Imagine you wake up in a room with no doors and no windows. You are lying on a stone slab of a bed that meets the floor seamlessly. The room appears to be carved out of a single piece of stone that looks like granite. The room is quite large, many hundreds of feet long and about twenty feet high. An eerie glow emanates from the stone, in a manner that appears to defy your understanding of light and electricity.
As you stand up and explore the room’s contours, you grow increasingly alarmed about your predicament, realizing that there appears to be no way for air to circulate from outside into the room. How on earth did you get in here and, more importantly, how do you get out before your oxygen runs out?
Hold that thought.
Who wouldn’t want to live forever? Who would?
This is largely an academic debate for now, but perhaps not for long. We seem to be at a point in our technological and medical knowledge where some type of physical immortality may become possible in a couple of decades or so. But there are many paths to immortality, some of which are here now.
Pondering immortality raises the question: “Immortality of what?” What exactly are we suggesting will become immortal? Generally, these kinds of discussions assume that we mean immortality of our bodies, brains, and the minds contained therein. This combination of body, brain, and mind is what we refer to as our “self.” And the self, our identity, is what we are talking about when we talk about immortality.
With our dramatically-improved medical understanding of the human body, the most substantial improvement possible today may simply be extending our lives by a number of years. Extension is not immortality, but it’s an important step in that direction. In Longevity Made Simple, two medical doctors, Richard J. Flanigan and Kate Flanigan Sawyer, discuss how practices available today can add 20 good years to our lives. These are mostly common-sense solutions, but the authors back up their recommendations with hard science, discussing which solutions really do seem to make a difference. Their top recommendations include: exercise, quitting smoking, avoiding fatty and processed foods, sleeping well, enjoying good relationships and sex, and drinking alcohol and green tea in moderation.
But let’s look beyond “mere” life extension. Other thinkers have suggested we can do much better. “Biological immortality” refers to extending the life of our bodies and brains potentially indefinitely. We can never know, of course, if such an approach would lead to true immortality, but as long as we keep on keepin’ on, with bodies and minds intact, this path could certainly be called “true” immortality.
Scientists at the Harvard Medical School announced recently that they had succeeded in prematurely aging lab mice – and then turning back the clock on aging – with various substances that affect cells’ ability to reproduce accurately. If what they achieved with mice is replicable in humans, it would be like aging from 20 to 80 and then back again, all through the use of various medications. This is very exciting science and highly suggestive that we’re onto something in terms of potential human biological life extension.
Ray Kurzweil, in his amazing book, The Singularity Is Near, and his more recent book, TRANSCEND, has suggested that medical science, aided strongly by exponential growth in computing power (Moore’s Law), will in the next couple of decades provide us with ways to become biologically immortal if we wish. He argues that all we have to do “is live long enough to live forever” – that is, until 2025 or so – because ours is the first generation that will be able to take advantage of medical science to become immortal.
Aubrey de Gray agrees generally with Kurzweil’s optimistic approach in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. De Gray, a colorful character with an incredibly long beard and a lisp, focuses in his research on how to stay healthy far longer than is now possible. He argues that avoiding sickness and staying young is simply more fun than the alternative of traditional aging!
But these authors are certainly in the minority of scientists and futurists and the fact that Kurzweil personally takes about 250 pills a day to maintain his health, and the fact that he sells supplements online, casts a shadow on the reasonableness or practicality of his views. Most scientists in this field seem to think that anything approaching immortality will elude us for a lot longer than 20 years, and possibly forever, simply because human biology is far more complex than we realize even now. What took almost four billion years to come into being cannot be understood in full in the matter of a few decades of modern medical research. Time will tell who’s right regarding biological immortality.
What about fame as immortality? There is a venerable tradition of seeking personal fame as a way to immortality of … something. This requires that we think back to what constitutes our “self.” If our self is indeed comprised of our bodies, brains, and minds, then fame is no antidote to death. However, there is a decent argument that a self consists of something different than just a body and brain. If we instead look to our personality as the essential feature of who we are, fame may indeed lead to immortality. By “personality,” I mean the sum total of what we leave behind us in terms of images, writings, things we’ve said to everyone we’ve met and thus the sum total of the impressions we leave behind in those who are still living, in a biological sense.
If we define self as personality, in this manner, then by definition our self is immortal as long as some impression of us during our biological life remains among those who are still biologically alive.
This may have been good enough for the likes of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, but this is a thin type of immortality for most of us who rather like the biological aspects of self. Is there a middle ground?
What I call “robot immortality” offers a potential middle ground. We can’t entirely dismiss the notion of fame/personality immortality. It is clear that the residue we leave in other minds and in physical artifacts like books, photos, movies, etc., is indeed part of who we are. But fame immortality doesn’t allow for the continuation of an active agent (me, you), which is rightly thought to be pretty important to the idea of self!
Kurzweil and others also discuss the possibility of humans becoming part or wholly machine at some point in the not-too-distant future. There is of course a long sci-fi tradition of cyborgs, androids, and robots, but Kurzweil suggests that these sci-fi speculations may soon become reality as we learn how to meld our bodies with computers. And over time, our bodies may become wholly machine – that is, we may become robots.
