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Life is already eternal, sort of…

Rick Searle
By Rick Searle
Ethical Technology

Posted: Feb 1, 2013

What often strikes me when I put the claims of some traditionally religious people regarding “eternal life” and the stated goals of the much more recent, I suppose you could label it with the oxymoronic phrase “materialist spirituality”, next to one another is just how much of the language and fundamental assumptions regarding human immortality these very different philosophies share.

Both the traditionally religious, especially those who fall under the somewhat simplistic label of “fundamentalist” and followers of materialist spirituality, whose worldview supposedly emerges out of science, share the essential goal of the survival of the individual. The ultimate objective for, say, a Bible thumping preacher from Tennessee and a technology ensconced singularitarian from San-Francisco are the same- the escape from the seeming inevitability of death and the survival of themselves into boundless eternity. Where they differ is on how to get there.

Just like Christianity or any other religion has its sects, those who embrace the goal of individual immortality under the umbrella of materialist spirituality have their sects as well. There are “mind-uploaders” who hope to transform themselves into eternal software, and some transhumanists who wish to so revolutionize human biology, perhaps with the addition of characteristics of advanced machines, so that death itself can be put off indefinitely. There are biologically centered immortalist- such as Aubrey de Gray, who hope to find the biological triggers that result in death and permanently turn them off, and others.

The reason both some (but by no means all) traditional religions and materialist spirituality share these almost identical goals stems, I think, from the fact that they come at the world from exactly the same frame of reference- that of the individual. But one might wonder what conclusions we would draw about the meaning and fate of life and sentience in the universe were we to adopt a different frame in which our own interests were not so clearly front and center. Is there a way to look at the relationship between life, especially sentient life, and time that makes the Universe seem meaningful even in light of our own personal death, or are those of us who trust the truth of science and are at the same time skeptical of materialist spirituality condemned to the conclusion drawn by the physicist Steven Weinberg that “The More the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” ?

These questions were hitting me when I came across a book that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of immortality: Dimitar Sasselov’s The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.  I will get into the nitty gritty of the book elsewhere, but here for me was the overall point of the work, for me a very optimistic point indeed- that the Universe is very young, and life itself only a little bit younger, and that life has a very, very long time before senescence in front of it.

We tend, I think, to be overwhelmed by the shortness of our individual lives when put in the context of the deep time scales science has revealed to us. And what is my life here, indeed, but a flicker in the context of billions of years? But if we step back from our personal lives for a moment and grasp the chain of living things upon which our being here has entailed at least some of this vertigo of time can perhaps be avoided.

I myself, and you, are here as the result of a chain of life that stretches backwards almost to the very beginning of the Universe. The same root found in the beginning of life on earth 4 billion years ago can be found in our DNA today. We are the bearers of a cosmically ancient inheritance that is comparable to the age of the Universe itself. Sasselov states it in the very plain language that: “ if the Universe were a 55 year old, Life would be a 16 year old” (p. 138)

If our roots stretching back into the beginning of time is important, for me the most optimistic message of  Sasselov’s book is that the future of life, and not just life that originated on earth, stretches out even farther. Sasselov comes up with a good possible answer to Fermi’s Paradox- the fact that in conditions seemingly so ripe for life to have emerged the Universe is so damned silent. Sasselov’s theory is that the emergence of life is tied to the evolution of stars. The early Universe lacked the heavy elements that seem necessary for life, which need to be produced by long lived stars, so overtime these elements become more numerous and the types of stars that come to predominate are ones that, unlike earlier stars, readily produce a rich sea of these elements. The Universe is silent because we are likely to have been one of the very first intelligent civilizations to emerge at the beginning of this move towards the production of heavy elements- a just dawning golden age for life in the cosmos that will last at least 100 billion years into the future.

Moving away from Sasselov, the physicist, and very public atheist, Lawrence Krauss, in a friendly debate with fellow physicist Freeman Dyson seems to suggest that no complex, conscious entity in an expanding universe can be immortal given the current laws of physics. The physics are quite gnarly, but the in essence Krauss’ argument boils down to the fact that having an infinite number of “thoughts” is impossible in a Universe such as our own where the amount of energy is finite.

As is Krauss’ style, he tends to see the prospects of the impossibility for obtaining eternity, and the ultimate destiny of the Universe in a structureless heat-death in a spirit of humor charged doom.  I do not, however, find this a reason to fret even jokingly, for think of the richness of lives- the number of sentient creatures, civilizations, worlds that according to Sasselov likely lie in front of us- the unfathomable depth of all that experience! There is a lot of living left to do, but this living it isn’t just in the future for there is a depth of lived time in the present to which most of us are probably unaware. Let me explain.

