Arguing for Immortality

April 30th 2011

I want to live forever. I’ve always thought that not dying was a pretty obvious thing to want. To my surprise, I’ve found that a lot of people whom I usually agree with on most topics strongly disagree with me on this one. Rather than write yet another piece extolling the virtues of a far-future post-scarcity post-singularity world, I thought I’d just document some of the objections to immortality I get and my counterarguments.

Note that for the purposes of giving my conversational partners opportunities to disagree, I typically posit a form of immortality where you, and you alone are presented with the option of eternal youth with no suicide option. You constantly regenerate to perfect health at the prime of your life. There are a lot of potential ways we might go about not dying, but people tend to find objections to this particular flavor more readily than the others. Please assume this working definition for the below.

Watching your loved ones die

I get this one the most. The argument goes like

I can’t stand the thought of having to watch everyone I love die. Can you imagine living forever with everyone you used to know gone? How could you deal with the pain of building lifelong relationships and then seeing them disappear, forever?

My response to this is essentially, “Newsflash, you already are going to have to deal with that.” If you are above average in caution, intelligence, or just plain old fitness, odds are you are going to have to watch a fair share of your friends die and still continue living for a significant period of time afterwards. Statistics don’t lie. Accidents and cancer, while tragic, are inevitable.

As for having to carry the burden forever, we can again look to reality to answer this objection. “Time heals all wounds,” is an adage for a reason. If you can deal with a friend being dead for twenty years (as people already do), it seems pretty likely you’ll be able to deal with it for an indefinite future. As you live forever, you’ll make new friends and get over the loss of old ones. It seems unlikely that it will be year 2769 of missing Fred that finally pushes you over the edge, forever. What will probably actually happen is you just get really good at coping.

I’ll get bored and sick of life

This one is simple enough. It goes

I feel awful enough when I’m bored as it is. If I live forever, won’t I eventually just get bored after having done literally everything? I can’t even imagine my life past [X] years.

The way I deal with this is essentially Moore’s Law. Each day, literally a year of video is uploaded to Youtube. Every year, more books than you could possibly read in a regular lifetime are written. As society increases exponentially in complexity, generation of interesting content explodes. It will be impossible for you to do everything when society invents new experiences faster than you can experience them. Sit back and enjoy the ride, you’re immortal.

As for the people who can’t even imagine their long term prospects right now, I say that this makes them perfectly suited for immortality. If you lack a long term vision and focus on the short term, you’ll never be dragged down by your long past. The best mindset for happiness over a long time period is always to enjoy the present.

Death’s inevitability gives life meaning

Now we start waxing philosophic with stuff like,

There is no good without evil. Having death exist gives my life meaning just like scarcity lends gold-backed currencies their value. I need to know that there is an end because it gives me a sense of urgency to my life. Without it I would just stagnate.

To me this is like saying “shitting gives eating meaning.” Does it? Evolution would beg to disagree if it were anything but a blind selection process. When was the last time you sat down for a great meal and said to yourself, “Thank god I’m going to die one day or this meal would be devoid of meaning”? What you do with your life is what lends it value or meaning, not the eventuality of death.

Besides, if you believe in death being necessary to lend your life value, why go with the arbitrary time limit of your natural lifespan? No one who has fielded this argument against me has agreed to just kill themselves when they feel like they’ve basically achieved what they’ve wanted to in life. The fact of the matter is that everyone chooses life over death on a day-to-day basis, and actions speak louder than words.

What about the afterlife?

This one can be touchy, for obvious reasons. Let’s go with the reasonably neutral objection of,

Suppose there is an afterlife. By taking immortality, I would be missing out on a greater truth and the greatest party in or outside of the universe.

Sure, you might be. But most religions (weighted by subscribers) don’t fault you for not dying. If your purpose in living is to live according to your religion, immortality doesn’t get in the way of that. Furthermore, at the end of eternity, which is a construct that should be available to gods, it seems reasonable that you will receive your just reward in any case. Religions also commonly posit Judgment Day scenarios in which all living humans will be placed into various afterlives. It seems reasonable here to assume that if a god so wishes it, your immortality will be revoked.

I’ll be too different from everyone else

There are a couple variations on this theme. In its simplest form,

If I live forever and no one else does, I’ll be endlessly meeting new people with the foreknowledge that I will outlive them. I’ll be so fundamentally different from the average mortal person that I won’t be able to form meaningful relationships. Nobody will understand me!

This one is more of a deal breaker on a case-by-case basis. If a person really feels that they will be well and truly alienated by being immortal, well, it’s hard to tell them that they won’t be. It’s kind of self-fulfilling. That said, there a few things you can say.

  • People actually will understand you

    If there’s anything humans are good at, it’s getting used to stuff. In short order you and your future peers will be cracking wise about your absurd inability to die over whatever the future equivalent of beer is. Maybe mechano-beer. I’m pretty sure that after an eternity of explaining yourself to mortals, you’ll be extremely proficient at helping other people understand who you are.

  • Science will eventually catch up

    Lifespan lengthening technologies only need to make it to the point where they can increase a person’s lifespan one year for every year of research before the masses become practically immortal. Wait long enough and you and your magical wish-granted immortality will be in good company.

  • Being different is an asset

    You can honestly just play your immortality for international celebrity. Make a bid for president. Be rich. Honestly, being too much like other people basically sucks. Being exceptional will make you popular, not the opposite.

Disaster scenarios

This one is kind of morbid. I thought about simply forbidding it by adding a clause to the immortality definition, but it’s interesting enough to keep in. In a few words,

What if everyone but me gets wiped out? I don’t think I could live as the only human being alive. Also, what if the government kidnaps me and uses me as a lab rat? What if I piss off some people enough to get me tortured forever? There might be times where I might actually need to kill myself, even if I would normally find living forever appealing.

Coming up with a bulletproof answer to this one is hard. It’s very tempting to say that no actual implementation of immortality will actually prevent you from dying in literally every case or rob you of the option of killing yourself. But really, that would be cheating.

A real counterargument has to take the form of, “You already run similar risks today, as a mortal.” You can be used as a medical experiment or tortured this very day, and they can keep you alive for a very long time. As an immortal, it’s likely that you will eventually outlive your captors.

Also consider that it’s far more likely that any government or entity with power will want your cooperation instead of your incarceration. You could be the world’s greatest astronaut or the guy who goes into nuclear reactor cores melting down.

However, the extinction of the human race scenario actually does throw a wrench into this argument. To this, all I can really say is that the miniscule risk you run of a mass extinction is just a risk you’ll have to swallow in order to reap the vast rewards of immortality. Maybe there’s other life out there that you can find. Maybe in your spare time you’ll engineer a way to rebuild the world.

Wrap-up

This is a fun topic for me, and I hope I’ve been interesting without being too offensive to people on either side of the coin. This topic is important in the sense that once you accept that immortality is a pretty good idea, you open the door for a lot of other interesting arguments to be made about rationality, ethics, and just general decision making. If you feel I’ve made some sort of egregious error or just want to weigh in for any reason, please feel free to comment below.

EDIT: The Hacker News discussion of this page is fairly interesting. Give it a try, too!