Friday, December 12, 2008

The Immortality Paradox

This isn't an art issue so much as a sociological or perhaps moral issue, but this post about the appeal of Dracula on Jonathan Jones art blog reminded me of an ongoing dialog I have with an artist about post-human or transhumanist ideals, such as the extension of human lifespan, presumably indefinitely, and the rather confusing backlash toward such notions.

I'm still wrapping my head around several of the Post-Human ideas (this new ezine H+ is helpful in coming up to speed), but the one provoking the most extreme response is the notion that we will reach a point at which disease will be a thing of the past and even dying may be as well. The logic of the reason this should not be such a shocking notion was explained in the current issue of H+ in an article by Micahel Anissimov titled "Engineering an End to Aging" (retyped by me, all typos presumed mine):
The first thing to realize is that nature doesn't specifically want us to die. There is no "death gene." For any species in any environmental context, there is an ideal life span from an adaptive point of view -- an evolutionary optima. One evolutionary strategy includes species that reproduce quickly and die off fast. Another includes species that reproduce slowly and live for a long time. Call it quality versus quantity. Thankfully for humans, we're squarely in the quality column, but many would agree that 80 to 90 years is not enough.
The notion that we could engineer a means by which to live much, much longer if not indefinitely brings out some really irrational and ironically hyper-romantic notions in some people though. Consider one response [via Andrew Sullivan's blog] to the idea:
Here’s another moral imperative you transhumanist fools haven’t considered: we owe something to people who don’t exist yet. People who don’t exist yet are waiting in line to take our places. They can’t do that unless we die. Don’t nonexistent people have rights? Damn right they do. The right to demand our deaths.
Personally, I'm not sure how my universally recognized inalienable right to life is trumped by someone else's purported right to demand my death, but ....

But bringing things back to Jones' post on the "terrifying beauty" of vampires, it strikes me as odd that immortality is something we embrace (if not celebrate) in literature and entertainment (from Greek mythology to the truly horrid Hancock movie recently released), but fear in application. We clearly see it as superior to mortality and even romantic (Twilight is another good example of this). But when offered the opportunity (and nothing about transhumanist ideals demands it from anyone who'd rather die), people freak out.

The central posthumanist argument (as explained to me by an artist I know who's well versed in these issues) is that whether it's a good thing or a bad thing to live to be 1,000 years old is a decision the rest of us really need to leave to those who are 999 years old. Moreover, what is the art world itself if not an concerted effort to create, promote, collect, conserve, and present a part of ourselves that lives forever?

What am I missing here...why is this notion so offensive to some people?



Blogger George said...

Everybody hates entropy.


12/12/2008 09:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Kyle Stubbs said...

If the universe is infinite or at least very large then there is more then enough room for everyone to live forever and have very many children that live forever. There is potentially room for everyone to experience there right to live.

The notion that non-existent people wait 'In line' for a place to live is complete nonsense, population is not a constant, it is not capped and ever increases. The non existent forever take there place in the existent regardless of those that already exist. That's almost as bad as saying contraception is a bad thing.

It is innately animal, therefore human of us to prolong our lives.

This talk on is really interesting.

12/12/2008 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

So, is suicide an option if you've had enough?


12/12/2008 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

separate issues, I think, George.

The transhumanist ideal is that, if you want to, technology can be used to extend your lifespan. There's nothing in that which touches on suicide to my mind.

I imagine the argument could be made that not using technology to extend your life is "suicide," but I think it's actually more simply a life-style choice, such as drinking too much, eating too much, and not exercising...if you want to label those actions "suicide" then you might have a point, but...

12/12/2008 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger J. said...

There's some sense in which finality or an end helps give shape and purpose to a life. Why do today what you could do any day, forever? If we never die, time loses meaning, and maybe life does, too. Freud postulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that the goal of every living thing was to die in its proper way. That may or may not be scientifically valid, but it's certainly food for thought. Here are a few more great reasons not to work toward human immortality:


Non-existent people waiting in line to live is a foolish idea. What's missing from this argument is the question of what kind of a burden the already grossly overblown human population would impose on other forms of life if we simply stopped dying. Every human life exists at the expense of something else, by destroying other lives--plant, animal, fungal, whatever. That doesn't make humans an exception in the animal kingdom, but what it means is that beyond a certain point (which I believe we long ago surpassed) every human life imposes a disproportionate burden on other life forms by consuming them (and nowadays consuming far more than necessary, and not merely as food or animal products, but via industry, luxury goods, etc.) while not being consumed by them. If we never died, we'd be locking up even more elements into our bodies that would never re-enter the ecosystem. Seems pretty selfish and unethical to me. There's also the question of aesthetics and the sheer wonder at the world that would be crushed under the weight of that sort of human population. Biodiversity is already going down the tubes; frankly, if we lived in a world populated only by humans, cats, dogs, deer, and other "pretty" animals that survive on human kindness and detritus, I'd rather be dead.


Incidentally, why this Western obsession with life? Terminally ill people aside, for some reason we think that suicidal people--people who choose not to live--have mental problems. An astonishing number of people are on pill regimens just to keep them wanting to live. I suppose that because we can often trace this to a chemical or neurological "imbalance" (read: variation) it must be a disease, or because it's related to specific personal events or issues that it must be an "abnormal" feeling. Maybe it's a natural thing that some (many?) people to want to die. And maybe it's sick that we try to "help" them. (Incidentally, psychiatric drugs leach into the environment and cause damage to other life forms that we're only beginning to understand.)


