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The Illusiveness Of Immortality

Death And Anti-Death, Volume 3: Fifty Years After Einstein, One Hundred Fifty Years After Kierkegaard

Charles Tandy, Ph.D., Editor

Volume Three ISBN-13: 978-0-9743472-6-4

Volume Three ISBN-10: 0-9743472-6-4

Distributed By Ingram


  • “Recent Developments In The Ethics, Science, And Politics Of Life-Extension” by Nick Bostrom
  • “The Illusiveness Of Immortality” by James J. Hughes
  • “Universal Superlongevity: Is It Inevitable And Is It Good?” by Mark Walker

(This is a first draft of the essay from 2004)

The Illusiveness of Immortality

The longer our lives, the more we’ll realize that there’s no “self” living them

I was slowly giving up cigarettes in graduate school. There were many days that began with my morning self optimistically thinking about the fact that I didn’t smoke much, that I would still have a low lifetime risk if I quit in my 30s, and that we were on the verge of curing cancer. So I would buy a pack and smoke one or two.

Then in the late afternoon, when my blood sugar got low, or I had been humbled in rounds of manhood-measuring with other would-be intellectual giants, I would look with disgust at the pack, think about the fact that cancer was supposed to have been cured a decade earlier, that my family was riddled with cancer, and how pissed off my wife would be if my baby daughter grew up without me. I’d crumple the pack and throw it away.

A day or two later the cycle would repeat. Sometimes by nine at night, deep into cups with my socialist comrades, I’d have another craving and look for another fix. My 9 AM self was a smoker, my 4 PM self a quitter, and my 9 PM self thought that the world was going to hell in a hand basket, so what difference did it make?

Jon Elster writes about such scenarios-the peculiarity of one part of the self trying to bind the other-as the “Ulysses dilemma.” Some of us consider our substance dependencies a peripheral element of who we are. Some could easily lose these weaknesses, neuroses and self-destructive behaviors and feel even more true to who we “really are.” Some people think that they aren’t themselves until they take their drug of choice, whether it’s a smoke, drink, Ritalin or an antipsychotic.

This situation will be exponentially complicated by the radical longevity and nano-neural technologies we will soon enjoy. These technologies will force the existential question of who we think we are inescapably upon us.

The waxing and waning of addictions and chemically assisted selfhood is just one sign to the attentive person that there will be a problem with the project of radical, posthuman life extension. Who exactly is it that will attend that cocktail party at the heat death of the Universe, the smoker or the quitter? And what relationship will he have with me?

The problem of no-self

I don’t question the goal of immortality for any of the usual reasons. I’m quite sure that it will soon be possible, and that it’s completely desirable, to extend lifespan indefinitely. I think that people with a radically long lifespan will enjoy life more, not less, than those with a shorter lifespan. I’m not worried about ennui or decrepitude or dependence on machines.

I don’t think that it’s any more neurotic or selfish to want to live 100,000 years than 70. I think that most people in the world will demand radical life extension and that it will eventually be accessible to all. We may have to make some serious alterations in capitalism along the way, but that’s another essay.

I’m not worried, as Francis Fukuyama is in Our Posthuman Future, that radical life extension will create static, fearful gerontocracies, where legions of seniors leer at the shrinking pool of sexy young. The old will be sexy and our brains will be as young as we want them to be.

As for overpopulation, we will either make more stuff or limit our fertility, and we are already doing both. Forcing untimely deaths on our grandparents will not be one of the options we turn to.

Nor do I believe most of those who say they aren’t afraid of death. If self-proclaimed death-embracers don’t get the same heart palpitations from close calls on the highway that I get then they need a prescription for Prozac. We’re all afraid of death, but some of us are just too afraid to admit it.

No, my problem with immortality is simply that I don’t exist. You don’t either. Our so-called personalities are just roiling masses of evolving impulses, memories, thoughts and sensations. There is no central chip, no core thought, no essential memory, that makes you you. The self is a constantly changing probabilistic wave function pretending to be a particle. At best, we need to pretend there is a continuous discrete self so that we can have an orderly society and an orderly life. At worst, this perceptual illusion dominates our lives and makes us miserable by constantly sucking up new “needs,” fears and neurotic attachments.

Until now, only a very few people have had the leisure or motivation to contemplate the illusory nature of the self, and to try to figure out a way to live with an awareness of “no-self.” But the prospect of nano-age affluence, nano-neural technologies and radical life extension will bring the problem of the illusory self to front and center for us all.

The post-individual age

Most immortalists and far future fiction writers imagine humans in a billion years who don’t age, who are really smart and who walk around in bodies. They may cast those bodies through cyberspace, or their bodies may be made of quantum computing devices, or they may be distributed across a cloud of nanodust, but they are still beings with the illusion of selfhood because they are embodied.

