The Pig Who Lived Forever
213,200 miles per hour
That’s the fastest any man-made object has ever traveled. The Parker Solar Probe was launched toward the sun in 2018, shrieking through three-million-degree clouds of plasma on its way to our closest star.
Even at such an unbelievable speed, the probe would still take 117 million years to reach the next nearest star, Proxima Centauri.
That’s two stars. Out of approximately 200 billion in our galaxy alone. To visit each one in turn, assuming a uniform distance between them all, would take 24,300,000,000,000,000,000 years.
There are other galaxies. Including the one shimmering inside your skull. With around 86,000,000,000 neurons, your brain is a galaxy of its own. And mapping those neurons and the connections between them seems like an unimaginable task.
But not to everyone.
She has it all on tape
Just a few days ago, a friend of mine told me that she’s interviewed her grandparents. She’s recorded them telling the stories of their lives. How they grew up. How they met each other. The slow unfolding of long lives over a unique period of history.
It’s a real treasure. All my grandparents are dead, and what I know about them comes mostly from a few stories that get passed around the family from person to person, losing resolution with each retelling. It’s a noble attempt to preserve something of the people we love, to hear their voice even after they’re gone and remember who they were and what they meant.
This is what cameras and paintings and maybe even writing is for. It’s possible that the words I’m writing now will continue to float around the Internet for a while after I’m dead, fading and rusting but still legible for a while until they are finally purged by some efficient algorithm.
Maybe the magic of our arts goes back to this, the first half-human that stood stricken over its fallen mate, wondering why what was vibrant and alive just a moment ago was now forever silenced. I’ve seen handprints on cave walls from the last Ice Age, traces of nameless people from an unimaginable world. An attempt to leave something behind.
Back in the fourth century BC, Plato declared that the mind — the cognitive powers of memory and thought we all possess — was not a function of the body at all, but an immortal and incorporeal soul. The wizard behind the curtain. This view was accepted for centuries until Enlightenment scientists and philosophers pulled back the curtain and found that the mind is inextricably linked to the brain.
But how does consciousness rise out of unconscious matter? A few pounds of watery fat riddled with electrical synapses makes you what you are. If you are anything at all, you are your mind, your memories and quirks and preferences and experiences. Destroy the brain, it seems, and you destroy the mind as well. And yet the two are not identical. They call it the hard problem for a reason.
As far as we can tell, the physical structure of the brain determines what makes you who you are. And as far as we know, your memories and personality are not located in a single portion of the brain, but distributed over the entire dense network.
This is called the connectome. Just as the entirety of the Internet is not housed in a single server but distributed all around the world, the brain functions like a kind of neural cloud.
The connectome is who we are. And while some scientists diligently set about the seemingly impossible task of mapping the outer galaxy, others are dedicated to mapping the inner one. Because if the connectome could be preserved, we might live forever.
The end of death
I’ll say it again. If the connectome could be fully preserved at the moment of death, death itself could be abolished. Once mapped, the infinitely intricate web of connections could be preserved. Perhaps individual memories could be recalled. Maybe the entire personality and life experience of a person could be implanted into a computer or a cyborg or a lab-grown living body, hot-swapping our brains into one form after another, forever on the run from mortality.
Maybe you could live forever as a talking grizzly bear. Maybe you could spend a few weeks as a butterfly.
In 2018, a company called 21CM cryogenically preserved an intact connectome from a pig. Perhaps even now, the baffled porcine is awakening on some spinning hard drive, brought back from death into a new and terrifying world.
For a $10,000 donation, a company with this sinister name of Nectome will preserve your brain in the hope of reviving it in some form in the future. The process, the company’s founder assures potential customers, is “100% fatal”.
It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to run into a whole galaxy’s worth of problems with the idea of whole brain preservation. Once you upload yourself to the cloud, what happens if your brain gets copied? Which one is you? And will your preserved brain change as you accrue new experiences, the way a real brain does? Or will it simply be preserved the way it was at the moment of death, screaming in pain in an eternal electronic prison? Is it really you in there, or just a copy? And if a thing or a person is copied perfectly, is there a difference?
The Japanese are the longest lived people in the world
But they know a thing or two about death, too.
Back in 1961, the city of Seattle made a gift of a totem pole to its Japanese sister city, Kobe. For 50 years, the pole stood outside the City Hall of Kobe. But eventually, the pole began to show signs of dry rot and became unsafe. So the city authorities cut down the pole in 2015 and laid it in a section of forest outside the city they renamed Seattle Forest.
Surrounded by plants from the Pacific Northwest, the pole is slowly rotting into the earth and giving new life to the forest. This reflects the attitude of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest who created the art of totem pole carving. That’s the whole point.
My friend has the right idea
A tape of a grandparent’s voice doesn’t purport to be the real thing. No matter how many times she listens, the stories will never change.
In our darkest loneliness and the shadow of grief, we might all wish otherwise. We might wish to be surprised by a new story, an unexpected laugh, the individual genius of personality showing through once again the way it used to when our loved ones were alive. But if it happened, we might be tempted to smash the speakers and flee in terror.
There’s a reason our cultural nightmares are filled with ghosts and zombies and the dead who won’t stay dead. Death is as natural as anything else, and the quest to get rid of it is the ultimate expression of human narcissism. Why should I go on forever? Why should you? The tech billionaires lining up to pay for a slice of immortality are afraid of death because they don’t understand it. Because they mistake the single synapse for the entire connectome, and one lonely star for a multitude of galaxies.
We’re supposed to die. Spend some time in a nursing home and try and tell me otherwise. Our minds weren’t built to last forever any more than our bodies were. If life went on forever, each moment would eventually become a torture chamber of interminable boredom. Like Tolkien’s immortal elves, we would long to head to the West and leave behind the cares of the ever-changing world. A world that even now, in my early middle-age, I barely recognize anymore.
Life is precious precisely because it’s rare and fragile. Even if we visited each of those 200 billion stars and their attendant solar systems, we might not find a single living organism in all that unimaginable distance.
That which can be easily replicated and mass-produced can be easily discarded. The Mona Lisa is priceless, and the million photos taken of it are worthless. One day da Vinci’s painting will burn or rot away to nothing, and it will be tragic. But it will be made more beautiful, not less, by its haunting absence.
We’re meant to die. We are born to it, along with every other living thing. To never die is to never truly be alive. To try to go on forever is to confuse your own ego for that thing you truly are. A thing which is already eternal and immortal, the great Self that is everywhere and nowhere.
I wouldn’t take immortality if it lay at the side of the road, and all I had to do was reach out and grab it. I don’t need to go on forever. I don’t want to. Ours is the destiny of stars. To bloom and burn and fade and give birth to something new.
The totem pole carvers knew what the tech billionaires don’t. That something becomes beautiful only in the face of its own extinction. That everything which is made must, in the end, be unmade. That in all the inconceivable vastness of the ever-expanding universe, it’s only those things that will never be repeated that are worthy of existing at all.
© Ryan Frawley 2021.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.