Around the same time I was reading The Life of Super-Earths I came across this wonderful graph from, of all places, The Economist.

The Ages of Man

The blurb in which this graph was embedded brought attention to the potential years of wisdom available to human beings on account of both the extension of the human lifespan and the rise in population and called on us to make use of it. It pointed out that with the milestone of 7 billion people in 2011 the aggregate age of everyone alive rose to 220 billion years. By the end of the 21st century:

The world’s population will have stabilized at just over 10 billion and those people will have accumulated 430 billion years of human experience between them.

The philosophical implications of this were not explored by the Economist, but think about it for a second. The number of subjective years lived today by the only fully sentient creature we know of- ourselves- is already more than ten times the chronological age of the physical universe! By the end of the century those subjective years will have grown to be around 30 times larger than the age of the Universe.  In this sense life is not only older, but much older than the cosmos in which it swims and collectively might already be said to possess time on the scale of what any individual would consider eternity.

I think this reframing of the issue of eternity opens up deep questions that need to be addressed by those looking at immortality from a more individualistic bent. For example, perhaps the most outspoken proponent of “ending death” in a biological sense is Aubrey de Grey. In a talk at TEDMED de Grey admits the obvious- that extending the lifespan of those already alive in a world of finite resources would inevitably result in people having less children. Strangely, he seems to think that this indefinite lifespan is something we are morally obligated to make possible for the current generation and the one in the immediate future. His position seems to ignore the generations after whose potential lives might shrink to be near zero as people defray having children in order to live indefinitely. De Grey’s position seems to become even more suspect when we place it in the context of subjective time mentioned above.

Unless there is some flaw in my logic, it seems that in a Universe where life can not exist infinitely, which is what Krauss’ work shows, or in a world of finite resources if an individual (or a society) chooses to forgo having children in the name of indefinite lifespan for individuals the amount of subjective time available in the Universe as a consequence goes down. To use an extreme example: imagine a Universe with only one sentient being that lived for a very very long time- though not infinitely. Such a Universe would have experienced much less subjective experience than a large number of sentient beings that lived a briefer but rich amount of time where life as a whole lasted for an equal duration. The same would hold for a Universe in which one civilization monopolized sentience when contrasted with a Universe with a rich plurality of civilizations. Less diversity, less full existence.

This is not an argument for maximizing the number of children. For the decision to have a child represents a deeply personal choice and commitment and brings other moral factors into play not the least is the one of the quality of life for individuals and the impact of human lives on diversity elsewhere in the biosphere meaning the question of sustainability.

Yet, there would appear to be a threshold where increasing the lifespan of individuals at the cost of forgoing new lives is cosmically impoverishing. Thus, before the human immortality project can be embraced without deep moral reservations, some notion of how this project relates to the prospects for potential life in the future (extending even beyond humanity to its consequences for the life of the earth’s biosphere) need to be addressed. Collective “immortality” appears to have the moral high ground on types of immortality that are focused on individuals alone.

The stunning thing is that many of the world’s traditional religions already appear to have an intuitive sense of this collective immortality. The way to immortality for the ancient Greeks was fame in the service to one’s polis, for many of the other religions the path to immortality lies in the abandonment of the ego and the adoption of selflessness and service to others. Traditional humanists often thought of themselves as links in a great chain of poets, writers, musicians, philosophers or scientists.

For what it is worth, proponents of today’s materialist spirituality in their focus on the individual seem to have broken themselves off from this great chain of life and thought. The wonders of science may or may not someday bring us escape from individual death, but all we can reasonably do for now are things we have always done: raise our children, write a poem, discover a truth, compose a song, help a fellow human being, or preserve a political community or wilderness. In these ways we add the short time of our existence to a future of life that stretches out long in front of us in a Universe filled with a plethora of species and civilizations we can scant imagine. A world where, for all practical purposes, life and thought are indeed already, eternal.


Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.
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“Aubrey de Grey. In a talk at TEDMED de Grey admits the obvious- that extending the lifespan of those already alive in a world of finite resources would inevitably result in people having less children.”

However, there are two factors right? The future of nano-machines to turn garbage into food, etc. And then there is evidence that the universe is expanding instead of coming to a “big crunch”?

Therefore, by the the time the sun runs out of fuel and dark matter creates a big crunch, if possible, won’t we be able to come up with technologies to fix both issues? I hope so.
What do you think?