If everyone lives forever and stays young forever, I suppose they will also work forever. Or will they work in spurts, with occasional quiescent "retirement" periods? What if enormous numbers of immortals decide they don't want to work? What are the ethics of supporting or not supporting them? If immortals become disabled, are they entitled to live on the fruits of others' labor indefinitely? If disease and death rates disappeared, what would constitute a "living wage"?

In short, there are tons of problems with immortality. I hope we never even come close to it, but if we do, there will be a lot of difficult questions to answer. We should probably be thankful that none of us are likely to be around for it.

12/12/2008 10:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is important that imaginative and creative optimists and pessimists alike continue to think hard about a post-humanist future. There will be no future without creativity, imagination, and plenty of healthy and mostly well adjusted people with advanced technology at their fingertips, to make any of these dreams a reality. A trmendous amount of resources will be needed. I personally don't think we are ever going to get there. Wouldn't it nice if we could put off death and have our minds become as efficient as supercomputers. Most of the world is living in utter destitution right now. Most of the world lives in dire pre-industrial conditions. In order for all of these wonderful post-human things to happen, an end to disease, a substantial prolongation of organic life as we know it, an end to all types of handicaps and body and mind rot, etc., we will have to have many functional and efficient groups of people from various countries working very hard in a concerted way. We still don't have flying cars and the last time I checked humanity was advancing rather quickly in the wrong direction.


12/12/2008 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My disgust with posthuman immortality stems from the same root as my disgust for flying cars and 3000 sq' homes for single people. There are environmental costs in the employment of any technology. And those environmental costs factor heavily into sociological considerations.

As it stands, having roughly doubled the life expectancy and massively reduced the infant mortality rates throughout much of the world over the last millennium, just like a culture of bacterium in a petri dish, we are doing a fine job of overpopulating to the point of autotoxification. (To head off any concern trolling, note that I don't celebrate this nor advocate draconian population reduction tactics. I am merely pointing out that the challenges our species and civilizations already will face over the next several centuries will stem directly from the tough reality of carrying capacity. And this is with life expectancy and mortality rates on this side of the graph before some unforeseen redefining breakthrough in longevity!)

Universal application of immortality without means for infinite expansion of civilization into new habital territories = death for the human species via collapse of the resource base required to support civilization. (I do not share Mr. Stubbs optimism regarding the feasible accessibility of all habitable zones within the galaxy, much less the universe. And considering the distances, the time scales required to reach such places move into the stellar if not galactic or cosmic. Within the stellar, habitability is temporary. At the galactic and cosmic, but a moment. Meanwhile, establishing human life on any of the other cold dry corners of our solar system will require tremendous brute force and will always be marginal at best. Though the comparisons are tempting, if we ever undertake such a venture, it will be nothing like the European colonization of the globe during the age of exploration.)

Meanwhile, selective and limited application of immortality = a schism in the human race that would pale today's division between the haves and have nots. Let's be honest. Immortality through science and technology is a matter of maintenance not a one time treatment or three bites from Count Scary. Unlike the vampire myth which allows room for the unwitting lamia to roam the Earth as a vagrant and tramp, in a technological posthuman era only the wealthy will live forever.

I cannot envision a future with such immortality that does not incentivize hoarding of resources and wealth beyond a tipping point that would topple civilization as we know it. As it stands now, without any additional incentives in the game, we see hoarding that drastically undermines our infrastructure and institutions. It's a similar problem to autotoxification. The very rich need that infrastructure and those institutions to generate and reap their wealth and power. But they undermine their very future by claiming so much for themselves. This is because any healthy economy when functioning rewards a hoarder with leverage. Leverage is power. Now try to imagine if those people could be ensured life forever as long as they could pay for it? Sure, a few may grow wise and, aside from their longevity treatments, live simply. But competition is a bitch. Those at the margins of this class--the liminal boundary between the mortal and the immortal--would claw at each other and the rest the world trying to secure their place in eternity. If you think the pain the masters of the universe have brought us now is bad, the collateral damage wrought by such a battle of aspiring immortals would be thousandfold.

In science fiction, this aspect of technological immortality (and extreme longevity) is often ignored outright or by the deus ex machina application of science fantasy of a simple low-cost application, often kept secret by those that developed the technology--such as what Kim Stanley Robinson did in his Mars series. While in mythology (and fantasy), immortality of monsters, gods and demi-human species is written in as a part of their nature. The best authors tend to use these applications of immortality and longevity as intriguing thought experiments to try to envision a culture that had very different parameters at the outset, but I've yet to read one that really gets at the meat of a transformation from a civilization such as ours to a different state that permits room for immortality. And personally I think that's because when you conduct the thought experiment, without tightly constraining every other possible variable, there isn't room for a civilization on the other side of that event horizon.

All that being said, thought experiments like the one you've posed today are fun Edward. And I think they very much have to do with art. This sort of creativity represents a healthy intersection between art, philosophy, and ethics. One thing to note though when setting up such experiments: it often holds true that when you take key variables within any system (such as lifespan within a biological and economic system) and kick their limits out to infinity, the system gets really screwy and unfriendly quickly. When I consider myriad myths of yore, I think our ancestors intuitively understood this.

12/12/2008 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Wonderful comments, J and anonymous!

Thanks so much for taking the time.

I think the notion of engineering extended lifespans, though, does work somewhat like a vampire bite (it's a one time thing), no?

