“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once said. “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”
Immortality is more than a punchline these days, however. Led by Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and renowned futurist, a small and passionate group of thinkers argue that human immortality is actually within reach. In Kurzweil’s vision of the future, we might die from a car accident or falling boulder, but we won’t die of old age.
This concept is known as “extreme longevity,” and optimists (Kurzweil among them) believe it can happen within the next forty years.
But if mankind can become immortal—and, granted, that’s a big “if”—what will it mean? What would a world filled with people who never age look like? Will immortality damage the environment and deepen the class divide? Is the immortal life even a life worth living?
One of the philosophers looking for answers to some of these tough questions is John Martin Fischer, a UC Riverside professor best known for his work on free will and determinism. He is leading the Immortality Project, an ambitious and first-of-its-kind endeavor fueled by a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The project will eventually involve dozens of scientists, philosophers, and theologians.
While not yet fully scaled, the project’s biological sciences component, which will look to the natural world for clues on how to extend human life, is well underway. Last June, Fischer and a panel of judges announced ten winners of the Immortality Project’s $250,000 research grants (the philosophical and theological grants will be awarded this June). One winner was Dr. Daniel Martínez, a world-leading expert on the hydra, a multicellular fresh water organism. Some sub-species of hydra are capable of regenerating themselves—“almost as if they were immortal,” Fischer says—while others cannot. Martínez is trying to figure out why. “He’s doing this with an eye to figuring possible ways that this could apply to human longevity and possibly human immortality,” Fischer says.
There is also plenty of room for innovation regarding the ethics of immortality; experts are looking at everything from examinations of near-death experiences to comparative religious ideas about the afterlife to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon. By the time the project concludes in 2015, Fischer hopes to have set the foundation for a discussion about potential criteria for ethical long-term living. Call it a life-hack for immortality—because it’s one thing to live forever, and another to live forever well.
This moral research is key because although living forever might sound great, the consequences are meaningful. For one, it would be expensive. (It shouldn’t be a surprise that most people who talk seriously about extreme longevity are very rich). Some people will be able to afford it; others will not. Will immortality further exacerbate the historic gap between wealthy and poor?
Then there are environmental concerns, including overpopulation, especially if the immortal class continued to possess the basic human desire to reproduce. Would people have even more children and later into life? The strain on natural resources would be massive. War and famine could result.
Some philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Bernard Williams among them, argue that immortality would be a bore. Williams argued that if given the choice he wouldn’t want to live forever. Immortality, he said, would be defined by ennui, alienation, and a lack of vitality. For his part, he died in 2003.
The debate only gets more existential from there. Another question posed by the group Fischer calls “immortality curmudgeons” is this: What if the good things in life are good because they’re fleeting and finite? In other words, if we lived forever, would precious moments like a kiss from a lover or a beautiful sunset still feel special?
Fischer, who is not religious and does not believe in an afterlife, falls somewhere in the middle of the pro-con immortality debate. Would he like to live forever? Sure—under the right conditions. He lists a few basic questions: “Am I financially secure? Do I have adequate food and shelter and clothing? Is the environment reasonably clean? Do I have a decent place to live?” Fischer continues: “Then, I’d also want to know, do I have some friends and loved ones who would also be immortal? Under those circumstances, yes, I think I would choose immortality or extreme longevity.”
But, crucially, Fischer would also want an out—an escape plan—if immortality goes south. “I think that’s what scares a lot of people about living forever. If they feel there is no way out if things get bad, that’s very scary.”
Given the right circumstances, Fisher believes the immortal life would be well worth living: “I myself don’t think that life is good because we die. I think life is good because of a possibility for love and friendship, because life gives us the possibility for engaging in great intellectual projects, artistic endeavors. It’s also full of sensual delights—we can enjoy a beautiful sunset. There are simple pleasures that life affords us.”
Fischer does not believe extreme longevity will be achieved in the time frame suggested by Kurzweil and others, but he does think the human lifespan can be increased beyond what we previously imagined possible. (Although not literally “forever”—the universe will at some point end, he notes drily, and humankind with it.)
“On the science side, we’re living at a time where we’ve increased our life expectancy dramatically,” Fischer says. “At the turn of the twentieth century in developed countries the average was about 47 years, and at the turn of the twenty-first century it was 76 years, and now it’s about 80 years.” The trajectory, he says, is “radically upward.”
Whether or not researchers ever unlock extreme longevity, Fischer’s work seems to offer plenty of lessons for those of us stuck with regular lifespans. To start, be conscious of your environmental impact. Try to share the world and its resources in a way that’s fair for everyone, not just for you. And above all, find enough joy so that the life you’re leading is one that would actually be worth living forever.