This weekend, I got into an argument with Eneasz Brodski, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and David Brin about immortality. We each took a few minutes to state our position, and I prepared my remarks ahead of time, so here they are, more or less.
First, let me say that I’m all in favor of research on aging, and I think science has great potential to prolong healthy lives…and I’m all for that. But I think immortality, or even a close approximation to it, is both impossible and undesirable.
Why is it impossible? I’ll cite the laws of thermodynamics. Entropy rules. There is no escaping it. When we’re looking for ways to prolong life indefinitely, I don’t think there’s enough appreciation of the inevitability of information loss in any system in dynamic equilibrium, which is what life is — a chemical process in dynamic equilibrium. What that means is that our existence isn’t static at all, but involves constant turnover, growth, and renewal.
We already have a potent defense against death put in place by evolution: it’s called more death. That sounds contradictory, I know, but that’s the way it works. Every cell replication has a probability of corruption and error, and our defense against that is to constrain every subpopulation of cells and tissues with a limited lifespan, with replacement by a slow-growing population of stem cells (which also accumulates error, but at a slower rate). We permit virtual immortality of a lineage by periodic total resets: reproduction is a process that expands a small population of stem cells into a larger population of gametes that are then winnowed by selection to remove nonviable errors…but all of the progeny carry “errors” or differences from the parent.
In all the readings from transhumanists about immortality that I’ve read, none have adequately addressed this simple physical problem of the nature of life, and all have had a naively static view of the nature of our existence.
The undesirability of immortality derives from the proponents’ emphasis on what is good for the individual over what is good for the population. There’s a kind of selfish appeal to perpetuating oneself forever, but from the perspective of a population, such individuals have an analog: they are cancers. That’s exactly what a cancer is: a unit of the organism, a liver cell or skin cell, that has successfully shed the governors on its mortality and achieved immortality…and grows selfishly, at the expense of the organism.
Of course, it then all spun on from that and much more was said on all sides.
The transhumanists certainly had an ambitious vision for the future — they talked rather blithely about living for billions of years or more, but just their idea of individuals living for 10,000 years seemed naive and unsupportable to me. I don’t think it’s even meaningful to talk about “me”, an organic being living in a limited anthropoid form, getting translated into a “me” existing in silico with a swarm of AIs sharing my new ecosystem. That’s a transition so great that my current identity is irrelevant, so why seek to perpetuate the self?