Thoughts on not dying

The Washington Post contained an interesting opinion piece by Arthur Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a fellow at the Harvard Business School.

Professor Brooks believes there may be too many potential downsides to prolonging life and suggests we should simply become more comfortable with death.

The professor raises some interesting points but I think he may be too limited in his thinking.

We can’t really conceive of literal immortality. Sure, we can invoke a deity but do we really understand what were are talking about? Immortality transcends time, easy to say but tough to really consider.

However, we can easily contemplate living longer.

Dr. Brooks considers the implications of medical advances and the extension of human lifespans and, hopefully, more productive time in those lifespans with better health and extended vitality.

How long might those lifetimes be? Or should we be satisfied with the Biblical “three-score and ten” years with the occasional person adding perhaps 50% to that figure?

I am am pretty sure that even with advances in medicine, Mother Nature will find a way to kill us before we get too much older than we do today.

It’s also quite possible that with extended lifespans, we open ourselves to higher rates of cognitive disorders and the inevitable results of cumulative errors as our imperfect cells reproduce and replace themselves.

But can we prevent “senior moments” or does the human brain actually have a smaller capacity for organizing, storage, and retrieval than than we currently believe? If there is a way to simply allow people to keep more of their life’s experience at hand, that would be a blessing.

Perhaps focusing on better years instead of additional years is preferable, although I have a feeling that the two are intertwined.

Of course, it would create an upheaval, especially if it was a costly process. It’s one thing to be jealous of wealth; quite another to be condemned to die sooner simply because you’re not wealthy.

But I don’t think Dr. Brooks is thinking broadly enough. Transhumanism is more than anagathics* or staving off Thanatos or the Keres.

To be honest, I think all of this may be moot. I don’t think it will be too many years before the scientists and engineers discover a way to scale a human consciousness into an anthropomorphic construct.

In 1996, Dr. Chris Winter of the British Telecom Artificial Life Team estimated that we would someday be able “re-create a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually” with electronics. At the time, Dr. Winter estimated the storage requirements would be about ten terabytes.

I can order eight terabytes of storage on a new MacBook Pro laptop.

This isn’t to say that science and technology are anywhere near being able to recreate a human psyche or that we even have an idea how it might be done. Far more than mere storage is required.

Nor are we to the point that technology could produce a synthetic body that would be anything close to the marvelous collection of cells we inhabit now. However, these bodies are the result of billions of years of trial and error.

But if we are going to inhabit a body, it makes sense to have the body be a form with which we are familiar.

Consider this: Although primates split from other mammals about 85 million years ago and our more direct evolutionary ancestors appeared a few million years ago, we have existed as a species for a few hundred thousand years. The Sun can be expected to remain a Main Sequence star for about another five billion years, or longer than there has been life on Earth. It’s silly to think we are the ultimate crown of creation. I just think we may be the last to be the result of chance.

That’s not the same as the common vision of immortality but it comes down to spare parts and fate instead of a biological clock. If there is actually anything that is transcendent about human beings, if there is a “soul,” it has to be electrical in nature because that is who we really are. For this reason, I think it’s in the nature of intelligence to design its own replacements.

Yes, this raises a bumper crop of moral, ethical, and even legal issues. The late Isaac Asimov touched on this in his 1976 short story “The Bicentennial Man.”

We like androids more than we like cyborgs, even though the two are functionally the same, so I think that might be the preferred term until we relax and call all of us simply “human.”

Sounds weird until you realize that what makes us human isn’t entirely due to our biology and may not be eternally limited to its parameters.

There’s also the issue of the Earth’s resources as well as the need to maintain births to ensure a continuing supply of fresh viewpoints and thinking. Earth will probably need to remain a creche for humanity even as we expand the idea of what is humanity.

That means some of us will have to leave. Only now, instead of dying, we must relocate.

One of the big benefits I see to extended life is that it would make it possible for humanity to explore the universe and find new worlds without the necessity of warp drives, wormholes, or similar shortcuts around Special Relativity. TRAPPIST-1 should be doable with foreseeable non-relativistic technology and moderately extended lifespans.

Yes, this sounds fantastic and far-fetched, bordering on fantasy and magic. However, if you could somehow travel back just 80 years with an iPod (not an iPhone — no cell towers), it would seem almost magical, too.

An old friend was fond of saying, “You can’t railroad ’til it’s time to railroad and when it’s time, you can’t do anything else.”

We were born to explore; we need the stimulation and challenge that can only be provided by new frontiers. If you look at all the things that are going on and factor in the speed with which science and technology are advancing, it may not be too many more generations before it’s time to railroad.

*Antiagathics works, too. Either one simply means “anti-aging.”

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William Connell Cawthon Jr.

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Professional writer. Passionately interested in facts. Founder of

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William Connell Cawthon Jr.

Written by

Professional writer. Passionately interested in facts. Founder of

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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