed by an unexpected supernova in 25,000 years. It is not only a waste of time, it detracts from time that could be spent on the former. Worrying about how to become "immortal" is worse than worrying about how to get from (Y) to (Z).

Excess focus on the future beyond a few hundred years is anti-survival — especially when prediction is so difficult and present barriers to living so long are so enormous. Imagine that you have a million dollars and that you are to allocate that money entirely toward ensuring your survival in any given year. If you allocate the entire million to surviving only for the coming year, chances are very good that you will survive the entire year, but maybe not so good that you will survive the following year. If you allocate one dollar per year to survive one million years you may have a hard time lasting even one year with only a dollar for food, shelter, medicine, self-defense, etc. By allocating more money to the next few decades you increase the probability that you will be able to acquire money to survive in future decades. The analogy with money should be expanded to effort & attention.

Even after ten quadrillion years, you can never know that you have achieved immortality — that would take ETERNITY. It is not possible to ever know that you can live forever. In more practical terms, smugness that immortality has been achieved can easily lead to carelessness and death more quickly than would otherwise be the case. "Eternal diligence" is a necessary, but probably not sufficient condition for immortality. In sum, it can never be known that immortality has been achieved, and the thought that immortality has been achieved is likely to hasten death by reducing diligence.

I have known an "immortalist" who argued very strenuously with me when I suggested that physical immortality is probably not possible or deserving of attention. Yet this person would not make the effort to complete cryonics paperwork — preferring philosophical questions. Although many defenders of physical immortality have indeed completed their paperwork, I still think the emphasis on physical immortality is misplaced. It is too easy to step into an open manhole by spending too much time with one's head in the clouds. Even if one's own immediate survival is not imperiled, there is a danger to others — and ultimately to oneself — of distracting attention from real & tractable problems in favor of futuristic & fanciful ones (which may be more entertaining).

Concerning priorities, I think that making cryonics arrangements — and taking steps to ensure that those arrangements are implemented — is good first aid. The combination of cryonics and anti-aging medicine are probably the greatest hope a person living today has of living to age 200. The elimination of aging & disease will probably not happen soon — but is inevitable with the advancement of technology. Therefore cryopreservation after legal death offers the best chance of being able to benefit from future rejuvenation medicine. But living 200 years is a far cry from living thousands or millions of years — much less being "immortal". For that reason, cryonics is no more the key to immortality than is heart bypass surgury — both are "heroic medicine".

It could be valuable to work on means of extending maximum lifespan, but only after adequate attention has been given to preventing death by cancer, cardiovascular disease and fatal accident. Too much focus on the former while ignoring the latter is another instance of having one's head in the clouds. A very sad example in this regard is Frank Cole, who studied anti-aging medicine, practiced calorie restriction, made cryonics arrangements, trained as an Alcor cryonics transport technician — and who was murdered in North Africa as a result of exposing himself to excessive risk by his desire to "confront death". Concern for immediate safety should be the highest priority.

Another important problem with immortalism is that it is an affront to religion. To proclaim that cryonics or anti-aging medicine are means to circumvent God's plan of death & judgement-day may be enough to incite religious passions to vehemently oppose cryonics and life-extension technologies — producing the opposite of the desired effect and perhaps leading to death. Putting life-extension on a collision-course with religion is about like wearing a "kill me" sign. Stressing life-extension rather than immortality, on the other hand, keeps the issues in the medical domain rather than the religious. Moreover, it is not an affront to religion to speak of an extended lifespan of 100 years or even 1,000 years. After all, Methuselah reportedly lived 969 years. To say that a 1,000 year lifespan is an affront to God would be to insult God (if such exists). What is 1,000 years — or even one million years — to Eternity?

The struggle to survive is difficult enough, why make it unnecessarily difficult by making enemies unnecessarily? Why make enemies of people who could be helpful? Extreme life extensionists are not all atheists, and only a tiny fraction of atheists will seriously consider cryonics. The fewer hospital staff, government adminstrators and suppliers who regard cryonicists as evil, the better our chances of success.

If human beings were free of disease & senescence the only causes of death would be accident, suicide & homicide. Under such conditions it is estimated that from a population of one billion, a 12-year-old would have a median lifespan of 1,200 years and a maximum lifespan of 25,000 years (ie, one-in-a-billion would live the maximum 25,000 years). Thus, I can say that my goal is to live to one thousand. That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to live longer, but I will remain focused on my goal. It also means that both cryonics and anti-aging science are simply extensions of medicine, rather than a challenge to religion (cryonics patients have not died, they have deanimated). In practical terms, someone who claims to be trying to extend his or her lifespan may be less likely to be snuffed-out by a fundamentalist physician than a would-be immortalist who is seen as a blasphemist.

