Mom and Dad Red were watching a documentary about the Amur River the other night. I was listening with half an ear, trying not to add commentary, and reading a book about a different Chinese river. One of the commercials was an advertisement for a program about what if humans could eliminate all the things that keep us from having physical immortality. My first reaction was to mutter, “I’ve read that book. It was depressing.” My second was to recoil from the mindset that would find physical immortality so desirable. Because to me it suggests a world that gives up on the idea of an eternity, and focuses on the material alone. We’ve seen that. It gets ugly, very quickly.
What do I mean? Marxism and its derivative ideas and their application, among others. To an extent, I would also point to Europe after WWII, although there are so many other elements there that trying to unpick everything would take the rest of the year, assuming I wanted to delve that deeply into the literature.
Let us assume that humans give up on the idea of an eternity after death, so that the physical world is the be-all and end-all of existence. If so, perfecting the physical machine and extending life as long as possible makes sense. What costs that would entail in terms of medical technology and resources will be ignored for now, and I am going to assume that the TV program described above focuses on biological eternal life, not transplanting minds into mechanical bodies (see the Cybermen from Doctor Who for one highly negative take on that idea.)
If humans live forever, why have children? OK, let’s posit that accidents still happen, people still have “Hold my beer and watch this!” impulses and a certain level of reproduction is necessary for population stability. So a few children are needed/ permitted each year for population maintenance. Since the physical world is paramount, and physical comfort, that would mean (per some current thinkers) limiting human populations in order for everyone to have sufficient access to resources and standards of living while keeping the physical and biological environment at a certain level. If that is true, then for most of the population, there’s no point in raising a family, so why have settled, stable relationships that are protected and encouraged by the state or religion? Aside from property considerations, and possibly business alliances, why not spread one’s favors freely and sample freely? Why be stuck with one partner forever?
And why believe in a deity, particularly one that determines one’s after-death existence? If humans no longer die, what’s the point? Who needs G-d? Who needs those cathedrals and temples and religious festivals, other than for the entertainment and quaint local culture? The material is the most important thing, and with physical immortality, why bother with spiritual things? Oh probably a few will cling to superstition and “faith” for family reasons, or as a security blanket, or because it will be intermittently trendy, but organized religion as it is currently practiced? I’d suspect something like Daoism or Confucianism, with a focus on harmony in society and individual spiritual development and contentment with the world will be encouraged, but not Christianity or traditional Hinduism or Islam. I am not optimistic about the peace and harmony of societies without the moral checks and encouragements for good behavior to others that are found in many religions.
Everyone, since they live forever, will have all the time in the world to read everything, to learn any skill they desire, to go anywhere, to see everything, to go on adventures. What happens when the thrill wears off? How many sunrises from the top of Mt. Everest, or wildebeest migrations across the grasslands of Africa, or tropical sunsets will it take before it becomes just another thing to check off the list? You’ve seen all the great museums at least twice. Now what? You’ve mastered every musical instrument. And?
I would suspect that thrill seeking would increase, and the use of psychoactive drugs, in order to get a unique experience. After all, modern medicine can save you from whatever bad might happen.
Eventually, I wonder if we’d lose what makes us human. Unless we could go to the stars, perhaps. I recall an otherwise depressing YA sci-fi book where the ability to live forever was discovered. The process killed creativity, so in order to keep new ideas, new music and dance and writing and engineering going, some people chose mortality. Other people hated that mortals still existed, and tried to exterminate them. In the end, a group of mortals, and a few of their immortal supporters and defenders, left our solar system forever, looking for new worlds and a new future.
Perhaps I’m strange [perhaps? Ed-.], or because I spend so much time inside the heads of characters who know all too well that they are mortal and that life can end at any instant, but the prospect of human physical immortality scares me a little. Not just because of reading “too many” sci-fi books and fantasies where the price of living forever is really high for those around the immortals, but because it eliminates the spiritual aspect of life, and the drive to do, to learn, to live because this life is fleeting. Snowflakes and sunsets and perfect spring afternoons are to be treasured because they disappear, and we know they will disappear. To quote from Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes,”
“The year’s at the spring/the day’s at the morn.
The morning’s at seven/ the hillside dew-pearled.
The lark’s on the wing and the snail’s on the thorn,
God’s in His heaven,/All’s right with the world.”
If we live forever in a physical body, there will be another perfect morning at some point, so why bother cherishing this one? Why give thanks to the universe, to the deity, that made this moment? Why believe and hope for, or fear, an afterlife and the just deity who presides over it? Who bother with trying to be more than animal, why subdue our passions and delay gratification if a comfortable material existence is the whole point of living?
And what kind of state will it take to guarantee that comfortable material existence? Materialist states have thus far been disasters for humans, with over 100,000,000 deaths to their credit, and probably more (North Korea? The PRC since 1980?) What will people agree to endure for the sake of their physical body surviving forever?
I’m not a fan of death. Various parts of my anatomy seem to enjoy reminding me that I’m not getting younger, and neither am I still 18, or 35.* My parents, my cat, my friends, are all getting older and growing closer to that “good night.” I’ve already lost friends and family to age, illness, and accident. But how much richer is human society when we look for eternity, when we yearn for spiritual immortality, and pour our hearts and souls into the pursuit? How many years of life is the “Eroica Symphony” worth, or Mozart’s “Requiem,” or Jan van Eyche’s paintings, or the Blue Mosque, or the cathedral of Sienna, or ?
Physical immortality may come with prices we cannot pay without losing a lot of the traits and ideas that make us humans, that make us beings of spirit as well as of flesh. I have strong reservations about the benefits being worth that cost, at least based on what history and current events reveal.
*35 was a good age. I was old enough to know better, young enough to be fit enough to do a lot of things, and only my knee and hip irritated me on occasion. Clothes sizes had not started getting strange. Av-gas still cost less than $4.00/gallon. And I was 15 pounds lighter, but we won’t talk about that.