The Immortalists - can science defeat death?
In his book Heavens on Earth, founding editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer explores humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and the quest for immortality – find out about the extraordinary people he met trying to cheat death.
Demographers estimate that before our generation roughly 100 billion people lived and died, and not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science. This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori, as medieval Christians reflected—Remember that you have to die.
Why do we have to die? Theologians and religious believers have long had a ready-made answer: death is simply a transition from this stage to the next in a cosmic proscenium. In the religious worldview death needs no explanation other than “God wills it” as part of a deific design that will be disclosed once we get to the other side, usually involving a cosmic comeuppance for one’s actions and a settling of all moral scores.
Most scientists, however, are more hardline realists about death. It is simply the result of two facts about nature: (1) the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the fact that there’s an arrow of time in our Universe that leads to entropy and the wearing down and eventual death of all systems, from stars and people to the Universe itself; (2) the logic of evolution, or the fact that natural selection created immortal genes through our offspring but mortal bodies because resources were better allocated toward future generations than keeping alive great great grandparents—we die so others may live.
In the past quarter century some of these scientists—particularly those who do not believe in an immortal soul or ethereal heaven (and, pace Woody Allen’s acerbic witticism about human immortality, don’t want to just live on through their children or their work but want to live on in their apartments)—have undertaken the grand goal of extending the human lifespan into centuries, millennia, or possibly even forever. Who are these techno-dreamers?
The goal of cryonics, in a phrase, is “freeze—wait—reanimate.” The soul in this scenario is the self as stored in memory, so the cryopreservation of memory preserves the self indefinitely until the day when medical technologies come online to reanimate it. Currently this is done through the vitrification of the brain, which involves turning the cryopreserved brain into a glass-like substance.
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Could it work? The renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, whom I queried on this matter, voiced his skepticism about the vitrification of brains: “As of today, we have no evidence that a vitrified brain can be turned on again later with all memories coming back.” Cryonics proponents point to frozen embryos being brought back to life, but a brain is many orders of magnitude larger and the freezing process shatters the neurons that hold memories, thereby erasing the self/soul. No one frozen to date will ever be brought back alive.
As the name suggests, extropians are against entropy. Given the formidable power of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which holds that the universe is in a state of entropy, these are bold thinkers indeed, with such colorful noms de plume as T.O. Tomorrow (Tom Bell), Max More (Max T. O’Connor), and Natasha Vita-More (Nancie Clark).
The goals of extropy are uplifting if not utopian: longer lives, more intelligence, greater wisdom, improved physical and mental health, and the elimination of political, economic, and cultural limits to personal development and social progress. Once these are achieved “immortality is next” they proclaim.
The problem is that our mortality appears to be programmed into every cell, organ, and system in our bodies such that immortality will require the solving of numerous problems at many levels of complexity, all at the same time. Even if we manage to break through the upper ceiling of ~125 years by solving these many problems, who knows what additional medical issues may arise that we cannot as yet conceive if we lived, say, 200 or 500 years. Instead of reaching for the utopian goal of immortality, a more modest objective of living to 150 years at a relatively high quality of living would be something well worth aiming at.
Here are some episodes of the Science Focus Podcast you might enjoy:
- Transhumanism: using technology to live forever - Mark O’Connell
- What it’s really like to die - Dr Kathryn Mannix
Transhumanists intend to transform the human condition first through lifestyle choices involving diet and exercise, then through body enhancements (e.g., breast or cochlear implants) and body parts replacements (e.g., artificial knees, hips, and hearts), then genetic engineering, all with the goal of taking control of evolution and transforming the species into something stronger, faster, sexier, healthier, and with vastly superior cognitive abilities.
One of the more intriguing Transhumanists that I met is Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, FM-2030 for short—the date of his hundredth birthday and that of the hoped-for singularity when immortality will be at hand. If you can make it to 2010, he told Larry King in a 1990 interview, you will probably survive to 2030, and “if you are around in 2030 there’s an excellent chance you can coast to immortality.”
Unfortunately, FM-2030 only made it to 2000 when he was struck down by pancreatic cancer and now resides in a vat of liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
These are scientists who want to transfer your “self” or “soul”—the pattern of information that represents your thoughts and memories as stored in the connectome of your brain—into a computer. The prophet of the singularity is Ray Kurzweil, and in the movement’s bible he authored, The Singularity is Near, he begins with what he calls “the law of accelerating returns,” which holds not just that change is accelerating, but that the rate of change is accelerating.
Moore’s Law has accurately projected the doubling rate of computer power since the 1960s. Before the Singularity, the world will have changed more in a century than it has in the previous thousand centuries. As we approach the Singularity, says Kurzweil, the world will change more in a decade than in a thousand centuries, and as the acceleration continues and we reach the Singularity the world will change more in a year than in all pre-Singularity history.
Here he is in 2016, with the full backing of the tech giant Google behind him as their director of engineering, explaining in a Playboy interview what we have to look forward to: “As they gain traction in the 2030s, nanobots in the bloodstream will destroy pathogens, remove debris, rid our bodies of clots, clogs and tumors, correct DNA errors and actually reverse the aging process.
I believe we will reach a point around 2029 when medical technologies will add one additional year every year to your life expectancy.” As the rate of progress of medical technology accelerates the years will pile up for decades, centuries, and beyond, possible to forever. At some point it will be prudent to upload your mind—your self, your soul—into a computer to avoid the problems that a biological substrate like a brain entails. When that happens humans will achieve immortality.
Can we ever be immortalists?
I’m skeptical. Evaluating these science-based immortalities comparatively, cryonics seems like a better bet than mind-uploading only because, intuitively, having my body, brain and connectome preserved, frozen, stored, defrosted, warmed, and reawakened feels more like waking up from a long sleep than does being uploaded into a computer, which would only be a copy of me, no different than a twin, and no twin looks at their sibling and thinks “there I am.”
But cryonics is such a long shot that I would opt for the extropians and transhumanists because at least they suggest a more pragmatic and incremental approach we can employ starting today—diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. So let’s continue along that path and see how far we can get.
Ultimately, however, entropy will get us in the long run, if not the short. Although diet, exercise, and lifestyle are all good things to do to lead a long healthy life, I have serious doubts that they can extend life much beyond current limit of about 125 years. When that barrier is breached—by decades or centuries—skeptics will become believers. In the meantime, whether or not there’s a hereafter, we live here and now, so we must make the most of our time by making every day, every encounter, every relationship count, for that is where the true meaning of life is found.
Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia by Michael Shermer, out now (£14.99, Robinson)
- This article was first published in February 2018