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Why not immortality?

After my last video about the potential use of technology to ensure human immortality, there were some people who offered their views on why this might not be such a good idea.

A few of them pointed out that literal immortality may not actually be possible, and for reasons of cosmology, thermodynamics, and so on, we would never really get to live forever. And that might be so. But does it mean we shouldn’t even try? Even if we can’t live forever, we could live for a much longer time. If that’s not worth pursuing because we’ll still have to die eventually, then why don’t we all just kill ourselves right now? We may not be able to eliminate all potential causes of death, but we might be able to eliminate some, possibly even many. This is something that we’ve always tried to do. Isn’t that still worth working towards?

Others claimed that wanting to avoid death is somehow just like religion. Really? How is it like religion? Just because a belief system that’s rooted in mythology happens to incorporate an entirely fictional kind of immortality, it doesn’t mean the very notion of it is irrevocably tainted. Simply not wanting to die isn’t something that must be inherently entangled with religion, and in this case, religion plays no part whatsoever. This is a response to having confronted the natural world as it is.

I know that when I die, it is not a recoverable state. I know that when other people die, they are not being kept in a holding area in the upper atmosphere or the core of the earth waiting to be reunited with me. Death is real and permanent. And once we recognize this, the question is: what are we going to do about it? There are no saviors here. There is no eternal life after we die. There is only our own ingenuity, and the hope of applying our skills within the confines of the natural world to find a real solution to death. Magic is not science, and faith is not an answer.

Some have said that even if immortality was possible, only the wealthy would have access to it, and everyone else would be left out. And while that’s certainly not the best outcome, this doesn’t seem like a reason not to make an effort anyway. Every new technological development comes with issues of it not being available to everyone. Does that mean there should be a moratorium on new technology until everyone has equal access?

We don’t usually respond to this by denying the fruits of technology to anyone, just because everyone doesn’t have it yet. Instead, we do our best to make it available to as many people as possible, including the less well-off. If we were to refrain from any technological development just because it wouldn’t be accessible to everyone at first, many people would be much worse off than they are now.

Others said that if people no longer die, then biological evolution would cease to take place among humans. First of all, we don’t know if this would actually happen. People who live forever might still have offspring. But even if this is the result of immortality, is that a problem? Is there any particular reason that the evolution of humans has to continue in this way? Is the ongoing progress of evolution some kind of moral imperative that we’re beholden to?

Just because it happens naturally doesn’t mean we’re in any way obligated to ensure that it continues. And insofar as evolution works to produce organisms that are better adapted to survive in their environment, keeping people from dying would go a long way towards achieving that. We’ve already found ways of making sure that people don’t die when they otherwise would have, as well as ways for people to reproduce when they otherwise couldn’t. Our minds are just as much a product of evolution as anything else. Are we not supposed to put them to use in this manner?

Some people claimed that anyone seeking immortality is just afraid of dying – with the implication that we shouldn’t be. But why not? While it’s certainly not helpful to suffer from crippling anxiety about mortality while it’s still limiting the time we have to enjoy life, why shouldn’t we want to avoid death nonetheless?

Believe it or not, there are actually a lot of people who don’t want to die. I hadn’t expected that this would be a point of contention, considering that people generally do try not to die. Is it really that hard to believe that many of us do enjoy our lives, and would like to be able to continue enjoying life for as long as possible? And if it’s possible for us not to die, why would there be anything wrong with that? If you yourself don’t actually fear death, then that’s your perspective, and you’re certainly entitled to it. But this isn’t generalizable to the class of all humans.

Others claimed that wanting to live indefinitely is somehow selfish. But is it selfish to simply not want to die when you potentially wouldn’t even have to? Should we be restricted to a fixed allotment of time, as if anything beyond that means taking more than our fair share? This doesn’t have to be zero-sum. We could all live longer – potentially much longer – without it taking anything away from others. And even if you still think it is “selfish”, this doesn’t mean anyone should have to die when they otherwise wouldn’t need to, just for being selfish.

Some people brought up the possibility that social progress would be slowed or halted when older generations no longer die off, because they would be less likely to change their views over time. And while that might be an issue, there are probably better ways of addressing this than requiring death. The greater ease of social change is often considered a positive side effect of older people dying, but if they were never going to die, this may not be a sufficiently compelling reason to force them to.

There are other tactics available that could be tried first, like persuasion. But even if some of them can’t be persuaded to agree with you, does that mean they should then have to die? Killing people who disagree with you is indeed a method of bringing about social change. But most of us tend to frown on that. If our current optimum solution to this requires for people to die, I’m not sure we’ve brought our best efforts to bear on the problem.

Finally, many people insisted that overpopulation would still be an issue. For the sake of brevity, I addressed this in my last video by handwaving it away. My real answer is: I don’t know. And that’s the best answer I have right now, because I’m one person who is certainly not the smartest person in the world, and at present, there already aren’t too many good options for dealing with this. When people suggest a reduction in the global birth rate, this is usually received poorly and considered somewhat totalitarian. Intentionally killing off a significant portion of the population, even moreso. And doing nothing about the problem is just negligent.

So in all honesty, I probably won’t be able to offer a solution here. And when it comes to something like technological immortality, I especially don’t know how it’s going to end up. I can’t tell you what kind of changes will bring about the eradication of death, nor do I know how this will specifically affect things like reproduction, resource consumption, the kinds of environments that will be habitable for us, and so on. There are too many unknowns here to articulate a fully developed answer yet.

I could tell you that we’ll all move to outer space, or the oceans, or we’ll all shrink ourselves, or upload our minds to computers. Or maybe there will just be medical therapies that prevent aging and all other diseases while changing nothing else. But I don’t know that, so it’s hard to work out how the effects of this should be dealt with.

The problem with citing overpopulation as an objection to immortality is that it means preemptively concluding that this is a problem that can’t be dealt with, even given an indefinite lifespan to work on it. And we certainly don’t know that, either. What I do know is that these are not reasons to avoid trying at all, nor are they sufficient to mandate death for every person ever when this could have been avoided. Wouldn’t it be better to work towards immortality and the possibility that this is something we can learn to live with, instead of never having the chance to find out?