Matthew Munson: Do you want to live forever?

Would you want to live forever?

Stories about people who want to live forever have been around for a long time. Science-fiction covers the subject pretty comprehensively; everything from elves to horcruxes to Star Trek to Babylon 5, and various McGuffins that are used to explain how someone cheats death on a daily basis. Alternatively, the writer will sometimes say, “It just happens.” Fair enough; poetic licence.

In the real world, however, things aren’t that easy. You see the occasional news article discussing the possibilities of immortality – scientists have discovered a specific gene responsible for something or other, or if you start eating a beetroot-only diet, then you will be guaranteed to massively extend your life span – but there’s never a definitive answer about how we would cope with such a massive change to our lives and our society.

Some scientists now believe that, by 2050, new technologies will be dramatically increasing our life spans, as a first step towards immortality, but I’m not convinced that “never dying” is a viable option for our society. Never dying, in my opinion, isn’t the same as actually living; part of the reason we as a species evolve and develop so well is because we’re driven, to improve and better ourselves in. Don’t misunderstand me, I could do with a few extra years – the thought of living to 300 or 400 years old is quite exciting – but to be immortal … Well, that worries me.

If I became immortal tomorrow at the behest of a pill or an injection, then there’s five main problems;

1) I’d become an oddity. Humanity would continue to evolve and develop to changing circumstances on the planet, but my body would remain static. Lovely for me, as it’s the only body I’ve ever known, but food will change, weather patterns will change, language will change. Will my body even cope with the changes if it can’t evolve?

2) Fame. If word gets out that I’ve taken the pill or had the injection, then I’ll never be left alone. I’ll carry something valuable in my blood, and people will want to study me and use the secrets my genes now contain. That means I’ll be an attractive proposition for scientists and criminals alike, and I don’t fancy being on the run for eternity. I could lie, of course, and keep moving about so that people don’t notice the fact that I’m not ageing, but …

3) I’m still absorbing information, which will increase at a linear rate as I age. More “stuff” will be absorbed into my head; Who is that? What’s my telephone number these days? What’s my name – or my alias? I have enough problems with that  now, but with 1,000 years of that information in my head? Scary …

4) My perception of time will massively change. Studies have begun to show a direct correlation between actual age and effective age. T. L. Freeman argues that the passing of the years goes faster as we grow older. As he puts it, “When you are 10 years old, a year represents 10% of your life, and seems like a very long time. However, when you are 50 years old, one year has reduced to only 2% of your life, and hence seems only one-fifth as long.” An interesting concept, and a terrifying one; eventually, I will have been alive far longer than my family and my friends. If I ever married, that would eventually just become a footnote in my life. Do I really want to think like that?

5) I’ll be injured or damaged or trapped somewhere; on a dying planet after a nuclear war, say, or as the last representative of a dying species on a world whose sun is dying. Apocalyptic maybe, but it could well happen in an immortal’s life span. Alternatively, I could lose my limbs or suffer some other bad ignominy that prevents me from being independent. Eternity stuck in a hospital bed? On a respirator? On dialysis? No, I don’t think so.

6) What should I be doing with my time? How can I fill it? How can I be productive? Should I try and do great things – write brilliant works of literature, invent a new device that will massively benefit humankind or even create a dictatorship to improve the issues that I see as needing improvement?

1 Comment

  1. Presumabling the great advances in life spane will be accompanied by the diminished risk of disease e.g. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s Dementia, motor-neurone, loss of continence, loss of calcium from bones etc. I wouldn’t want a long life where I had no mental capacity. Just imagine the cost to the working members of society in maintaining pensions, the NHS, social care. Does long life mean retaining the ability to work. This whole question really only relates to the rich, northern hemisphere, doesn’t it? Probably about 10% of the world’s population. What about the other 90%. I think your last question is the only one to which we can give a positive, constructive answer. Do something good now, demonstrate unconditional love, if we can’t write a masterpiece or invent something world changing we can show love. In the 2nd century there was a plague in the Roman empire. Believers of the Way (later called Christians but there’s a lot of bad publicity re. that word) astounded the communities by the way they loved people and showed them respect, dignity and gave them help in their dire straits.

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