12/12/2008 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Ed, Have you seen the documentary on Aubrey de Grey called "Do you want to live forever?"

Google video has it in its entirety.

12/12/2008 11:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the notion of engineering extended lifespans, though, does work somewhat like a vampire bite (it's a one time thing), no?

Anon 11:13:00 here.

If we're talking fiction and thought experiment, sure, that could be your premise. But as far as science and technology goes, based on the past till present, I see the extension of life via engineering as incremental. All tissues, organs and cell types have different lifespans and failure rates. With the scientific understandings that currently exist--even from the most inspiring and cutting edge inspiring basic science, I frankly can't imagine a one-size-fits-all single application cure for death via disease and age. I see it as regular treatments of tissue grafts, stem cells, thorough full system nano-scrubs of plaques, etc. in addition to many of the things we currently need to do to treat or prevent aggressive pathogens and mend non-mortal injuries. All of this sounds costly as hell to me in terms of energy. And we haven't even touched the challenges presented by the central nervous system where configuration and pattern at the cellular level are as important as the tissue itself! Our slowly evolving memories and personality would be at stake. It remains to be known whether or not a wholesale overhaul of the brain would leave the person intact. How precise would any treatment need to be to avoid partially "wiping" the self from the organism?

Maybe I lack the vision. But I just don't see a one-application solution for death (other than contraception) ever emerging outside of fantasy. And it has a fine place in fantasy. But when it comes to steering limited resources for research, I don't think this is the grail we should be chasing.

12/12/2008 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

I think there's a difference between literally wanting to live forever and figuratively wanting to live forever, especially in the case of artists. For example, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol did not literally live forever, but their works will live on for a very long time (i.e. forever) after they have died. By very definition, artists tapping into the cultural zeitgeist and entering the cannon of art history will be remembered and digested for their contribution. Will they be remembered forever or just for one moment, who is to say, and who is to say which artists are rediscovered after the fact, that lived and died in obscurity or are re-evaluated? And on the note of one thing must die off for another thing to live, I think, at least in business, you have to create your niche, opportunity and style, in order to leave your mark. It's not like one artist has to fail for another one to succeed or that your gallery has to close for another one to survive, since you each represent different styles, and sell to different collectors, have different support networks- it seems alot more complex than a math equation.

12/12/2008 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Henri said...

There's a reason that vampires and the undead were meant to be vile and disgusting to those of us post-Post-humans..."Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal." Surpirsingly this sounds very much like some of the descriptions I've heard adn expereinced during a studio visit. Brrr....

12/12/2008 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Methuselah lived 900 years.
Methuselah lived 900 years.
But who calls that livin'
when no gal will give in
to no man that's 900 years.

But I guess 900 will be the new 60.

12/12/2008 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger William said...


If I can make a serious recommendation on this idea, please read The Elementary Particles and its logical, and awesomely depressing conclusion, The Possibility of an Island by Michelle Houellebecq. Both are meditations on post-humanity. His essay H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is best read first. Whatever the criticisms of Houellebecq, he offers a possible answer to the what if question.


12/12/2008 12:43:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

Man, Edward, this is a great thread, and I would give my eyeteeth to be sitting at a desk on someone else's dime so that I could opine at an appropriate length and depth!

12/12/2008 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Iris said...

as long as 'technology' hasn't solved the severe mortality issues we already have such as cholera and AIDS, hunger in most parts of the world, genocide, lack of drinking water and the like, in addition to the problems of global warming and the accelerating deterioration of our planet's sustainability in terms of supporting the bio-ecological systems it needs to maintain life, and as long as we haven't progressed our technology far enough to find alternatives to life in this dimension we are living in, in this space (earth) we are living in, as long as we haven't reached all these, thinking about immortality as a practical option makes less sense than the analogy of souls waiting to be born. I believe the commenter only meant it as an analogy, and it does make sense to me, that as long as we are not even able to support the life which is present and is being born now, how can we allow anyone to live forever? or am I missing something here?

J, you have some good points, but your point about "Incidentally, why this Western obsession with life?" is sort of the rational that many use to justify wars, starvation etc. I think that our greatest value should always be life, but before we try to prolong ours we need to make sure everybody else gets to enjoy the quality of life we do now.

12/12/2008 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger Iris said...

as long as 'technology' hasn't solved the severe mortality issues we already have such as cholera and AIDS, hunger in most parts of the world, genocide, lack of drinking water and the like, in addition to the problems of global warming and the accelerating deterioration of our planet's sustainability in terms of supporting the bio-ecological systems it needs to maintain life, and as long as we haven't progressed our technology far enough to find alternatives to life in this dimension we are living in, in this space (earth) we are living in, as long as we haven't reached all these, thinking about immortality as a practical option makes less sense than the analogy of souls waiting to be born. I believe the commenter only meant it as an analogy, and it does make sense to me, that as long as we are not even able to support the life which is present and is being born now, how can we allow anyone to live forever? or am I missing something here?

J, you have some good points, but your point about "Incidentally, why this Western obsession with life?" is sort of the rational that many use to justify wars, starvation etc. I think that our greatest value should always be life, but before we try to prolong ours we need to make sure everybody else gets to enjoy the quality of life we do now.

12/12/2008 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I find the notion of physical immortality annoying and irrelevant, because I am not my body. My body is a tool that I use for a certain period of time, to learn certain lessons and accomplish certain things. When those things are done, I put it down. Confusing our identities with our tools, in my view, is the central illness of humanity.