Thanks for commenting on my post, I was hoping it would have more legs.

My thoughts are that if the goal of indefinite life extension is to be seriously adopted and remain ethical we should figure out the resource question first. There are all sorts of ideas out there including nano-machines and all that meet some margin of safety should be tried, but I am a little pessimistic that we will even be able to meet the goal of sustaining the global population where it will be at the close of this century - at upwards of 10 billion- in a way that does not end up destroying the biosphere upon which we depend.  Achieving what de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity” before we clearly possess the tools at our disposal to sustain the rise in population seems much more ethically responsible both to future generations and life other than ourselves than moving at the speed of panic because of our own impending deaths.

Indeed, there is a part of me that sees de Grey’s whole logic as deeply flawed. In his talk he seemed to suggest that we needed a Manhattan type project against death, but we already spend almost 20% of our economy (and rising) trying to defeat death. We call it the Health Care System. 

Lately, I’ve been looking at some graphs relating health care spending and longevity stretching back to the 1930s and it seems that heath care spending/longevity suffer from the law of increasing marginal utility.

It seems that an increasing share of GDP is yearly taken up by health care cost while the increase in longevity remains stubbornly the same. We gained about 2 years per decade when we invested 5% of our income on health care and we gain 2 years of longevity when we invest 20% of our GDP.

This is because every time we gain 2 years gaining the next 2 is a more complex problem and harder than before. When society reaches the point where too much of its income is taken up in health care spending, the whole trend of rising longevity might grind to a halt.

When we step outside of the earth and its needs and think about the Universe I think the idea of longevity of our earthly bodies becomes moot, but the question of mind-uploading raises its head. According to Lawrence Krauss of “A Universe From Nothing” fame the Universe “ends” when the energy dissipated from the Big Bang runs its course. There is nothing outside of the Universe that we know of that could add more energy so the energy of the system is finite and winding down. The debate him and Dyson have was could an eternal mind exist in a Universe of finite energy and their conclusion was no. Based on the laws of physics that we know actual eternal life is impossible, and what I wondered was if this implied that a “person” who tried to exist forever could only do so by taking a “slot” away from any new conscious entities of the same sort because there is only a finite amount of energy to go around.

Wow… that was a long answer to your question!

Since the number of people that can exist at any one time in an immortal society (or a nearly immortal one) and a mortal one with a lifespan like the one we have today is the same, the amount of raw experience should also be the same, but the immortal society has advantages that the mortal one can never hope to match. First, the quality of experience in an immortal society should be much richer, because it could grow without the limit imposed by a limited lifespan. For instance, an immortal could read all of the books s/he likes while a mortal would never be able to. Second, the vast majority of subjective experience is lost with the death of each generation. 10 billion people living for an average of 78 years would only be able to accumulate a maximum of 780 billion years of experiences regardless of how many generations have lived while a society of 10 billion 1,000-year olds would have accumulated 10 trillion years of subjective experiences. So, while the amount of raw experience at any given time is the same between these two societies, the quality and subjective amount of experience in an immortal society should be vastly better.

Even if short lifespans would somehow create more diversity or whatever, the argument that this would be cosmically better seems too subjective. Of course, one can value maximizing the amount of diversity at the cost of one’s immortality. However, one can also value maximizing one’s lifespan at cost of creating new people. This is a value judgment and no objective reason was presented as to why one should choose one over the other.

Aubrey de Grey’s position is that we need to eliminate the suffering caused by aging for people that are alive today and those that will be born in the future. Yes, this will likely cause many potential people not to be born, but I think this is a good tradeoff due to the fact that potential people don’t suffer if they’re not born. Perhaps one can come up with hypothetical scenarios in which a high birth rate would offset the suffering of real people, but I haven’t come across any good ones.

It seems to me that predictions of the state of the universe in the very distant future based on an inadequate understanding of physics and cosmology (e.g., no one knows what most of the universe is made out of nor what kind energy is driving it’s accelerating expansion) should be taken with at least a grain of salt.

Mainstream gerontologists agree that delaying the development and progression of all age-related diseases by just a few years would save an enormous amount of money that would otherwise be spent on healthcare for the chronic diseases of the elderly. They’ve created a proposal to increase funding for aging research based on this cost savings and named it the “Longevity Dividend.” It’s not hard to image how an even larger dividend would be reaped by the healthcare system and economy as a whole if, as Aubrey de Grey advocates, all of the diseases of aging were fully prevented and cured.

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