Printed: 2017-12-12

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/nichols20141225

An Interview with David Alvarado from ‘The Immortalists’

Alex Nichols


Ethical Technology




December 25, 2014

The Immortalists is a film following the lives of two scientists, Aubrey De Grey and Bill Andrews, on their scientific quest to end aging. With the visionary goals set out by the two scientists, they are accompanied by directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado who masterfully unveil layers of sensitive philosophical issues surrounding death, existentialism, and our global focuses as a species. The film is a must see for those inclined to explore how these themes tie into aging. Below is an interview with David that covers some film specific questions, with an emphasis on the broader scope of some Transhumanist aims.

Alex:

There are a number of critiques of Transhumanism that state it is a luxury enterprise for for 1% of the population. Your film depicts some alternative perspectives arguing that we ought to focus on issues like: food supply shortages, abundance of natural resources, fixing education and poverty in least developed countries, and other related global focuses that need immediate attention. Once those are conquered, finding the cure to aging would merit more attention. What are your thoughts on this and where might you see Bill or Aubrey’s visions fitting into that 1% argument?

David:

That is one of the great problems we tackle in the film. How do these scientists accomplish this 'superficial' goal that has seemed to mostly cater to wealthy people. When someone brings that question up, I would say as an example, that we are also expending more money on cancer research than feeding the impoverished people in some parts of Africa. I think it is a valid point, but as well, we could argue to divert some cancer research funds for those who can afford healthcare and place it towards those in Africa starving for food. At the same time, I think a majority of people might find it distasteful to redirect such funds. Imagining a world where these future technologies (e.g. ending or prolonging aging) become an existence, I think we will mirror issues we already have like too much money on cancer research and not well distributed elsewhere.

Alex:

That's an interesting point, I actually didn't know that bit about the money that goes into cancer research?

David:

I'd actually have to check my numbers on that, but the US government has had a war on cancer since the 1970’s when Nixon became president. It has been a huge amount of energy, it’s been publicized, and it is worth noting that at the same time we haven't made it a part of the national agenda to end poverty in certain countries that would probably be pretty cheap compared to the cost of all these funds focusing on cancer research.

Alex:

A number of Transhumanists have a pattern of utilizing some fantastic terminology to describe the views and aims of their envisioned future. I think the intentions are good, but some terms might derail the idea of simply ‘living as long as we want’, compared to saying “living forever”. Do you think more caution should be incorporated into the Transhumanist movement to refrain from using vocabulary often found in religious views (who, perhaps ironically, many Transhumanists openly criticize) encompassing terms like: eternity, afterlife, immortality, God..etc?

David:

I think people should make efforts to be educated on what information they are consuming and from where. It is important for me to have an expectation for how scientists discuss topics like longevity. For example, if scientists used a word like ‘immortality’ to describe what they are doing they would need to do it in a scientific sense. Whereas if a poet or a musician uses this term to describe something, people should be aware of the information, context, and entertainment they are consuming in this case.

When we were conceiving the title of this film, there were a lot of ideas going around, and we finally chose ‘The Immortalists’ to be fitting and true in a poetic sense across human history. The classic example of the quest of gilgamesh and his quest for immortality. Gilgamesh is one of the oldest stories we've ever found written down. It is appealing that in the story, King Uruk found that death was unacceptable in his life, so he searched for a way to avoid it. With us, using 'immortality' in our film was hopefully not taken as a scientific and literal explanation, but rather, a representation of something very human in this age old quest to find out if death is really inevitable.

Alex:

I like that explanation very much as I see where some other concepts or views of the world might encompass similar language in using words like ‘immortality’ yet perhaps not carried the scientific merit to bring us closer to actualizing the word. For instance, some scientific endeavors literalized words like ‘mind expanding’, such as in the birth of the internet.

​David:

Yeah exactly! The Transhumanist community is a particular segment of intellectualism I guess, and Jason and I don't really identify as Transhumanists. We became interested in looking from the outside in. We are just filmmakers looking to tell a cool story about what is on the fringe of science and if this kind of vision would be good for people or the world. We hope that this will spark these questions in our audience’s minds.

Alex:

There is a great thought experiment posited by Alan Watts. In it, he effectively creates a scenario where we could go to bed at night and dream any dream. We could live all the lives we wanted, go back in time, become Gods, rescue princesses from dragons…etc. Eventually, Watts states we will become bored, and thus, find the need to invent a ‘surprise button’ - which is the life we could be living now. Have you heard of this and how do you think this philosophy fits into some of the aims of Transhumanism?

(As well, there are theories in physics that propose the world as a series of simulations, or ‘simulation theory’. Whereby, once we create a reality indiscernible from this one, who is to say we haven’t already done that and are simply adding layers to a loop we’ve created in some envisioned past.)

David:

I'd never heard of it until you brought it up, although I know a bit about Alan Watts. I love the idea, and that would certainly explain a lot. As an empiricist, I have trouble accepting that the best solution is 'this is how the world is/could be like'. At the same time, It is a valid logical problem and I am really fascinated with that idea. I'm glad you brought it up!

Alex:

Yeah it is a cool thought experiment, albeit a bit unsettling. My last question to you:

There seems to be a great deal of attention and momentum accumulating in yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. It seems to be a valued exercise in working on how to be ‘present’. Similar to the previous question, do you fear that Transhumanists will always be pushing the goal post just out of arm's reach so that we are perpetually chasing a future that is yet to come? Moreover, will we always be creating goals that embody an anticipated happiness, suspending us from exploring what it means to be happy in the present?

David:

That is an interesting idea. I've met some Transhumanists along the way who are perhaps too fixated on the future, and this removes them from living fully in the present. Like anything else, I think it is good to have a balance as the blade can cut both ways. I would argue most of us lack focus on the future and pay attention only to the present.

The reason we can lack focus on the future is apparent all around us. For example, the rate of pollution and our role in causing climate change issues. As a society our trend seems to not care much about the future past our own children. So when you start to think about what the world will be like for our great great grandchildren, I don't think we are putting enough into our public policies and our day to day issues as people. I think the Transhumanists have a good reason to feel like they are very mindful about the distant future, at the length of time that matters to us not just presently, but as a species.

Alex:

Great point. We can push so much value on being present that in all of its potential enjoyment, we might forget that if everybody adopts this mindset, we might not see past the immediate pleasures on this horizon.

David:

This is bringing to mind a great foundation, the Long Now Foundation. It’s a good example of people who have taken the important ideas from futurists and Transhumanists, and made it more palatable for mainstream.

Alex:

Thank so much for the time David, that concludes the questions I had! Where can people view the film?

David:

It is in theatres now and will be out in VOD on itunes, playstation, hopefully in the spring if not before.

You can find our more about David @Structure_Films and ‘The Immortalists’ movie at http://theimmortalists.com/


Alex Nichols currently lives in San Francisco California working at Lyft. Attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver BC, he graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in philosophy where he studied under the tutelage of two pioneers in health and cultural psychology.

Newsletter: http://ieet.org/mailman/listinfo/ieet-announce

Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
Email: director@ieet.org
phone: 860-428-1837