12/12/2008 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

I'd think we'd get further in medical science if we stopped thinking that a human body is like a car, when it gets broken it can be fixed. And as a studio artist, the here and now IS the future (i.e. immortality) in that what I make to day is all I have to work with to create my reputation as an artist.

12/12/2008 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Jeffrey DeitchJeffry Deitch pastiche of trannshumanist ideas, couched more as a defense of body image and a new morality (one that includes immortality, unlimited consumption, body swapping (See Jack Chalker), space colonization, terraforming and crappy new jerseyesque leopard prints, one would imagine)

That Jane Fonda, she's so hot.

Funny this whole trans/post human thing got a huge boost by the internet/tech bubble - people love their ipods.

Every time someone dies we are all diminished ... but our computers live on!

Do clones have souls? Are there people who appear to be "real" even to themselves, but who are nonetheless, drones? Hollow shells?

That's my suspicion.

If so, human hunting is on my horizon.

How selfish is it to have six kids?

How selfish is it to have no kids at all? No door people? No couriers for food?

Who here hates kids as much as I do?

No one.

Kids are used as power pawns in the calculus of social relations. It's three to one, are you coming over for veggie goulash?

And their young art, seedlings, has not attained the full richness of the aged bonsai.

No, we must cull the herd, surely, just as once I was once hunted, I shall kill just to stay alive.

And I don't recycle.

12/12/2008 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger waynestead said...

Thanks for the discussion, it's really interesting.

The religious implications are pretty fascinating also (the argument regarding non-existent people seems to be a religious one), which cross over many of the ethical arguments mentioned before. The idea of a moral obligation to humanity becomes more prominent/imminent when one plans to use a lot more of an increasingly scarce set of resources.

The whole idea seems to re-define notions of beauty, purpose, relationships, etc. I can see how it can be highly problematic for people who don't deal with paradox very well.

12/12/2008 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger mbuitron said...

Some great comments have already been posted here. My initial thought was more of a hypothetical: imagine if Australopithecus had the ability to become immortal? We would then be stuck (in an evolutionary sense) still walking on our knuckles. If you're satisfied that we've reached the peak of our evolutionary capabilities, then I guess "sticking with what we have would be a good thing.

There's also the problem of some human's predilection for having babies. I fully believe that nearly all our problems--from world hunger, avian flu, peak oil, and most wars would not exist if our planet had half the population it has today. The chemical fertilizers we pour on the land so we all can have enough to eat have already been washed into the oceans and created huge dead zones where nothing can live.

Then there is also the ethical issue of deciding who would become immortal and who would die after a regular "three score and ten." I expect there are plenty of folks--from oligarchs to leaders of the Taliban--who would like to live forever. I also expect that party leaders in China would love to keep this type of technology from ethnic Tibetans. Over a generation, (with the help of some form of birth control) entire ethnic groups could be eliminated through attrition; a hundred years ago, it could have made for a kinder and gentler Nazi party.

At its root, transhumanism IMO, stems from the same secular fear of death that drove folks to have their heads cut off and frozen (after death) in the 60's.

12/12/2008 02:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Wrether people have prolongated lives or make babies, there is only a certain amount of energy at your disposal in the universe.
You can use it in any direction you want, but know that at some point you will reach the limit of pull on that energy and like
a giant elastic it will indeed
backlash into something else
that has been needy in the meantime.

Actually, maybe longer lives would
make people more responsible and
moral. Too many people breed babies
like hotcakes and think they are ready for the world at 13 years old (and leave them on the streets).

I like Zip's idea that people make
babies to keep strength on their
social status. That's pretty scary
but so real.

In the end I don't think that many people would be able to enjoy a life a too long. They are losses that are awful to grieve.
They are interesting esoterical hints at the probability that you can meet some of that loss back.. All this would make a portion of the elders give up.

As for evil or selfish people: evil breeds evil. If you are selfish, people will reply with selfishness, and it will come the time when you will suffer because of the selfishness of others. If you are violent, people will
reply with violence. Iron towers are ephemeral. Security breeds the threat.

If you intend to not bring good back to the good that life brings you, an hungry dog will
come back to bit your ass. So it's not really about how long you live than what you do with your life. I don't think you can escape
a certain obligatory level of universal moral (which I believe in), which is about the
balance of energy. Take morality.
I believe it is energy. Good is energy. If people feel good, secured, confident, filled with love, etc, this relieves stress and has an impact on your health.
I don't think any tyran could endure 200 years of living in hate, unless they experience the same type of brain dysfunction that make psychopaths seek the emotions in others that their mind is being bereft of.

Psychology is energy. It is very
important to focus on the quality
of your life if you want to sustain it, and this quality is hardly possible if the people around you are not experiencing it. The simple knowledge of uneveness would affect you deeply. Naive and innocent people are spared, and live healthier (even when they do harm), but you can't buy naivety. If you know, than you must know. I believe there is a reason why you know.

Cedric Caspesyan

12/12/2008 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I cannot think when faced with radical life extension what sort of culture would arise and what would its attitudes be regarding permanence, obsolescence as well as life itself.

When termination of life is either accidental, or deliberate (murder, punishment) how would we value life? Would it be more valuable or less?