That seems a very unlikely outcome. The US Food and Drug Administration has just approved cyborg chipping of the completely paralyzed so that they can communicate with computers. This is the first step towards the breakdown of the illusion of discrete, autonomous personhood. In a century we will be able to copy, share and sell our memories, beliefs, skills and experiences. We will selectively adopt personalities for specific purposes—Machiavelli for politics, Cyrano for love.

Some people will live broadcast VoyeurLives, just as some now put VoyeurCams in their homes, and others will choose to spend a lot of time in someone else’s life—like climbing into John Malkovich’s head for weeks instead of 15 minutes at a time.

Personalities will begin to bleed and blur. We will write copious reams about the decline of the old discrete, continuous self, and the rise of the new creative, collaborative self-process. BioLuddites have already started to gnash their teeth and wear hairshirts at the prospect, as in the US President’s Council on Bioethics’ report Beyond Therapy, which bemoans the moral decadence that will follow when people can selectively erase painful memories. But no matter these desperate last-ditch jeremiads against cognitive self-determination, the technologies of nano-neural interfaces will usher in a post-individual age.

The most dramatic challenges to our social and philosophic world will probably come from hive minds and distributed selves. Hive minds are familiar from Star Trek’s Borg: People who merge their personalities, or more ominously are merged, into a collective personality. We met distributed personalities in David Brin’s recent novel Kiln People, in which each organic human begins the day by making a couple of temporary copies of herself to send out to work. Some wake up in a temporary body and know that they will be able to upload their memories back into the core personality at the end of the day. But others, the ones who work in unpleasant jobs, know that they will work for 48 hours and wink out. These disposable copies face the existential choice of serving their yesterday self, or serving their today self and just going to the beach.

Even if we never dive into a collective, or spread ourselves across a small hive of clones and bush robots, we will be in constant high-bandwidth contact with millions of other people in varying degrees of intimacy. We will sync our relevant thoughtspaces to our party, church and tribe, and share some core identity elements only with our group marriage spouses. Negotiating the degree of mental privacy required with life partners will undoubtedly be one of the most complicated hurdles in future civil union contracts.

More life, less selfishness

In that world the nature of the current illusory, constantly changing self will have been fully revealed. Greg Egan imagines in the novel Diaspora that future machine minds will be so disturbed at the prospect of radical personality drift that they will consciously lock down parts of their personality, just as we now hide key program files on our computer so we don’t accidentally erase them. But there really is no going back once you know that you could be a NASCAR fan instead of an opera fan with the flick of a switch.

There is also something profoundly troubling about people deciding that they will never change their minds. Haven’t we all vowed, “When I grow up I will never do X” only to discover that we’ve changed and those previous vows were silly? Would it be a better world if people who fell in love for the first time could lock down that feeling so that it never faded? Every time you looked at her you would feel exactly the same thing, no matter who you met or how your life circumstances changed. Wouldn’t a completely invariant core personality itself be a kind of death? Even if we try to persist with the comforting closure of a discrete, continuous self, our current binary options of death or continuing in embodied, isolated, illusory selfhood will have been replaced with myriad options more fantastic and varied than we can imagine.

This whole line of thinking is part of the “personal identity” debate and there is an enormous literature to reference, going back to Buddha, Locke and Hume. But let’s just note two of the most recent contributions. Extropian Max More wrote his dissertation on the transhumanist implications of the personal identity debate, and concluded that he thought you were still you even if you go through a radical phase transition to become a Jupiter Brain, so long as the Jupiter Brain can remember how it changed from you into it. But More is still arguing that personal identity is a real thing instead of just an arbitrary and meaningless, if legally and psychologically necessary, fiction.

Derek Parfit, on the other hand, argues in Reasons and Persons something similar to what I argue here, that the longer we live, the more tenuous the relationship our current selves will have to our future selves. One of the consequences of this view is that, to the extent that you care about future people, it makes declining sense to be selfish. If you are as likely to be similar to and part of anybody in the future, then the farther into the future that you are thinking about, the more sense it makes to create a world that’s good for everyone. You just don’t know who you’ll be.

If Parfit is right, and I think he is, the bioLuddites are dead wrong that a world of radical life extension and nano-neural technology will be a more selfish world. It will be precisely a world where technology has revealed the absurdity of selfishness, and the importance of acting in the greatest good of the greatest number.

So bring on radical life extension. It will make us all happier, better people, and we will live long enough to honestly not fear death, partly because we will know that everything we are will continue on in some form. None of us will make it to that party at the heat death of the Universe, but I think that the folks at that party will remember us fondly.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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