Are we especially unfortunate to die, if our near-descendants could be immortal?


EXCERPT: . . . These ever-growing lifespans are the result of regular advances in medical science. [...] Ageing, the ultimate chronic condition, involves degradation of the DNA that guides cell replacement. There seems to be no reason, in principle at least, that would prevent us from discovering a means of halting or reversing ageing itself...

What if that all happens sooner rather than later? But what if it’s not soon enough? Imagine that, after a few more breakthroughs, a scientific consensus emerges that we will have conquered illness and ageing by the year 2119; anyone alive in 2119 is likely to live for centuries, even millennia. You and I are very unlikely to make it to 2119. But we are likely to make it relatively close to that date – in fact, relative to the span of human history, we’ve already made it very close right now. Think that through, carefully. What would it mean to realize that you very nearly got to live forever, but didn’t? What would it mean if, in our looming senescence, we were increasingly forced to share social space with young people whose anticipated allotment of time massively dwarfs our own? We would then be the last mortals.

If this were so, we would be forced to confront an unprecedented shift in one of the oldest philosophical problems. When death ceases to be inevitable, can it still mean the same thing to lose your life?

[...] Our great-great-grandchildren will not be [immortal Middle-earth] elves, but they may also not be mortals like us. ... If humans acquired biological immortality, our expected lifespans would jump to enormous lengths. Almost everyone would still eventually die; statistics dictate that if you fly on planes every few weeks for eternity, eventually one will crash. If not that, there’s nuclear apocalypse or the heat death of the Sun. So the type of immortality I have in mind is not a magical one where death is strictly impossible. But it is the practical removal of death’s certainty. Biological immortals would no longer expect to die within any relevant time frame.

This point allows us to sidestep one of the perennial questions about immortality: is endless life something we’d really want? In fiction, immortality often emerges as a curse rather than a blessing. [...] These reflections may be right: perhaps a meaningless, inescapable immortality is a curse. But the sort of biological immortality our great-great-grandchildren might have needn’t be like this. ... What is distinctive for them is that death becomes only a possibility, an option, not an inevitability on a fixed timetable. This sort of immortality, I would think, is definitely not a curse.

[...] So I proceed now on the assumption that the first generation of immortals will possess something very much worth wanting. Now our question must be: what should we say about those left stranded on the dock as the ship to the Undying Lands fades in the distance? Philosophers have been talking about death for as long as philosophers have been around to die. ... the Greek philosopher Epicurus made a similar point, though less colourfully. ... The thought is this: death isn’t like any bad thing happening ... you no longer exist for it to happen to. You and death are never really in the same room at the same time, so to speak.

Modern philosophers tend to resist Epicurus’ conclusion that death is not bad for us. They point out that we can make sense of the comparative claim that it would have been good for Diogenes to have a few more happy years, so the deprivation of those years was a bad thing for him. [...] My aim is to show that dying is worse for the last mortals than for earlier generations. The advent of biological immortality actually worsens the lives of those who fall closest in never reaching it.

[...] Technological progress creates new vulnerabilities to go with its new possibilities. When technology makes something newly possible, it changes the status of our wishing for that thing. Once upon a time, wishing to see and speak to an old friend in another country instantly was mere fantasy, the sort of thing for fables of magic mirrors and crystal balls. But now we have portable video cameras and wireless networks. Now a wish to chat with distant loved ones has the status of a perfectly normal desire – one that is vulnerable to painful failure. Mobile phones provide many examples of this phenomenon.

[...] This is why the last mortals will have it particularly bad. Until now, the wish for immortality was mere fantasy. No one has ever lived beyond 122 years, and no one has reasonably expected to do so. But what happens once the scientists tell us that we’re drawing near, that biological immortality will be ready in a generation or two – then what? Suddenly we are Freud banging on his iPhone, missing out on FaceTime with his dear dying Lou. Suddenly we are on the dock watching the elven ships sail away.

Seneca told us to meet death cheerfully [...] Why suffer over the inability to attain a fantasy? Yet, as I’ve been arguing, soon death may cease to be inevitable. It may become an option rather than a giver of orders. And, as the fantasy of immortality becomes a reasonable desire, this will generate not only new sorts of failed desires, but also new ways to become profoundly envious.

The last mortals may be forced to share Earth with the first immortals. [...] In other words, anyone born before the technology emerges is condemned to die, but all those born later will gain hundreds or thousands of years. Imagine the envious glances from obstetrics nurses towards their charges in the months after that announcement. [...] From an objective perspective, the problem of the last mortals seems fleeting. After all, they will die off quickly, relatively speaking, and then everyone remaining will share equally in the new problems of extraordinary longevity. But we may not have the luxury of taking this objective perspective, because we may be those last mortals. We may be the ones turning towards our descendants with the most intense resentment and envy anyone has ever known. Is there anything we can do to prepare?

One promising thought comes from Simone de Beauvoir, whose novel All Men are Mortal (1946) is yet another in the curse-of-immortality genre. [...The character...] Regina ... sees a chance to transcend her mortal limitations by lodging herself in [immortal Raymond] Fosca’s endless memory. “One day I’ll be old, dead, forgotten”, she realizes. “And at this very moment, while I’m sitting here thinking these things, a man in a dingy hotel room is thinking, ‘I will always be here’.”

This may be our best hope for avoiding the conversion of immortal fantasy into cruelly stymied desire as well as a mountain of intergenerational envy. Perhaps the last mortals can find a way to tag along, in memory at least, with our undying descendants.... (MORE - details)

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