When a lifetime would be 1000 years, how would we view pollution, economic growth, physical infrastructure (A bridge built to last 100 years would be rather temporary compared to the lifespan of one of these transhumanists). How could the very old relate to or communicate with the relatively young? How would this abundance of time affect aesthetic expression?

12/12/2008 04:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well said Pretty Lady. You summed up my feelings exactly. I do not find the quest for physical immortality "offensive" so much as I find it silly. But more power to the people who spend their time pursuing it. We've all gotta have something to occupy our days before we kick the bucket. :)

12/12/2008 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Studies might show that after 135 people are apt to spend more time sitting around wondering when the heck their time is up and much much less on their art: This 35 years before they poke their stick in the ground.

12/12/2008 06:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

So you guys (and gals) think you have enough years to fulfill all you wish to achieve? I feel like time pass way too fast.

Immortality of a living specie is fact, by the way:


Cedric Caspesyan

12/12/2008 06:49:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


What is the meaning of life?

If we have more life, do we have more meaning?

If you live longer at the expense of someone else, is that meaningful?

While you are alive, Do things that you won't regret when you are dying.

While you are alive, Do things that you won't regret when someone else is dying.

Turn off the TV.

12/12/2008 07:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just in case...

12/13/2008 02:28:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So you guys (and gals) think you have enough years to fulfill all you wish to achieve? I feel like time pass way too fast.

I'm with you Cedric. I'm working round the clock because there are no where near enough years left for me to do everything I want to...a more confident pace would be nice.

That immortal turritopsis nutricula is amazing...and indeed I think some of thinking about human immortality follows that same evolutionary "trick" (if you will) of reverting to some sexually immature stage and starting over indefinitely.

12/13/2008 09:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I'm presuming you all know the scientist guru Aubrey De Grey (plenty of vids on youtube). Here's his research website:


Cedric C

12/13/2008 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher/Mark said...

"... you can't put your foot in the same river twice. No, said the clever student, you can't put the same foot in the same river twice, and no, said the one sitting at the back, you can't put the same foot in the river even once, because there never is a same foot.." - (the late) Simon Gray

12/13/2008 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ONE of the reasons we die, or the reason the body dies, is, primarily due to the fact that in days when we had no bodies – [yes, you too were walking round in the woods, or standing in line at your local city hall—quite bodiless] is that the internal structure would be forever localizing information and experience, even without a body to store all this in. What this meant was that while it was possible to float the planet bodiless in a mere fraction of a second, most would settle on a fixed location, say a few square miles, and would build things that the bodiless had no use for—and so on.
And one of the more interesting things about this was that even though bodiless, the inner desire of each ‘bodiless body’ willed it so strongly, so deeply, the wish for a body, that each bodiless body almost existed as body.
Imagine this: Bodies bodiless would sit almost on chairs; they would drink almost a bottle of Jack Daniels; almost some were known to manifest ‘art things’, almost, mind you, almost.
Just about everything that you and I enjoy today, bodiless bodies could ‘almost’ too. So I was told, some bodies [bodiless] even used a door instead of the customary ‘sail through the wall’ when they wished to get to another room. Hard to believe, but true.

The point here is that in ‘bodiless times’ bodies tended to limit their experience, even while there was no physical reason to.
In ‘body times’ we can experience this reality and localization in all its color and form. And it seems to work.
The time-limit thing is just a way to make sure bodies don’t hoard—ideas, things, and many more things than an actual body needs.
For those who can get a handle on reincarnation –
What use has a butterfly of a book, except to be pressed between the pages?

It might also be interesting to note that while physical bodies and parking meters were invented at the same time, and function similarly, ‘You either put money in, or you move on’, there remains an ever so slight difference.


12/13/2008 09:14:00 PM  
Anonymous mgerra said...

Evolutionary biologists, Kurzweil, Dawkins, et al step in to set me straight. I suspect that up to this point evolution has deemed death of an individual to be the most "constructive" way to ensure passage through time of said individual's genes. So without death, would that put a damper on sexual reproduction? I suppose I'd have more time to create art, sell art and blog about it. Oh, the blogging!

I feel some kind of scifi dystopian novel coming on. And the questions. Would immortality broaden the spectrum of human endeavor and suffering? How would the last person not to be immortal feel in an immortal world? Would life be as fun if there were no clock?

12/14/2008 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger jeff f said...

Wanting to live for ever is a silly notion that is based on selfish human egomania. We all die, we are all going to die. There will never be a day when all disease is eradicated.

Just look at TB, it's been around for centuries and it's now evolved into a strain that eats antibiotics.

Your going to die, I'm going to die and so is your mother, your dog, your lover and friends.

You have to age, it's biology and no matter how hard we try nature will win.

12/14/2008 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Wanting to live for ever is a silly notion that is based on selfish human egomania.

I disagree.

Wanting to live forever isn't the posthumanist question,'s extending life as long as the quality of that life is good. This is simply progress in my opinion.

And it's not as if we'll see this huge leap all at will come in steps, and that will make it seem more "normal."

It's difficult to imagine living to be 1,000 in 2008, when the life expectancy at age 0 for a man is about 78 and for a woman is about 84. Go back to 1900, when the expectancy for a man was 56 and for a woman was 59, though, and ask them if the idea of living another 20 years (only one-third again the number of years known to be "normal" then) seemed appropriate/silly/egomanical?

My guess is that many of them would be hesitant to say they wanted to live that long. For one thing, what's the fun of living if everyone else your age has passed away. For another thing, what's excessive or egomanical is entirely relative. It's not selfish to want to live to be 90 today, but it probably seemed that way in 1900.