The more cryonicists can present themselves as life-extensionists rather than immortalists, the better the chance cryonics has of being accepted (or, at least, tolerated) by medicine, by religion and by society. And the more cryonics is accepted, the better is the chance that cryonics and cryonicists can survive.

Some question that immortality may not be achievable because of such things as extinction of the sun, heat death of the universe and proton decay. I find it difficult to even take a theoretical interest in these questions. The most immediate issues for our survival are keeping alive as long as possible, the elimination of aging & disease and ensuring that cryonics can work. If these problems can be solved we will have hundreds or thousands of years to think about other threats to our existence. If they cannot, other problems are irrelevant. If I am alive in a youthful condition 200 years from now, then the most awesome problems of mortality will have been solved — and the chances of finding ways to ensure survival for another 800 years will be trivial in comparison.

There is little to be gained by worrying about circumstances beyond 1,000 years, anyway. We cannot now comprehend the conditions of life and survival a thousand years in the future anyway, so it is a waste of effort to try. The most immediate survival goals are to either live long enough to benefit from tangible reversals of aging through technology or to see reversible suspended animation of the brain. That could happen in anything from 30 to 100 years.

For those who survive the next 100 years, during which the elimination of aging is bound to occur (in my opinion), the next challenge will be to survive death-by-accident and to learn to live safely. (See my essay Causes of Death .) Close behind that danger will be death-by-murder, because the progress of science will always include the power for people to annihilate other people by increasingly sophisticated means. (See my essay Death by Murder .)

Following that problem will be self-annihilation through transformation. As people augment themselves with smart drugs, biological add-ons, computational and communications hardware, migration to other platforms, etc, they may easily lose their "self" in the process.

Although it is true that the longer we live, the more adept we become at surviving, it is also true that we only need to be a victim of murder or a fatal accident once to be obliterated forever. However small we can make the probability, with enough time a fatal event is inevitable. I don't believe in "back-ups" (see my essay The Duplicates Paradox), but even if duplication of self could increase the chance of survival, the odds of being obliterated some time in eternity are still infinitely stacked against avoiding death forever. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong — especially when there is Eternity. Things can go right a million times, but things only need go wrong once to obliterate you forever.

Some people interpret my attitude as not wanting immortality. That is a misrepresentation. My position can be described by a syllogism:

I want to live as long as possible
It is possible to live eternally (be immortal)
Therefore, I want to live eternally (be immortal)

The first statement is a statement of my values and the second statement is my appraisal of the facts. If I am correct about the facts — that it is not possible to live eternally — then the final statement cannot be true. Values are subjective, but must be based on facts. If I believed it is possible to be immortal (second statement) then it would follow that I want to be immortal. To call my position "sour grapes" is a misrepresentation. "Sour grapes" is regarding something as being undesirable because it is unattainable. I don't regard immortality as undesirable — simply unattainable. I want to live as long as possible.

I love life — I love being alive — and I want to live as long as possible. Thus, life to me at every moment has value that cannot be nullified upon my death. I place value on the the values of the moment — I am now an alive and valuing creature. When that ceases to be the case, my valuing will become "history", but will still have existed. I care about the present in the present.

I believe that after death, existence ceases. I love existing and I hate the thought of non-existence. Some people say that after death it won't matter because in non-existence there is no possibility of caring. But I don't care that I won't care (won't be able to care) after death. What matters to me is now. Valuation happens in the present. I want to live as long as possible — and I hate death and the idea of death.

Aging and death are my "mortal enemies". This being the case, you may think I would be an "immortalist", but wanting to avoid death and believing that immortality is possible are two different things. To leap immediately from the former to the latter is wishful thinking, something I try to avoid. Wishful thinking is believing which is more based on wishes rahter than on facts. Some things wished-for may be possible and others impossible — and effort must be made to determine which wishes are possible if one is to avoid living in fantasy. I believe death is inevitable, but I hope that I can avoid it for many thousands of years.

Unrelated to the desirability of living forever, however, are problems I see with "immortalists" and their attitudes — such as the longing for a belief that immortality has been attained — a belief that I believe is unattainable almost by definition — and a belief which I believe can lead to reduction of diligence and hastening of death. "Immortalists" yearn for the knowledge and certainty that "immortality" has been achieved and one can relax because the "the big worry" is over forever. Seeking this kind of certainty is a psychological quirk which is distinguishable from the actual possibility of living forever. (Of course the opposite of complacency is fatalism, which can also be an anti-survival attitude.)

Is there anything to be gained by attempting now to take take on the problems of survival beyond a millenium? Don't we have enough problems to cope with without presenting ourselves as enemies of religion? Let's concentrate of extending our lives long enough to take the next step, or there might not be a next step to take. Let's be life extensionists — trying to survive the next thousand years — rather than "immortalists".

(For a somewhat related essay of historical interest, see Egyptology, Rosicrucianism and the Quest for Immortality .)