Who Wants to Live Forever?

Last month’s post “On Cryonics” outlined why I’m skeptical of that transhumanist doctrine. In today’s post, I want to discuss more directly the goal which advocates of cryonics hope to attain – the achievement of immortality through technology that gives us the ability to halt or reverse the aging process.

In this case, my objection is not one of feasibility. I think it’s entirely possible that we’ll figure out how to do this eventually. (We already know of species, such as lobsters or giant tortoises, that show negligible senescence and that we can use as lab models.) My objection is instead along moral lines: even if we could do this, should we?

It’s often said that new ideas triumph not because their advocates convince everyone, but because all their old defenders eventually die out. What, then, would be the effect on human society if we ceased to die? To put it another way, what would the effect on our society have been if immortality had been invented in the era of slavery, or before women’s right to vote was recognized, or during the theocratic medieval ages when kings and popes held sway? Humanity’s moral progress would have been halted forever, our existing power structure and distribution of opinions lithified by a horde of immortal bigots.

I think we can agree that it would have been a disaster if immortality had been invented during the dark ages of our past. But have we made enough progress since then to be ready? It’s true that we have come far; but, I think any fair-minded person would agree, we have not come far enough. Many of the old prejudices still linger, and in some quarters their strength is virtually undiminished. And there are many more cases of bigotry and irrationality yet to be overcome, where whole groups of people are still denied the exercise of basic rights.

If immortality were invented, many of the people who would be among the first to take advantage of it are some of the ones we would least want to live forever. Wealthy dictators could exert a literally endless dominion over their oppressed people. Just imagine the theocratic clergy of Saudi Arabia or Iran living forever, strangling their countries’ liberty in a deathless grip of dogma; or North Korea becoming a cult state worshipping an immortal tyrant in fact and not just in ideology. Imagine racism or segregation enshrined as the eternal order of things. Up until now, natural death has forced every regime, no matter how despotic, to change eventually. But immortality could usher in tyranny that was literally never-ending. This is not a utopian vision, but the worst kind of dystopia imaginable.

Another point to consider is that the advent of planet-wide immortality would require us to give up something that is a deeply built-in part of our natures – the drive to have children. Yes, I’m aware that some transhumanists talk rapturously of settling other planets and expanding into the universe, but we should face up to the fact that voyaging on such a grand scale, leaving everything familiar behind, is never going to appeal to any more than a small fraction of the population. And even if it did, the economics of space travel are likely to remain prohibitive. We might be able to send small groups of colonists to other worlds to establish societies there, but it will probably never be a feasible way of emptying the planet of large numbers of people. Unless the advent of immortality brought with it drastic changes in human psychology, a world of immortals would soon become ruinously crowded and unsustainable, leading in short order to resource wars and the collapse of society.

And finally, what would be the effect on our individual lives? An extended life, with more opportunities to take in all that life has to offer, I certainly would welcome. But an endless life, in the long run, would lead inevitably to terminal boredom and despair. I find it more ethical and more rational to live life for a time, take advantage of its bounty, and then make way for a new generation for whom all the wonders of the world are brand-new. Who really wants to live forever?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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