So we're really talking degrees here. If from where we stand now, it wasn't truly obscene in 1900 to want to live 1/3 again as long, then in 2008, when we live to 90, wanting to live to 120 is just as normal...extrapolate that to when people live as long as 120 on average, and then 160 becomes seemingly reasonable and so on, and so on. Progress...not selfishness.

This "duty to die" idea some folks are offering here doesn't ring true to me in any sense whatsoever. Life is it. That's all there is. "Do not go gently into that good night." Why would you? I honestly do not get it.

12/14/2008 03:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

The question of "life is all there is" is personal and no one has actually the proof or disproval that it really is the end.
My theory about existence after death is as simple as "you're not supposed to know".

But I don't see a dichotomy between being a believer and wanting to experience as much as life as you can. We live in the age of World Of Warcraft, baby. This is an age that naturally requires more time for us to experience. It is natural that we would invent methods to prolongate life, as mass consciousness is striving towards the need of more time, because life is too complex now to be able to be grasped in 50 years. Some would describe this new world as an artificial creation of man, but I believe that what human intelligence can produce, is part of nature and what nature wants. Life has developed intelligence
with the hope that it can serve itself. You call that selfish? Life is an omeostasis. It's morality is survival. It wouldn't die if it was able to not die That's not the point of life.

I don't think a human could well live over 500 years without falling to a disease, accident,
natural catastrophy, or human violence. Could we live 500 years and still have babies and share the space? Yes, provided that we would develop the technology required for the rapid duplication or cloning of ressources, which I think is by all logics, incoming.

Given the numbers of poor kids on the streets, that message seems quite clear: humans were not supposed to have that many babies. Not until we have found the means to multiplicate bread and fish anyway. What we need is more of a healthy maturity and reflection. Aging crowds could provide that environment which would be healthy for children who could finally be born when they are really wanted.

You know, when you play The Sims, it doesn't change anything to the structure or goal of the game wrether you play one character for a long time or develop many familes. But there is only a certain amount of time that you can dedicate playing with each character. I see this balance of energy and consciousness in the living state sharing a similar dilemna.


Cedric Caspesyan

12/14/2008 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous mgerra said...

"Duty to die". Nonsense. We're programmed to die to facilitate the immortality of our genes. Human lifespans have been increasing because natural selection no longer favors early reproduction -- our bodies can take care of the gene packets for much longer than was previously the case.

It's progress pure and simple. I can see lifespans increasing significantly, but doubt we'll ever see true technologically unassisted immortality. I suspect mortal genes will always prefer to mix (sexually) and hence take a chance on improving the next generation versus the genetic stasis of immortal (asexual) genes. That said, think of the lowly (but artless) and bacterium. It reproduces by splitting ad infinitum -- it's already immortal! We still have a lot to learn and lots of progress to make.

12/14/2008 06:03:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

If you believe in reincarnation, then you do live forever.

The mundane reality of actually having to live forever opens up two doors that seem to be shut in this conversation:

1. It seems easier to be patient and allow everything to unfold. Bob Thurman wrote a book I think in the 90's about the idea of Buddhist political revolution. It was basically a practical application of reincarnation. I don't know that reincarnation really happens, but it's a great way to organize your mind. If you're coming back no matter what you do, then you have every reason to be diligent about making the future better than the present, but at the same time you have the luxury of patience.

I don't always succeed at this, but I'd like to express both total urgency and total acceptance and patience at all times. Knowing that this life is one in a series of attempts at "getting it" helps make that balancing act possible.

2. The "duty to die" angle becomes more important too. There's an outrageous arrogance to assuming that you can live forever in the flesh you're here with now. Ed, seriously. When everything else around you is doing nothing but changing into something else, you have the temerity to think that you can stay the same?

The Rocky Mountains must erode into a plain and a sixth island must form in the Hawaiian Island chain while the five we now know must get ground into dust and fall to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and all the other animals are evolving, passively, in order to best accommodate current conditions...

...and you get to stay you, Edward Winkleman? Chelsea gallerist and blogger-extraordinaire?

Why is that a good idea? How does that fit into the larger scheme of things?

My understanding (granted, it might not be true, but this is what I believe based on my own observation and experience) is that you don't lose anything when you go because everything else is in the same state of constantly going, or changing, becoming the next thing, and nothing else truly goes away. Isn't this what modern science keeps talking around and explaining badly by saying that death is a void?

Your own passing is no more than an admission that you are part of this larger structure that seems to work real good.

I find enormous comfort in knowing that I am part of it, in knowing that the mountain doesn't disappear--that it becomes a riverbed, which becomes another mountain later. There's an existing logic that I like. And I would never fuck with it by trying to live forever.

12/14/2008 06:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"Duty to die". Nonsense. We're programmed to die

See that's where I'm still mostly confused. There seems to be some debate about that. What evidence is there that dying is programmed in our DNA? As Anissimov argued, there is no "death gene." To Nature, dying might simply be a poor response to one's environment...if a better response can be engineered (better hygiene, preventive measures, healthier living, technological answers to aging issues, etc.) then lifespans increase. It's logical. All the romance we project onto dying strikes me as rationalizations, none of which provide me any comfort at all.