We are already at the point where computers can literally read minds. There are even some popular games that use electrodes on the surface of the skin to allow players to manipulate balls through mazes, etc. (though there is some controversy about how much these early-stage games are pre-programmed and how much they depend on measuring actual brain waves). Less controversially, there are now many artificial sensory devices available, such as an “eye” that actually uses one’s tongue as a rudimentary retina. It is clear, then, that we are at the point where artificially interfacing between mind and environment is no longer just sci-fi.
Where do we go from here? Kurzweil speculates that we will be able to shift our consciousness over time to a robot/computer substrate that will be just as much the person it began as in biological form. And since robots can be repaired or replaced as they wear out, this could be a true path to immortality – if we accept that what a robot/computer contains could rightly be called a self.
This prompts a deeper examination of what “self” is. I have suggested above that self is a combination of body, brain, and mind. I’ve also suggested that personality, as captured in the artifacts and memories we leave as we move through the world, is part of self. But what is the essential self, the part of each of us that we will always be able to recognize as the individual in question?
This is a question that has been pondered for millennia in East and West. Buddhism is well-known for its central doctrine of “no-self.” What does this mean? In brief, it means that there is no permanent self, no intrinsic self that exists independently of other beings and things.
Indeed, if we are asked to list all the things that make us who we are we see quickly that not a single item is permanent. Our bodies change over time and the molecules that comprise our bodies are entirely replaced every few years. Our personalities change, our values change, our preferences change, and of course our history changes in every second that we are alive. Our names can appear to be permanent, but this is a small hook to hang a self on when we consider that it can be changed with the stroke of a pen or through a personal decision to use a different name. It seems that the Buddha may have got this one right.
But what about the soul? Isn’t this the permanent essence of who we are? And isn’t this why any notion of a robotic future self fails to capture what makes us human?
There is no definitive answer on this issue. But it seems very unlikely that there is an immaterial thing that forever remains unchanged – the essential soul. This is the case because we must first ponder what exactly it is about a soul that is essential and unchanging. I don’t accept automatically that because modern science has ruled out the soul that it doesn’t exist. But if our soul includes our personality and our history as a human being, as most notions of the soul do, then the soul must indeed change – or else it couldn’t contain the changes that happen to us as we live our lives.
I won’t be able to resolve this issue in a short essay, of course, and it is certainly not rational to rule out entirely the existence of an essential soul. We never know the full extent of what we don’t know. Nevertheless, it does seem unlikely that there is an essential soul, given what we know now about the natural world, human psychology, and biology.
If there is indeed no permanent self, then robotic immortality presents a real alternative. If I am, 100 years from now, contained in a robot/computer substrate and there is no longer any trace of my current biological self, that Tam Hunt will have just as much right to call itself Tam Hunt as I do currently. This issue has been a standard philosophical debate for years, usually framed something like: “If doctors replaced your brain one neuron at a time with an exact artificial replica, at what point do you stop being you?” (For more permutations on this question than you probably care to ponder, see Derek Parfitt’s Reasons and Persons.) Under the ideas I’ve outlined here, the answer is easy: You don’t stop being you. And this is because “you” are simply a constantly changing pattern of awareness or information contained in some physical substrate. And as the pattern that is you changes over time from a biological being to a robotic being, it remains you each step of the journey.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what one’s physical substrate is because each of us is comprised of a relatively stable pattern of information/awareness/energy and this pattern can be maintained in various physical substrates. The idea of robotic immortality is highly unsatisfying to many people, however, because there is a reasonable attachment to our biological forms!
But there is yet another way that true immortality can be reached. This last path to immortality is in my view the most promising and the most genuine. There has been a long debate between Buddhism and Hinduism over the “no-self” doctrine. Hindus, particularly the Advaita Vedanta school, argue that what we normally call the self is just the “little self” and that it isn’t fundamentally real. So Hindus agree with Buddhists that the little self is at least partially illusory. The real Self, however, is everything for Hindus.
There is no real separation between what we normally call our self (the little self) and the rest of the universe, the Self. There is an apparent separation, to be sure. But this is only apparent and when we delve deeper than appearances. We realize that it is impossible to extricate our “self” from the universe because no matter how hard we try there remains some tendril of connection – this is what it means to exist in the universe. And if we can’t separate our self from the rest of the universe, we are part and parcel of that universe. It’s all just one thing: Self with a capital S.
This Self, also known as Brahman, is our true identity. When we wake up to our true Self, we realize that we are and always have been the entire universe. And the universe never dies. You, me, we, all of humanity, are in this view of reality immortal. And we don’t even have to realize it consciously to make it true. We are immortal whether we realize it or not. But it helps for personal happiness, in the realm of appearances, to realize this truth.
The concept of Brahman/Self is particularly compelling to me because it is undeniable that all things are connected to varying degrees. And the more we learn about the physical world, the more science confirms this truth. Quantum entanglement, for example, is the latest phenomenon that confirms that things are connected in ways previously deemed impossible. And who knows what else we will discover in coming decades.
You have probably forgotten the riddle that I began this essay with. The answer to the riddle is this: “You” escape the windowless and doorless room by realizing that you are the room, you are the planet, you are the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. If you are the universe, you never die.