Deb, I'm not actually even advocating living forever, let alone assuming I could do so exactly as I am. Indeed the goal to living as long as I can is to evolve and grow as much as I can. And therefore, I'm not sure why wanting to live as long as I can in order to learn and try to do as much as I can is arrogant. The assumption seems to be that I should accept my expiration date as opposed to fight as hard as I can to extend it. Why?

To be perfectly blunt about it, I'm not sure any organism owes its death to any other existing (let alone future) organism. There are ethical obligations to leave the place in the same shape you found it, but that seems a separate issue to me. Some organisms will die and the remaining ones or emerging ones will take advantage of it...but the notion that I somehow am obliged to pass on within some "proper" timeframe so that others can absorb my essence/nutrients/space, etc., makes no sense to me. Says who? Against astronomical odds, my genes clawed their way into existence...I don't believe in an afterlife...and so this, for me, is it. My one conscious shot at existing. The number one thing I owe to nature or the universe, in my opinion, is to make the most of that shot I can. To not take it for granted, squander it, or least of all surrender it.

I do believe Nature will balance things out to suit Her needs. Meaning that should I truly live so long I deny other organisms the resources they need, they'll evolve to take them from me. That's their job. It's not my job to make it easy for them, though. Let the other organisms kill me, if they can. But I certainly ain't going quietly out of some sense that it's the proper thing to do.

12/14/2008 07:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

What is dying? Nothing can die in
the universe. You mean that you loose this body, your notion of self, your consciousness. But once you exist you leave an imprint in time and light. The universe is like a magnetoscope that you can rewind at certain points. For time, your existence is immortal. And reincarnation is always true, energetically.

So there is no such thing as an ethical obligation to die. There may be an ethical obligation to "transform". I would really believe in that. But that doesn't necessarely mean that a living state cannot perform an attractive deal of interesting transformations that are otherwise unavalable for the short-lived. For example, learning what it is to become an atheist, or a believer, once you were something else. Anything that is a transformation goes along the line of what the universe asks of any of its elements.

Of course, if you lean on the destructive, you're
probably only informing your body that you are interested in destruction enough that it can begin its own decount to self-destruct. Life benefits the pretty and the healthy because it's not interested in destruction. Still, I find that they are ways when you are unpretty and unhealthy to show life that it really deserves your respect. The magic ingredient is called love.

Cedric Caspesyan

12/14/2008 09:37:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

I don't think the arrogance is about resources as much as it's about thinking that you don't need to play along with something you can't control.

Whether or not we've found what makes death happen on a genetic level is immaterial--humans are notoriously good at thinking we know what we are looking at when we only have a fraction of the picture.

That's a real pitfall of deductive reasoning. Sometimes there's nothing finite to understand once you've broken something down into its constituent parts. Take as an example "nutrients." We know that they are in food and have named them, but if nutrition is about nutrients, then why does an actual orange work much, much better than the 8 vitamins in the froot loops? Why don't vitamin pills work? We still don't understand exactly how food works. Not well enough to make it from scratch.

I guess I am saying that it isn't immoral to think that you could or should live forever as much as it's stupid. Stupidly arrogant. Take a look around. Everything else is constantly changing, constantly becoming something else. Nothing stays the same. Ever.

Why should any of us think that we can get away with not constantly becoming something else?

12/14/2008 10:24:00 PM  
Blogger jeff f said...

Well there are the free radicals in your cells.
Age and the ability to live long is based on your genetics and also not getting hit by a bus.

The issue is that while people are living longer, at what price is this longevity? Also how do you account for the increase in Alzheimer's in the general population. To say we are not genetically programed to die is not correct in my view. If we are not then why do we age? Some species die after they reproduce. Salmon is a good example. Genetically programed to die after spawning.

The way things are going we are most likely to kill our species off from killing the environment. If the bees die out then we are in big trouble. Or we will have to get used to eating wheat and barley all the time. If we run out of drinkable water then what?

The other issue to me is this is the kind of thing only wealthy people can afford to do. The ability to afford good health care, good food, a job that does not require working in a poultry factory.

So is this also a class thing?
Are the rich and their off spring going to be the only ones able to gain from the benefits of new technology?

12/15/2008 01:26:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I guess I am saying that it isn't immoral to think that you could or should live forever as much as it's stupid. Stupidly arrogant.

Hmmm...that's actually the sort of response I meant when I wrote that this topic "brings out some really irrational and ironically hyper-romantic notions in some people though."

You've offered nothing that proves the idea is "stupid" in my opinion at all, yet you offer that harsh dismissal. Based on what? The notion that we don't always know what we think we know? That's a logical as arguing that it's impossible to sail around the world because we can't be sure it's not flat. If there's enough evidence it might be round, I say go explore and find out.

Why, if we assume that becoming smarter as a species is merely part of evolution (natural selection) wouldn't we assume that living longer is as well?

Any why, please tell me why, does the idea of living longer seemingly scare people into all kinds of illogical deflections? There is nothing incompatible with the idea that we will indeed change as we live longer and wanting to live longer. You're projecting that I wish to remain the same...I've actually countered that notion and yet you're still insisting on it. Perhaps by age 250, I'll look more like an infant again...maybe my memories of my first 100 years will be so confused I might as well not have them...but if you ask me on the day I turn 249 whether or not I think living one more year is a good idea...seeing one more Christmas, reading 10 more books, meeting 20 new people, viewing 15 more movies, or tasting 3 new whiskeys is something I want to do, then I suspect the answer will be yes. I will want to do those things, I will want to live one more year, I will want to cling to life as long as possible.

You seem to be suggesting I should willingly avoid doing what might keep me alive.

12/15/2008 08:27:00 AM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

Edward, I've been typing and deleting for a long time now, and all I can say is that I don't see why you shouldn't keep yourself alive as long as possible. I certainly do. I eat lots of vegetables and walk to work and wear a respirator because I am trying to take care of myself and extend my life.

You are acting like I called you stupid.

What I did was call the arrogance that the human subject applies to their relating to the larger world stupid.

I did so without too much explanation because from where I am sitting it is as clear as the nose on my face that we are swimming in eampleso f this arrogance. Credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities embody this arrogance. Trying to create a stock market that only goes up, trying to mitigate risk entirely, cooking the planet...

...I think that the drive to immortality is same kind of drive as the drive to create infinite wealth, or the drive to create risk-free investing, or fat-free potato chips, or clean coal. And I think we are all equally implicated in that larger drive to create our own reality as we want it.

In other words, I felt pretty OK saying that the whole thing is stupid because I'm just as stupid as you are--because we're all pretty stupid. We are sitting in a pretty daunting set of big, stupid messes.

I guess I took that context as a given.

12/15/2008 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why, if we assume that becoming smarter as a species is merely part of evolution (natural selection) wouldn't we assume that living longer is as well?

Living longer as a species might be a form of evolution. But the sort of living longer we engage here is most likely not.

Evolution, in the scientific sense of the word, requires iteration. Biologically this means reproduction. In broader abstract terms, this means copies.

By definition, it also requires changes in the seed information from iterative generation to generation. When genotype (this seed information) and phenotype (the final form resulting from said seed information) are not one in the same, you get Darwinian or genetic evolution. (And contrary to popular belief, genetic crossover--the mixing of two distinct pairs of genes with each iteration is what leads to the majority of genetic variation, not spontaneous mutation.) When genotype and phenotype are one in the same--the body and the information cannot be separated from each other even via a dimension of scale--you have what is called Lamarckian evolution. Simple technological evolution exhibits this sort evolution: think of subsequent generations of monkey wrenches, each better suited for the task at hand than the prior. Most software code also goes through this sort of evolution. If Lamarckian evolution occurred biologically, you would likely pass along all the bumps, bruises, scars, muscle tone and maybe even memories of a lifetime to your progeny. Obviously, we don't work that way. Clones don't even work that way. Only genetic damage and alterations get passed along.

Anyways, without iteration, it's difficult to conclude that what would be happening to the immortal (or extra-long lived) post-human is actually evolution of the species. Rather, we'd most likely be looking at mere modification with perhaps a parallel but isolated form of social and technological evolution.

To put a finer point on it: when any particular post-human does finally die, all their improvements likely die with them (i.e. would you inherit your father's custom made synthetic heart valve upon his death? probably not.). Does the knowledge and technology that made that post-human live so long remain? Perhaps. Is this a form of evolution? In a broad sense, maybe. But it is an evolution that is distinct from the species, even though it is tailored and applied to the species. It is not an evolution of the organism. And this knowledge, though tied to life likely lacks the criteria to ever become life itself. Like most of our culturally accrued knowledge, like mathematics itself, this "know-how" would just sit there without humans, completely unengaged with the universe, exhibiting zero impact--which is less impact even than that exhibited by dark matter. Without humans, human knowledge transforms into platonic solids hiding in the zeroth dimension.

(Irony of ironies, btw, the word verification asked that I enter the characters "decker" to post this. Creepy.)

12/15/2008 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

"What evidence is there that dying is programmed in our DNA?"

A lot. Blame the fact that that we can’t live on forever on the progressive shortening of the telomere, a protective region of repetitive DNA at the end of chromosomes. It’s a principal reason that cells grow old and die, and by extrapolation the entire organism. However, genetic engineering to counteract this telomere shortening result in another can of worms. A lot has been written about this. Here is just one example:

12/15/2008 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

+++drive to create infinite wealth

Call me ultra-optimist. The only thing that is not possible
is the creation of more space on earth, unless we are able to build artificial islands. Every other
ressources, I believe, we will be able to duplicate one day, if we don't mess everything around until then.

It's all about chemics, genetics, and accelerating processus of transformations.

The evolution of intelligence and the products of mankind are part of the natural process. Ants create nests, humans create systems. If we live longer, it is only the reward of systematization, which is natural as systematization occurs in the most basic levels of life. There is nothing hurting or anti-ethical or even stupid about it. If people have more life, there would feel less like they have to run to make this very moment pleasant, resulting in constant urges of selfishness. More times involves more of communications with your surroundings. It means you don't have to think twice about owning a cat because that takes 20 years away of your freedom. Stuff like that. They are already a few animals that lives at about 200 years (fom tiny insects to large whales), and I think it's only fair that humans could reach that amount. 100 years of hard work and 100 years of bathing in the sun on Galapagos Islands. What's
wrong with that? Ants have the rights to Grasshopper.

Cedric Caspesyan

(ref. Boards Of Canada)

12/15/2008 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher/Mark said...

"Sontag's own apparent conviction, sustained until several weeks before she died, was that the laws of mortality would be, if not canceled, at least suspended in her case."

- from Deborah Eisenberg's wonderful review of the first volume of Susan Sontag's Diaries in the New York Review of Books, December 15,

12/15/2008 09:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Aparna said...

Thanks for this great post.

3/20/2009 02:44:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home